The Lost Soccer City of Rochester

The rise, fall and rebirth of an established American “Soccer City”
by Daniel Casey   |   Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sahlen's Stadium - home of the Rochester Rhinos (USL PRO)

Homemade, gigantic banners seemingly ripple with supporters bouncing underneath each one; a cacophony of whistles, horns and drums; a capo leading chants and songs, nowadays we call it ‘Tifo.’ It’s an Italian term for Ultra supporters that fans here in the United States have taken ahold of with a passion. Pitch invasions (the ultimate supporter moment) rarely happen here in the States; at least, ones that aren’t well orchestrated. Before we knew the term for the leaders in the supporters’ section, before we knew there was a term for ruining your sheets to show the team you backed them, before ownership hired extra event staff to usher fans in attendance onto the field to celebrate with the team’s representatives…there was Rochester.

Upstate New York is a sports world of its own. Various sports vie for attention, but Rochester made a place for soccer well before other cities thought to and the city loved their team. It all began back in 1967 with the Rochester Lancers foray into the ASL before a move to the newer NASL in 1970. They played until 1980 and set a foundation for fandom in Northwestern New York State.

But it wasn’t until about twenty years later, that those early Lancers days bore fruit. In 1999, the Rochester Rhinos won the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup by beating MLS’s Colorado Rapids. A t-shirt at the time captured the feelings of many Rhino fans, “If you can’t join ‘em…beat ‘em.” Their decisive 2-0 upset win saw one of the first pitch invasions in the modern era. Fans stormed the field, giving up their ‘Raging Rhinos’ flags to players who held it high and ran hard next to supporters like the proper conquerors. Rochester became the last non-MLS team to win the US Open Cup and momentum from that win took the team on a meandering path of high and lows.

Crowds followed the wins—average attendance in 1999 was over 11,000 and didn’t dip below 10,000 until 2005. Soon Rochester was a regular pundit go-to story. The success of 1999 lead to talk of entry into MLS, this talk generated the necessary investment in Rochester’s current soccer specific stadium, Sahlen’s Stadium, which broke ground in 2004. The parts all seemed to be there.

What made Rochester a prize was its stability. Since 1996, the Rochester Rhinos have been diligently drawing crowds and grinding out results. Over that time, leagues have changed names, dissolved, reformed, and been created out of whole cloth. But Rochester stood quietly waiting for the rest of the United States to realize what its supporters (once called the Stampede and now the Rhino Pit) have known for a long time, theirs is Soccertown, USA.

The completion of the now-named Sahlen’s Stadium was the peak of Rochester’s MLS hopes. With expansion talks in the league still on the rise, Rochester pumped funds into looking pretty. The then-named PAETEC Park was completed in 2006, able to hold 13,000 plus and able to be expanded to house 20,000. The field is a gem, but not quite a downtown stadium (the area around the Sahlen is still rich with industrial park aesthetic, to put it mildly). It was a profoundly bold move to build a soccer specific stadium when Rochester did. US supporters hadn’t yet tapped into the Ultra mentality and MLS was cautiously bouncing back from contraction.

By the mid-aughts, Rochester had lost out on the MLS lottery and was left to face the brewing storm within the lower divisions. The club stumbled into insolvency in 2008 seeing their grounds become the property of the city. Fortunately, the club was able to find new ownership and the embarrassment turned out to be a mere stutter step. But by that time, MLS was gone. And without the light of MLS at the end of the tunnel, so went a good chunk of their audience. Rochester watched average attendance decline every year since 2007. Soccertown seemed to have been lost in the shuffle.

In a way, Rochester can’t figure it out. It’s the franchise equivalent of the sappy rom-com He’s Just Not That Into You, always told by MLS that “Yeah, I’ll definitely call you” and finding itself earnestly waiting by the phone, trying on new outfits and slowly coming to the realization that it’s just not going to happen. There was a time when Rochester could honestly consider themselves contenders for MLS expansion, entertaining dreams of being MLS’s Green Bay. Wondering, ‘why not us?’

Rochester has two of the three necessities for MLS entrance, a local fanbase interested in domestic soccer and a Soccer Specific Stadium it owns or manages. Unfortunately however it seems to lack the most important element in MLS’s recipe for admission - wealthy ownership and the money they bring to join the league table with its ever-increasing entrance fees.  

It could easily be said that MLS dangles expansion like a bad boy/girlfriend who keeps calling just to let you know they’re thinking about you; MLS is stringing along a slew of cities. The display that these cities are putting together can get a bit ridiculous, especially since MLS hasn’t really shown that it deserves such affection. As Rochester, Orlando, Miami, Atlanta, Minneapolis and North Carolina all throw elbows to get attention, MLS continues to dreamily stare off into the cosmos...or should it be at the Cosmos.

So we have to ask, does Rochester need MLS? Probably not. New head coach Jesse Myers is finding success on his own terms. Over the first two months of the season Rochester are near the top of USL PRO with Orlando City (a sort of doppelganger or Bizarro of Rochester circa the first decade of this century). The Myers Era Rhinos boast ten internationals and eight players with MLS experience. “Our depth is one of our strengths” says Myers who has made this squad not your usual third division side. If these players continue to put in the performances they have been, then Rochester (city and team) can be quite proud of what they have.

The point being: Rochester never stopped being Soccertown, USA. Plenty of cities lay claim to this moniker. Portlanders will tell anyone who will listen and (many who never asked in the first place) theirs is Soccer City, USA. Seattle and its large legion of Sounders supporters can lay similar claims.

The title isn’t important. What is important is that even when the NASL folded, Portland and Seattle didn’t stop playing. The Timbers and Sounders didn’t quit, they found a new league and kept on until a league came to them.

Rochester is in a similar situation with the Rhinos playing in division three in USL PRO and the resurrected Lancers brand playing indoor soccer. The supporters are there, attendance might not be what it once was during the heyday of MLS buzz but let’s take a moment and realize that the support never went away, it just cooled after ownership hiccups. If this new crop of players and coaches has it their way, the heat will be turned up again especially if the squad continues to dominate the league and puts together another deep US Open Cup run.

While one of the best scenarios for MLS would be to have Rochester in the league (to help create a real up-state/down-state rivalry; to provide a near regional opponent to Toronto, Montreal, New England, and Columbus thus cutting cost for those teams; setting a precedent for rewarding a committed, level-headed organization), I don’t think the $40-100 million entry fee that been thrown about is really something it can stomach without a big increase in ownership. But again, why should it when it is able to play competitive, successful, and financially stable football on its own terms?

Daniel CASEY

Carthage College Univ. of Notre Dame
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire & Minnesota Stars
Club Foreign:
Manchester United
Founder/editor of the literary magazine Gently Read Literature, active but barely read poet and literary critic, and an occasional English professor. Never got to play soccer until his mid-30s, so he is routinely schooled by U10 crowd at pick-up games.