“I was behind the away team’s goal and the other ball-boy was screaming at me: ‘don’t give it back; don’t give the ball back,’” remembers Rochester River Dogz captain Jake Schindler of those days, 20-odd years ago, when he wore a yellow cap and was a ball-boy for the Rochester Rhinos. They reached the Open Cup Final in 1996 and made history by winning the whole thing in 1999. “It was the 85th minute and the other team’s goalkeeper was swearing at me pretty bad. I’d say he was pretty mad.”
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(The Rochester Raging Rhinos - 1999 U.S. Open Cup winners)
The city of Rochester was absorbed in the successes and striving of their team and they all rallied under the banner: “If You Can’t Join ‘Em, Beat ‘Em.” It was a retort to the MLS establishment that refused to consider the Rhinos for inclusion in the young league despite being one of the top squads in the country.
“We built an expectation here with the Rhinos in that heyday we had,” Doug Miller, Schindler’s coach with the River Dogz, told ussoccer.com on the eve of the amateur team’s first run at the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. And Miller knows better than most – he scored the winner in the Final of the 1999 tournament against the Rapids and lined up for those beloved Raging Rhinos from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2003 to 2006. “I mean we shocked everyone by winning the Open Cup. I was a part of a team that built expectation and a following that wasn’t just a casual thing.”
Dogz Step into Rhinos’ Shoes
The love for those Rhinos, in and around the city, was (and remains) intense. That fact makes management’s decision to take a season-long hiatus from United Soccer League (USL) play, all the more painful. “Jake was a ball-boy back then,” Miller said of his 30-year-old veteran captain and trusted center-back. “He was there watching us play and he knows how we put the time in. He saw the sacrifices that went into it. He, and a lot of the other guys in our River Dogz team, are steeped in that tradition.”
The River Dogz (who now play under the throwback name Rochester Lancers – the city’s old NASL team – in the National Premier Soccer League) are looking to fill the hole left by the disbanded Rhinos and to rally the city behind them. “I want the community behind us,” said Miller whose playing career spanned a full 25 years. “Most of the guys who are playing in our team are trying to find a pathway to something bigger – and the Open Cup is that pathway. We’re trying to build a club that matters. We want to make it consistent and important again. It was the perfect storm here in 1996 when the Rhinos started out, and now we want to start a second storm.”
(Jake Schindler, River Dogz captain, center-back & beating heart)
A waning interest in the Rhinos, according to Miller and Schindler, had much to do with a constantly rotating cast of characters lining up at Capelli Sports Stadium, the ground the Rhinos once called home and where the River Dogz/Lancers play their home games now. “You’d start to like a player and then, boom, he’s gone the next year,” said Schindler, who, like those Rhinos of old, plays both outdoor and arena soccer (with the Syracuse Silver Knights). “There’s no way for the fans to fall in love with a team that way. Back in the 90s, the Rhinos were rock stars here. Everyone felt a part of something huge, but that’s been missing for a while.”
“A lot of the guys, like myself, were entrenched in the community back in those days,” said Miller of the days when the faces of the old Rhinos, like Scott Schweitzer, Pat Onstad and Deadly Doug himself, were 20 feet off the ground and spread wide across billboards downtown and out on the surrounding highways. “That, and the fact, that we had the kind of talent to beat anybody, made for something special.”
Amateur? Professional? No Big Deal
While teams may come and go, there’s a constant in Rochester: They love their soccer no matter the level. A gritty city where it snows in May and frozen winds whip off Lake Ontario for most of the year, it’s not unusual to see fans turn up to amateur games – Sunday afternoon stuff – with a cooler full of beers to support their favorite players. Theodore Theo Irwin, a 24-year-old carpenter who does framing for housing construction, is one of those guys.
(The River Dogz hunt in packs - Jake Schindler far left)
“I’m just a regular Rochester guy and I love supporting our teams up here,” he said, punctuating his sentences with laid-back yeah mans and oh yeahs. “We’re ahead of the game up here when it comes to supporting soccer. Minor league teams, major league teams – it doesn’t matter to us. We’re not just about starting something up on Facebook and having a supporters’ group before we have a team. We love the game, the guys who play it, and Rochester.”
Schindler, who’s the heart and soul of Coach Miller’s philosophy of make-sure-you-work-harder-than-the-other-guy, agrees about Rochester’s passion for the game writ large. “The amateur leagues have always been big here. That never changes,” said the Rochester native who works days as a metrology and test engineer for an optics company, before grinding away at training and traveling for weekend games. He say’s he’ll keep playing until his knees give out and jokes that between indoor, outdoor soccer and his day job he “gave up sleeping” years ago. “Even for just any old men’s league game, you have like 50 people around watching, having a beer on the sidelines and tracking their favorite players from the indoor leagues to the outdoor game and through all the levels.”
Folks from Rochester tell it straight. They’re direct. They don’t embellish or dress up what they mean. The River Dogz, who begin their Open Cup account on the road against the Erie Commodores of the NPSL, are pretty much the same in their play. “We’re a hard-nosed, blue-collar team. We like to tackle hard and play hard,” said Schindler. It’s music to the ears of Theo the Carpenter, who’s planning to cut work early and drive the two-plus hours to Pennsylvania with his buddies for the First Round game on May 9. “Oh yeah. They’re just a bunch of hungry Rochester guys and they’ll be going for broke. Nothing to lose and everything to gain. They’re Rochester to the core.”
(#USOC2018 is the first tilt at the Open Cup for the River Dogz)
Miller’s men might not be the prettiest in the 94-team field for the 105th U.S. Open Cup. But they’re ready. “We’re organized and disciplined – you can count on that,” said the coach who likes a high press and players who know how to grind. He especially likes the guys who’ll “crash on a friend’s coach and eat peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches” in order to not miss practice. “Treat people like pros and have an expectation,” said Miller, 19 years on from shocking the soccer establishment with the rest of the Rhinos. “With the right kind of attitude you can compete with just about anybody and we have the chance to shock some people in this Open Cup.”
There’s a magic to the Open Cup. Sometimes too much is made of it and Cinderellas are rarely winners. But for Rochester, New York, the magic is fresh. 1999 isn’t that long ago and even though times have changed, these River Dogz have something to play for. “The name on the front of the jersey is much more important than the one on the back,” said Miller, scorer of that goal in 1999 that keeps lower-league teams dreaming to this day. And whether it's Rhinos or Lancers or River Dogz, you get the sense the name that matters most on that shirt is Rochester.