The Rochester Rhinos finished their emotional season by defending their A-League soccer championship.

Unlike most teams that win back-to-back titles though, the Rhinos underwent a massive overhaul during the offseason. They lost two all-stars and four forwards and started the season with eight rookies.

However, the Rhinos did have some experienced players, especially at goalkeeper.

Scott Vallow started in goal for the Rhinos in the second half of the 2000 season and earned Goalkeeper of the Year honors. He declined an offer from Major League Soccer during the playoffs in 2000 and turned down another offer over the winter.

Billy Andracki was the Rhinos starter when the team came into existence in 1996, but lost his job to Pat Onstad ? the third goalie on Rochester’s roster at the beginning of this season ? in 1998.

Onstad was the Goalkeeper of the Year in 1998 and left the Rhinos in 1999 to join a Scottish team. Andracki regained his starting job until a knee injury in June of 2000 ended his season.

Since the Rhinos could only afford two goalies, they loaned Andracki to the Atlanta Silverbacks.

Rhinos coach Pat Ercoli usually dislikes rotating goalies, but he decided to try it with Onstad and Vallow this season.

Onstad got the nod for the Rhinos’ 1-1 tie against Connecticut to open the season. The Rhinos then played four games in a row against teams from the D3 league, the next division down from A-League, in preliminary matches for the U.S. Open Cup.

The U.S. Open Cup is a tournament that includes teams from four different professional levels. Each MLS team is automatically in the tournament, but teams from other leagues need to qualify for a spot.

The Rhinos also received an automatic bid because they won the A-League title in 2000, but they had the opportunity to earn a higher seed if they won their preliminary group.

They did just that, using late goals to win two games at Western Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Rochester then returned home to play the second game against both of the teams and posted shutouts, 4-0 against New Hampshire and 3-0 against Western Mass.

Vallow, starting full-time while Onstad played for the Canadian national team, posted his second straight shutout, 1-0, against Toronto. The Rhinos then lost their first game of the season, 1-0, when they traveled to Hershey, Pa.

Rochester got back on track with a 1-0 win in overtime at Connecticut and a 2-1 home win over Pittsburgh.

The Rhinos then made a trade that would turn out to be a key to the season. On June 11, they acquired midfielder Stoain Mladenov from Minnesota, who Rochester had faced in the final three years in a row.

Mladenov did not have much impact at first, as he only played one game before being sidelined by visa problems.

Rochester then went back to Hershey and got revenge with a 1-0 overtime victory.

Unfortunately, Onstad ended his season with a broken wrist two days after the win and the Rhinos had to recall Andracki from Atlanta. After a scoreless tie against Montreal and a 3-1 win over Long Island, the Rhinos prepared for round three against Hershey.

Open Cup upset

This contest had the added importance of being the second round of the U.S. Open Cup. Rochester won the Cup in 1999 by knocking off four MLS teams.

The Rhinos had never lost a U.S. Open Cup game against an A-League opponent and had never been eliminated in their first game.

Somebody must not have told Hershey that though, as the Wildcats advanced with a 1-0 victory.

The Rhinos then went on the road and fell to Charlotte, 1-0, and Pittsburgh, 2-1.

More disturbing than the three- game losing streak was the fact that the Rhinos could not score. In 10 league games they had scored just 10 goals and had been shut out four times.

Changes spark offense

Clearly the Rhinos needed to make some changes, and they had a week to do so before their next game. They started by signing forward Neathan Gibson July 10.

Then they had a chance to bring back Doug Miller, their career scoring leader. However, he declined to do so, saying that his style of play no longer fit what they wanted to do.

Instead they released forward Nasho Kirov and welcomed forward Mickey Trotman back from his duty with the Trinidad and Tobego national team.

Most importantly, they resolved Mladenov’s visa problems and got him back in action.

Mladenov and midfielder Lenin Steenkamp combined to spark the Rhinos on a seven-game unbeaten streak that moved them into first place. Mladenov scored six goals and assisted on five others as Rochester won six games and tied one. Steenkamp added five goals in the stretch.

Another change in net

Unfortunately, Rochester then fell back into a bit of a slump. The Rhinos scored six goals to go 2-3-1 in the next six games, getting shut out four times.

That stretch prompted Ercoli to bench Vallow and make Andracki the starting goalie.

Rochester responded with a three-game winning streak to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Steenkamp, who finished the regular season with a career-high nine goals, was named the team MVP and declined a late season offer from MLS.

Steenkamp was named to the second team All-League. Mladenov and defender Scott Schweitzer were named to the first team All-League.

Rhinos nearly exit early

The Rhinos successful regular season almost went for naught when they opened the playoffs.

The A-League playoffs are two- game series in which the team that scores the most goals advances to the next round. The Rhinos dug themselves a quick hole by losing to Pittsburgh, 2-1, in the first game of their quarterfinal series.

Ercoli switched back to Vallow in goal after the game as the series returned to Rochester with the Rhinos at a one-goal disadvantage. Vallow responded with a shutout as Rochester beat Pittsburgh 3-0 to advance to the semifinals against Milwaukee.

However, the playoffs seemed less important when tragedy struck five days later.

Death of a teammate

On Oct. 3, Trotman was killed in a car accident in his hometown of Arima, Trinidad. He had not played with the team since Aug. 19, but he was still training with them until he left at the beginning of October to train with the Trinidad and Tobego national team.

The Rhinos dedicated the rest of the season to him and wrote “14” ? his number ? on their armbands in silver marker.

Gibson scored the game-winner in Rochester’s 3-2 victory over Milwaukee the next day.

Two days later the Rhinos returned home and Gibson scored the winner again as Rochester beat Milwaukee, 1-0, to move on to the championship game for the fifth time.

The Rhinos’ opponent in the championship game was, of course, Hershey.

The Rhinos had split four regular season games, all 1-0, with Hershey and had eliminated the Wildcats from the playoffs three years in a row.

The Rhinos had also won 15 straight home playoff matches and their only regular season loss in Rochester since 1997 came at the hands of Hershey in this year’s U.S. Open Cup.

Mladenov, the 25-year-old Bulgarian who arrived at midseason to jumpstart the Rhinos’ offense, scored twice as Rochester eliminated Hershey again, 2-0.

Rochester honored Trotman with a championship medal after the match.

The Rhinos have only existed since 1996, but they have reached the A-League final every season except 1997.

The 13,692 fans who were at Frontier Field for this season’s championship game will tell you that Rochester is “Soccertown, USA,” and Ercoli is king.

Jacobs can be reached at

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