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Official Review by Sean Rowland, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Rochester area has deep soccer roots with a history and appreciation of the beautiful game that goes back to the heyday of the NASL in the 1970s, when the Lancers welcomed teams to the old Holleder Stadium. After that league dissolved, it took sixteen years for soccer to return. The Raging Rhinos joined the second division A-League and the team rapidly became a huge success as they won championships and drew huge crowds. With the Rhinos consistently drawing over 10,000 in the city’s new baseball park, a growing desire for a soccer-specific stadium was met with visions of joining the MLS. After years of wrangling, delays and work, the Rhinos got their home built in 2006. Unfortunately, the initial years were marred by a multitude of issues including unfinished stadium features, a poor location and horrible ownership. Fan interest dropped and the big crowds disappeared. Now, instead of being a fringe MLS candidate, the Rhinos are in the USL with a fan support and atmosphere no longer the best in the lower divisions. As for their stadium (renamed four times and currently called Capelli Sport Stadium), it is indeed a beautiful pitch with excellent, intimate sightlines. However, there are aspects with the whole experience that can be improved and in some cases still seem unfinished.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Concessions at Sahlen's Stadium represent a nice Taste of Rochester, with each selling spot offering something different. Over at the Bill Gray's stand, a "World's Greatest Cheeseburger" ($6) is well worth a try. They also have the Great Plate ($10), a mash-up of burger, hot dog, fries and mac salad that is a take on the famous Garbage Plate served in the city (originated from Nick Tahou's). Hot dogs are also offered in the "White" variety, which is unique to the area and a porkier version than the Red ones. For pizza, local product Salvatore's offers some great slices that can be combined with wings ($10). Just a bit further down is the Red Osier stand and their terrific Prime Roast Beef Sandwiches ($6). Other food options include Pulled Pork Sandwiches, Gyros and Calzones. You will not go hungry at a Rhinos game. There are also decent desserts perfect for halftime like Fried Dough or Funnel Cake.
Beverage items are adequate, but could be better as the microbrews offered down the road at Frontier Field are nowhere to be found here. Versions of Coors, Miller and Molson products highlight the options, which are usually in the $6 - $7 range. Pepsi products round out most of the remaining drinks.
Gate D is the primary entrance into the stadium and the wide brick walkway leads into an equally expansive outside gathering area. The vast amount of space is nice to disperse crowds, but the area could use more pizzazz and charm. Given the history and achievement this franchise has attained, there should be many more displays than just a small team hall of fame on a wall.
Entering into the stadium, the pitch is terrific as the design is intimate with excellent sightlines. The shape is almost an octagon (with one open end) and the seating sections are quite close to the touchline. With the color green being prominent throughout the bowl, sideline bucket seats give way to bleachers in the corners and end. There are strange smatterings of yellow seats that would look better if there was some sort of design. On the west sideline, there is a steep upper deck that provides a unique vantage point to the match and also gives the fan a great view of downtown Rochester's skyline, which is visible throughout the rest of the bowl as well. In between the upper and lower deck is a series of luxury suites to go with the press box. Though the design is solid, there is still a sense of incompleteness, especially with that open south end that is so empty. Other issues include random placements of cup holders (some seats have them, some don't) and the embarrassingly bad scoreboard. The video screen looks like a game of Brick Breaker with the amount of panels that do not work.
The atmosphere for a Rhinos game is much more Minor League Americana than traditional soccer. There are cheerleaders, a mascot and even t-shirt tosses during play. It may be fun for families, but it is not ideal for those looking to have a more refined soccer experience. Probably the most annoying aspect is the forced snippets of pop music that plays during throw-ins, corner kicks and goal kicks.
The biggest issue that area residents have with the stadium is the location. Sahlen's Stadium sits west of downtown along the western edge of the Brown Square neighborhood and a good distance from any of the city's more popular spots, like High Falls. Pretty much all fans drive in for the game and then head home right after. The nearby residential areas (west of Broad Street) can be unnerving to travel through, however, fans heading to the stadium follow main roads. Police presence is high before and after games as safety is not a concern.
The Rhinos were a model franchise that even outdrew several MLS teams some 15 years ago. Now, crowds have dwindled to where the stadium ranges from a quarter to half full for games. That's not too say the fans are not good, because they are educated and at times vocal. One tradition that has carried on is an enjoyable cheer twice a game, where one sideline yells "Roch-es-ter" and the other answers "Rhi-nos." Rochester is also one of the better drawing sides in the USL and there is excellent media coverage as the press does a wonderful job covering the team.
After the supporters group "The Stampede" dissolved several years ago, the start-up "Oak Street Brigade" has started to gain some traction in Section 101. About 20-30 standing members chant, drum, cheer and wave flags throughout the game, which has helped to improve the atmosphere slightly. The green and yellow smoke let off during goals is unique as well. There is also a smaller group called the "Flower City Stampede" that is located behind one goal. Sometimes the competing chants between the two make things awkward and it would be much better to see the fewer members of the Stampede join the Brigade. Regardless, the gradual supporter's growth is encouraging.
Rochester has a great system of highways that make it quite easy to reach the city from all directions.
I-490 serves as the primary route in getting to Sahlen's Stadium and from the west, it is simple with Exit 12 being the way to reach the facility (with road signs to direct cars). For anyone coming from the east side, it is a little more complicated as drivers need to go through downtown starting at Exit 14. This leads to Plymouth Ave and eventually the stadium area. Parking is a concern as the only official lots for non-season ticket holders are small grassy and gravel areas past the stadium to the north along Broad Street. Most choose to pick a private, side lot for $5 along Oak Street, and though these are the better option, they tend to fill up quickly.
Inside, the concourses extend way beyond what is needed, so fans have plenty of space to roam. Bathrooms can be found in multiple spots along the way and only if there is a large crowd do lines grow at halftime.
With less than twenty soccer-specific stadiums in the United States that seat over 10,000, this is a great place to view the beautiful game at the professional level. Despite some flaws, the inside of the stadium features an outstanding viewing experience and smaller cities building the sport at the NASL or USL level should aspire for a soccer facility of this caliber. Tickets are $10 - $20 and concessions feature typical sports stadium pricing. Parking costs between $5 - $7 could be considered high, but these figures are standard for the other minor league teams that play in the city.
While the size of the Rhinos Hall of Fame on the concourse wall may be small, everything else the front office does with the HOF is big. Each year, new members receive a special ceremony at halftime of a regular season match and in 2015 a special "Legends Game" highlighted a great event as many ex-Rhinos came back to participate.
A Rhinos goal means that the speakers will blast the awesome soccer anthem "Ole Ole Ole" by Football Crazy. This is the perfect goal song and it has been played at Rhinos games since inception.
Trying to sum up the Rochester Rhinos at Sahlen's Stadium is a challenging proposition. On one hand, there is sadness and disappointment when looking at this once proud franchise play in front of a more than half empty stadium. Yet on the other hand, this is the largest, non-MLS soccer stadium in the United States and it features terrific sightlines as fans are able to comfortably enjoy the game.
Follow all of Sean's journeys at Stadium and Arena Visits.
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