It's been 221 days and I have finally come to terms with it. But when I close my eyes, I can still see the ball sailing higher and higher as it floats above the upright toward the scoreboard. In my mind it plays out in slow motion, even though the actual incident took only a fraction of a second.
At first I felt bad for Greg Simmonds, who instantly became the ugly lovechild of David Batty and Scott Norwood. Then I felt awful for the team as it lost its first home playoff match since 1997 and fourth home match of the year (the most since 1997). Ultimately, I felt the worst for me and the other fans. We not only suffered through a cruel penalty shootout against Richmond that sent the winner to the league title game (against eventual champs Milwaukee), but slowly realized this Rhinos team had failed to bring home a championship for the first time since 1997. It was also the only time it didn't make the finals of either the A-League Championship or the US Open Cup... other than 1997.
If you think the references to 1997 seem a little repetitive, they're included to serve a purpose. These 2003 Rhinos, who launch their season this Friday night, May 2, against Atlanta at Frontier Field, are kicking it all the way back to their formative years in more ways than one. Doug Miller is back at forward. Billy Andracki is the starting goalkeeper. There's a chance Yari Allnutt will resume his career midway through the summer. But the biggest stumbling block for fans to overcome will be the lack of a banner to hoist on Friday night. Just to put it in perspective, this will be the first home opener without a pre-match trophy presentation since J.Lo was on her first husband, and long before Rock 'n' Roll Jeopardy host Jeff Probst ever dreamed of saying "The tribe has spoken."
But you can think about it this way: The last time the Rhinos didn't produce a bright, shiny trophy, they developed a "take no prisoners" attitude the following year, when they burned through the A-League, winning their first 13 straight on the way to a 24-0-4 record, and nearly toppling the Columbus Crew in the second round of the USOC in a home heartbreaker made even more special by the non-stop driving rain. Those Rhinos ran roughshod over four playoff opponents by a combined score of 17-5.
But lately, Rochester would need somewhere around half of a season to net that many goals (they had just 38 in 28 regular-season matches in 2002). Fans have had it with the never-ending parade of quality strikers who put up gaudy numbers with other teams only to be restrained and frustrated by Coach Pat Ercoli's defense-first style of play. (And fans get even more agitated when those same strikers put up equally gaudy numbers once they leave Rochester.) This year will be different, Ercoli promises fans. The team will be faster and more offensively minded. Additions include Richmond's David Hayes on the left flank and a pair of forwards: Revolution castoff Ian Fuller and Miller, who is still the team's all-time leader in points and goals despite not playing in Rochester for the last three seasons.
Miller was the league MVP in 1997, which was also the last time Andracki started the season as the team's number-one goalkeeper. Last year, Rochester's biggest problem in the net was deciding who should start and who had to ride the pine. Pat Onstad and Scott Vallow decided to alleviate the burden of decision by both bolting to MLS this year. With a defense as strong as the Rhinos', even Soccer Sam could do well between the pipes. Scott Schweitzer and recently named captain Craig Demmin return in the middle, but look for Yuri Lavrinenko to slide out of the crowded midfield to the left defensive back position now that the dearly departed Mali Walton has flown the coop.
Did I say the midfield was crowded? It's actually crammed almost to the point of exploding. It was pretty jam-packed last year. But in 2003, potential starters are going to resemble a throng of clowns packing themselves into a tiny car. Noodles, Seesaw, Oopsie, Flopsweat, Hoohaw, Jitters, and Sir Widebottom can be replaced by Lenin Steenkamp, Stoian Mladenov, Temoc Suarez, Kirk Wilson, Jamel Mitchell, Maurizio Rocha, Fred Commodore, Hayes, Fuller, and Lavrinenko. And don't forget about Allnutt.
So what's the bottom line? Goalkeeping is a little questionable, the defense will be solid, and there are more than enough options everywhere else. If Ercoli can pick a starting XI and, barring injury or suspension, stick to it, this Rhinos team will be just as strong as any other Rhinos team. But Ercoli's history of shuffling his lineup might leave everyone, save a few regular starters, very unhappy. Pick 11 players and stick with them, or we'll be seeing more part-time players putting up part-time numbers now, and then lighting up the scoreboard next year when they jump the fence for greener pastures (like John Wolyniec, Steve Butcher, and Eduardo Sebrango, among many others).
Here's a look at Rochester's conference opponents. We're predicting the Rhinos will finish second in their division, behind Montreal, but beating the Impact to face Richmond in the Eastern Conference finals to face either Seattle or Portland. Just so you know what kind of seers you're dealing with here, last year we picked a Rochester-Richmond semifinal, with Milwaukee running away with everything in the West.
Last season: 13-2-13, 62 points; lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Key departures: Just like last year, Atlanta got rid of most of its team this past off-season. These guys go through players like Colin Farrell goes through starlets. Ditched talent includes Brian Piesner (A-League First Team), and a couple of former Rhinos: Carlos Parra and Jamel Mitchell.
Notable newcomers: There is one you may remember from Rochester's pre-season (Charleston's Mac Cozier) and a couple of notable ex-MLSers (the Metros Martin Klinger and New England's Shaker Asad, the latter of whom will miss Friday's match due to a red card suspension). Other than a D3 Greenville call-up (Scott Mora) and some college kids, there isn't much happening down in the 404.
Bottom line: Complete team overhauls have worked for Atlanta approximately zero times over the past several years, and there is absolutely no indication it will work in 2003, either. The S-Backs should be the whipping boys of their division. On paper, they look even worse than Syracuse.
Rhino killers? Rochester has faced Atlanta eight times and never lost. Here's an even more impressive stat: In the four matches Lenin Steenkamp has played against the S-Backs, he has five goals and an assist. That's as many points as Robbie Aristodemo had in all of 2002.
Funniest name: Lucas Okolie, whose last name sounds like something stupid Flanders would say when he's agreeing with you.
Projected finish: 8-6-14; 5th place in the Southeast Division and out of playoff contention.
Last season: 19-6-3, 89 points; lost in their first playoff series (for the fifth year in a row).
Key departures: Raul Diaz Arce (5+3=13), John Jones (4+2=10), Justin Evans (3+3=9), Mac Cozier (3+0=6), Morgan Zeba (1+4=6).
Notable newcomers: Richmond's Josh Henderson (11+2=24) and a gaggle of 2002 MLSers: forward Jamar Beasley (Chicago) and defenders Ted Chronopoulos (MetroStars) and Rick Titus (Colorado).
Bottom line: The defense barely needed upgrading (Dusty Huddock was Goalkeeper of the Year and Mark Watson Defender of the Year, with Linval Dixon making A-League Second Team in 2002), and the offense is loaded, cocked, and ready to fire. The Battery's big question mark is the midfield, which will suffer from Zeba's departure. Can Ryan Trout (8+4=20) and incoming New Zealander Blair Scoullar pick up the slack? We say yes.
Rhino killers? Surprisingly, no. Including postseason results, Rochester owns Charleston, with a 9-0-1 record.
Funniest name: Trout --- not because he scored eight times last year, but because he shares his name with a fish. Here's something not so funny, though: He was a last-minute Rhinos roster cut in 2001. D'oh!
Projected finish: 15-7-6; 1st place in the Southeast Division and losing in the divisional finals to Richmond.
Last season: 10-4-14, 50 points; lost in the first round of the playoffs (on penalty kicks).
Key departures: Caleb Norkus (3+1=7), Rhino relative Dwayne Demmin.
Notable newcomers: No big names here. A handful of college kids and draft picks, and two guys from the fourth-division Chicago Eagles (Jonah Long and Jason Acres, the latter of whom made First Team All-League in 2002).
Bottom line: The Eagles, who have the misfortune of playing in a very strong division, are the side that has seen the fewest off-season changes. That's good. But Charlotte really needed to add another scoring threat and a solid defender to compete with Richmond and Charleston. That's bad. A .500 record would be a decent target.
Rhino killers? They're the biggest Rhino killers ever, boasting a 3-0-1 record against Rochester, including a humiliating 3-1 shellacking at Frontier last August.
Funniest name: You'd think this would be tough with Norkus gone, but it's not. We have a tie, between Mark Pinch and Dustin Swinehart.
Projected finish: 9-7-12; 4th place in the Southeast Division and out of playoff contention.
Last season: 16-3-9, 72 points; lost in the second round of the playoffs.
Key departures: Patrice Bernier (4 goals and 6 assists for 14 points), Giuliano Oliviero (1+5=7).
Notable newcomers: Chris Lemiere (4+1=9), who led Calgary in scoring last season, teenage sensation Sita Taty-Matondo.
Bottom line: With former Rhino Eduardo Sebrango returning to his pre-Rochester form (18+0=36) and Sutton allowing less than a goal per match, it's surprising the Impact didn't go further in 2002. Of our Canadian friends, Montreal has lost the least and gained the most, and with four potentially creampuff matches against Syracuse, they should be Rochester's closest divisional competition. Remember, the Impact accounted for three of the Rhinos' eight losses last year.
Rhino killers? It's all about home-field advantage. At Frontier during the regular season, the Rhinos are 8-1-3. But at the Claude they're only 1-0-8.
Funniest name: David Fronimadis, which, roughly translated from the French, means "loose, runny cheese."
Projected finish: 16-6-6; 1st place in the Northeast Division and losing to Rochester in the divisional finals.
Last season: 8-5-15, 41 points; did not qualify for the playoffs.
Key departures: Jeff Houser (4+1=10), Mike Apple (3+1=7), ex-Rhino Henry "The Gut" Gutierrez (2+2=6).
Notable newcomers: Charleston's Justin Evans (3+3=9), Virginia Beach's Ricardo Villar (4+1=9), and Livonia's ex-Rhino Aleksey Korol.
Bottom line: Pittsburgh jettisoned a lot of dead weight (Gutierrez, Mario Gori, Brian Johnson) and, for the first time in recent memory, hasn't raided the ghosts of MLS past to stock its roster. If the team's back line can give Randy Dedini a break, and its Brazilian strikers (Villar and Thiago Martins) can cough up nine or 10 goals apiece, they might be in business. But it's likely to be more of the same in Pittsburgh this year.
Rhino killers? Hardly. Rochester is 8-2-2 against the R-Hounds.
Funniest name: David Flavius, who was Chuck D's second choice for a sidekick when he started Public Enemy.
Projected finish: 7-7-16; 4th place in the Northeast Division and out of playoff contention.
Last season: 13-6-9, 65 points; lost in the league championship.
Key departures: Josh Henderson (11+2=24), David Hayes (8+2=18), Marco Ferruzzi (7+1=15).
Notable newcomers: Milwaukee's Jason Russell (2+2=6) and ex-Rhino penalty-kick expert Greg Simmonds (6+6=18). Some say the latter was on the Kickers' payroll as early as last September.
Bottom line: It's hard not to notice the departing firepower, but if Simmonds follows the Eddy Sebrango model of having huge years before and after doing time in Rochester, Richmond should be just fine. Plus, they still have Kevin Jeffrey (7+5=19) up top.
Rhino killers? The Rhinos own a 5-0-2 record against the Kickers in the regular season, but were unable to put them away in the 2002 playoffs (drawing on the road and at home, and eventually losing on PKs).
Funniest name: Ihor Dotshenko. It's not even close.
Projected finish: 15-5-8; 2nd place in the Southeast Division, beating Charleston in the divisional finals, but losing to Rochester in the conference championship (hopefully on a penalty kick).
SYRACUSE SALTY DOGS
Last season: Did not compete.
Key departures: n/a.
Notable newcomers: They're all new, Einstein. Familiar faces include Judah Cooks (Atlanta), Lars Lyssand (San Jose), Carlos Semedo, and Shaun Tsakiris (both New England).
Bottom line: It's pretty rare for a first-year side to make any kind of positive impact, but considering Coach Laurie Calloway's remarkable job last year for the D3 Des Moines Menace (they went undefeated in league play and took the Rhinos to overtime in the US Open Cup), I suppose anything is possible. Then again, any team with a canine logo tends to play like dog crap.
Rhino killers? They've never played, but probably not.
Funniest name: Tommy Tanner. 'Nuff said.
Projected finish: 5-6-17; 5th place in the Northeast Division and out of playoff contention.
Last season: 10-5-13, 48 points; did not qualify for the playoffs.
Key departures: Niki Budalic (12+1=25), Milan Kojic (2+4=8).
Notable newcomers: Argentine scoring sensation Sebastian Barclay, Dutch defender Jan Veenhof, the deadly SARS virus.
Bottom line: The Lynx will only be as good as their signings, which could either bring them to the next level or find them struggling to end the season with a winning record. Ryan Lucas (a late-season addition in 2002) teaming up with Barclay might be enough to offset Budalic's departure for Orebro SK.
Rhino killers? Like Montreal, it hinges on where the match takes place. Rochester is 10-0-2 at Frontier, and 4-3-6 in Toronto.
Funniest name: Veenhof does have a girl's name, but we're picking Barclay instead. Because it's such a manly sounding name for somebody who's this much of a frigging theatrical crybaby.
Projected finish: 10-6-12; 3rd place in the Northeast Division and losing in the first round of the playoffs.
VIRGINIA BEACH MARINERS
Last season: 6-3-19, 29 points; did not qualify for the playoffs.
Key departures: Ricardo Villar (4+1=9), Gary Glasgow (1+5=7).
Notable newcomers: Two little strikers named Roy Lassiter and Dante Washington, who rank, respectively, 1st and 10th on the all-time MLS goals-scored list (odds they'll both be around at the end of the year: 10,000-to-1). The Mariners also nabbed Rhino castoff Hamisi Amani-Dove, in addition to Minnesota's Jakob Fenger (8+5=21).
Bottom line: The Mariners were sorely lacking in firepower last year, and they've attempted to remedy that situation by adding Lassiter and Washington. But signing MLS has-been forwards doesn't always work out. Right, Charleston? Still, if this team clicks, it might have a decent run at the table. Not good enough to overtake Richmond or Charleston, though.
Rhino killers? Rochester is 2-0-1 lifetime against the Mariners, whether from Virginia Beach or Hampton Roads.
Funniest name: Fenger. C'mon, fans --- show him your favorite Fenger when you see him at Frontier this summer.
Projected finish: 9-8-11; 3rd place in the Southeast Division and out of playoff contention.
If there was ever a quintessential Rhino, it'd have to be Newark, New Jersey-native Doug Miller. He's the only league MVP (1997) to have played for the team, and even though he hasn't been with the Rhinos for the past three seasons, he's among the leaders in most of Rochester's all-time offensive categories. Now that other players have finally caught up to him, Miller is back to protect his place in the pantheon of great Rhinos.
Any true fan of the team still gets goosebumps when they daydream about Miller's second-half hat-trick against Montreal on July 12, 1996 (the first ever event at Frontier Field), or how he came off the bench in the 1999 US Open Cup final against Colorado to net the game-winner just a few minutes later.
Is there still magic left in those legs? If the pre-season is any indication, the answer to that question is a resounding "Yes."
City: Isn't the real reason you've been gone for three years because Scott Schweitzer scares the pants off of you?
Miller: (laughs) Yes it is! I lived with Scotty in 1995, and ever since then, he scares me.
City: How closely have you followed the Rhinos since you've been gone?
Miller: Here and there. Obviously, in 2001, when I played in Hershey. I always knew the guys on the team, so I knew from talking to them how things were going.
City: Did you come to any matches, or watch any on television?
Miller: I went to one game when I was gone, and watched a few on TV. When something you love is taken away... you don't know what you have until it's gone, so "out of sight, out of mind" was my motto. It was a pretty difficult thing.
City: How do you think the team has changed since you've been gone?
Miller: I think the guys that have been here are more mature, more composed. The younger guys and the newer guys are a great group of hard-workers, very talented.
City: What do you think the problem is with the goal-scoring drought?
Miller: I think they're creating the opportunities, but not finishing them. They brought in a lot of players that can do that, and hopefully, we'll have a plentiful amount of goals.
City: Do you think an entire cast of new forwards coming in every year is the answer?
Miller: No, I think you've got to find a system that the guys play well in. We've got a bunch of guys that can play in this system pretty well.
City: Did you get many offers from other teams during your break?
Miller: No, I wasn't going anywhere. This is where my home is --- my wife is from here. This is the perfect situation for me. I'm back and I'm very happy to be back.
City: What's your favorite moment as a Rhino?
Miller: The 1999 US Open Cup --- July 14, 1999 [a 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire]. I could list a lot of them, and that's why, when my career does come to an end, I want it to be in a Rhinos uniform.
City: What do you think of people who say you're past your prime?
Miller: Well, we'll just have to see (laughs). It's time to put up or shut up. That's the challenge as an athlete. People sometimes think you're over the hill or too old. The greatest thing about being an athlete is being able to prove them wrong.
City: What do you think of PaeTec Park?
Miller: I'm excited. I can't wait for it to happen. Hopefully, they'll break ground before even August.
City: Is your wife going to come back, too, and join the Rhinestones this year?
Miller: We've got two beautiful daughters, so she's got her hands full with that.
Position, 2002 Club: M, Ghana
Have you ever seen a real rhino? No
Best hair on the team? Mladenov
Worst hair on the team? Sedgewick
Favorite club/team? Borussia Dortmund
Favorite player? Jan Koller
What's in your CD player? Reggae
Who's going to win American Idol/Survivor? 205
Position, 2002 Club: M, Richmond
Have you ever seen a real rhino? No
Best hair on the team? Mladenov
Worst hair on the team? Sedgewick
Favorite club/team? Real Madrid
Favorite player? Luis Figo
What's in your CD player? Sean Paul
Who's going to win American Idol/Survivor? Rube-Dog
Position, 2002 Club: F, New England
Have you ever seen a real rhino? No
Best hair on the team? Mladenov
Worst hair on the team? Schweitzer
Favorite club/team? Newcastle
Favorite player? Alan Shearer
What's in your CD player? Moby
Who's going to win American Idol/Survivor? Rob