After digging themselves a three-goal hole, the Rhinos pulled to within one with 36 minutes left to play, but the tying goal never came and Rochester was eliminated tonight, 3-2, on total goals by Puerto Rico in its first-round playoff series.
It’s the third straight year the Islanders (10-12-10) have knocked out the Rhinos (17-9-6), who were seeded No. 1 for the first time since 2002. Puerto Rico was the No. 8 seed.
Rochester won Game 2, 2-1, tonight but lost the series because it lost 2-0 on Thursday in Puerto Rico.
These same two teams met the past two years in the playoffs and Puerto Rico advanced both times by rallying on its home field from deficits after Game 1. It came back from 2-0 down in the 2008 semifinals, winning 3-2 in overtime on aggregate. Those Islanders were only the third team since the USL switched in 2000 to the two-game, total-goal format to win the series after heading into Game 2 down by two.
The others were Minnesota in 2000 and Vancouver in 2001.
Last year, Rochester led 2-1 after Game 1, but Puerto Rico pounded the Rhinos, 4-1, to win the series, 5-3.
The Islanders earned a 2-0 cushion in Game 1 on Thursday and struck first on Saturday, too, thanks to a 21st-minute defensive miscue and Alexis Rivera’s 17-yard shot for his first goal this season.
Rhinos rookie defender Tyler Bellamy tried twice to head a ball clear near the 18-yard line. He failed twice. The second attempt went a few yards away and right to Rivera, who blasted it past diving goalie Neal Kitson.
Rochester’s disjointed play continued and for a long while it looked neither like a top seed or team trailing in the series, 3-0. The Rhinos played more long ball than their typically possession-oriented, short-passing game.
But they scored in the 39th minute when Frankie Sanfilippo’s pass from midfield took a big hop into the box and Andrew Hoxie outmaneuvered defender David Horst to poke a 10-yard shot past goalie Bill Gaudette.
Suddenly, Rochester had life.
It started the second half with the same mission it started the game: Score twice to force OT.
Half the job was accomplished during a wild sequence in front in the 54th minute.
Alfonso Motagalvan’s lead pass sent Sanfilippo sprinting up the right flank and he whipped a ball in front. Gaudette may have gotten a hand on one shot, then Aaron Pitchkolan’s header hit the crossbar, but Anthony Hamilton converted his point-blank header.
The Rhinos had 36 minutes to score once and the crowd was finally into it at full throat. If the series was tied at the end of regulation, 30 minutes of OT would be played.
Hoxie sent a dangerous volley off a free kick just wide in the 66th minute. In the 69th, Pitchkolan’s long pass ahead found Hoxie. He passed wide to Isaac Kissi, but the Rhinos’ top scorer slipped before he could pass back in front.
Kitson made a big stop on Jonathan Fana less than a minute after that. Puerto Rico held it together. Hoxie had an open look at a 12-yard header in the 88th minute, but it was right at Gaudette.