Pat Ercoli knows something about overcoming challenges as an underdog in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
As head coach of the Rochester Raging Rhinos a generation ago, Ercoli guided the A-League side past four Major League Soccer (MLS) teams to win the 1999 edition of America’s oldest soccer tournament.
To truly appreciate that legendary accomplishment, it must be noted it’s the last time a non-MLS side took a victory lap with the Open Cup trophy.
As president of Rochester New York FC, the rebranded and reimagined Rhinos, Ercoli is off to flying start in this year's competition with a pair of wins over USASA national Amateur Cup champions Lansdowne Yonkers and FC Motown of New Jersey.
After a four-year hiatus from all play, 2022 sees these one-time Rhinos playing in the third-tier MLS NEXT Pro league with hopes of re-establishing professional soccer in the city – alongside a second team, Flower City Union of NISA, who were knocked out of the 2022 Open Cup by four-time champs D.C. United in the Third Round.
But even with the hot start, and solid support from a core of noisy and dedicated fans, it will be difficult for these new-look Rochester men to duplicate the Rhinos' achievement of 1999.
"Is there anybody that's capable of doing that?" Ercoli asked before the tournament began. "We really want to be the only guys that have been able to. I know it's kind of greedy, but having done something like that and not wanting to share it -- I'm pretty sure all the players feel [the same way]. From a perspective of the league and where we are, it becomes more and more difficult for somebody to achieve."
Rhino Road to ’99 Glory
In 1999, the Rhinos ousted the defending Cup champion Chicago Fire (Round of 16), Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas in the Quarterfinals), Columbus Crew (Semifinals) before dispatching the Colorado Rapids 2-0 in the final in Columbus, Ohio.
"We had chips on our shoulder. We were a pretty unusual group, including the coach," Ercoli said with a chuckle. "We had a load of confidence. When we went to Columbus to play Colorado, we just felt we're winning."
@rnyfcofficial down to nine men for 45 minutes? That’s no problem— Rochester New York FC (@rnyfcofficial) April 21, 2022
We don’t just #BelieveImpossible, we make it reality.
Onto the next round.. @MLSNEXTPRO @opencup @ESPNPlus #RNYFC pic.twitter.com/gn1a8knU19
USA pro soccer was at a different level then than it is now. MLS had but a dozen teams. And many A-League sides had players who could play at that level – but chose not to.
"Most of the teams were certainly stacked with great talent," said Ercoli, whose Rochester NY side now face a tasty test against MLS champions New York City FC in the Round of 32. "Their budgets were larger. Over the course of a season we probably wouldn't have fared as well, but on a one-to-one, do-or-die situation, we had a lot of gamers."
Sharp Cup Return for Rochester
RNY FC began their Open Cup account against Lansdowne Yonkers FC in a Second-Round clash at Monroe Community College on Thursday, April 7. A goal from Gibran Rayo was enough to move the side through to the Third Round, where, in a date with FC Motown, Rayo turned provider for Pedro Dolabella to open the scoring in a game littered with physicality and cards and, eventually, won via a penalty shootout.
Dolabella and captain Lamar Batista were both shown red in a contest in which the home side were forced to play the entire 30-minute extra-time period with only nine men.
It was a gritty performance that the club’s high-profile part-owner Jamie Vardy would have been proud of. The Leicester City and England international, who helped resuscitate the club with his ownership bid and star power, was a member of the 2020-21 English F.A. Cup winning side.
And Vardy’s hopeful his Rochester outfit can push for more history.
"The '99 Open Cup is special," he said in an email interview. "It’s the only way the lower league clubs get a chance to compete against the MLS teams. I am the only player in the history of the F.A. Cup in England to play in every round of the competition and then go on to win it. Winning the Open Cup again with Rochester is an ambition that we want to replicate.
“The more people doubt us and say we can’t do it, the more it just motivates us to achieve it again,” Vardy added. “It will take as long as it takes but I won’t lie to you it’s something that we have talked about."
Vardy On the New Rochester Train
Head coach Bruno Baltazar said that a third-tier team winning U.S. soccer’s national championship was a long shot. But teams can dream -- and use that 1999 title as inspiration.
"We don't have the responsibility of winning the Cup," he said. "Clubs in MLS are much more well-structured and stronger. The budgets are amazing. They can bring top players from all over the world. But it is inspirational what happened in '99. We want to chase that dream. Our keywords are believe and possible."
RNY FC have played both of their 2022 Cup games so far at Monroe Community College, which has an expanded capacity of 1,500 this year and will remain the club’s home for the whole of the season. The upcoming Round of 32 contest, against the reigning MLS champions NYCFC at St John’s University in Queens, will be a first challenge away from that home (and the fans who still can’t help themselves from chanting the old Go-Rhinos slogans).
Baltazar, 44, who only arrived at RNY FC three days before the team's 2-0 season-opening loss at St. Louis CITY2 on March 26 due to visa issues, admitted there are still growing pains.
"We did the preseason, played official games, basically," said Baltazar, a former Portuguese player who has coached in Portugal, Thailand, Greece and most recently as an assistant with Nottingham Forest (England). "The boys work really hard every day, trying to get our ideas and our philosophy as quick as possible."
And as far as RNY FC’s goals? "We want to give the soccer fans of Rochester a team they can be proud of," said Vardy.
Sights Set on New Successes
"Long term, we want to develop players and staff that achieve success with RNY FC and then go and further themselves in their careers. We want to win MLS NEXT Pro (league) and win the Open Cup again,” Vardy continued. “We want to develop local talent through our academy and search for players similar to myself that may have been overlooked that need a second chance."
Many things still need to be ironed out as Rochester New York FC begin to fill the space occupied for more than two decades by their beloved Rhino-themed predecessors. But it’s so-far-so-good in their return to a tournament where they defied the odds in 1999 to become a beacon for any American team with a big dream.
Michael Lewis can be reached at email@example.com and @Soccerwriter on Twitter. His book (ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers), is available for purchase.