Former Rochester Raging Rhinos head coach Pat Ercoli (center) gets a hug from his father-in-law, original Rochester Lancers owner Pat Dinolfo at a Lancers reunion. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer Photo)

This story was published in 1999 and is used with permission.

Note: The Rochester Raging Rhinos are now  Rochester New York FC and compete in MLS NEXT PRO

By Michael Lewis

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Years from now, when the 1999 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup takes its rightful place among the top American soccer events, we’ll look back at Sept. 14’s events as a major turning point.

Not only was the Rochester Raging Rhinos’ 2-0 stunning triumph over the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer a major victory for the team and the Second Division A-League, it was a win for the competition itself.

Even though though it has been around and kicking for some 84 years, the competition still has been fighting for respect and recognition. Heck, only eight of the 12 MLS teams entered it this season. Thanks to the Rhinos, that will change. On the way to their historic title, they won five Cup matches, including four against MLS teams.

“This is no fluke. This can only enhance the value of the tournament,” A-League commissioner Francisco Marcos said on the field at Columbus Crew Stadium. “Lamar Hunt knows exactly the value of this competition. When the AFL beat the NFL in the third year of the Super Bowl, Pete Rozelle told him, ‘This is a great day in NFL history.’ “This is a turning point. Everyone will be wanting to be the next Davids. All of the Goliaths will be more careful about the next David.”

It’s funny, because the Rhinos, the most successful of soccer’s Davids, want to be a Goliath.
They have visions of playing in MLS and in their own soccer specific stadium, not unlike the one they performed in last night. They have proved themselves on the field, winning the A-League championship last year and the Open Cup this year, and off the field as well, leading the league in attendance at 11,500.

“We consider ourselves a great candidate for expansion,” co-owner Frank DuRoss said.

Few people would argue with him these days. Even their fans have gotten into the act as well, producing a T-shirt that says: “Major League Soccer’s Worst Nightmare!!! If you can’t join ‘ em … Beat em!”

For the first time since MLS was created, a team from a lower division held the Dewar Cup. D.C. United won in 1996, followed by the Dallas Burn in 1997 and the Chicago Fire last year.

The Rhinos claimed two of those scalps on their amazing Cup run, upending the Fire in the second round, 1-0, the Burn in extratime in the quarterfinals, 2-1, and the Columbus Crew in a stirring comeback in the semifinals, 3-2.

“This is the biggest win in franchise history,” Rhinos general manager Chris Economides said. “I think a lot of people doubted Rochester coming into this, but the guys in the locker room and the owners and the coaches, we never doubted it for a second,” said forward Doug Miller, the MVP of the championship game. “This has been part of our goal from the get-go. We’ve obtained half of our goal and the other half is the A-League championship. We’ve got some work to do, but for now, it’s time to celebrate.”

As it turned out, Tuesday night’s game did not have the dramatic finish as the Rhinos’ previous three games against MLS teams, but it certainly had its own unique story line as a pair of second-half substitutes played vital roles in the goals.

Doug Miller, who replaced Darren Tilley in the 62nd minute, scored only four minutes later.

Midfielder Mike Kirmse, who took over for Craig Demmin in the 51st minute, set up Yari Allnutt’s score with 13 seconds remaining in regulation.

It’s too bad only an announced crowd of 4,445 — it looked a lot less — showed up at the stadium to witness history because they missed one sizzler of a game.

The Rapids took it to the Rhinos early on, penetrating virtually at will. Their problems were their lack of finishing touch.

How dominant were the Rapids?

Some 30 minutes into the match, two numbers defined the contest — seven and zero.

Seven as in the number of shots Colorado had taken at the Rochester goals, and the number of fouls Tilley was whistled for by referee Tim Weyland.

Zero in the number of shots Rochester had taken and the number of fouls the Rapids had been called for.

That’s how dominant they were.

Slowly, but surely the tide began to turn and the Rhinos began to assert themselves offensively. They finally took their first shot — a 19-yard effort by Mauro Biello that sailed wide left — in the 33rd minute. After Kirmse and Miller came on, the Rhinos literally got their legs, forgetting about the taller Rapids and playing a ground game rather than an air game.

Miller, who had not played in two games, struck first, beating goalkeeper Ian Feuer from eight yards off a Bill Sedgewick feed. Immediately after he scored, Miller whipped off his shirt and ran to the Rochester supporters — some 200 strong — sporting a black shirt underneath that said, “Be Strong in the Lord and he will reward you. Keep your faith.”

“It’s been frustrating,” said Miller, the team’s all-time leading scorer who hasn’t seen much action this season. “It’s a nice reward he has given me for all my trials and tribulations.”

Kirmse floated in a ball in the 90th minute that bounded off the head of a Rapids player and to Allnutt, who fired home an low, eight-yard shot to the left corner for some breathing room.

Kirmse is another example of a player who has persevered. After starting the first 20 games, he has been relegated to the bench as a sparkplug. That strategy has been more successful often than not.

“It was a little frustrating at first,” Kirsme said. “It all about being a professional. It’s not about you. We have the 11 starters and I’m the best guy off the bench.”

Near the Rochester bench during post-match celebrations, a meeting of the generations occurred. Pat Dinolfo, who got to know Hunt, the owner of both the Columbus Crew and Kansas City Wizards when he was a co-owner of the Rochester Lancers in the North American Soccer League, introduced Ercoli, his son-in-law, to Hunt.

“It was an incredibly exciting result,” Hunt told Ercoli. “This is the mayor of Rochester.”

Ercoli smiled.

For the next month or so, however, Ercoli will be content to being coach of the Rhinos because he knows his job is far from finished. On Saturday, they host the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the second round of the A-League playoffs with the ultimate goal of hosting and winning the championship game on Oct. 16.

“Most of the team knows the games ahead and the significance of winning the double,” he said. “It’s going to be a chore, but I think we’re going to do it.”

That will be another step in convincing the powers that be that the Rhinos deserve a soccer stadium of their own and Rochester deserves to be an MLS team.

If you want to read more about the Rhinos’ predecessor, you can purchase this book: