Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Soccer in the Flower City

Image courtesy of the Rochester Rhinos

First, let me say I know PSP is a Philly-centric soccer blog. But I hope you’ll indulge me today because, earlier this week, some news dropped that I could not let pass without comment. Specifically, this:

I live in Rochester. I grew up in Palmyra, NY, which is a small town to the east of the city. The idea that Jamie Vardy would invest in my hometown team ranks right up there with the news that Alicia Keys is supposedly opening a performing arts center here. It’s bizarre. And it brought up a whole bunch of feelings in me, not all of them good.

The Rochester Raging Rhinos

To understand the full scope of my bewilderment, you’ll need some context. On the heels of the 1994 World Cup, the Rhinos were founded in 1996, playing in what was then called the A-League (which eventually became the USL First Division), and were immediately successful, both as a sporting project and as a commercial one. There was a lot of excitement around the team, and home games in a new, soccer-specific stadium downtown went on to draw crowds of 10,000+. The Rhinos made the league championship game in their inaugural year, won it in 1998, and added two more league championships in 2000 and 2001. Most famously, the Rhinos are the only non-MLS team to win the U.S. Open Cup since MLS’s inception, in 1999, beating four MLS teams on the way. It was an exciting time for soccer fans in upstate New York, and Rochester was regularly touted as a prime MLS expansion possibility.

But not all was well. Off the field, the team’s relationship with the City of Rochester was fractious, and in 2008 the team was declared insolvent after failing to meet commitments related to the stadium. Crisis seemed averted with new owners found, but the following years were turbulent, as the team remained competitive while jumping from league to league, even becoming the New England Revolution’s USL Pro affiliate for a time. And in 2016, the new owners had their claim on the team revoked by the league, again because of failures to meet commitments relating to the stadium. The league took over the team and eventually sold it to David and Wendy Dworkin, minority owners of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. Crisis averted a second time? Maybe not, as, in November 2017, the team announced it would go on hiatus. The plan was for that to be a one-season thing, but the Rhinos haven’t played a game since.

A vacuum to fill

Rochester’s soccer history is rich. (I’d personally love a deep dive by PSP managing editor emeritus Ed Farnsworth). There have been a number of successful teams from the region, including the Lancers, who have existed in a variety of forms over time, but the Rhinos were (are?) the high-water mark for Rochester-area professional soccer. When they went on hiatus, it was a dark time. I’m not sure when I stopped hoping they would come back, but at some point I did. It helped to have the Union as my second hometown team (for those that don’t know, I lived in Philly for a decade, and was a founding member Union season ticket holder before moving back to Rochester in 2015).

Earlier this year, though, I was happily surprised to discover that a new team, the Flower City Union, had been formed, and would soon be competing in the NISA, a new third-division league. Flower City had a good name (it seems the Philadelphia Union are becoming influential that way; Rochester is known as the Flower City for its 19th-century flower nurseries), good branding, and a fresh start. They would even play in the downtown stadium vacated by the Rhinos. I could let the Rhinos go.

Rhinos rising again?

And then came this week. If you have access to The Athletic, I encourage you to read the full story. The gist is this: Jamie Vardy, of Leicester City in the Premier League, has become a part-owner of the Rhinos, with the long-term goal of bringing the team back to and beyond its previous levels of success. There are very few details about how that is supposed to happen, but Vardy and the Dworkins say all of the right things. That’s great news, right?

I’m not so sure.

First, there is Vardy himself. Vardy’s sporting story is inspirational. Only becoming a professional at age 25, he’s gone from the English sixth division to become a Premier League and FA Cup champion playing for Leicester. He’s now one of the Premier League’s top all-time goalscorers. But the incident in 2015 where he used racial slurs in a casino is a tough one to shake from my mind. Vardy’s not exactly Qatar or the UAE, using a soccer team to cover for human rights abuses, but he’s no saint, either. And the fact that he has no connection to Rochester is problematic.

Then there are the Dworkins. The Rhinos’ hiatus happened in part because the Dworkins wanted to get out from under the issue of the stadium. The City of Rochester surely bears some of the blame in this situation, but it’s hard not to feel the cognitive dissonance when David Dworkin complains about the “burned-down houses and boarded-up windows” surrounding the stadium as the reason the site was unworkable, then have Wendy Dworkin say of Rochester, “We’re an underdog city. … We’re not a shiny and pristine city. We can be gritty,” as one of the reasons Vardy was drawn to the project. That’s all code for poverty and Black people. You can’t hold yourself above the problems of a place then claim its underdog spirit.

The Union know something about having a stadium in a poor city, and they know all about high-minded projects that don’t follow through on investing in the community. But whereas the Union have attempted to change and become better community partners to Chester, the Dworkins took their team and went home. The Dworkins say the plan is now to restart play in a new stadium in 2022. When all is said and done, that “Rochester” Rhinos squad will almost certainly be playing in the suburbs. And, after what was supposed to be a one-year hiatus, it will have been almost five years.

But ball is life

In the end, I reserve judgment. Perhaps Vardy and the Dworkins will be the stewards the Rhinos need to return to prominence and relevance, both sporting and cultural. I would certainly like that. But I have to say I hold out more hope that Flower City Union find a way to be successful. I want a team representing Rochester to be of Rochester. I want the team to play in the city, and embrace this complicated, traumatized place.

I want the Rhinos to be good. They hold a special place in my heart. But I don’t want it to come at the expense of my home.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the trip down memory lane… The Rochester Raging Rhinos were always fun to root for in Open Cup against the “big boys” of MLS…

  2. boorish_grishenko says:

    As a fellow Union-minded Rochesterian, I’ve been waiting on this piece and I’m here. for. all. of. it. Thanks, Jeremy!
    .
    I assumed the Rhinos dead and gone – just a brand held by someone waiting for a reason to sell it off – and I hadn’t heard about Flower City Union. I also wasn’t aware that the Dworkins have totally forsaken Marina Auto Stadium after fighting over rent when the Rhinos went on hiatus. That decision really does read as a modern manifestation of Rochester’s penchant for White Flight and stifling diversity (an civic mismanagement). I’ll give both teams my dollars and limited toddler-parent time, but now that I know of FCU, I’d rather make the drive down St Paul than schlep to an outer burb.
    .
    The last “U” game I saw was here, downtown in 2018 (post-Rhinos) between TFC2 and Bethlehem Steel. Matt Real was underwhelming, Brendan Aaronson featured and Fred was there as a coach. I digress… Ultimately, it’ll just be good to go to a game in town again.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Yes, abandoning the stadium is exactly that white flight you mention. And it rubs me the wrong way. I for one can’t wait to go to games downtown again.

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