Rochester hopes fourth match against Islanders brings a win
If second chances in life are rare, a fourth shot at redemption is downright unfathomable.
But that’s what the Rhinos have tonight when they play the top seeds in the semifinals of the USL First Division playoffs.
Puerto Rico pounded Rochester 4-0 on Aug. 8 outside of San Juan and two days later came from behind to tie the Rhinos, 1-1, at PAETEC Park.
Three weeks ago tonight, Rochester played the Islanders for a third time. It was supposed to be different that night, Sept. 12.
The Rhinos were riding a four-game win streak. They had shut out three straight opponents and were playing some of their best soccer of the season.
But powerful Puerto Rico did it to them again. It scored on a swift counterattack in the 10th minute and crash-to-the-goal header on a free kick early in the second half and won, 2-0.
When it matters most, can Rochester finally reverse its fortune against the league’s best team, a squad that hasn’t lost in 17 straight matches? “It’s playoff time, do or die. I think we all know we have to bring our ‘A’ game,” Rhinos defender John Ball said.
“The only time they really got us was in Puerto Rico (the 4-0 loss). At home (on Sept. 12) we made two mistakes and they got two goals. That’s what good teams do. But we were all over them the first 10 minutes, then they scored and it seemed like it broke our back.”
The Rhinos watched video of that match on Thursday. They don’t want history to repeat itself. That would be just fine for Puerto Rico, which is on the type of run that will leave its mark in USL history.
The Islanders haven’t lost since Aug. 1. They went 6-0-6 to close the regular season and win their first league crown (they joined the USL in 2005) and are opening eyes around the globe with their run over the past month in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Puerto Rico is 3-0-2 in the international competition. It beat former CONCACAF champion Liga Deportiva Alajuelense of Costa Rica, 2-1, and last week downed former Mexican champion Santos Laguna, 3-1. On Wednesday, it tied Municipal in Guatamela City, 2-2.
In order to pull this dual competition off, coach Colin Clarke has used his entire roster.
Seven different Islanders have scored in the five CONCACAF matches, and Wednesday’s lineup featured nine different starters compared to last week.
In fact, Puerto Rico rested most of its starters, including all-league picks Jonny Steele (midfielder) and Cristian Arrieta (defender), and USL Goalie of the Year Bill Gaudette had to sit due to yellow cards.
Midfield veterans Noah Delgado, an ex-Rhino like Steele; Edwin Miranda (scored twice vs. Rochester on Aug. 8); and Petter Villegas also didn’t play. So the fatigue factor, which could have helped Rochester, probably won’t matter much.
Game 2 is Sunday in Puerto Rico (15-6-9).
“We can’t count on that because they’re just so deep,” Rhinos goalie Scott Vallow said.
But they can count on themselves and eliminating mistakes. That counterattack on Sept. 12 was the result of a turnover at midfield, and Arrieta rushed in uncovered on the header.
“(Counterattack) is a big component of their game,” Rhinos coach Darren Tilley said.
Because this is a two-game, total-goal series — the team with the most goals after 180 minutes advances — scoring first might not be as key as the regular season. But based on statistics it still could be crucial.
The Rhinos were 10-0-3 in the regular season when they score first, 1-10-3 when they don’t. In Puerto Rico’s 9-0-8 run, it has connected first in 10 of the 14 matches when a goal was scored (three were scoreless ties).
“They’re good at spreading you out,” Ball said, especially if the Islanders are leading and can focus on possession.
The fourth-seeded Rhinos (12-11-9) righted one wrong in the first round, ousting No. 5 Charleston, 2-1 on aggregate, after losing three times in the regular season to the Battery. But in Puerto Rico, Tilley’s team has a much taller order.
“They’re a compact team. If you let them have time and space and let Jonny (Steele) and (Edwin) Miranda and (Noah) Delgado run at you, they’re going cause problems.”