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The Rochester Rhinos began life in 1996, the same year MLS was founded as the pinnacle of the American soccer pyramid. With a squad of seasoned professionals, most of whom played upwards of 80 games a year – both outdoor and indoor – the second-division Rhinos seemed like prime contenders for a place in the fledgling top-flight. The city had soccer in its veins and a rich history going back even before the Lancers of the old NASL. Hordes of fans, often hovering around the 15,000-mark, steamed through the turnstiles every weekend at the tiny Frontier Field.
“It was like, ‘look what we’re doing here!’” said Scott Schweitzer, Rochester defender from 1998 to 2003. “We thought we should be in MLS. We’re sold out every week. We had more fans coming out than a lot of the MLS teams did.”
Can’t join ‘em? Beat ‘em
But economic factors, calculators, accountants and spreadsheets conspired to keep the Rhinos and their legions of fans from the big-time. When the 1999 Open Cup rolled around, they had a new and potent slogan. It was printed on stickers, t-shirts and banners, and chanted in the stands: If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em!
“It was our rallying cry,” said Onstad, the Canadian legend who went on to a long and distinguished career in MLS. “We were a bunch of misfits. We worked harder for each other than any team I’ve ever played on and everyone had something to prove. A lot of the guys felt like they should be in MLS, but that call never came.”
Schweitzer was one of those swaggering misfits, perhaps chief among them. He was 11 the first time he kicked a soccer ball around inner city New Jersey and he remembers being tagged a “commie” for his quick interest in the game. “I didn’t care,” he recalled. “I knew the first day I played that I was going to be a pro. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it.”
The Rhinos went on a run for the ages in the 1999 Open Cup, slaying four straight MLS sides. “We always thought we had a chance no matter who we were playing,” said Schweitzer, who credits soccer for seeing him through a rough childhood. He speaks of the city of Rochester with the kind of affection reserved for a family member. “I understood the city and the city understood me,” he said, remembering living downtown in an old brick building and seeing his own face, 50 feet up over the highway, plastered on a billboard.
“We were big on being boisterous,” said Schweitzer. “Maybe cocky is a better word. But we wanted to show people something, show them what we could do and what soccer in Rochester was all about.”
The Rhinos played their first two games against MLS opposition at their tiny Frontier Field, an improvised home designed for baseball. “OK, so the field was 69 yards wide and maybe 110 long – so you do that math,” said Ercoli. Onstad remembers the pitch too, with an attention to detail befitting a goalkeeper. “The dirt infield ran right through the middle of the pitch. And somehow, the field always seemed to be slanted!”
The Rhinos beat Bob Bradley’s Chicago Fire at home with what can politely be described as a “physical” approach. Rochester committed nearly 50 fouls in the game and did a similar number in their next: A 2-1 golden-goal win over 1997 Open Cup champs Dallas Burn. After the game, Dallas’ star striker Jason Kreis wasn’t interested in playing diplomat when he said Rochester would “get their butts beat on a real field.”
The trash talk and the sour grapes of their beaten opponents didn’t bother Ercoli and co. In fact, it was just the kind of motivation the jilted Rhinos needed to swell that chip on their shoulder. Their semi-final was on the road, on a real pitch, against a Columbus Crew side led by stars like Brian McBride and Thomas Dooley. The heavens intervened.
“We played down in Virginia on the edge of a hurricane,” said Onstad, recalling the first game away from their wild fans and compact home. “It was like no wind I’d ever seen,” added Ercoli, who instructed captain Tommy Tanner to go against it in the first half. “He looked at me like I was crazy! We’re talking 50 mile-per-hour winds here!”
The first half ended goalless and “we celebrated like we just won the Cup!” said Onstad. But in the second, the game broke open. Big striker Darren Tilley leveled for the Rhinos after a sensational free-kick by Robert Warzycha. When the Crew went up again with 12 minutes to go, the Rhinos’ charge looked over. But two goals in the last four minutes, with a little help from the wind at their backs, sent the men from Rochester through to the final. “We were the kind of team that always found a way to win,” Ercoli said. “And in the end, the Crew petered out while we rode the wind, and a little bit of luck.”
Team of destiny
That game in the blustery gales, on the ragged edges of a tropical storm, was the moment when a reality hit home in the team. “I started to have this feeling,” said Onstad. “Ok, we’re going to do this.” Ercoli’s gut told him the same. “We went to Columbus, Ohio for the final with the attitude of: This is destiny.”
The final was at the brand-new Crew Stadium against the Colorado Rapids. And with their own team gone, the Columbus fans adopted the traveling underdogs. They joined the chorus led by busloads of traveling supporters that rolled in from Rochester. “They were there to greet us in Ohio when we got off the bus,” Schweitzer recalled. “They had their banners – if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em and all that. You didn’t want to let these people down.”
And they didn’t. A goal mid-way through the second-half from Doug Miller and a late one from Yari Allnutt saw the unfancied Rhinos win out 2-0. “I don’t remember having to do that much work on the day either,” said Onstad. “What I remember most is the pride at the end, being there with this great team of crazy guys, holding the trophy.”
“Maybe someday another non-MLS team will do it again, but it’s not easy,” said Ercoli, now Chief Soccer Officer of the Rochester Rhinos who play, to this day, in the second tier. “It was an amazing thing,” added Schweitzer. But the last word went to Onstad, who fought his MLS coaches when they wanted to rest him for Open Cup games. “I’d insist they put me in for the Cup.” said the man who went on to win three MLS titles. Twice he was named MLS’ goalkeeper of the year, but he never got his hands on the Open Cup again. “It always mattered to me.”