May 21, 2013

Phoenix face soccer 'game of their lives'

If a local team of college all-stars wins at Rochester, N.Y., it'll play the New England Revolution.

By GREG REID/Special to the Press Herald

PORTLAND - Timing could be everything for the GPS Portland Phoenix on Tuesday night when they take on the Rochester Rhinos in the second round of the U.S. Open Cup soccer tournament.


WHO: GPS Portland Phoenix (2-0-1) at Rochester (N.Y.) Rhinos (1-6-1)

WHEN: 7:35 p.m. Tuesday

AT STAKE: Spot in third round against New England Revolution

The clock was crucial May 14 in the opening round at Deering High, as Pierre Omanga scored 45 seconds in and again on a penalty kick in the 89th minute to send Portland past Mass Premier Soccer, 2-0.

MPS, composed of former college players, put up a stiff challenge to Phoenix, a team of college all-stars who compete in the fourth tier of American soccer, in the Premier Development League. Phoenix is 2-0-1 overall, 1-0-1 in the PDL.

Rochester, meanwhile, is considered the most successful club in the United States and Canada outside of Major League Soccer. The Rhinos, formed in 1996, are the only non-MLS club to win the Open Cup in the professional era. They reached the Cup final in 1996 and won it in 1999.

But Rochester has seen better days. The Rhinos are 1-6-1 and sit in 12th place among 13 teams in the United Soccer League's third-tier Pro Division. On Sunday, the Rhinos replaced their coach, Jesse Myers, with former coach Pat Ercoli.

MLS teams enter the tournament in the third round. The New England Revolution await Tuesday's winner for a match on May 28. If Portland advances, the game will be played at Harvard Stadium. Rochester would host the Revs.

"In the Cup competition, both of us know there has to be a result," said Phoenix Coach Ally Bain. "It's one game, 90 minutes, 120, however long it takes. The beauty of that is it allows teams like us to really propel our performance. We look at it as, 'You know what? If we have the game of our lives here, we can go on and achieve bigger and better things."'

Bain said, a strong showing in the tournament would only benefit the Phoenix and the game in Maine.

"To play against a pro team of Rochester's status is huge for us," he said. "Hopefully it will generate more interest in the PDL brand and the club, and bring more people out to the games."

For players, a strong showing could help advance their careers.

Former goalkeeper Ryan Thompson, who played in Portland in 2010, went on to play in the Europa League with Ireland's Shamrock Rovers. Defender Brian Gaul (2011) won the MLS Cup last fall with the Los Angeles Galaxy, alongside David Beckham and Landon Donovan. Charlie Rugg (2012) joined the Galaxy in the off season.

"Absolutely not out of the question," Bain said. "A number of players have gone on, and it's certainly out there for them. They have to have the persistence to keep working, knowing it doesn't happen right away. They need to be content to keep on trying."

Bain calls his forwards a team strength, particularly the pair of Caue da Silva and Omanga.

"Any USL team would kill for a forward like Omanga," Bain said. "He's totally unplayable when he plays to his optimum."


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