Tending Rochester’s Soccer Garden with Flower City Union

Take a dive into Rochester, New York – a unique American city with a deep connection to the Open Cup and a passion for the game with precious few rivals in this country.
By: Michael Battista

If you ask Mark Washo why he came back to Rochester, New York following a long career in sports management, he’s got a simple answer. Because he believes in the town.

A former front office member of D.C. United and the New York MetroStars, it’s funny to see Washo believe so much in a town that’s been forgotten about by so many.  By businesses, by sports – and by the rest of the country.

But Washo remembers the city well, especially because one of the stops in his career path was a two-year layover with the Rochester Rhinos. Not only that, but his western New York state background gave him a front-row seat to many of the city’s soccer glories.

“I remember the heyday of the Rhinos. Actually I’m old enough where I remember when the Lancers were here back in the NASL days and going to Holleder Stadium as a little kid,” Washo laughed. “And then the heyday of the Rhinos and this being dubbed ‘Soccertown, USA’ and when Frontier Field used to get packed.

Moments before kick-off against Manhattan SC in the Cup’s Second Round

“I knew there was a vibrant soccer community here. I know when high school teams play in the sectionals you might get three to four thousand fans. There’s that deep-rooted history, you got the history of the Open Cup here, you got one of the first soccer-specific stadiums, it's a truly professional stadium in the heart of the city. There’s a lot here.”

All that led Washo to become a founding partner in Flower City Union back in 2020. The third-division side playing in the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) are in their sophomore season. But it almost feels like year-one all over again considering how much has changed.

Rebuilding a Team

Flower City Union’s inaugural season won’t be hard to improve on. The team finished bottom of the table in NISA with only two wins and a -44 goal differential.

“Obviously there’s room for improvement,” Washo said. “We just didn’t score enough goals. We want to have a more competitive, attractive, winning product on the field. With that comes trying to grow our fanbase, our following, [and] attendance at our games.”

Last year’s shining moment came in the Open Cup. An extra-time Lukas Fernandes goal against Western Mass Pioneers in the Second Round set Union up with their biggest match ever. A home game against Major League Soccer side D.C. United in the Third Round.
First-year player – and New York native – Stephen Elias

It was the first time an MLS team had played a competitive match in the city since 2016 (a 1-0 Rhinos loss to the New York Red Bulls in that year’s Fourth Round). And the moment was extra special for Washo, who worked for United for their first five (wildly successful) seasons in Major League Soccer.

“For me personally, it was one of those full circle moments,” he said. “We had the team that I co-launched play DC United.”

Against D.C. at the Downtown Soccer Stadium, City held the three-time Open Cup champions scoreless for over 70 minutes before conceding three unanswered goals.

This year, the quest to improve means looking outward. An overhauled roster includes nine players with former professional experience in the USL and abroad.

One is forward Stephen Elias, who joined FCU after winning the 2022 NISA championship with Michigan Stars FC. The New York state native, who also won multiple national titles with amateur outfit and Open Cup regulars Lansdowne Yonkers FC, was ecstatic to return home… even if family and friends have to travel five hours from Rye, New York to watch him in person.

“Hopefully, we can continue to grow this team,” Elias said. “I know it's a fairly newer team so hopefully this year with the players that we brought in and the talent like Luke [Ferreira] and Noah [Cavanaugh] and Kyle [Nelson] and all these guys and Mumbi [Kwesele]. Hopefully we can continue to get these results.”

Those results include a win against Manhattan SC in the Second Round of this year’s Open Cup. It set up a date on the road against USL Championship side Loudoun United FC in Virginia this week.

Blooms Anew After a Stampede

Rochester is no stranger to coming back from tough times. From the sports teams to the city itself, fight has always been a common word. But this year Flower City Union have more on their plate than most could handle.

On March 10, a few weeks ahead of the Open Cup kicking off, MLS Next Pro side Rochester New York FC announced it was ceasing operations effective immediately. The saga for a team formerly known as the Rochester Rhinos, the last non-MLS team to win the Open Cup back in 1999, ended with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC getting a bye to the Third Round.

But as the dust has settled many within the Flower City fanbase have chosen not to go the route of gloating. Instead, those many hope to try and encourage any discouraged fans from RNYFC to make their way back to Rochester Community Sports Complex Stadium.

For Elias, he knows how intense Rochester soccer fans can be. Last season playing for both Valley United FC and Michigan Stars in NISA, he got to experience it as a visiting player. Now as he calls it home, he gets cheered. In fact, he gets cheered a lot – like when he scored two goals in this year’s Second Round against Manhattan SC.
The Rochester Sports Complex Stadium

“The fans are great,” Elias said. “They're really supportive. I feel like the fan base is continually growing. Even that one home game, the energy was amazing. I've said it before, you know, after the first goal, the energy was unmatched with those fans.”

Washo and the others at FCU are hoping the team can become an institution in the city, slowly but surely. They’re not trying to fill the shoes of the Rhinos but rather to blaze their own trail. The club’s even allowed fans to become a part of the front office itself. A fan ownership campaign, followed up from a successful one last year, is allowing interested fans to invest directly in the team.

Washo believes the team has many of the pieces needed to become a staple. One of which is the logo and brand itself, designed by British designer Christopher Payne, that truely is ‘Rooted in Rochester’.

“Do we feel an obligation to keep this going? We do. Do we think we can be successful? We do. Do we think we have a better model and footprint and branding? Absolutely.”

New Frontiers for Rochester

Fans that invest in the campaign will own a piece of FCU as they attempt to continue the legacy of high caliber soccer in Western New York. And that goes past just the 1999 Rhinos Open Cup. They’re hoping to join greats like the 1963 National Amateur Cup champion Rochester Italian-American (whose descendants IASC Boom competed in the last two Open Cup qualifying tournaments) and four-time women’s league champion Western New York Flash.

But fans who invest won’t just own one team. Instead, they’ll own part of three.

This season Flower City Union is playing a unique set-up across two cities. Nearly 90 miles east of the Flower City sits Syrcause, whose own soccer ambitions are starting to form. Last season, the city returned to the professional sphere when Syracuse Pulse joined NISA. And this season, they’ve merged with FCU to form one team playing across two cities.
A Cup win on the road against Loudoun United could bring big smiles back to Rochester

NISA league games played in Syracuse will be under the Salt City Union name, derived from the city’s salt mine legacy, along with half of the team’s road games. Washo explained that the hope is that a different brand that respects each cities’ heritage will allow it to connect more with each fansbase. The eventual goal is to fully split the two sides into different teams in future NISA seasons.

Flower City Union is also launching a women’s team this season. Flower City 1872 will enter the pro-am United Women’s Soccer later this year. The team was unveiled in late March at the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester. The women's suffrage pioneer inspired both the team name and logo for the club based out of her hometown.

“On one end you could say it’s a little more complicated,” Washo admits. “But we like to think that we added more value to anybody who might invest with our organization. In the sense that we did go from one lone ownership of one lone soccer entity, which was Flower City Union, and now if you participate in our new campaign you have a stake in all three of those entities.”

In the end, nothing is easy in Rochester. It’s cold, it’s far away from many of the other major cities – and some might find it crazy to try and make anything work here. But Washo and Flower City Union want to challenge that. The team will keep fighting to improve their record. Fight to win its first Open Cup game against a professional side.

And they’ll keep on fighting to bring professional soccer glory back to a city that’s been overlooked for far too long.

Michael Battista is an award-winning journalist and regular contributor to TheCup.us, Hudson River Blue, & New York Sports Nation. Follow him at @MichaelBattista on Twitter.