It will be a team short on United Soccer Leagues history going against one immersed in it when Republic FC plays the Rochester Rhinos on Friday in a USL Pro match involving teams tied for fourth place.
Gametime is 4:35 p.m. at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, N.Y.
The Rhinos, founded in 1996, averaged crowds of 9,700 or more through their first 12 seasons, captured three league championships and won the 1999 U.S. Open Cup, becoming the only non-Major League Soccer team to win the cup since MLS began play in 1996.
Rochester made the playoffs every year until last season, when it finished 11th.
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Now it’s Republic FC creating the buzz in USL Pro with its regular-season record home-attendance average of more than 19,000 - accounting for 33 percent of USL Pro’s 14-team attendance - and the team’s interesting, if sometimes erratic, play under MLS legend Preki, the club’s coach.
The Rhinos’ attendance has declined in recent seasons, down to 5,900, currently second best in the league, but the team is enjoying an on-field resurgence under veteran USL coach Bob Lilley, who returned to the Rhinos this season after leading them to titles in 2010 and 2011.
The Rhinos are 3-1-4 and have allowed just six goals, second best in USL Pro.
Republic FC (4-3-1) is coming off impressive 2-1 wins over Orange County FC, Ventura County Fusion (in Open Cup play) and the Los Angeles Galaxy II, but Preki isn’t sure how his team will respond to its first long road trip of the season. Republic FC is scheduled to play the Dayton Dutch Lions on Sunday in Ohio.
“We don’t have too many experienced guys in our group,” Preki said. “So it will be an incredible challenge. Both of those places are tough places to go and play.
“Rochester is really a tough team. They have been in the league for a long time. They have experienced players, and their defense is really good. It’s going to be a tough game for us.”
Rhinos rookie goalie John McCarthy has been stellar, fashioning a league-best four shutouts, while playing behind the defensive back four of 6-foot-4 Onua Thomas Obasi, 6-3 Kyle Hoffer, Tony Walls and Pat McMahon. They have conceded two goals in 540 minutes played.
Republic FC team has scored 14 goals, fourth best in the league, despite being forced to use a revolving door of offensive players because of injuries (MLS veteran Justin Braun) and Major League Soccer recalls (Adam Jahn and Mike Fucito now back with the Earthquakes).
But midfielder Rodrigo Lopez has kept the team focused through his leadership and uplifting play that included the winning goal against Galaxy II on Saturday; Northern Ireland transplant Thomas Stewart has emerged as a big threat with a team-high three goals and two assists; and George Fochive has played superbly in the midfield since joining the team on loan from the Portland Timbers.
Defeating Galaxy II for the second time this season - this time in front of a second sellout crowd of 20,231 at Hughes Stadium - left even Preki a little awed.
“It was a special night for us,” he said. “We worked hard as a group. We created our opportunities and, thankfully, we scored on a couple of them.
“When you walk into (Hughes) stadium with that kind of atmosphere, it was a special place and a special moment.”
Lilley is impressed with what Republic FC has accomplished in such a short time.
“I think they can be a force all year,” he told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. “They deserve a lot of credit not only from getting it right on the business side but on the field, and players feed off that.”
Changing faces: The Earthquakes have loaned rookie goalkeeper Billy Knutsen to Republic FC. Knutsen, a fourth-round selection in the MLS SuperDraft, played at American University, and is a native of San Francisco. Starting goalie Jake Gleeson re-injured his groin in the first half against Galaxy II and was replaced at halftime by Dominik Jakubek. Portland Timbers midfielder Steven Evans joined the team last weekend, though he didn’t suit up against the Galaxy II, after the Earthquakes recalled Jahn.
It’s CRC again: Cosumnes River College will play host to a third-round U.S. Open Cup match on Wednesday. Republic FC, which beat the Ventura County Fusion 2-1 in round two last week, will play the Fresno Fuego. The winner will face the Earthquakes at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco on June 11.
USL Pro honors: Lopez was named to the USL Pro Team of the Week for his game-winning free kick goal against Galaxy II.