Rhinos Stay Strong Even After Fading From MLS View

In our latest look at football in the United States, I go back to a time when Major League Soccer (MLS) was not as well known, a time when Wayne Rooney was not even playing.

That time is the nineties. It was a different time. Mobile phones had yet to be mass marketed, the Spice Girls were still a thing, and David Beckham had yet to have a boot thrown at him.

It was a much simpler time. Mobile phones were the size of a brick and the New England Patriots were not a good NFL team. This is the story of the Rochester Rhinos from the United Soccer League (USL).

Rochester is in upstate New York, just an hour away from the Canadian border. As a side note, this writer grew up in Rochester, and lives nearby to this day. The place has always had a good history in football. Back in the North American Soccer League (NASL) days, Rochester had a club, and they were runners up for the title in 1968, winning the title in 1970. Like with the rest of the NASL however, they folded.

In 1996, the now defunct A League was formed, and one of the clubs that was brought into the league was the Rochester Rhinos. They have been wildly successful in their twenty years, they have only missed the play offs once, and that year they finished 11th in their division. They’ve won the championship, three times in the A League (1998, 2000 and 2001), and once in the USL (2015).  They were, for most of the early days in US football, thought of as the best team in the lower leagues.

They had a famous US Open Cup (equivalent to the FA Cup as we don’t have anything silly like the League Cup) victory in 1999 when they became the only lower league club to this day to win the competition. In their run they beat four MLS sides on their way to Columbus for the final – Chicago Fire, Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas), Columbus Crew, and then the Colorado Rapids in the final. That was a Rhinos side that had future MLS veteran goalkeeper Pat Onstead as their number one.

Because of this they were thought of, for a time at least, as the next MLS expansion side when the now Sporting Kansas City were going through ownership troubles. Apparently, Rochester were to take over the old Kansas City Wizards’ league spot. It never happened as out of the ashes of the KC Wizards came Sporting KC who have since gone on to win an MLS Cup and the US Open Cup.

The attendance has always been good, case in point, their first match in 1996 against the Montreal Impact was watched by 14,000 people at Frontier Field. They have since moved to the Capelli Sports Stadium which is a football specific stadia. In that first year, they wanted to average 3,000 in attendance with a chance of hitting hitting 6,000 in five years. That expectation was met, and then some, because they averaged 9,991 that first year. They averaged 10,000 for twelve years and only dropped below that in 2008, their thirteenth year.

The Rhinos eventually left the A League, went to the USL for a bit, moved to the NASL for a bit, and came back to USL where they won a title as I mentioned above. In the years since, Rochester have faded from the view of the MLS who have introduced many bigger cities into the league, several of which have become very successful.

Two seasons ago the club were taken over by the USL when the then owners were not doing particularly well after having to take out loans when they built the stadium, crippling the ownership group. Eventually, minority owners of NBA franchise Sacramento Kings (who started their NBA life in Rochester) bought the club.

The new USL season kicks off in a few weeks time as the Rhinos will be looking to better their fourth place finish in the Western Conference. Their opening game sees them travel to take on Bethlehem Steel on 1 April.



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Stephen Brandt

Stephen Brandt

Stephen is a football writer from the States. He has hosted Yellowcard Podcast on Tuesday's for five years.This past November, he moved the podcast to Wednesday's. You can hear the pod on All In Sports Talk. His expertise is in Football History, and has written articles all over the world.

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