They might be the youngest and most inexperienced team in the Major Arena Soccer League, but the Rochester Lancers should lead the league in one category: heart.
"We're going to be a blue collar, organized hard-working team that with some good breaks, will shock a few people," Lancers head coach Doug Miller said.
The Lancers celebrate their return to the great indoors with two games at the Dome Arena this weekend. They will tussle with their closest rivals, Utica City FC, on Friday before hosting the Harrisburg Heat on Saturday. Both matches begin at 7 p.m.
In a MASL rarity, the Lancers have rostered many local players, who hail from Brighton, Chili, Churchville, Gates, Henrietta, Mendon, Pittsford, Rush, Victor and Webster.
They will be helped by several indoor veterans with MASL experience. Last year's Lancers finished on a high, securing the third-place trophy in the M2 (MASL2) playoffs. While that was considered a successful season, moving up to the top league is a sizable step.
Miller has liked what he has seen from his youthful squad.
"When we played our intrasquad game, our blue and gold game last week, the intensity was there, the movement was there," he said. "One of the things that teams are going to see is that we're very organized and the system that we play and how we defend. The challenge for us is going to be able to do for the first 7 1/2 minutes, but for 60 minutes. If we do, we're going to surprise some people."
The key to the squad's success will be teamwork. The Lancers enter the season without any superstars, although some might emerge depending on how well players develop and respond to the challenge.
"We're getting thrown into the deep end," said forward Michael Cunningham, who will co-captain the team with Anthony Rozzano. "I think it will be good for us.
"If teams are going to take points away from us, they're going to have to earn because we're not going to roll over and give up. Every player has to give 100 percent. We're not a team with any MASL superstars. So, we know it has to be a unified, very much a team effort. There are no guys that will be carrying us. We're all going to have to put in a shift.
"Sometimes that ends up being a great sporting story, seeing in other leagues teams that are underdogs end up rising up because of the culture of the team, because of the team spirit. We have a great culture."
That culture starts off the field, in and out of the locker room.
"Guys enjoy being around one another, fighting for one another," Cunningham said. "We hang around outside of practice at team events. We get together and do extra training together. It's definitely a good culture here, which I have not experienced on many teams. That's carried over from last season and in the M2. We had a solid group of guys and it's good to see a core of them are still around."
For many of the young players and rookies it will be about soaking up the experience.
"The goals of the team for the young guys and the rookies is to learn, take it all in. the wins, the losses, the close games," veteran midfielder Jeremy Ortiz said. "If they take every detail of what they learn from this year and incorporate that hopefully into the years that come, whether it's good or bad, that's what it’s about.
"Will we make the playoffs? Who knows? Will we get more wins than losses? Who knows? I'm not going to say we're going to try to win a championship here. But I do think, these rookies and young guys, they're going to definitely play to the best of their ability. You're going to see a team that's going to be hard and gritty and fight for every inch of the game."
Midfielder Gary Boughton saw this season as the start of a new generation that will take the baton from the veterans.
"My job is going to be to try and bring some of those young guys along and try and pass on some of that knowledge and wisdom that I have in order to be able to prepare them for taking the reins in the future," he said. "We want to see the ability to compete with some of these teams that have been doing this at this level for years and years, like the Baltimore's, the Milwaukee's and the Kansas City's. Being able to compete with those guys is definitely a goal of ours. For a long-term perspective, getting the younger guys the experience they need to transition into those veteran leaders is going to be one of the biggest goals this season."
Utica City FC has several familiar faces to Rochester fans, including M2 all-league defender Jake Schindler, who has starred for the Lancers, inside and out, over the years. Just before Rochester rejoined the MASL, Schindler signed with Utica.
"You're going to go out and compete, whether you’re playing against your friends or anybody else," Miller said. "You always want to be and do your very best. It's going to be their mentality to come in here and get three points. Our mentality is going to be the same. They have 100 percent more experience than we have, but in the end, any team can be beaten on any given day. Just a matter who shows up."