The stage was set for a classic battle between two of the more iconic clubs in USL. The Rochester Rhinos sat atop the Eastern Conference, riding an 18-match unbeaten streak. The Charleston Battery entered the weekend one spot and six points behind the Rhinos, with a chance to erase the gap in the standings at Sahlen’s on Sunday afternoon.
“We knew they were close on our heels,” said Rhinos captain Tony Walls. “They didn’t get the result they wanted Friday, but we knew if we dropped these points, they would be three points away and put a little more pressure on us.”
Charleston appeared to be feeling the effects of a 1-0 defeat at Toronto just two days prior, and the Battery were unable to apply pressure during the match or in the standings. An early Rochester goal from Steevan dos Santos and a stifling Rhinos defense completed a script that ended with second consecutive 1-0 Battery loss.
The Rhinos were the aggressors in the early going, maintaining possession in the Battery half of the pitch and working the ball into threatening positions. Twice, Onua Obasi was able to get forward down the left flank. The first attempt at a cross was turned away. The second attempt failed to connect with a teammate.
It was a cross from the right that set up the games only goal in the 10th minute. Walls got on the end of a through ball and advanced to the end line. His pass found Dos Santos at the near post. Facing away from the goal with a Battery defender on his hip, Dos Santos played the ball between his legs and sent a backheel attempt rolling inside the far post.
“It was instinct,” Dos Santos said of his spectacular goal. “When I saw the ball come, I was looking to get behind. It was the only choice. Fantasy there.”
After the goal, neither team posed a danger to score for the remainder of the first half. In fact, Rochester appeared to retreat and concede a lot of space in the midfield.
“It was a little bit hotter, they got the goal, and they were just trying to conserve their energy,” explained Rhinos head coach Bob Lilley. “I never try to sit. I don’t. I know my teams defend well, but that’s just because I want them to all defend.”
After some encouragement from Lilley, who told his team at halftime that they were sitting too deep, Rochester came out and forced the issue in the final 45 minutes. The Rhinos fired shot after shot, but few were on target. Jonny Mendoza squandered two excellent opportunities. Kenardo Forbes skied a strike well over the crossbar. Christian Volesky rolled one wide of the post. Dos Santos also failed to score with two excellent chances in the second half.
Rochester failed to find the insurance goal, but the Battery never mounted much of offensive threat of their own. Lilley credited the victory to his squad’s second half aggression.
“I think that helped us win the game. I think if we’d have sat back… I don’t know if the outcome would have been as it turned out. I wouldn’t want to that against a team like Charleston. I think it’s pretty dangerous against them,” said Lilley. “It’s disappointing we didn’t get that goal to come in comfortably at the end, but as long as we’re creating, as long as we’re doing it at both ends of the field, we’re going to be tough to beat.”
It has been impossible to beat Rochester in 2015. The Rhinos have run their unbeaten streak to 19 games and now have an 8-point lead over second place Louisville City with nine matches remaining on their schedule.
None of the Rhinos players would admit to placing much importance on an undefeated season. They want to focus on each game as it comes and improving for the playoffs. It is exactly that approach that might carry Rochester to a historic season.