A version of this story by Josh Hakala originally appeared on FourFourTwo.com
Every sport has its go-to underdog story. Hockey has the “Miracle on Ice”, college basketball has N.C. State in 1983, baseball has the “Miracle Mets” in 1969, and boxing has Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson. World soccer has plenty to choose from with Leicester City (2015/16 Premier League champions) being the most recent example.
For American soccer, it’s the 1999 Rochester Raging Rhinos, who became the first and, to date, the only lower division club to win the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup since Major League Soccer launched in 1996. Fans of domestic cup competitions like the FA Cup (England) know that anything can happen, and in 1999, the Rhinos of the A-League (Div. 2) upset four MLS teams en route to lifting the trophy.
The last team to come close to repeating their accomplishment was the 2008 Charleston Battery who reached the Final in 2008, but lost to D.C. United. More recently, FC Cincinnati, then of the USL, let a 2-0 lead on their home field slip away in the 2017 Semifinals, falling to the New York Red Bulls. If they would have held on for the win, they would have had a chance to join the Rhinos in the American soccer history books.
However, looking back at the 1999 Rochester Raging Rhinos (they dropped the “Raging” part of their name prior to the 2008 season), their magical Open Cup run almost didn’t happen. Multiple times.
Round 2: Rochester Raging Rhinos 2, New York Freedoms 1 (OT)
The Rhinos began the tournament in Round 2 and their opening game was against the New York Freedoms, an amateur team from the Premier Development League (PDL, now known as USL League Two). To put the mismatch in perspective, the US Soccer Federation assigned seedings to the teams for the 1999 US Open Cup and the Rhinos were the No. 9 seed and the Freedoms were 28th out of the 32-team field.
The New York Pancyprian Freedoms were three-time US Open Cup champions (1980, 1982, 1983) and long-time members of the New York’s famed Cosmopolitan League. They launched a PDL team in 1999 under the name “New York Freedoms” and qualified for the Open Cup in their debut season.
More than 7,000 fans showed up at the Rhinos’ Frontier Field to cheer on the defending A-League (Div. 2 pro) champions. In the first half, it looked like it was going to be a one-sided affair when New York’s Ronan Wiseman, who was on loan from the Long Island Rough Riders, received a straight red card for a hard tackle in the 35th minute.
“I’m very disappointed,” Freedoms manager Tony Noto told the Democrat and Chronicle after the game. “The referee made a difference. He changed the destiny of the Freedoms. You don’t (throw) players out on the first foul.”
Despite being down a man, the Freedoms walked into the locker room at halftime scoreless against the Rhinos.
According to Rhinos head coach Pat Ercoli, his team’s smaller field dimensions at Frontier Field may have helped the visiting team stay in the game as they bunkered down once they were down a man.
In the 57th minute, New York’s Rodney Rambo stunned the announced crowd of 7,131 by giving the 10-man Freedoms the lead. The former University of Portland star stole the ball from Rhinos midfielder Kirk Dietrich near the Rochester penalty area, dribbled in and put the ball past goalkeeper Bill Andracki, who was filling in for injured starter Pat Onstad.
“ was certainly a wake-up call,” said Rhinos head coach Pat Ercoli. “When you’re playing the amateur teams, sometimes you take them for granted, just like the MLS teams have done in certain cases with lower division teams. The lower division teams tend to up their game and the higher division teams tend to play down to .”
That lead would be short-lived as Mauro Biello, the team’s top scorer, received a pass just outside the box from Doug Miller, the A-League’s 1997 MVP. Biello launched a shot from a little more than 20 yards out to tie the game in the 62nd minute.
The match would head into golden goal extra time where Biello played provider, delivering a corner kick to the head of Darren Tilley who nodded home the game-winner in the 110th minute. The Freedoms gave the Rhinos a scare despite Rochester outshooting New York 22-7 and earning 19 corners to the Freedoms’ four. New York’s goalkeeper Roberto Sir kept his team in the game, making seven saves over 110 minutes of action.
After the game, Tilley told Jeff DiVeronica of the Democrat and Chronicle that the team was just happy to advance.
“We didn’t play to our best, as I think everyone would acknowledge, but it’s all about winning in Cup competitions.”
The headline in the July 15, 1999 edition of the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY) after the Rochester Raging Rhinos upset the defending MLS Cup and US Open Cup champion Chicago Fire.
ROUND 3: Rochester Raging Rhinos 1, Chicago Fire 0
In the next round, the Rhinos found themselves in a battle worthy of a Final. Rochester, the defending A-League champions welcomed the defending MLS Cup and US Open Cup champions in the Chicago Fire. With two major trophies already added to Chicago’s trophy case after its inaugural season, the Rhinos were not intimidated.
After Yari Allnutt headed home a Michael Kirmse corner kick to put the Rhinos ahead in the 51st minute, the more than 10,000 fans in attendance at Rochester’s Frontier Field saw the game’s physical play cranked up to another level.
“We had a mentality that we don’t care where you play, we’re going to come and take it to you and compete on any given day and make sure we’re going to be successful,” said Rhinos forward Doug Miller. “Other teams, they had given more respect and time for these guys to play … we were very hard-nosed and very chippy.”
That hard-nosed approach produced a tournament-high 45 fouls between the two teams, but the cards didn’t start coming out until about 20 minutes into the second half.
With roughly 15 minutes left in the game, Chicago’s Lubos Kubik got into a confrontation with multiple Rhinos players which led to him putting Rochester’s Scott Schweitzer in a headlock. Kubik and Schweitzer, who were the previous year’s Defender of the Year in their respective leagues, were both sent off.
Despite missing their top defender, goalkeeper Pat Onstad and the Rhinos were able to keep the Fire’s high-powered offense off the scoresheet. Rochester’s defense held Chicago to just eight shots with Onstad, a Canadian international, only needing to make three saves to earn the clean sheet. With the win, the Rhinos were moving on to the Quarterfinals, 1-0.
“We had that swagger where we knew we could win. They came in with their best team and we came in with our best team and it was a fight,” said Ercoli.
“Some of those things we did in that game, you wouldn’t get away with today. You would have seen four or five red cards ,” Ercoli added with a chuckle.
QUARTERFINALS: Rochester Raging Rhinos 2, Dallas Burn 1 (OT)
In the Quarterfinals, the Rhinos hosted the 1997 US Open Cup champion Dallas Burn in front of another crowd of more than 10,000 fans. This was nothing new for the Rhinos faithful who’s attendance figures had made Rochester a strong candidate to join Major League Soccer. The match against Dallas drew an announced crowd of 10,730, which was the seventh time that a US Open Cup match cracked the 10,000 mark in the Modern Era. Of those seven games, four of them were hosted by the Rhinos at Frontier Field, one of them was the 1998 Final, and the record of 20,376 was a Colorado Rapids game at Mile High Stadium against the Seattle Sounders (A-League) that was given a significant boost as being the opening match of a doubleheader with the US Men’s National Team playing against Derby County of the English Premier League.
After a scoreless first half, Mauro Biello opened the scoring by redirecting a Tim Hardy shot past Dallas’ All-Star goalkeeper Matt Jordan in the 71st minute. Jason Kreis, who would finish tied as MLS’ leading goalscorer that year and win the MLS MVP award, rescued the Burn with an 85th minute equalizer on a cross from Paul Broome.
Just like the match against the Freedoms in Round 2, it came down to extra time and another golden goal from the Rhinos. Michael Kirmse was at the right place at the right time. In the 110th minute, Biello sent in a free kick that Tilley headed off the crossbar. The rebound fell right to Kirmse who put it into the back of the net to send Rochester back to the Semifinals for the second time in four years.
The game was satisfying for the Rhinos because of the criticism directed at them by members of the Dallas Burn before the game. Chief among them was outspoken Dallas head coach Dave Dir saying that Rochester played like “11 Dennis Rodmans”, referring to the physical style of play of the NBA star. While Dir attacked the players’ style of play, Kreis mocked the size of the Rhinos’ Frontier Field, saying “when they play on a real field, they’re going to get their butts beat.”
“That was definitely fodder for the locker room,” said Ercoli. “Scott Schweitzer was one of the guys on our team that made sure everyone knew about it.”
SEMIFINALS: Rochester Raging Rhinos 3, Columbus Crew 2
The Rhinos played away from home for the first time as both Semifinals were scheduled at a neutral venue at the Virginia Beach Sportsplex (Va.) on Sept. 1. Both games featured an A-League vs. MLS match-up, however, the event was overshadowed, quite literally, by the weather as Hurricane Dennis was bearing down on the region. The game was able to move forward because Dennis was downgraded to a tropical storm, but it still brought high winds and heavy rain to the doubleheader.
Earlier in the evening, the Colorado Rapids (MLS), the team the Rhinos beat in the 1996 Semifinals, punched their ticket to the Final with a 3-0 win over the A-League’s Charleston Battery. All the scoring came in the second half with Jorge Dely Valdes accounting for two of them and Paul Bravo adding another. Wolde Harris assisted on two of the three goals, while Ian Feuer made four saves to earn the clean sheet. After the match, Rapids head coach Glenn Myernick had the quote of the night: “It was a great night, if you’re a duck.”
It was already announced that the tournament’s championship game two weeks later would be held at the Crew’s new soccer-specific stadium in Columbus. So when the Rhinos kicked off against a star-studded Crew team in the pouring rain, they would play spoiler in the most dramatic way possible.
With wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour, it was not a fun night for anyone but especially the goalkeepers.
“I’ve never played in wind like that before in my life,” said Rhinos goalkeeper Pat Onstad, who was the A-League Goalkeeper of the Year in his debut season the year before. “I would try to hit a goal kick as hard as I possibly could and it would get about 30 yards out and it would be coming back at our center backs and they would be heading it out. It was crazy.”
After a scoreless first half, the game opened up with the Rhinos answering everything the Crew fired at them. Despite facing 8 Rochester players in the wall, Columbus’ Robert Warzycha connected on a stunning free kick in the 56th minute to give the Crew, one of the top teams in MLS, a 1-0 lead. The Rhinos nearly equalized in the next few minutes as Darren Tilley had a goal disallowed for offside and Bill Sedgewick launched a shot from distance that hit the post.
Rochester would finally level the match in the 68th minute when Tilley headed home a Tommy Tanner cross. Just under ten minutes later, the Crew’s speedy winger Brian West put his team back in front, only to see Schweitzer take a rare free kick from 25 yards away that took a deflection off of Tanner and ended up in the back of the net.
It looked like Rochester was headed to its third extra time match in four matches, but three minutes into stoppage time, another Rhinos defender came to the rescue. Tim Hardy, cut inside his defender on the wing, took a shot that caught a gust of wind that carried into the corner of the goal, out of the reach of MLS goalkeeper wins leader Mark Dougherty.
It remains one of the most exciting finishes of the US Open Cup’s Modern Era (1995-present).
“At that point, we knew we were destined to win this thing,” said Ercoli.
FINAL: Rochester Raging Rhinos 2, Colorado Rapids 0
The hopes of a sold-out Crew Stadium for the Final were dashed as soon as the Rhinos eliminated Columbus in that rainy Semifinal in Virginia Beach. The vast majority of the announced crowd of 4,555 were cheering for the Rhinos against the Rapids, with many of those fans making the roughly 400-mile trip from Rochester on a Tuesday night. Those unable to make the trip were able to watch the game live on ESPN2, giving fans around the country a taste of the drama that the US Open Cup is capable of.
After three upsets of MLS teams, Rhinos beat writer Jeff Di Veronica wrote in his recap of the Columbus Crew game that “it might be time to stop calling Rochester’s wins over MLS teams upsets.”
After a scoreless first half, the Rhinos were struggling to create chances and needed to add some speed to the attack, so Coach Ercoli brought on a not-so-secret weapon in the 62nd minute. The club’s all-time leading scorer Doug Miller, who was frustrated because he had been the odd man out of the starting lineup in recent weeks, gave the Rhinos the spark they needed.
Three minutes after entering the game, Miller received the ball on the left wing, beat Rapids defender Peter Vermes and fired a shot through the legs of Colorado goalkeeper Ian Feuer to give the Rhinos the lead. Pat Onstad made some big saves down the stretch and Yari Allnutt put the game away with a goal in the 90th minute to kick off a long night of celebrations for the Rhinos and their traveling fans.
Miller used that moment to spark the rest of his season as he played a big role in the team’s playoff run as he scored six goals in the team’s seven playoff games as Rochester reached the A-League championship game before losing 2-1 to the Minnesota Thunder.
For Miller, looking back on his career, the US Open Cup title is something he will never forget.
“I’ve got four championships, two indoor, two outdoor, and I’ve got an amateur championship, but that ranks right up there at the top for many reasons,” said Miller. “To win the US Open Cup and to beat all those MLS teams in the fashion that we did was special.”
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