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It Seems To Me . . .

Rhinos’ Cup victory great for their fans, A-League; far from inspiring.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

(Friday, September 17, 1999) -- Far be it for me to disagree with my distinguished colleague Jerry Langdon. But I think upon reflection about the Rochester Raging Rhinos U.S. Open Cup victory, I am going to have to.

Elsewhere on this page you will find Jerry's column on the Cup final. He calls Rochester's win an "historical accomplishment and deserves to be mentioned with the great moments in American soccer." Jerry, I'm sorry, I simply can't agree.

I think that the victory is great for the Rhinos and its terrific fans. I hope the victory will be a shot in the arm for minor league soccer and that Rochester will eventually get an MLS franchise. But I think the win has to be into some kind of perspective.

Many of the stories I have seen since the match would seem to indicate that Rochester defeated the best in MLS when it beat Colorado. That is far from the case. The Rapids have gone into a month long swoon. In case you have not noticed, since August 1, in MLS matches, Colorado has scored a grand total of two goals in seven matches. Let me repeat that -- in the last seven league matches Colorado has been shut out five times. I think you can reasonably make the argument that right now Colorado is no better than the sixth best in MLS, and unless the Rapids radically change course they are heading for a very early departure from the playoffs.

I thought the final match was poorly played. Rochester did what it had to do to stay in the match. The Rhinos have an organized defense and they got enough players behind the ball to deny Colorado through the first half even though Colorado dominated play. Then in the second half, they got a goal courtesy of some awful defending and some terrible goalkeeping by Ian Feuer. Rochester has to be congratulated on its win, but that is not to say the final was very inspiring.

To an extent I think Rochester's victory is a back handed tribute to how disorganized this tournament was. In the third and fourth rounds, Rochester had to play two MLS squads, the Chicago Fire and the Dallas Burn. They played both matches on its home field which is actually smaller than the field Columbus played on in the Horseshoe at Ohio State.

The Rhinos have developed a defensive style geared to the narrow confines of their home pitch. Chicago could not break down that defense and lost 1-0. Dallas also could not penetrate the Rochester defense and dropped a double overtime thriller 2-1. I would venture to say if either of these matches had been played on the MLS team's home field, or even on a regulation sized neutral field, Rochester would not have won.

Then came the Cup semifinal in Virginia Beach against Columbus on a regulation field. Simply put the match was played in a hurricane. With winds gusting above 40 miles per hour, Rochester came out on top 3-2 in overtime. The weather was the great leveler. In weather like that Rochester could have played Manchester United dead even. So Rochester's run to the championship was a combination of playing up to its ability in every match, continued good luck in match after match, and a decided advantage in playing two matches at home and a third in horrid weather.

The biggest travesty in the Open Cup scheduling was making D.C. United play on the road while missing seven starters. Maybe United's reserves should have been able to easily handle Charleston. But it was unconscionable for United States Soccer Federation to call away United players for national team duty and then make them play a Cup match, if the Federation was at all serious about the Cup.

I have been asked in a number of e-mails how I think Rochester would do in MLS. Honestly, if they were able to sustain their level of play through an entire season, I think they would win about 10 matches in a season which would put them on a level with the worst teams in MLS.

As for the players on Rochester, I was struck by the question of how many could play in MLS today. I have only seen the Rhinos play twice, but in my opinion they have three players who could find starting roles on MLS teams: Pat Onstadt, Mauro Biello and Craig Demmin. The problem is that the first two are Canadian and the latter from Trinidad & Tobago. That would make them foreign players and probably no MLS club would give up a foreign roster spot for a goalkeeper in Onstadt's case, or for a foreign player without a reputation or marketing potential.

Three other Rhinos have impressed me: Carlos Zavala, Scott Schweitzer, and Yari Allnutt. I'm not sure if any could be MLS starters (all have been given a shot at one time or another), but it would seem to me all could help a lot of MLS teams on the bench. But all three are probably better off financially in Rochester, and playing indoor, then in the lower salary classes of MLS.

Back to Jerry's column for a moment. He also asked the question: "What does this say about Major League Soccer?" A very interesting and central question. We hear repeated over and over that each year the quality of play in MLS is getting better. But is it? I could spend a whole column on this and eventually I will. But for now, how many teams in MLS are playing better this year than they played last. Probably Tampa Bay and Miami. Maybe Colorado and Dallas through the first half of the season. Maybe D.C. United but this year's edition of United even as it keeps winning is not as good without John Harkes and Tony Sanneh, missing from the 1998 edition.

So I for one will debate whether the quality of play is better this year, or just more even. But that's a column, and a argument, for another day. But as for Jerry's question. The Cup result does not say much for MLS.

Robert Wagman’s "It Seems To Me . . ." column appears weekly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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