Well before a shootout was needed to decide the outcome, there was little to distinguish the New York/New Jersey MetroStars' exhibition game against the Rochester (N.Y.) Raging Rhinos on July 15 from any other match during the MLS season. In fading sunlight at Rochester's Frontier Field, the teams took the pitch before a standing-room-only crowd of 13,732 fans who were as knowledgeable as they were vocal. The game was carried live on radio and TV and simulcast on the Internet. Reporters from six television stations were on hand, as was Rex, the Rhinos' kinetic mascot. "Incredible," said the MetroStars' retro star, Alexi Lalas, whose team won the shoot-out. "That's the kind of atmosphere we should have at every MLS game."
The Rhinos, who play in the A League, soccer's answer to basketball's ragtag CBA, are forging a reputation as America's most successful minor league team. While the other 27 clubs in the A League average barely 2,300 fans a game, Rochester courts 11,000. Before the four-month season, which began on May 2, the Rhinos enlisted 5,106 season-ticket holders, more than all but three MLS teams had signed up. While no MLS franchise finished in the black last year, the Rhinos turned a low six-figure profit, which made them the most prosperous soccer team in the U.S.
What accounts for the Rhinos' elephantine success? Geography plays a major role. Rochester, a midsized (pop. 227,000), ethnically rich city with no shortage of grass fields, is a soccer hotbed. The five-county metropolitan area boasts more than 45,000 youth and adult recreation players and supports three weekly radio programs devoted to the sport.
The Rhinos have thrived because of a savvy marketing plan and an effective corporate structure. The team's three co-owners, Steve Donner, Frank DuRoss and Chris Economides, own three other minor league teams among them—two hockey and one lacrosse, two of which are Rochester-based—enabling them to share office personnel and create cross-promotional opportunities for sponsors and advertisers. The owners' real goal is to boot the Rhinos to the next level. "We basically looked at the numbers and said there's no reason we can't make it in MLS," says DuRoss, 47. "Now it's a question of convincing the league."
The first order of business, before making a pitch for the team, is making a pitch for the team. That is, MLS will only consider new clubs that play in soccer-only stadiums that can accommodate at least 20,000 fans. The Rhinos share Frontier Field with the Rochester Red Wings, the Triple A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. By Labor Day the Rhinos hope to secure $25 million to $30 million in state funding for construction of a 20,000-seat stadium. If they get it, the ownership group vows to scrounge up $20 million for the league's expansion fee.
"What's going on in Rochester is extraordinary," says MLS commissioner Doug Logan. "If they can get the stadium, they're a real expansion candidate."