The Pittsburgh Riverhounds might just be that team nobody wants to play right now.
By ending the season with a 2-1 win at Harrisburg on Saturday to earn a playoff berth and win the Keystone Derby, the Hounds head into the postseason with all kinds of confidence.
Since losing on the road to the Charlotte Independence, 2-1, on August 22, the Hounds quietly put together a five-game unbeaten string to finish the regular season and enter the USL playoffs as the fifth seeded team (out of 6) in the Eastern Conference.
“A lot of teams don’t like to play that last team to get in, because you have everything to gain, and nothing to lose,” said Mark Steffens, Riverhounds Head Coach.
Of course, a lot can change quickly, but the Hounds are poised and believe that they can make a deep playoff run.
REVELING IN THE UNDERDOG ROLE
The Riverhounds begin the playoffs on Saturday as they visit Red Bull Arena to take on the New York Red Bulls II. The teams split their season series, NYRBII won 3-2 in early May at Red Bull Arena, and the Hounds won 3-0, on July 4 at Highmark Stadium.
“We’ll be an underdog. And that’s fine. We’ve played well against New York this year, so I like our chances,” said Steffens after beating Harrisburg on Saturday to clinch a spot in the playoffs.
Steffens has been here before.
In nearly 20 years at the helm of the Charlotte Eagles, the current Hounds top man led Charlotte to seven title games, and won’t two Championships.
Most recently, he guided a lower seeded Eagles side to the 2013 Championship Game against Orlando City that was played before more than 20,000 at the Citrus Bowl.
It also appears that the Hounds have received a favorable draw, at least as far as their first quarterfinal match goes. Instead of traveling to long-time rivals Richmond or Charleston, they will be playing at Red Bull Arena, where playing in the spacious MLS soccer-only stadium against what is essentially a reserve team that has little fan support might work in their favor.
Here’s what the Eastern Conference playoff schedule looks like heading into next weekend:
Saturday, September 26
Pittsburgh (5) at NY Red Bulls II (4) 5 p.m.
Richmond (6) at Charleston (3) 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, October 3
Pgh-NYRBII winner at Rochester (1) TBA
Rich-Charl winner at Louisville City (2) TBA
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Saturday, October 10
Semifinal Winners – TBA
USL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
*Saturday, October 17
Eastern Conference winner vs Western Conference winner
DEFENDING THEIR WAY IN
For much of the season, the Riverhounds were a team that scored in bunches, either leading or near the top of the USL in goals scored. However, they were also near the top of the league in goals surrendered. Steffens knew this had to change for his team to have any chance to get into the playoffs and acknowledged that after the game on Saturday.
The hallmark of the Riverhounds success down the stretch was how well they defended as team. By keeping a strong defensive shape consistently, they were able to stay in every game and seemed to cut down drastically on defensive lapses that haunted them in the early parts of the season. Since losing 4-3 at Harrisburg on July 25, the Riverhounds surrendered a total of eight goals in their final nine games.
As the season drew to a close, as each game became more tightly contested, the Hounds answered the call to limit their opponents scoring opportunities.
“I am so pleased with our defensive performance. We’ve gone from being one of the worst teams in the league defending — to in the final third of the season being one of the best,” added Steffens.
Much credit should go to the center back tandem of Anthony Arena and Willie Hunt. While Fejiro Okiomah started the season alongside Arena in the middle of the backline, he was struggling with injuries and seemed to have some tough luck at times — slipping on a couple of different occasions.
After an early season leg injury, Matt Dallman has provided a boost to the line-up, giving Steffens another option at right outside back. Dallman, with his pinpoint passing and ability to make dangerous runs on the flank, is an option that can make game changing plays for the Hounds in the attack with this accuracy on long balls and crosses.
Sterling Flunder, with more than 130 appearances in his seven seasons with the Hounds, has been playing well at left back. Throw in the speedy youngster Tyler Pasher and veteran late season pick up Ben Newnam, and Steffens has good depth with the back line.
STEEL ARMY INVASION
Shortly after the Hounds tied league-leading Rochester on Wednesday, knowing that they needed a win at Harrisburg to advance to the playoffs, owner Tuffy Shallenberger decided to see about getting a chartered bus for the loyal Riverhounds supporters, The Steel Army, for Saturday’s match.
While it was a contingent of approximately 35 people on the bus, there were also additional fans who made the trip to Central Pennsylvania to root on the Hounds.
There were a lively group to ride with (I’ve taken three trips with them now so I’m a seasoned veteran). Here’s one of their clips on the bus as they were arriving in Harrisburg…
At one point during Saturday’s match, Pittsburgh Riverhounds Media Manager Ian Thomson turned to me — making the observation that the one section filled with the Steel Army on the left side of the far field was making all of the noise while all of the other sections were mostly quiet.
Loud. Proud. And from Pittsburgh, decked out in gold — The Steel Army gave the Hounds a boost.
That’s pretty much what was the feedback in the locker room after the game as the players could not have been more appreciative.
“They were ‘ledge’,” said Kevin Kerr afterwards.
Other players chimed in on Twitter too…
The Riverhounds were so happy with having The Army’s presence last week, that they will be invading Northern New Jersey this week on another chartered bus.
If the Hounds can get on a playoff run — now that would be “Ledge”.