It’s been a few weeks since the end of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds season, and while I have transitioned into covering the scholastic sports scene, primarily WPIAL boys and girls soccer, along with some Friday night football game coverage for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and its sister publications, I would be remiss if I didn’t put my own personal wrap on what was a memorable 2015 campaign for the Hounds.
The up and down season ended with bitter disappointment in New Jersey, as the team faltered late in their USL quarterfinal playoff match against the New York Red Bulls II, who proved to be a little too much to handle in extra time.
At the start of 2015, questions lingered about a franchise that had just come out of the dark shadow of bankruptcy proceedings and a disappointing season on the field. With a new President, Richard Nightingale, and a new Head Coach, USL Hall of Famer Mark Steffens, the Hounds were able to begin taking a step forward with getting things back on track.
I completed my 2015 season preview in March by outlining the three keys to a successful season for the franchise, and by looking at them now, it seems even if they did fall short in the playoffs, the Riverhounds certainly exceeded expectations and provided for a mostly entertaining season as they finished with a winning record (11-9-8), landed a spot in USL Playoffs, had one of the highest scoring teams in the league, won the first-ever Turnpike Cup.
My three keys to a successful 2015 were:
1. Get Off To A Good Start
2. Improve Fan Support
3. Replacing Angulo
Here is a closer look at the three keys, and how things turned out.
1. Get off to good start
After two previous seasons which the Hounds had miserable starts, they started off in March with a big 5-2 win over in-state rivals Harrisburg to set the tone for the early part of the season. Sure, they would be up and down. So much so that they went through the first 12 games boasting records of 1-1-1, 2-2-2, 3-3-3 and 4-4-4. That’s the very definition of being up and down.
But, two important things of note came from the start to their 2015 campaign: They found an identity under Steffens as the league’s highest scoring side in the first quarter-plus of the season. This start was miles better than what transpired in 2013 and 2014, as they were above the playoff line from the outset of the season.
Verdict: it was a good enough start to 2015 to help set the stage for a playoff season.
2. Improve Fan Support
I devoted significant attention to this early in the season in one post and article “Addressing the White Elephant in Highmark Stadium” in Pittsburgh Sports Report, when the team played four home games in their first six before small crowds. While playing so many home games in March and April may have helped on the field, it seemed as if playing soccer games in Pittsburgh so early in the Spring were a tough sell (opener was on March 29 with kickoff temperature around 25 degrees, and wind chills much lower than that). Crowds were sparse, as the Hounds were having trouble breaking past the 1,500 mark. As May came, the crowds were only slightly improving, even as they hosted NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies in the US Open Third Round match, there were still a lot of empty seats at Highmark Stadium.
The 1-0 win over the Rowdies, thanks to a Robbie Vincent goal in 90th minute, was a major boost. It would set the stage for two of the most memorable home games played in 2015, and would help with improving attendance as the Summer months came upon the Steel City.
Of course I am talking about the remarkable come-from-behind victory in the second match against the City Islanders a few nights later, and the US Open Cup loss in extra time against DC United of Major League Soccer in mid-June.
Even though it wasn’t played before a sellout, the dramatic win over Harrisburg, which they scored three goals after the 89th minute to overcome a two-goal deficit, created enough of a buzz that certainly helped the Hounds at the gate. The DC United game provided the atmosphere, with an overflow and very lively crowd that spilled into the standing room only area provided with Pittsburgh with a slice of soccer euphoria that exists in so many places around the globe, but foreign to our City.
The remainder of the summer, attendance remained strong at or near sell outs in July and August that included the usual 4th of July game.
The long season didn’t help much either, as the final home games in September did see another dip in fan attendance, even as the team was battling for a playoff berth.
A final footnote, the Steel Army, the Riverhounds loyal supporters did report increases in membership, but also like the overall attendance numbers, their turnout game-in-and-game out did reflect the bigger picture as well. But kudos to the Army, who were strong presence all season long at home and even on the road. The Riverhounds and owner Tuffy Shallenberger recognized how important their loyal supporters were, as they picked up the tab for charter bus rides to road games three times this season. The Riverhounds are clearly making every effort to reward its most loyal fans, and try to build a stronger base for the coming years.
Verdict: Gradual Progress benefitted by some things that went their way- particularly winning coin flips to host US Open games. Trends also seem to suggest that attendance will always peak in mid-summer, but like continue to struggle in early Spring and late Summer. With USL aggressive expansion, the longer schedule will continue to be a challenge for the Hounds. But to see the club chartering bus for its most loyal supporters is a positive sign. The day when the supporters group is funding their own way to multiple road games a season will truly be something.
3. Replacing Jose Angulo
This was a valid concern going into the season. However, Steffens quickly realized in the preseason that the Hounds didn’t have to look too far for goal scoring to replace their leading scorer from 2013 and 2014.
Vincent and Kevin Kerr, two players entering their third seasons in Pittsburgh who were solid performers but had never shown dynamic goal scoring prowess, were just what the Riverhounds were looking for, as Steffens utilized them on the opposite flanks. The duo played off each other effectively, blossoming into the USL’s top scoring tandem, as both took advantage of the flexibility in Steffens’ 4-2-3-1 formation.
While Vincent stayed at or near the top of the USLs goal scoring leaderboard, and Kerr as one of the league’s top assist men, Lebo Moloto really came into his own gradually as the season progressed in the attacking midfield role. There were concerns from the loyal fan base with the Hounds to field a consistent threat at the forward spot, with occasional contributions from the likes of Vini Dantas, Miro Cabrilo and a few others. It was also a position who had players in a supporting role, holding up the ball and redistributing the ball back to Vincent, Kerr and Moloto, the playmakers in midfield who scored the majority of Pittsburgh’s goals.
Even in games which became more tightly contested, as expected in Cup competition and in the final stretch of the season with playoff implications as they reeled off a six game unbeaten string, the Hounds remained a dangerous team in the attack.
Verdict: The Hounds scored the second most goals in the 24-team USL in 2015. I’d say that they became an even better goal scoring outfit than without a dynamic scorer who was deadly in and around the box. Vincent alone surpassed Angulo’s 15-goal mark, by finishing with 18 in USL play and 21 in all competitions.