A lot of water’s flowed under the Main Street Bridge and over Downtown’s High Falls since that epic win at the tail-end of last century when Scott Schweitzer, Yari Allnut, Lenin Steenkamp, Mauro Biello and co. bullied and outsmarted four MLS sides en route to the Rhinos’ lone Open Cup title. The team, coached then by local soccer luminary Pat Ercoli, rode a combination of swagger and bitterness to the crown. A perception persisted then that fledgling Major League Soccer was snubbing their local boys, and indeed the whole city, leading to the now-famous slogan painted on banners and worn on t-shirts: If You Can’t Join ‘em, Beat ‘em!
All Roads Lead to ‘99
“That team had depth and attitude and they’d always find a way to hurt you. There was a never-say-die attitude,” said Ercoli, now Chief Soccer Officer in the Rhinos’ front office. “Most of the guys played year-round, indoor and outdoor, and we were among the top teams in the country in the old A-League when MLS was just getting on its feet.”
“That 1999 win is so big here,” added Jalen Brown, an electric winger in coach Bob Lilley’s current Rhinos’ side that now plays in the second-division United Soccer League. “You can’t avoid the pictures and everyone talks about it. You hear the stories and it’s impossible not to know about that great achievement.”
Both Morton, 23, and Brown, 24, who were five and four-years old respectively when the Rhinos pulled off their epic Cupset, speak with respect of that huge feat 18 years ago. But you get the sneaking sense that they’d rather talk about something else. The weight of past achievement, especially an against-all-odds fairytale like the ’99 run, can feel like a wet blanket across their young shoulders.
Harder Road to Hoe
Ercoli, perhaps most of all, understands the differences between 1999 and today. “It’s more difficult for a team to win the Open Cup these days,” he admitted. “We can’t compete with the depth of the MLS teams and you have to have a huge stable of players to be competitive on two fronts. We have 24 players – that’s it – and they need rest. Maybe someday a small team will win the Cup again, maybe someone will pull that off, but it won’t be easy. And I don’t think it will be soon.”
One thing working in the 2017 Rhinos’ favor is a wave of love from the local community. Being a so-called small market kept Rochester out of the reckoning for a place in MLS, but it also helped lay the groundwork for victory in 1999. And its status as a sporting backwater has led directly to a firm and buoying support in the city for every iteration of the team, win or lose, since then.
“It’s fun being a Rhino here in the City,” said Indiana-native Brown, who had a hand in both goals against Boston amateurs GPS Omens that set the Rhinos a Fourth Round date with MLS outfit New England Revolution. “We’re one of very few sports options for people here, so we get to do appearances and it’s fun. People come up to you after the games and say, ‘hey nice pass,’ or, ‘that was a great goal.’ It’s great to interact with a community who really care about the team.”
Morton, who’s following in the footsteps of a succession of standout goalkeepers that began with ’99 net-minder Pat Onstad, also enjoys the adulation of the Rhinos-mad folks of Rochester. “It’s a minor-league town, but the people here are crazy for sports,” said the James Madison University product, who does yoga as part of an extensive pre-game warm-up. “People are drawn to what we’re doing here and being a part of that give-and-take is awesome.”
The game against the Revolution on the road at Providence College will be a far sterner test for these modern-day Rhinos than GPS Omens, who they needed every second of 120 minutes to finally see off. But it doesn’t seem to have any knees knocking in Rochester. “Things will be a little quicker probably,” said Morton, who might be in for a busy day against a front-line of top-tier pros. “But it’s still a game of soccer.” Brown, the attacking spark-plug, who just might make the difference, agreed: “We’re pros too, and we’ll be up for it. We want to show them what we’re doing up here in Rochester. And we’re hungry for success.”
The farthest the Rhinos have gone in Open Cup play since those glory days of 1999 was a Semifinal berth nine years ago. But the path is there, the stage is set and all these young Rhinos have to do is look around them for inspiration on the walls of Capelli Sport Stadium and in the smiles that greet them on the streets of Rochester. “I don’t feel any pressure from what the ’99 guys did,” said Brown. “It’s an inspiration and a proud chapter in the history of a great club,” added his keeper Morton. “We haven’t even seen those games from’99, but it’s there lighting the way. They won and it can be done.”