BRIDGEVILLE, Pa. – Scottish striker Tam McManus had just arrived in Upstate New York after signing with United Soccer Leagues Pro Division side Rochester Rhinos.
He scanned his new team’s schedule for the season ahead and noticed what appeared to be glaring error – a game at Charlotte Eagles on a Friday night, May 11, followed by a game the next day at Charleston Battery.
“I had to ring the coach and ask if it was a typo,” said McManus shortly before Rochester’s 1-1 tie at Pittsburgh Riverhounds on June 17.
It wasn’t. It was an economic reality of playing in the third tier of American soccer.
McManus, 31, has endured a nomadic playing career since coming through the youth ranks at Scottish Premier League side Hibernian in the late 1990s. The Easter Road club allowed him to leave in 2005, and the former Scotland Under-21 international has since turned out for Dundee, Falkirk, Dunfermline Athletic, Colorado Rapids, Derry City and Ayr United.
That season-long stint in Major League Soccer with Colorado opened the door to McManus’ move to USL in February. John Murphy, former assistant coach and director of player development for the Rapids, is a friend of Rhinos’ first-year head coach Jesse Myers. Murphy was aware of McManus’ interest in a second stint across the pond and put him in touch with the Rhinos organization. The Glaswegian has been impressed with the set-up so far.
“It’s a big team in the States and they’ve got aspirations to move up the ladder,” McManus said. “I’m just happy to be here and I’m trying to contribute to a good season.”
Rochester’s 1999 success in the U.S. Open Cup marks the last time that a team from outside the top flight lifted the trophy, and the Rhinos broke ground on their near 14,000-capacity Sahlen’s Stadium in 2004 when just two MLS teams were playing in their own soccer-specific buildings.
Almost 8,000 fans attended Rochester’s home opener this season, a 1-0 win over Charlotte on May 5. An uneven schedule has seen the Rhinos play nine of their 13 games to date on the road and introduced McManus to back-to-back games, long bus rides and fields lined with American football markings.
“I think the first time I got the ball, it went out and I picked it up and got a foul given against me,” McManus said. “The boys were all laughing. I thought the white line was the line.”
Yellow lines marking the dimensions of a soccer field extend beyond the white football lines at some USL clubs’ home stadiums.
“Some of the teams here are well-supported and well-established and have good set-ups, and other teams are playing in high schools,” McManus said. “You just have to get on with it.”
Rochester arrived at another high school field in Bridgeville, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, for last Sunday’s game after conceding two late goals in a 2-1 loss along the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Harrisburg City Islanders on the Friday evening. USL teams often face grueling multiple-game road trips up and down the country’s eastern states, from New York to Florida, to save on travel costs.
“In Scotland you’ve got three- or four-hour drives to Aberdeen or Inverness,” McManus said. “Here, I think we went on an eight-hour bus journey once. It’s a long trek.
“I usually try to get a sleep or go on the computer to pass the time. We don’t really get to see a lot of the places we go to. We just get into the hotel and usually we’re knackered after traveling through the night.”
Only 24 minutes of Sunday’s game had elapsed when McManus trudged toward the touchline with a grimace. He’d rolled over his left ankle on the Riverhounds’ rock solid artificial field and feared he might have strained his calf muscles. Rochester’s physiotherapist helped to wrap his leg in ice, and the Scot spent the rest of the afternoon offering vocal encouragement to his young teammates.
“He’s an extremely good locker room guy,” said Myers after the game. “He works hard, he does all of the little things, and he’s been an extremely good fit.
“He’s just been a little unlucky right now.”
McManus netted his first goal for the Rhinos to salvage a point in the last minute of a 2-2 tie at Dayton Dutch Lions on May 26. He’s been unable to add to his tally since.
“A little of his lack of goals have come from us trying to figure out our attack,” Myers said. “We brought in a lot of new guys in the attacking part of this team. Just the continuity, how they need to play, is a little off.
“In the last game at Harrisburg, he hit the post off a glancing header and then had a good attempt that beat the keeper off a tough angle and hit the post again. At some point something is going to go in.”
Despite those misfortunes, the Rhinos sit third in the standings with eight of their remaining 11 games to be played at Sahlen’s Stadium. They are in good shape for a play-off spot and another tilt at their first USL title since lifting back-to-back championships in 2000 and 2001.
“We’ve got quite a young team,” McManus said. “It’s important for myself and the other experienced guys to try to help the young guys along.
“They can do the running for us and hopefully we can do the rest.”