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#GameDayEve Rochester Rhinos Edition

by Marissa Blackman

Tomorrow, Wilmington Hammerheads FC competes against table leader Rochester Rhinos.

The Hammerheads and the Rhinos have only met once this season when the clubs played to a 1-1 draw back in May. Since then, the Hammerheads have sunk to the bottom of the table while the Rhinos have ascended to the top with the closest competition, Louisville City FC, three points behind.

Statistically, the Rhinos and the Hammerheads are polar opposites. The Rhinos have scored 26 goals and won 12 times this season, and the Hammerheads scored 16 goals, a quarter or which occurred in the recent victory over NYRB II, and won three games, two of which were against NYRBII. (For more on why the Hammerheads seems to do so well against the Red Bulls, see my comments here) These number paint the picture that the Hammerheads should be easy pickings for the Rhinos, but the match will be far more competitive than the statistics imply. Here's why:

The Hammerheads are coming off of a 4-2 victory over New York Red Bulls II, which Will Heaney called "the best we've played all season." The match saw goals from Stefan Drefregger, Qudus Lawal, and Brian Ackley. The Hammerheads did not merely capitalize on easy opportunites from an unworthy opponent. The Red Bulls made a decent effort, and the Hammerheads made an even better one. The Hammerheads have fielded many different lineups this season, and the club has finally found one that works. In addition to a perfect personel combination, the Hammerheads played unrelentingly for ninety minutes. If the Hammerheads continue to play like this, the Wilmington club will not be easy competition for any team.

Of course, a club's ability can't be defined by one match, but one match can provide motivation. According to Brian Ackley, the Hammerheads are approaching this year's remaining matches as "an eight game season." All the players I spoke to after the Red Bulls game said that they are striving to turn that single victory into a streak. Despite a less than favorable start to the season, the Hammerheads are determined to go out with a bang. Judging from last week's performance, a perfect final eight games is not impossible.

Especially with Louisville a win away from threatening Rochester's top of the table spot, Rochester will certainly be looking to take three points from tomorrow's match, and the club's 12-1-8 record proves the Rhinos are more than capable of doing it.

For more information on Rochester, I spoke with Brendan Doherty, a Bent Musket writer and Rochester Rhinos aficionado. When asked why Rochester has been so good this season he said:

"It's not a secret that the team has a formidable defense. Rochester's head coach Bob Lilley wants media to know that his team doesn't bunker down, though, and has stressed this fact several times. The team has conceded the fewest goals in the league (11) and given up the fewest shots. There's only been one game this season in which the Rhinos have conceded more than one goal.

A stat that more accurately illustrates Lilley's claim is that the Rhinos are also at the top of the league in fouls committed with 280 behind only NYRB's 283, but lead the field in fouls per game with 13.33. The team pressures all over the field and this is the basis of Rochester's success; a full team press."

Doherty also spoke of the Rochester's weakness.

"While Miller [Rochester Rhinos goal keeper]  has been outrageously good in goal for Rochester after playing second fiddle for three seasons, the Rhinos have struggled to finish. Oddly enough, Rochester hasn't had trouble creating chances. The team has outshot its opponent in all but four games, one of which Rochester and Louisville finished even in shots taken. The team averages 10.7 shots per game while giving up just 6 shots per game.

Rochester is 15th in the league in shots taken and 17th in goals scored. The team's defensive effort is so impressive that it more than makes up for the mediocre attacking output. So the team relies on the staunchest defense in the league, but Bob Lilley is not deploying an extra defender or sitting midfielders particularly deep. Instead Rochester closes down its opponents well and has trouble breaking down bunkered opposition defenses."

My prediction for the game is a 1-1 draw. Both teams want a win, have decent defenses, capable goal scoreers, and reliable keepers. If either club slacks off at all, the opposition will certainly punish them. If both teams, play their best, neither will have an easy night.

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