Heading in to the offseason, the Rhinos can go down a variety of paths in the attempt to both win a title next season and please a fanbase that wasn't exactly thrilled with a squad that finished the regular season with the second best record in the USL 1st Division and made it to their first championship game since 2001.
What follows would be my general gameplan if I were named the Rhinos GM over the weekend:
1) Lock up the defensive core of the team
The easiest decision for me would be to identify Scott Vallow as the cornerstone of the team. The tough part might be convincing Scott and ownership to agree to a 3 or 4 year extension to Scott's contract that is through the 2007 season.
The next step would be to lock up the core of the defense that is young, talented, and could join Vallow as the faces of the franchise for the next four to five years and beyond. Frankie Sanfilippo, Scott Palguta, and Kenney Bertz all likely have some dreams of moving on to MLS. But, I would try and see if it was possible to get ownership and the players to be willing to commit to each other for 4 to 5 years.
I'd also look to sign left back Nate Craft to a 2 or 3 year deal in an attempt to really solidify the defensive unit for the foreseeable future.
As a fall back option should Bertz leave for MLS in the offseason, I'd contact New York Red Bull Taylor Graham as soon as I could. Graham was the 2005 USL 1st Division Defender of the Year and has seen his playing time really drop off after starting the year amongst the Red Bulls' first eleven. If Graham is cut loose by New York, doesn't hook up with another MLS team, and there is an opening with the Rhinos, then I think Graham would be a natural fit here.
2) Retool the midfield
I wouldn't look to bring back Johnny Menyongar (not enough production given his price tag) and Juninho (too injury prone) and I'd expect Greg Howes (retirement from the outdoor game) and John Ball (I'd be shocked if he weren't a Carolina RailHawk next season) would be leaving in the offseason. I'd also be very wary about Bolanos' recovery from season ending knee surgery.
The first step in retooling the midfield would be to add a solid defensive midfielder. My first choice would be a player that has played for Laurie Calloway before in Lars Lyssand. Lyssand was a very versatile player this past season for Montreal and would bring some flexibility to the table with the Rhinos.
On the right side of the midfield, I'd look to bring in either Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar from Portland or Jay Alberts from Vancouver. Hugo would add a player that would improve the quality of service on corners and free kicks and Alberts would add a whole lot of speed to that outside midfield spot.
On the left side, I would prefer to retain Aaran Lines, if possible. If that isn't an option, I'd see if the Rhinos could bring in Tony Donatelli who was in Rhinos camp this season, was cut loose, and looked very good with Vancouver this past season.
The central attacking midfield spot is the million dollar hole on this team. If Bolanos' knee is looking good, then I'd probably lean towards going with him in that spot next season. If things weren't looking good in that regard, then I'd see if there was any way to get Martin Nash back in a Rhinos uniform.
Toronto's Jamie Dodds is another player that I'd look at bringing in to possibly fill either of the central midfield spots next season.
3) Find some finishers up top
Matthew Delicate is under contract through 2008. I'd also look at bringing back Rey Martinez as the second of my three core forwards.
Seattle's Maykel Galindo was hoping to have a big 2006 season and then move on to bigger and better things. But, an injury suffered in a friendly with Chivas USA early in the year sidetracked those plans. I would try and see if Galindo was interested in teaming up with his former Cuban National teammate in Rey Martinez in Rochester. If that didn't work out, then I'd see if Toronto's Kevin Jeffrey or 2005 USL 1st Division MVP Jason Jordan would be a fit with the Rhinos.
4) Build a roster with 11 starters, 3 or 4 key backups, and then 5 or 6 role players
To encourage stability, I'd look to build a roster with less quality depth than Rhinos teams of the past, but with better definied roles and more lineup stability from game to game.
To back up Vallow, I would be happy with either Billy Andracki or a young kid ala Patrick Hannigan that knows that it's Vallow's job unless he gets hurt. If Richard Goddard didn't count as a foreigner, he probably be the first guy I'd call if, as expected, Andracki opted to remain as the goalkeeper coach and declined to be Vallow's back up for the entire season.
On defense, I'd see if Jason Perry wanted to give it another go as my key back up defender. If he opted to leave to go into the family business, I'd probably see if Bill Sedgewick wanted to come back in a back up role and see if Ricky Lewis would want to come back for another season knowing that he'd again be in that back up role.
In the midfield, I'd look to retain Josh Bolton as my backup defensive midfielder and Mike Ambersley as my back up that can play multiple roles.
Up top, I'd probably try and bring Chris Bagley back as my #4 forward.
Then I'd look at adding some depth players that will accept their role and maybe bring back an ex-fan favorite, such as Shaun Tsakiris, to try and make the roster just a touch more fan friendly.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, 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.