The 2015 USL Championship was a match that will not be soon forgotten by any of its witnesses. The Rochester Rhinos and the visiting LA Galaxy II battled each other and the elements for 120 minutes, but it was a few moments toward the end of the match that provided championship drama. Los Dos carried a lead into the waning moments of the match, but an unlikely hero literally rose up to claim the crown for the Rochester Rhinos.
Asani Samuels was the hero that Rochester needed. Samuels, who logged a grand total of 183 minutes and 2 goals during the USL regular season, rose to the occasion on the big stage. His goal in stoppage time at the end of the first 90 minutes tied the match and sent it into added extra time. He repeated the feat in extra time, and this time it was the game winner. Samuels was deservedly named the USL Championship MVP for his efforts.
“We’re going to change his name to Big Game Asani,” said Rochester Head Coach Bob Lilley.
“It’s all about being a professional,” said Samuels when asked how he stayed prepared for the big moment despite getting little playing time during the season. He credited hard work during practice against talented teammates.
If the Rhinos were going to score a goal, it was going to have to come from an unusual suspect like Samuels. Rochester’s top three regular season goal scorers, representing more than half of the Rhinos’ goal production, were either unavailable or unfit to start the match. Steevan Dos Santos (8 G) was suspended for the USL Championship after being sent off in the Eastern Conference Finals against Louisville City. Christian Volesky (8 G) was ruled out with a concussion. Colin Rolfe (6 G) did not possess the fitness to provide a significant number of quality minutes, which excluded him from the starting XI.
With so many options unavailable for selection, Lilley placed Tony Walls at the top of his formation to begin the match. Walls had played several positions for the Rhinos, but no one in the press box could remember center forward being one of them. The Rhinos’ captain most often featured as a defensive midfielder this season.
Despite so many players being absent and out of position, there was some efficacy to the Rochester attack in the early going. The first best chance came in the 6th minute. Jonny Mendoza sped down the right flank and sent a cross toward the far post. Alex Dixon was able to get a head on the ball, but it glanced wide. Sean Totsch got a clean look at goal in the 10th minute, but his strike from just outside the box sailed high and wide. In the 23rd minute, Onua Obasi sent a screaming cross toward the net that forced a diving reaction from LA goalkeeper Clement Diop.
As the first half wore on, the Galaxy II players began to settle into the match and slowly take control of it. Rochester began to turn the ball over in their own half of the field, and Los Dos did their best to capitalize. LA’s most dangerous opportunity came after a Rhino player was whistled for a hand ball a yard or so outside of the box. The ensuing free kick was taken by Bryan Olivera. It caromed off the defensive wall and rebounded back to Olivera, who blasted the ball toward goal. Rochester goalkeeper Brandon Miller was in position to make the save.
The rain let up in the second half, but the Galaxy II did no such thing. The Los Dos attack, led by Ariel Lassiter and Andre Auras, began to assert its will and completely take over the match. The ball appeared to be fixed inside Rochester’s half of the field for large chunks of the second period, but the highly touted Rochester defense turned away one advance after another. It seemed only to be a matter of time, however, before the Rhino’s immovable object would yield to LA’s unstoppable force.
That time came in the 60th minute. Olivera served a free kick that met the head of Bradley Diallo. Miller was able to make a fingertip save, but the ball found the underside of the crossbar and fell in front of the goal in the path of an onrushing Lassiter. Lassiter barely had to raise his leg to knock the ball across the line with his shin.
By all rights, the match was over. Rochester hadn’t been able to muster anything resembling an attack to that point in the second half, and wouldn’t for the next 30 minutes. The Rhinos not only failed to put a shot on goal in the second 45 minutes, they failed to even take a shot until stoppage time.
A single shot in stoppage time was all that the Rhinos needed. Rochester pressed to get the ball forward and earned a free kick on a soft foul. In the action that followed the kick, the ball was deflected over the goal line for a Rochester corner kick. As Mendoza set up next to the flag, ominous green smoke began to bloom from the supporters section behind the goal. Mendoza’s service lofted toward the six-yard box, and Samuels rose above everyone to head home the equalizer.
The momentum completely changed in the extra periods. LA was obviously as deflated by the equalizing goal as Rochester was energized by it. With new life, the Rhinos seized control of the match.
“They get the equalizer. That’s a psychological uphill battle for our young group,” said LA Head Coach Curt Onalfo.
The championship-winning goal came in the 113th minute. It was deja vu all over again. This time Kenardo Forbes served a corner. Samuels once again met the ball with his head, and for the second time in less than half an hour would become a hero.
“To go out in the overtime and not be cautious. I felt like we were playing to win and not just to get to PKs,” said Bob Lilley. “I’m proud of them for doing that. It took a lot of guts.”
At the final whistle, jubilant fans rushed the pitch to embrace the victors. This was the fifth major championship in the storied history of the Rochester Rhinos, but it was the first in 14 years. Winning the championship was the capstone of what was arguably the best season ever for the Rhinos, or any team in USL.
“It’s the best win I’ve been a part of in my career,” asserted Lilley, who is not a stranger to winning titles.
Other Notes and Observations
- The home team is now 5-0 in USL Championship games.
- 18-year-old Bennett Sneddon, a product of the LA Galaxy Academy, made his professional debut when Clement Diop was forced to leave the match with an apparent concussion in the first of the extra time periods.
- Rochester’s Brandon Miller stopped 5 of the 6 shots that LA put on frame. The LA ‘keepers were unable to stop either of the 2 shots that the Rhinos put on goal.
- StP was impressed with the extremely high motor of Jonny Mendoza, who appeared to out-hustle everyone on the field.