Nineteen years after hoisting the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup with an unlikely band of underdogs, Doug Miller is back in the competition with a group of players who have grew up with the legend of the Rochester Raging Rhinos.
The head coach of the amateur Rochester River Dogz, a “farm team” for the National Premier Soccer League’s (NPSL) Rochester Lancers, Miller doesn’t mind using his former team’s historic run as the last non-MLS team to win the competition as motivation for his players.
“I bust my team and my players’ chops and say I won the Open Cup as a player and I’m undefeated as a coach so the least you can do is make some national news out of it,” Miller said in a recent interview. Miller not only helped the Rhinos win the 1999 US Open Cup title, but he came off the bench in the Final at Columbus Crew Stadium and scored what would prove to be the game-winning goal in a 2-0 win over the Colorado Rapids.
While the circumstances are much different — the River Dogz are an amateur team — Miller said the approach isn’t all that dissimilar to what he and his Rhinos teammates in the late ’90s took entering the competition.
“You saw a little bit nationally with Christos FC last year, which is the same boat we fall in as ex-pro and other high level amateur players who want to go and compete on the national level against teams that do this for a full-time living,” Miller said, referring to the only amateur team to advance to the Fourth Round in 2017. “Nobody believed we could do it back in 1999. I want to give my players the same belief we had.”
Belief for the River Dogz or any of the other amateur teams in the competition doesn’t mean entertaining ideas of winning it all. Simply advancing to take on a top level team like Christos FC did last year when they played D.C. United in the Fourth Round can be a dream fulfilled.
“To play into the Fourth Round or Fifth Round and actually set foot in an MLS stadium, that’s something that’s possible and that’s fun to always dream about,” said River Dogz defender and captain Jake Schindler.
A 30-year-old who grew up in Rochester, Schindler is fully aware of the history and the present state of soccer in his city. Ten days after the RiverDogz qualified for the Open Cup with a 2-1 win over Stegman’s SC in the freezing rain, the Rhinos announced that they would go on hiatus for the 2018 USL season.
“This community has such a rich history, it’s inspiring just to have an opportunity to step on a somewhat familiar stage,” Schindler said. “And because of what happened with the Rhinos, it feels like the local community is getting a second chance.”
Qualifying wasn’t just historic for the young club founded in 2015. The River Dogz became the first open division amateur team from Western New York to qualify in the Modern Era of the of the competition (1995-present). Rochester only needed to win two games to punch their ticket to the 105th edition of the tournament. They edged the Tartan Devils Oak Avalon (Greater Pittsburgh Soccer League) 2-1 in the Steel City before getting a free pass into the final round when Ann Arbor FC had to forfeit.
To get the party started, they’ll travel to Erie on May 9 to take on familiar NPSL rival Erie Commodores. The teams split their home and home series last season, each winning their game at home. While the River Dogz compete in the Rochester District Soccer League, their team that travels to Erie will feature several players who also play for the Lancers.
“We’re going to go with the same attitude,” Miller said. “We’ll go there with the goal of not conceding a goal.”
To prepare for the match, Miller was able to get an early start on training, utilizing the indoor facility that also houses the Lancers youth programs he oversees, to build chemistry among a large pool of players, something that is needed at the amateur levels because of jobs, families and other commitments that can limit participation from game to game.
“When you’re talking about trying to compete on a national level, you need to have a big roster pool,” Miller said. “We bring them in, 35-40 guys in training each day, competing for opportunities. The ones that are playing well at that time will get the opportunity to showcase themselves.”
Schindler, who is an optical engineer by day and plays at the professional indoor level through the winter, said the training sessions are where the dedication of the team — some players drive in several nights a week from Buffalo, Syracuse and other areas outside Rochester — really shines.
“It’s no longer a drink beer and go play soccer kind of environment,” he said.
While Schindler is the seasoned veteran at age 30 (“If you come to practice there’s probably two voices you’re going to hear, mine and Doug’s), there’s another even more seasoned player on the sidelines who could be called upon in a pinch. He’ll turn 49 a few days before the game and he last laced up his boots for the Syracuse Silver Knights in indoor soccer in 2016 but he did win an Open Cup once.
“Most likely no,” Miller said when asked if he’d complete the Open Cup circle by subbing himself into the game. “But you never know.”