Today is Monday, February 20th. That means there are 30 days until the Rochester Raging Rhinos open up their 2006 player combine in Cary, NC and 34 days until training camp officially gets under way.
So what's happened this offseason? Not much if you consider the GM leaving to start up an expansion USL 1st Division team, a new executive VP being brought on board, and another year of rather significant roster turnover to be standard operating procedure.
With Chris Economides leaving the Rhinos recently to head to Cary, NC and start up a new USL 1st Division club that will take the field in the 2007 season, the Rhinos have seen the departure of the two people most responsible for the enormous success the club saw through it's first 9 seasons of existence. Last offseason saw long time head coach Pat Ercoli leave in what became an ugly divorce. This offseason's major change was a lot cleaner, but still is a major shift for the club.
Matthew Ford was brought in as the Executive Vice President of not only the Rhinos, but also the Rattlers, Ravens (or the TBDs as the club is currently running a "Name the team" promotion), and PaeTec Park. Matthew comes to the Rhinos from Hershey, PA where he held various front office jobs with the now defunct Hershey Wildcats, including the GM position, he played for the Wildcats, and then moved on to run the sporting venues at Hershey Park, including the AHL Hershey Bears new Giant Center that opened in 2002.
Given Matthew's background in facilities management, along with soccer, it is easy to see why he was tabbed as the person to take over with PaeTec Park about to open on June 3rd. This move will also see Laurie Calloway and Willie Fitzpatrick have more control over the player roster than ever before. Matthew has already stated that he will have to trust the coaches to make a lot more decisions and that is something that Coach Calloway has been more than glad to take over.
The talk of the coaches getting more involved with building the roster has me getting flashbacks of the old Bill Parcells quote, "If you want me to cook the meal, then you have to let me buy the groceries."
Another new wrinkle on the player signing front is a new USL 1st Division rule that all player contracts be guaranteed. This will not allow a team like the Rhinos to bring to keep a large roster of players into the beginning of the season and trim players after a few games. It also puts a premium on making the right choices on who to sign and who to let go. Another big change to roster rules this season is the ruling that Canadian players will not count as foreigners for US clubs and that US players will not count as foreigners for Canadian clubs.
As for the roster changes this offseason, they have been rather sizable, but not as big as last season with the new coaching staff coming on board.
The big departures have been 2005 Rhinos MVP MF Kirk Wilson who has since signed with the Montreal Impact, MF Stoain Mladenov, D Bill Sedgewick, back up GK Dusty Hudock who was traded back to his former club Charleston, F Doug Miller who retired, and fan favorite MF Shawn Tsakiris. Also in limbo is F/MF Jonathon Bolanos who left the Rhinos to sign with a club in Sweden. But, there have been reports that the situation wasn't working out to Bolanos' liking and that he could be back with the Rhinos for the 2006 season.
The Rhinos have acquired 3 USL 1st Division veterans this offseason. The Rhinos signed free agent MF/F Johnny Menyongar away from the Minnesota Thunder. The diminutive (5'5" 140 lbs) captain of the Liberian national team could see time up top or as an attacking central midfielder. Next, the Rhinos added two big, target forwards in Charles Gbeke and Matthew Delicate. Gbeke split last season between Toronto and Montreal and word is that the Impact were not happy to hear that Charles had signed with Rochester. Also, since Gbeke is Canadian, he will not count as a foreigner for the Rhinos. Delicate comes to the Rhinos two years after he was drafted by Rochester, but rather chose to sign with the Richmond Kickers. With the Kickers opting to drop down to the USL 2nd division, the Rhinos moved in and acquired the forward that was a big reason the Kickers bounced the Rhinos from the playoffs a year ago.
The Rhinos also have set their sights on acquiring MF Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar. Hugo has led the USL 1st Division in assists each of the last two seasons playing for the Portland Timbers. He was named to the USL 1st Division 1st team All-League in 2005 and was a 2nd team All-League selection in 2004. Given his skill at serving balls into the box, I'm guessing that Gbeke and Delicate are lobbying hard for the Rhinos to sign Alcaraz.
The Rhinos have also brought in 6 rookies that will be fighting for a roster spot during camp. Adam Bartlett came over from England to train with the Rhinos for about a week in 2005. The Rhinos liked what they saw and signed Bartlett to potentially back up Scott Vallow this year. However, given his foreigner status, the Rhinos have suggested that they might loan Bartlett out to a USL 2nd Division club to give him more playing time than he would see in Rochester and ease the foreigner issue. Former Roberts Wesleyan GK Richard Goddard, who played for the Toronto Lynx in 2005, is looking for work and might be someone that the Rhinos could look at to back up Vallow as well.
The Rhinos signed two local players that showed well at the team's collegiate combine: Livonia's Jordan Chirico and Penfield's Josh Bolton. Chirico comes to the Rhinos after a 4 year run with Division 1 powerhouse Indiana. And Bolton comes to the Rhinos after winning back to back conference player of the year awards for Williams College. Both players will be looking to win jobs in the Rhinos midfield during camp.
In the USL 1st Division Collegiate Draft, the Rhinos tabbed 3 players. Duke's Danny Kramer was selected with the 5th pick in the first round that the Rhinos acquired from Charleston for Hudock. Kramer attended the MLS Combine, but went unselected in the MLS SuperDraft that preceded the USL Draft. The Rhinos then selected Plattsburgh State's Jason Sousa with their own pick in the first round. Sousa is a player that the Rhinos liked at their collegiate combine, but were unable to sign prior to the USL draft. Both Sousa and Kramer have signed try out contracts with the Rhinos and will be at training camp. In the 2nd round the Rhinos selected Syracuse University D Ezra Prendergast. Prendergast was later selected by the Chicago Fire in the MLS Supplemental Draft which was held after the USL Draft. And while Prendergast has been seeing time in preseason matches for the Fire, he has contacted the Rhinos and Coach Calloway expects that he too will be in Rhinos camp.
As you can see, it has been a pretty active offseason so far and we are still over a month away from training camp starting and about two and a half months away from the Rhinos season opener in Miami versus USL 1st Division expansion side Miami FC.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of the Rochester Rhinos or SoccerSam.com. Feel free to send any comments or complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org. James promises to read (but not to respond) to all of them.