The game wasn’t pretty but at the end of 90 minutes the Rhinos had done enough to claim victory in their regular season finale. In the 87th minute of the match Andrew Hoxie played a give and go with Tyler Rosenlund at the top of the opposition box before curling a shot to the far post. While certainly on different levels, Hoxie’s goal reminded a beleaguered Tottenham supporter of Demba Ba’s goal earlier in the day.
Even though the game was scoreless for 86 minutes, doesn’t mean the match was boring. Kristian Nicht was going nuts all game. Each time the ball went out of play for a goal kick, Nicht immediately turned to the ball-boys behind the net screaming, “Ball! Now! Ball! C’mon, c’mon, c’mon!” Rochester had one goal kick late in the game after going ahead. When the ball went out, Nicht pointed at the ball-boys and yelled “No!” so then he could walk over and retrieve the ball himself.
Nicht was as animated as I have ever seen a professional athlete. He was screaming the entire game; at ball-boys, at linesmen, at the center ref, at his teammates, at the crowd at end of the game… At one point in the game, Nicht yelled the greatest thing I have ever heard hurled at a referee. When a Rhinos player was clearly fouled but the official decided not to blow his whistle Nicht yelled from half the field away in his thick accent, “What! Do you have eyes?!“
George Kyriazis was again tremendously composed on the ball. This may be a fan-bias but he reminds me a lot of legendary Tottenham Hotspur central defender Ledley King. Kyriazis is not the quickest player on the field by any measure but he is so well-positioned that he can always make an accurate challenge on the ball. He never put a wrong foot in all game and only once played a poor ball up the field. Big George is a huge reason why the Rhinos only gave up 23 goals this season, second to league champions Orlando City.
Right back Lucas Fernández was similarly solid against Pittsburgh. Sitting behind the Rhinos’ goal in the second half I was treated to the constant battle between Fernández and Pittsburgh’s left midfielder. The Argentine defender was in beast mode in the second half making countless hard challenges on the ball. He also got cheeky off the ball; Fernández and his mark were running next to each other and then the Pittsburgh player just hit the deck while Fernández smiled. That scenario played out two or three times without a foul called. Going forward, Fernández was almost equally as solid. He possesses the technique to strike a ball with adequate backspin for a long pass to fall softly at his intended recipient’s foot. Fernández was constantly available as an overlapping run or outlet pass and played in several solid crosses late in the game. While you can argue that booting balls into the box is a predictable game-plan in this league, but Fernández knocked in quality service time and time again. I’ve said before and I’ll say again that Lucas Fernández is the team’s most improved player from the beginning of the season.
The first real action of the game for the Rhinos was a soft penalty call. Rosenlund drove into the box on the right side of goal and drew a penalty from Nikola Katic in the 22nd minute under a physical challenge in the back and a handful of jersey. Tam McManus elected to take the penalty and confidently placed the ball on the spot. Hunter Gilstrap made himself big and did well to drop down low to block the weak penalty attempt with his shoulder.
Head coach Jesse Myers sent the team out in a traditional 4-5-1 formation with McManus acting as the lone striker up top. This meant that the team was playing without an aerial target for the whole first half. Tyler Rosenlund would advance on the play out of midfield but he was even less lethal in the air than the 5’7″ Scotsman. Right midfielder Karo Okiomah received his first start as a Rhino and he would get forward to be a destination for balls in the air.
Myers partnered Drew Cost and Danny Earls in central midfield again. Their defensive work seemed more effective this week than against Charleston, but that could just be down to the quality of opposition. Drew Cost took a majority of corner kicks against Pittsburgh which was a welcome change for me. Last week against Charleston, Danny Earls played 7 identically poor corner kicks throughout the game until stoppage time when he decided to try an equally ineffective short corner routine.
Chris Estridge had another solid game as a two-way left midfielder. Estridge was replaced late in the game with Michael Tanke. Tanke took up his role of patrolling the midfield and protecting the back four while Earls moved out wide left. 2012 Rhinos MVP J.C. Banks came on the second half for Karo Okiomah and was later subbed out in stoppage time.
Banks had a few looks at goal, including a shot that was deflected off a defender but still called for a goal kick. There were two opportunities that stick out in my mind as examples of the class Banks offers the team. On the first occasion, Banks received the ball just wide of the corner of the 18 yard box, faked going down the line and played a ball into the box on his left foot taking advantage of the space that opened up when the defender stepped towards the byline. A few minutes later when Banks received the ball in a similar position, the defender didn’t want to get beat on the inside again so Banks made quick work of beating his man towards the line to get his cross with his right foot. J.C. Banks is a dynamic young player with the ability to beat his defender with either foot and the hunger to constantly drive at the opposition goal. As much as I don’t want to admit it, the Rhinos will find it hard to keep the tenacious winger when his contract expires in September.
There was an ugly spat late in the game between Pittsburgh’s Seth C’deBaca and Tyler Rosenlund. C’deBaca didn’t like the way Rosenlund poked the ball after Hoxie got stuck in on a tackle in midfield and the Pittsburgh player reacted like a child in a temper tantrum. 5’8″ Michael Tanke rushed to the aid of his teammate and jumped in front of Rosenlund. A full fracas ensued with most of the 22 players on the field getting involved in pushing and shoving. After all the players separated, center referee Neil Barbulescu issued a yellow card to C’debaca and a red card for Tanke. The Rochester midfielder had been on the field for 11 minutes but was sent off for a headbutt during the melee.
While the Rhinos’ performance wasn’t convincing or inspiring, the team did get the win they wanted. It would have been nicer to win by more goals to fend off Richmond, but beggars can’t be choosers. If Richmond wins Sunday night in Antigua, they’ll finish with 41 points and at least a plus 6 goal differential. Rochester sits in second place on 41 points but with only a plus 4 goal differential. Scoring two or three more goals, or playing defense against Charleston last week, would have all but shored up second place for the Rhinos. At this point, Rochester’s fate is in the hands of Antigua Barracuda FC so here’s to hoping Peter Byers and company can down Richmond tonight.