Joining the reigning USL champions Rochester Rhinos, a new team formed by a handful of locals will be playing in the amateur National Premier Soccer League. Rochester River DogZ FC certainly made an impression on social media when the team’s name was almost universally mocked. While the name may still prompt a chuckle here or there, the organization has taken strong steps without as much fanfare.
In the official unveiling press release, general manager Marc Mandell spoke highly to the league’s site of the success envisioned by the team. “Our passion for soccer and our business acumen will make us a model NPSL franchise. We will recruit top players to ensure that we will field a competitive team. By providing a top class game day experience, we will make Rochester a place fans and away teams look forward to visiting.”
Most notable ahead of its inaugural season opener in Buffalo on May 14 is the squad the River DogZ are assembling. Names familiar to Upstate New York soccer fans are former Syracuse University/U20 USMNT forward Stefano Stamoulacatos, former Rochester Rhinos forward Isaac Kissi, and U17 NT defender Nikkye De Point. I wrote about De Point last summer when he spent a week training with the Rhinos after completing his fourth semester at the national team residency program in Bradenton, Florida. You can read that piece on The Bent Musket.
Shortly after the National Premier Soccer League’s Annual General Meeting in December 2015, I spoke with FC Buffalo co-owner Nicholas Mendola. Among various topics, we discussed his team’s new Western New York rival.
Mendola told me that because of the division-centered organizational structure of the NPSL, the league promotes that its teams share best practices. “That’s been strongly encouraged by the league because if you don’t take care of the other teams it doesn’t work out. The worst thing we want is to show up to a game and have just 11 fans there. It’s not good for our players to see that. It’s not good for anyone to see that. It’s important for these teams to find a bigger level of success than what they’re doing. If you see that they’re not doing it well, then you better try [to help].”
As friendly as that sentiment is, Mendola said that FC Buffalo didn’t exactly go out its way to lobby the NPSL for a local rival. “As much as we want to play at Rochester and we’re excited about that, there are small downsides to it as well. Some of our best players have been from Rochester,” Mendola said. “A few years ago we had our two best players by far, who both went on to be future pros, Mike Reidy and Josh Faga, two of our best players of all time. Now if Rochester has an established team, not only do we not have those players but now they’re playing for someone who should be a rival.”
Mendola, whose seventh-year club has received national acclaim for nurturing a passionate fanbase and reciprocating their love through active social media engagement, mentioned that the directors of the River DogZ had contacted him for advice and to bounce ideas off of. “They’ve reached out a lot to their credit,” he said, while making sure to repudiate any mentor/mentee clichés. “They’ve asked us along the way, I’ve met now or spoken to 4 of their 5 owners. I think their heart is in the right place. It’ll be very interesting to see what kind of team they put together.”
During Rochester’s (very) long winter I also spoke with Flower City Stampede founder Christian Damico about the new team in town. Flower City Stampede is one of two recognized supporters’ group for the Rochester Rhinos but Christian spoke about a willingness to throw his backing to the River DogZ as well. Unavoidably Christian politely criticized the name of the team but he did share a rumored rationale that made some sense. He admitted he didn’t enjoy the original crest but that the second one was much improved.
As an everpresent in the Rochester soccer scene, Damico had already known one of the club’s directors, Nick Mojsovski. “He was kind enough to join to the Stampede on the Rhinos season opener against NYRB II this past April. We also compete in a fantasy football league together. He’s a great guy and an old family friend.” The avid soccer fan told me, “Personally my love for soccer and my willingness to support someone who supports what I love will draw me to their matches.”
As a keen observer of the sport, Damico had some advice for the River DogZ to succeed without necessarily throwing money around. “The reason I started the Flower City Stampede was to give a face to younger soccer supporters as well to provide an avenue to express our collective opinions to the Rochester Rhinos. These opinions include the need for more community involvement. And that’s how the River DogZ need to engage the soccer demographic; community engagement.”
Damico continued, “For a soccer club to be successful not only on the pitch but in the front office, the club must be 100% community focused. So to answer your question the River DogZ must be community focused in just about everything they do, they must put a good product on the pitch and also be active in the community and online constantly during the season and off season.”
Rochester River Dogz FC will hold a press event on Thursday evening during which the team will unveil its jerseys and mascot for the 2016 NPSL season.