Division II Club-ography: Rochester Rhinos (& Team President Interview)

Logo of USL Rochester Rhinos
Rochester Rhinos

Location

Lake Ontario, one of North America’s “greats”, forms much of the border between the Canadian province of the same name and the USA’s bellwether state of New York. Each of those is home to the largest metro in their respective nations: Toronto and NYC. Those, in turn, are home to some of the oldest and most successful pro sports franchises on the continent. You might think then that a team like Rochester Rhinos of the USL would easily get lost in that international and intercontinental shuffle.

But you would be wrong.

Ground

Somewhere on the road between two natural wonders, New York’s “finger lakes region” and Niagra Falls, sits the city of Rochester. It is, for now, home to one of the oldest soccer specific grounds in the USA, currently known as Capelli Sport Stadium. That name is just the latest in a string that the stadium has worn since it opened over a decade ago. The reason for the name changes is the other side of the Rhinos’ history.

Like the city itself the stadium ground is storied, yet soldiers on. It was a waterway and a subway in previous lives. Somehow it survived to step into the 21st Century on fresh legs. The USA and Canada are in the midst of a soccer boom now even as the new century gets onto its own legs. Yet there are now serious questions about whether CSS or even the Rhinos will survive into next year (2018).

5 Questions

Prior to the revelation of the club’s financial crisis, The Free Kicks Report asked 5 questions of Rhinos’ President Pat Ercoli. Here they are along with his answers in edited form:

The Rhinos won the USL Cup in 2015 and have advanced in the playoffs both years since. Rochester seems more like it would be a good place for an ice hockey team than a soccer team. What accounts for the Rhinos successes there?  

[The success of the game in Rochester] dates back to the 60’s when the city hosted the Lancers, a team that helped save the NASL at the time. [The Lancers] played in the NASL against Péle [and the New York] Cosmos and was essentially part of a major league at the time. When they folded in 1980 pro soccer was gone for 15 years, but was resurrected in 1995 by the Rhinos. There was magic in a bottle at the time, MLS [had] just started and we were the first tenants in a new stadium and just started winning.

The USL is adding a Div III next year and a new USSF president could mean changes to the overall structure of the US soccer pyramid for men and women; as “new” owners and management (since 2016) does all of the change and expansion seem overwhelming or invigorating and why?

It’s exciting if the right owners are in place and the franchises are able to sustain themselves, otherwise, it could be very challenging and teams that are in the 2nd division will need to move down if they can’t meet the requirements.

Rhinos have a great history and a very loyal following; do you have any idea how it might impact fan support if there were also the opportunity to move up to the top flight as well as “go down” to USLD3? Do you think that might bring in new fans or just risk alienating the existing ones?

I think there’s a place for all teams. You need to establish a market with the understanding that you will play at the level that your fan base is willing to support.

Rhinos were the last non-MLS club to win the US Open Cup almost 20 years ago now; is it still important for USL/Div II clubs to compete in that tournament? Why or why not?

Yes, because we’d like to win it again and the single elimination format is exciting. Every year we wait to see when and if another lower division team can win it like us in 1999. Next year it will be 19 years, part of me would prefer it doesn’t happen so we could be the only team to have won [the Cup] since the inception of MLS.

Which USL team is Rochester’s greatest rival and why do you think that?

It used to be the Montreal Impact until they moved to the MLS. Today I would say NY Red Bulls II or Louisville City, because we either eliminated them or lost to them in the last three years from the playoffs.

Editorial comment (reader discretion advised)

The Rhinos would be a great loss to the USL and soccer in North America. The future has never been brighter for soccer in the USA in general. On top of which the northeast is primed to gain at least one new franchise above D3 very soon. Things are looking pretty bleak in Rochester at the moment. The club’s long-term (and two-term) manager, Bob Lilley, has already been spirited away to Pittsburgh for the coming season. As noted, the deadline for making the 2018 season a reality is passing even as I type this sentence. Also as noted, the ground on Oak Street is fairly well-built. Still, one wonders how this latest round of uncertainty might shake its foundation.

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