So maybe having it rain so much that the Red Wings took their balls and bats home last night wasn't a matter of the soccer gods wanting the Rhinos to have the spotlight all to themselves last night. But it was going to take a heck of a lot more than a little rain and some power outages to ruin the opening of PAETEC Park for me.
Sure, there were glitches on the field and off of it. But last night gave me just a taste of what the future will hold with the Rhinos playing at their own stadium and I can't wait for more.
It all started for me when I saw John Ball handing out Thunderstix to the throngs of fans trying to pour through Gate D at 6:00 pm sharp last night. You could just tell that John was as excited, or maybe even more so, than the fans that couldn't wait to get in and see the beautiful facility that has been built as a shrine to their passion for the game of soccer.
Then it was the smile that Scott Vallow put on the face of my four-year-old son Brandon and my wife Paige when he recognized him and gave him a high five.
Then there was the match.
Coach Calloway made one very interesting move with the starting lineup and there were quite a few changes in the game day lineup from what he had used during the team's very successful seven game road trip. Scott Vallow in goal and Scott Palguta, Kenney Bertz, Jason Perry, and Frankie Sanfilippo were a familiar group in back. The only surprise there to me was Perry starting in central defense and Palguta starting out wide. Coach Calloway had talked about wanting to get speed on the field at PAETEC, so I was expecting Nate Craft to get the start at left back and Palguta to be moved inside with Bertz.
But, Coach Calloway had a bigger surprise with a midfield selection. Jonny Steele made his 2006 Rhinos debut by getting the start in the left outside midfield spot. Juninho DaSilva returned to the lineup in the central attacking midfield role with Greg Howes lining up behind him in the defensive mid spot. And John Ball got the start in his usual right outside midfield spot. Up top, Johnny Menyongar, in place of Charles Gbeke, and Matthew Delicate got the call.
It didn't take long for the Rhinos to give the 13,768 in attendance to go crazy for. If only for a minute.
A mere minute and a half into the match, Johnny Menyongar got in behind the Mariners defense and came in all alone on Matt Nelson. Menyongar finished the play and the capacity crowd went nuts.
And then the referee acknowledged his assistant with his flag held aloft.
The fans weren't the only ones in shock as Virginia Beach quickly countered and got a somewhat dangerous chance in as the Rhinos scrambled to recover.
Three minutes later, the Rhinos got another glorious chance when John Ball got a cross into the box that was meant for Matthew Delicate, but it was just a tad off target.
After that, the tide turned to the Mariners for most of the remainder of the first half. Scott Vallow had to make a few tough saves as the Rhinos seemed to be suffering from a let down after the initial surge of adrenaline wore off. Virginia Beach did very well to remain composed and to keep the pressure on the Rhinos.
The Rhinos did start to get a little pressure of their own on the Mariners late in the first half, but the opening forty-five minutes came to a close with the game scoreless.
Unfortunately, the intermission prompted plenty of the less hearty fans in attendance to head for the exits. For when the players returned for the second half, it appeared that more seats were empty than were filled. And it wasn't just a matter of lots of people were still in line for chicken fingers.
And it's really too bad that so many fans left at halftime. They ended up missing one of the most up and down emotional roller coasters that you can get at a Rhinos game.
The Rhinos came out for the second half and really tried hard to turn the tide of the match. Their pressure on the ball was stronger and the nerves seemed to have settled down. But then the Rhinos had a mental breakdown in the box and Virginia Beach took advantage.
Ex-Rhino forward Greg Simmonds got a little piece of history in the 57th minute. Jakob Fenger-Larson had the ball out on the left flank and threw a cross into the box. Simmonds had broken free of Scott Palguta's mark, settled the ball, set up his right boot, and ripped a shot past a diving Scott Vallow to put the Mariners up 1-0.
The crowd and the Rhinos were stunned as the team that had yet to trail all season and had only given up one goal in seven road matches would be trailing in the PAETEC Park opener.
Coach Calloway then made his first move by taking out John Ball, who had picked up a yellow card five minutes earlier in the 57th minute, and inserted Charles Gbeke up top. This caused a little lineup shuffling with Johnny Menyonger moving to a withdrawn striker position and Juninho sliding out wide right.
The combo of Gbeke and Delicate up top started clicking right away as the Virginia Beach defense had a hard time containing the two big, strong Rhino forwards.
In the 62nd minute, Nate Craft entered the match for Jason Perry to try and inject some more offense into the match for the Rhinos who were still pushing for the equalizer, but without any results. Craft moved to left back and Scott Palguta moved inside to replace Perry. Seven minutes later, rookie Mike Ambersley replaced Jonny Steele.
But the match changed with 15 minutes left when Coach Calloway inserted Rey "Boom Boom" Martinez into the lineup for Juninho.
Within a minute or two of entering the match, Martinez lofted a beautiful cross into the box that Matthew Delicate pushed just wide of the far post. Martinez held his hands to the pouring sky as if to ask what more could he have done. Delicate laid on the turf in the Virginia Beach net for a moment wondering how he could miss on that chance.
But, Martinez wasn't done yet. A couple of minutes later, Martinez whipped another cross into the box. This time the ball deflected slightly off a Virginia Beach defender who was coming out on Martinez. But, that tip didn't change the result as Charles Gbeke dove headfirst and put away the chance as the Rhinos leveled the game at one goal apiece.
What remained of the rain soaked crowd went nuts.
But the Rhinos weren't done just yet. As in the 89th minute, the crowd would be given reason to go nuts yet again. This time it wasn't as pretty, but nobody really cared at that point. The Rhinos played the ball into the box, there was a scramble for the ball, Matthew Delicate pushed it into the clear, and Johnny Menyongar flew in and put the Rhinos ahead 2-1 with only a few minutes remaining.
But alas, the soccer gods weren't smiling down on the Rhinos this evening. In a flashback to late game meltdowns of the past, Virginia Beach was able to snatch away two points from the Rhinos in stoppage time.
With about a minute left in stoppage time, the Rhinos were scrambling to set up to defend against a Mariners throw in deep in Rhino territory. When the throw came short, the Rhinos weren't ready, as they had been lining up like it was going to be a free kick into the box. The momentary indecision prior to Alan Woods whipping a cross into the box allowed Steve Shak to get free from Charles Gbeke and head the ball home to level the game at two goals apiece.
And that is how the night would end.
It may have been far from perfect. But, it made me want to come back for more.
- Having PAETEC Park finally become a reality was great. Sure, there were hiccups with the power going out and there will be people finding something to complain about. But, going to the match at PAETEC Park was so much better than going to a match at Frontier Field that I really don't want to hear it.
- Rey Martinez's enthusiasm is infectious. And while it was covered up by my jacket and raincoat, I was proud to be sporting my #35 Rhinos jersey last night. John Ball is going to have a fight on his hands for playing time at right outside midfield if Rey can bring that type of play to every practice and game from here on out.
- The duo of Matthew Delicate and Charles Gbeke up top was awesome. Virginia Beach had a hard time containing either one guy, let alone both.
- The fans that did stick it out through the rain were great. It's too bad that there weren't more of them last evening.
- The weather. 'Nuff said.
- The late meltdown. For a team that had only given up one goal in seven road matches, I was surprised to see them melt down on a late equalizer like they did. Hopefully it can be summed up as opening night jitters and things will be better in the future.
- Where was David Gantt? I was getting it shoved down my throat all week that I needed to cheer for the guy because nobody gets state money without his say so. And then he doesn't show up? Personally, I could have done without any of the politicos in attendance. Rhino fans know who really deserves to take credit for the stadium getting done.
- To whomever called the post-game show to complain about the fans in 126 and The Stampede in 132 making too much noise, all I have to say is that perhaps you should get Red Wings season tickets instead of Rhinos ones. Or, like Drew from The Stampede suggested, perhaps the PGA Championships, which are coming to Oak Hill in a few years, will be more up your alley.
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