Since the USL switched to its two-game, total-goals format in 2000, only three of the 17 teams that have trailed by two after Game 1 have come back to win the series. One of them, of course, was Puerto Rico, which did it against the visiting Rhinos in 2008.
“I know we can outplay that team,” Rhinos coach Bob Lilley said late Thursday night after the eighth-seeded Islanders scored in the 44th minute and with a man advantage in the 77th to take a 2-0 lead in Puerto Rico.
“If we find dangerous moments in the attacking third and execute, we’ll have an excellent chance to come back in this thing.”
The key could be scoring early. That’s what Puerto Rico did each of the past two years when it pulled off Game 2 comebacks at home to eliminate Rochester. Down 2-0 in 2008, it scored in the 11th and 35th minutes before an overtime goal ended the series, 3-2. Down 2-1 last year, the Islanders tied it in the 14th minute, went ahead in the 40th and all but sealed it in the 80th and eventually won the series, 5-3.
Converting early is also what led the Rhinos to a 3-0 win over Puerto Rico on June 26 at Marina Auto Stadium. Ryan Heins struck in the seventh minute before goals by Anthony Hamilton (from Heins) in the 59th and rookie Max Ferdinand (90th) sealed it. A similar result tonight and Rochester would advance. If total goals are tied after 90 minutes, 30 minutes of overtime will be played. If that doesn’t decide the winner, penalty kicks will.
“If it’s 0-0 at halftime (tonight), we’ll ratchet it up significantly, but we still have to play good soccer because that’s what we did when we beat them 3-0 (June 26),” said Lilley, whose club trailed 9-3 in shots and 7-2 in corner kicks Thursday.
Still, he was encouraged by how the Rhinos possessed the ball and dictated much of the .
“I wasn’t unhappy with how we played. For a young team, we played with confidence,” Lilley said. “I think the execution needs to be better in the offensive end, but we had good rhythm and some good sequences. We made a couple critical errors and it cost us.”
Lilley thought once Ferdinand was sent off after a questionable red card in the 68th minute, his club may have been too aggressive short-handed. David Foley’s counterattack goal turned what would have been a manageable, 1-0 deficit into a much tougher two-goal hole.
As a result of the straight red card, Ferdinand is suspended tonight and that’s a key loss because he’s a creative, attacking player. Instead, Lilley likely will turn to forward Tino Nunez or midfielder Heins.
If the Islanders need a goal, forward Nic Addlery should be fresh. One of Puerto Rico’s top scorers — he scored twice in Game 2 last year — was rested on Thursday.
The Rhinos had a handful of dangerous crosses into the box Thursday but weren’t on the other end to get a shot on veteran goalie Bill Gaudette. Lilley said top-scorer Isaac Kissi had a one-on-one look at Gaudette but “kind of scuffed” his foot and shot.
“Hopefully (tonight) we’re getting 10 golden chances rather than four or five because we’re going to need at least two goals,” Lilley said.
“They weren’t two goals better than us (Thursday).”
Rochester needs to be tonight, or a season in which it won its first regular-season title since 2002 will leave it once again short of the ultimate goal: The Rhinos’ first postseason crown since 2001.