A large crowd showed up on the campus of SUNY Brockport to watch Rochester River Dogz FC host AFC Cleveland on Friday night. The excitement before kick-off was palpable with family, friends, and soccer fans mingling between area food trucks and the performing Downbeat Percussion drum line.
AFC Cleveland, who won the Great Lakes Conference in 2012 and made it to the Midwest Region Final in 2012 and 2015, acted quickly to assert themselves in the match. The visitors sprang out of the gate and put pressure on Rochester’s defense.
In the fifth minute, Cleveland’s Riley Grant isolated stand-in centerback Nikkye De Point one-on-one in the area. The young Rochester native was able to hedge Grant outside and the forward dragged his shot wide of the far post.
Just a few minutes later, midfielder Admir Suljevic emerged with the ball from a scramble at the top of Rochester’s 18-yard box. From 12 yards out, Suljevic fired a bouncing ball well-over Cameron Hogg’s goal.
Former Syracuse University attacker Stefanos Stamoulacatos exited the game in the 18th minute after sustaining an injury. Stamoulacatos was playing as the link between the River Dogz midfield and former Rochester Rhinos forward Matt Luzunaris up top. The one-time U.S. youth national teamer was on crutches with ice on his leg after the game.
Luzunaris played two seasons for the Rhinos but suffered a broken leg against Harrisburg City Islanders in a game in May 2013. The now 27-year-old forward battled back from the serious injury to play the following season but retired in early 2015. In the first half against Cleveland, Luzunaris showed his work rate and fighting spirit but made way for Isaac Kissi in the second 45.
Cleveland made its experience count in a five-minute stretch in the middle of the first half. The visitors kept up an unrelenting attack up their left flank and Rochester struggled to deal with it. AFC Cleveland winger Antonio Manfut slipped in between River Dogz players and played crisp one-twos with his teammates.
In the 25th minute Manfut played Brian Potocnik into space on an under-lapping run. Potocnik dribbled around Hogg to shoot from a tight angle and De Point was unable to clear the ball off the line.
Manfut pulled the strings again just a couple of minutes later. The winger sent an inch-perfect cross into the center that found Grant open in the area. Grant easily headed the service in at the far post to double Cleveland’s advantage.
Rochester arrived on the field after the halftime break several minutes after Cleveland and started the second half with more resolve. Increased focus from the home side led to a few notable chances for lone forward Isaac Kissi.
Kissi played three seasons with the Rhinos from 2010 to 2012, scoring 14 league goals, and his professional experience made an impact for the River Dogz. The Ghanaian-born forward timed runs through the Cleveland defense a number of times and drew a penalty early in the second half.
The 29-year-old forward got in behind in the 52nd minute and was fouled inside the area to give Rochester a lifeline back into the game. Gianluca Cuomo stepped up from the spot to send Cleveland goalkeeper Anthony Flowers the wrong way and cut the deficit in half.
Despite harrying the visitors, Rochester was unable to find an equalizer. The River Dogz had to settle for a hard-fought 2-1 loss in their home opener to AFC Cleveland.
After the game Head Coach Matt Tantalo was disappointed with his team’s first half performance. “We didn’t come out ready to play in the first half,” he said. “We didn’t work hard. We weren’t organized. We didn’t defend well enough. They had the better of us.”
A key issue for Rochester in this match was fitness. Tantalo was forced into making four substitutions in the first half and pinpointed fixture congestion as the main culprit. “We played Friday – Sunday – Tuesday – Friday. It’s been tough. We had 18 hours of driving. It took a toll.”
The River Dogz had two league contests on the road last weekend and a friendly match on Tuesday. When asked if this busy scheduling had an effect on sharpness and performances against Cleveland, Tantalo was forthright: “Without question.”
“It’s a lot of soccer in a short period of time, it took a toll on us.”
Rochester’s coach showed optimism about the players he’s assembled for the team’s inaugural campaign. “We’re much better than we played. We’ve got a really good group. We just have to learn from tonight and get back to training and get better for upcoming matches.”
Tantalo did mention that the team can put a 3-game road stand and a home game against the divisional leaders behind them and look to build for the future. “We’ll rebound from this. We’re going to get healthy. We’re going to recover and get fresh. Going forward, we’re going to be a very good team. We’re going to be a very dangerous team down the stretch when we get there.”
“There were still lots of issues but we hit the post, we had two clear chances,” Tantalo said. “As poorly as we played in the first half, we still had enough quality chances to maybe have gotten a result. Do I think we deserved it? No, not tonight.”
The coach expressed the fighting spirit he wants his team to embody, “When we recover and get fresh and get our full contingent, I like our chances against this team.”
Despite the disappointing result, Tantalo was impressed with the turnout and the atmosphere generated in the stands. “It was phenomenal. It was a great crowd tonight. They were loud and passionate. Our players were commenting on it during the match and after. It means a lot to us to have that kind of support. We’re really excited about that and we want to continue to work hard so we can make our supporters and our fans proud.”
Rochester River Dogz FC is now 1-2-1 on the young 2016 NPSL season and next hosts Erie FC on Tuesday, May 31 at SUNY Brockport at 7:00PM.