The Rise and Fall of the Rochester Rhinos

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by RYAN BRISTER
Staff Writer

Sunil Gulati and Ivan Gazidis, two of the most powerful men in American soccer, are in Rochester, New York, home of the second-tier Raging Rhinos. They’re sitting in an unfinished suite at the newly-built PaeTec Park. Behind them, fans are filling in for a match against the New England Revolution. 9,503 people will attend this game, the second-largest crowd for any U.S. Open Cup match in 2006.

Gulati, president of the USSF, and Gazidis, Major League Soccer’s deputy commissioner, begin by praising the venue they’re sitting in. At the time, it is one of the few soccer-specific stadiums in the United States. Along with Jeff DiVeronica, the Rhinos beat writer for the Democrat and Chronicle, they reminisce fondly about old Open Cup matches.

DiVeronica then asks “the question everyone in this town wants to know.” It is not, at this time, an outlandish question. He asks them “do you think this city, this ownership group, deserves a shot to have an MLS team?”

Less than two years later, the Rhinos were in crisis. They were without an owner. The city of Rochester took control over their stadium. The most important question was no longer about MLS, but  whether the team would even play in the upcoming USL season.

What went wrong in Rochester?

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Smith
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Smith
10 months 11 days ago

That was a very good piece. I am sure it will devolve in a few moments into a discussion of Red Bull, NYCFC, The Cosmos and artisinal cheese, but it was a very interesting piece.

tony
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tony
10 months 11 days ago

extinction is the rule,survival is the exception

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

Lack of pro/rel kills another club. Sad.

Esteban
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Esteban
10 months 10 days ago

Exactly. That crossed my mind multiple times. I just don’t get why these independent USL teams are content to sit around and play MLS reserves, when they could join NASL and actually be independent. A Cosmos vs Rochester rivalry would be great for both teams, and the league.

TJ
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TJ
10 months 10 days ago

There is this thing called money which you seem to not have a concept of.

Esteban
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Esteban
10 months 10 days ago

Money is what I’m talking about you idiot. At least these independent could experience the Raul effect, as well as the experience of playing strictly against other independent clubs, instead of trying to get people excited about watching the team play MLS reserve squads every other week. It’s more than obvious that MLS is the most financial stable of the three leagues, but a lot of that comes from the league paying the team’s salaries, I have a hard time taking any indy USL team serious when their end goal seems to be mediocracy.

Esteban
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Esteban
10 months 10 days ago

If the determining factor was talent, not an entry fee, Rochester would have reaped the benefits of Beckham and MLS paying for their roster, but since there is no pro/rel one of the more established clubs of the time in all of the country is playing against Gal II trying to stay relevant.

DanGerman
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DanGerman
10 months 10 days ago

Did you read the article? This teams owners and there lack of money killed them not the lack of Pro\Reg.

TJ
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TJ
10 months 10 days ago

These people do not read. They are zealots. The Rhinos owner had no money. End of story. If they went to MLS, they would have folded.

Mitch
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Mitch
10 months 10 days ago

If they didn’t have to pay an expansion fee, if they didn’t have to share the loses of the league … they’d been able to be in the top flight. The MLS model limits the ability of the small clubs to grow. I think you should read about how soccer works outside of the s*** show that is MLS.

Jin Old-Boy
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Jin Old-Boy
10 months 10 days ago
In some why, yes. The life of a lower division club is a sad one in the USA and Canada. Many lower division clubs are owned by communities and passionate club owners. No matter how successful and passionate a club is, the only thing that matters is 1st division status. Only a small amount of soccer fans will support a club in the lower division while when those clubs get a new stadium and first division status, fake fans take notice after all the true fans done all the hard work. That is the life of soccer club supporters in… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago
Given the level of investment that the current owners of MLS teams have put into the league, you can’t seriously expect that they’ll then go on to institute a system of promotion and relegation that could prevent them from getting a return on that investment… Domestic soccer in the USA is just not at a place yet where owners will be willing to take that kind of financial risk without some sort of basic guarantees (like the team you just spent millions on and build a stadium for actually having a spot in the league). It’s just an unreasonable expectation… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 9 days ago

It’s not their choice.

A real federation would dictate terms

Alphonse Diablo
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Alphonse Diablo
10 months 10 days ago

Good research and reporting. Enjoyed the article.

Esteban
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Esteban
10 months 10 days ago

Very good piece. I am unfamiliar with the Rhinos story, but this was fascinating. Stories like this make me curious as to how teams can survive outside of MLS, especially after a few years when the excitement has faded.

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

That’s why teams in minor leagues across the country fold by 100s. Not just teams, but whole minor leagues just disappear. The current system is good for top level leagues and “out of business” for the rest. Good job job USSF!

TJ
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TJ
10 months 10 days ago

Funny how baseball has tons of minor league teams and no one folds. There also hasn’t been many teams folding in soccer. How many have folded in the USL and NASL this year?

slowleftarm
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slowleftarm
10 months 10 days ago

Minor league player salaries are paid by the major league clubs. Big difference.

OD
Guest
10 months 10 days ago

BINGO! Apples to oranges. No minor league team’s fans can match the passion for even the worst fans in MLB. There’s no denying the benefits that come with playing in the top level, which is closed off to anyone who doesn’t have $100 mil and Gulati/Garber on their Christmas card list.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

I think you might be exaggerating on the number of teams and “whole minor leagues” actually folding… While I don’t doubt that it happens, I’m quite sure that it’s nowhere near in the hundreds.

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

Google it. You’ll be surprised how often it happens in franchise system.
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In pro/rel soccer it hasn’t happened yet.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago
I think it’s important to keep in mind that the environment in which professional soccer exists in other countries where such a system exists is an important factor to keep in mind. Soccer is much more well established outside of the USA and most of the teams that play at this point have been around for a really long time. We’re still at a stage in this country where we’re educating mainstream society about the sport and anytime you have an environment where new teams are being formed from nothing, inevitably, you’re going to have a lot of them fail.… Read more »
OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

It’s easy, just look at the big four here, that’s what mls is shooting for. Is that what you want? Yes or no. Popularity is already there, problem is quality of domestic league isn’t level of foreign leagues yet.
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Stop selectively using history – here’s some history, every attempt at soccer leagues in this country that has failed has been closed system.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago
But the big four are closed systems as well, so can’t you argue that MLS is just doing exactly what has proven to be successful for the other major sports in this country? It’s not like the NY Giants or NY Knicks are independent entities… You may be right that every attempt at soccer leagues in this country that has failed has been a closed system. I don’t have enough information to confirm or dispute that. But there could be a myriad of reasons that those attempts failed and it may very well have nothing to do with the system… Read more »
Jin Old-Boy
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Jin Old-Boy
10 months 10 days ago
But those are not global leagues. MLS clubs have continent tournament, world club tournament, and is connected with the rest of the world through FIFA. MLS work under the USSF, USSF works under CONCACAF and CONCACAF works under FIFA. American soccer keep failing because the USSF keep copying off of other sports that runs differently. Our first soccer league under the USSF was controled by baseball club owners that wanted to used the sport to have teams play in the stadiums when baseball season is over. The 1960s-80s NASL and MLS are controled heavily by the NFL and MLB club… Read more »
Jin Old-Boy
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Jin Old-Boy
10 months 10 days ago
Yep. That’s why I am not jumping up and down like a lot of MLS fans. This country had more than one first division league in it’s history that closed itself off to the lower divisions and grew popular, but made major mistakes that ended them. MLS is no better. They could end because of over expansion. MLS is playing with fire by planning on going over 24 clubs and going against FIFA’s league guidlines. It makes you wonder on why the USSF would start a league or even run soccer if they are against the global model of the… Read more »
JG
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JG
10 months 10 days ago

Great article, as someone that use to live in Rochester and go to a few games I always had questions about the stadium and why they’re not in the MLS. Great read, good job.

And Go Red Bulls!

Battle4NY
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10 months 10 days ago

Great article! Nice to get the full history.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

That was just depressing… Enlightening, but depressing nonetheless.

Anthony J. Merced
Member
10 months 10 days ago

As a side note this year’s Rochester Rhinos are one of the best teams in all of the lower divisions. 17 games, no losses and 6 goals allowed. All of their games are streamed on YouTube so give them a watch and if you don’t have a team to support, why not them?

mike q
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mike q
10 months 10 days ago

cool, I’m sure the Rhinos are better than the cosmos, especially since USL went 7-0 vs nasl teams. They probably get more fans than show up at the long island lacrosse field too.

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

Rhinos fans have reported that their attendance is widely exaggerated in recent years.
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Also, Cosmos beat defending USL champ earlier this year, do some research before you open your mouth about the mighty mighty Cosmos – Champs of NY 2015!

OD
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10 months 10 days ago

i just vomited after reading this comment.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

The concessions… Do they serve artisanal toast and/or tofu? Also- Organic? That’s vital.

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

Lack of pro / rel is dis kill this team – heard that too many times, it is depressing.
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They had the money to run a successful team, but they ran into trouble trying to meet arbitrary mls requirements, that’s what happened – clear as day.
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Support your local independent soccer club!

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago
But what’s the alternative? Do you seriously expect any business person (or group of business people) to invest tremendous capital in a brand and a league and just create a situation where they might get kicked out (and get no return) and some random guy that invested in nothing but his own team come in and reap the rewards from the brand that they built up? I don’t really think it’s unfair for MLS and its owners collectively to expect clubs that want to join to pony up capital and share in the risks/rewards if they want to join the… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago
Also, as far as the stadium thing is concerned, I don’t see that as an unreasonable requirement. If you’re trying to build a brand, building an image and protecting it is a major part of that. If you’re going to say that you’re a professional team, you should have a proper venue. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule here. Many will point out NYCFC playing in a baseball stadium and let’s be honest. They only get away with it because: A) It’s Yankee Stadium, which is a big named venue. B) The team is owned by City Football… Read more »
OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

This is hypocrisy. Keep that in mind.
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mls says one thing but does the opposite so much that it is just common business for them. You cannot have legitimate competition in this environment – remember also this is the same league that traded Landon Donovan for nothing, good business decision – maybe, but it was anti competitive and screwed over SanJose fan base. The sad thing is Americans are used to this sort of behavior from the franchise leagues and accept it. Any, this is just one example of many.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago
Of course it’s hypocrisy. I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that it’s not. But MLS is a private entity and as such, it gets to change the rules when and how it wants if it believes that it serves its ultimate benefit. Nobody is arguing that the system is fair. It’s absolutely rigged. But I think you might be confusing the issue by arguing that the MLS should be making decisions for the benefit of soccer as an ideal. We need to be clear that MLS makes decisions based on one thing and one thing only–its own best… Read more »
OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

You’re wrong about player development, just look at the usmnt.
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Also, those other leagues don’t have a governing body to deal with.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

Of course the other leagues have governing bodies. Who do you think fines players and teams? The governing body is the owners themselves along with the commissioner, just like the MLS.

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

The problem is that it isn’t up to mls to make this decision, it is for USSF. And USSF is giving mls an unfair advantage by giving it exclusive sanctioning.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

LOL! What do you mean it’s not up to MLS to make this decision? It’s absolutely up to MLS to make the decision as to who they want to allow in their private league. If I invest my money to create a club, it’s completely my choice to decide who I want to extend invitations to and who I don’t and on what criteria I extend those invitations. After all, it’s my club and my money. The same thing applies.

And we both know that the USSF is a joke.

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

That joke is what allows mls to make those demands.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

So do tell me, how exactly can the USSF muscle the MLS into doing anything?

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

The USSF has no choice but to support MLS because it’s the most successful and most influential league in the country at the moment. MLS holds all the cards. What actual power does the USSF have over the MLS? If the MLS told the USSF to **** off today, what would the USSF realistically do? Tell them that they’re not allowed to run a business and play soccer anymore?

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

USSF is supporting mls to the detriment of every other soccer club in the country. If you don’t care then fine, but don’t make it out like it is an inevitability. It isn’t.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

USSF is irrelevant. They’re an extension of a non-profit with absolutely no meaningful governing power whatsoever. MLS is a private business. Even if the USSF stopped supporting MLS at this point, it would mean absolutely nothing.

You talk like the USSF is somehow enabling MLS to do things. I can assure you that they can’t enable or disable the MLS from doing anything. They have literally nothing to leverage over the league as a private business entity.

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

You’re completely wrong – look into the SI article about Yedlin and Crossfire, USSF is allowing mls to keep payments meant for youth academies.
interested how that thing is resolved.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

Even if the USSF ordered the MLS to pay the youth academies, what actual power does it have to enforce that? That’s the heart of my question.

The answer is: NONE

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

I don’t think you understand how national soccer federations work, they have all the power.

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

Also, when mentioning business necessity, don’t forget that mls has been withholding payments to small kids academies for years.
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Why is it that mls’ financial concerns are the only ones in Am. soccer that are being defended? This is a legitimate question, USSF does everything it can to protect mls financially but nothing for the other leagues or academies – nothing.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

See above: MLS only cares about itself and USSF is a joke.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

And no offense, but me thinks that you might be being a bit too idealistic here. If you’re pragmatic about the whole thing, you realize that it all makes complete sense (in its own cynical way) and it’s pretty unrealistic to expect otherwise in the given environment.

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

I’m idealistic – but the thing is that mls is not nfl. We’re not talking about changing nfl, we’re talking about mls – closer to the rhinos than the 49ers. And in fact, don’t even change mls, let it be, just stop USSFs protection of it.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

What protection is this an how is it at all meaningful? I think you’re really misjudging the power dynamic here.

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

No, I get it. But it can change, especially if people stop accepting it. Again, this isn’t the other leagues with no one to answer to, soccer here has to Answer to USSF and even though you’re saying mls controls USSF it doesn’t seem to be complete control yet – my only reason for thinking this is that Klinsman hasn’t been fired yet. Crossing my fingers for a miracle.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
10 months 10 days ago

MLS has no need to answer to anyone other than the MLS and its fans. That’s the major part here that you’re not getting. You’re thinking of the USSF as somehow connected to the MLS as a governing body. It’s an entirely separate entity that has absolutely no connection or power over the MLS’s operations. It’s not that the MLS controls USSF. It’s that the USSF has no control over the MLS and because of the MLS’s current status, all it can really do is just go along with it.

OpenCupFan
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OpenCupFan
10 months 10 days ago

You are completely wrong. There are many things USSF can do from little things to “appropriating asset.”
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Look into the power of the federation, domestic leagues are not beyond the authority of their national federations – you are misinformed.

Andrew
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Andrew
10 months 10 days ago

This was a sad, but good read. Would love to see similar stories here on EOS!

mike q
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mike q
10 months 10 days ago
The USSF rightly supports MLS because the league IS the future of US soccer. Where else will future National US players be developed? Where else is there growth on that scale in grassroots support for soccer/fandom/interest and local academy development? Where else will national team players ply their trade and keep their skills sharp in a club setting if not in Europe? Where else will college or unheralded players try to play their way into the national team setup? it sure won’t be in the nasl which was 0-7 vs the USL. Support your local MLS club to support the… Read more »
Anthony J. Merced
Member
10 months 10 days ago

I don’t believe you have to support any league. As a fan you just root for the team of your preference. I don’t want the NASL, USL or MLS to go under and I don’t think any fan should wish their demise either. It’s your choice on what team you support.

Jin Old-Boy
Guest
Jin Old-Boy
10 months 9 days ago
Only in America, you will have soccer fans saying they are fans of American soccer, but say people should abandon the lower divisions. Let me give you some information. The lower divisions play a big role in developing talent before they are discovered by MLS. The lower division also help out students enrolled in the NCAA sharpen their skills. The lower divisions also have the longest standing youth development that actual created players like Dempsey. MLS is the only league in the world that don’t want to pay the lower division clubs for the hard work they put into developing… Read more »
slowleftarm
Guest
slowleftarm
10 months 9 days ago

Yet when you bash MLS it’s not sickening?

SuddenImpact
Guest
SuddenImpact
10 months 10 days ago
Many thanks Ryan Brister for an excellent read! As an Impact fan (much less so since joining MLS) Rochester has broken my heart more times than I care to remember. But maybe since the losses stay with you longer than the wins do, even now I can’t forget them. For those who don’t go back to the old A-League days (the real A-League and the USL version too), Rochester/Montreal was once the soccer facsimile of Yankees/Red Sox. Ehhh, to me at least! And there’s no doubt that early on Rochester took the Pinstripes’ role. My first memory goes back to… Read more »
mickey f
Guest
mickey f
10 months 10 days ago
Agree that as a soccer fan I don’t wish any league to go under. But for me I am a big US Soccer fan and I know that the future of US Soccer is through MLS – for player growth, marketing, revenue, technical improvement, etc. so I guess I am an overall MLS fan. I also believe if anyone supports US Soccer they should also support MLS as a whole (I know they are still not in all markets), and if you support a lower level team instead of MLS that is counterproductive, guess people can theoretically support both though… Read more »
OpenCupFan
Guest
OpenCupFan
10 months 9 days ago

CBA is anti free market.

slowleftarm
Guest
slowleftarm
10 months 9 days ago

Hilarious to hear this crybaby whine about MLS 24/7.

Jin Old-Boy
Guest
Jin Old-Boy
10 months 9 days ago
So we should abandon our lower divisions after all they have done for American soccer’s growth? Really. Thisis the second stupid comment that said this. Without our lower divisions, MLS would not discover most of the national team players. Even Dempsey was trained in the lower division in Texas before joining MLS. Dempsey even credit his Texas club. A lower division club is also responsible for Donovan before hr signed for a top German team. That was not MLS. MLS just now started focusing on player development while the lower divisions and the NCAA did all the work way before… Read more »
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[…] The recent history of professional soccer in Rochester makes for fascinating reading. […]

mickey f
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mickey f
10 months 9 days ago
Dempsey and Yedlin played at youth clubs and college that developed them, these were not lower division pro teams like nasl or USL, that’s what I am referring to. The main pro elite player development for the US will absolutely be in the MLS and at MLS clubs, so support your local MLS team! I support youth clubs, ncaa, etc. but giving money to lower division teams like the cosmos when you have an MLS alternative it throwing money away – what future US star will the cosmos develop – no one. The REd Bulls had Altidore, Bradley, Ream, etc.… Read more »
Len
Guest
Len
10 months 4 days ago

Rochester Rhinos and USL are Third Tier/Third Division not second.

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[…] the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, that the city of Rochester was briefly considered a strong candidate for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise. Those days are long gone and the Rhinos have since fallen on hard times, but they continue to […]

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[…] The Rise and Fall of the Rochester Rhinos – Empire of Soccer – That was a very good piece. I am sure it will devolve in a few moments into a discussion of Red Bull, NYCFC, The Cosmos and artisinal cheese, but it was a very … […]

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[…] long-time USL franchises that represent success and stability in minor league soccer.  Rochester was once the best soccer team outside of MLS, winning the US Open Cup in 1999. The Richmond Kickers won the US Open Cup in the year before MLS […]

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