PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC were trailing after 45 minutes Wednesday evening at Highmark Stadium, a totally foreign position for Bob Lilley‘s upstart team this year.
Still, they pressed FC Cincinnati in the opening moments of the second half, coming within inches of equalizing on the best of those chances. Was the first comeback victory of 2018 in the making, and in U.S. Open Cup play to boot?
But a brilliant free kick by FCC’s Lance Laing and a rebound finish by Daniel Haber turned a tight 1-0 affair into a three-goal walk and a third-round ousting for the Hounds, marking the third straight season they’ve failed to arrange a showdown with a Major League Soccer side in this single-elimination competition.
The 3-1 decision lifted FCC to 4-0-3 all-time against Pittsburgh and into the fourth round for the second consecutive year:
The disappointment for Pittsburgh lied not necessarily in losing for the first time in all competitions this year, or conceding three goals at home after shutting out its opponent in five straight games at Station Square. It wasn’t even losing the chance to make an impression on the casual sports fan in the area whose ears would perk upon hearing of the Hounds challenging the MLS.
No, a sweet victory was there for the taking, and they couldn’t seize it. The Hounds weren’t outclassed against their third-year Ohio rivals, but they were outscored.
Their consolation? The USL’s lone unbeaten team be back on their home pitch twice more in the next week as league play continues with Penn FC on Saturday and Nashville SC next Wednesday.
“We could’ve been bigger, but we know we have a plan for the night and a plan for Saturday,” Lilley said, referencing his decision to keep rookie of the year candidate Thomas Vancaeyezeele on the bench for the first time. “We’ll put a team out there that’ll be ready to get a result against (Penn FC).”
Much like the Hounds, who also didn’t deploy captain Kevin Kerr, FC Cincinnati left several of its first-team players back home for their second U.S. Open Cup match of the spring. Danni König and Emmanuel Ledesma, both of whom have four goals in USL play, didn’t make the trip to Pittsburgh, and neither did Corben Bone (three goals, plus the winner in last week’s Cup win over Detroit City FC) or defenders Dekel Keinen, Justin Hoyte and Richie Ryan.
“We’ve got a great group,” FCC manager Alan Koch said. “It doesn’t matter who’s going to play for us. I’ve absolute confidence in the group that played tonight, obviously, and I have absolute confidence in the group that plays for us every time we step on the field. Yeah, we rotated, technically, but we really don’t have a rotation. It’s very, very difficult to figure out the best players in each position on our team.”
Pittsburgh’s attack was led by Neco Brett, with the similarly-compact Noah Franke and Christiano François flanking, so aerial balls weren’t going to work much on this night. As such, the Hounds couldn’t generate much off the several free kicks and corners Joe Holland was tasked to handle.
The Hounds’ best chance to nudge their noses ahead came about midway through the first half, when wing back Jordan Dover cleanly struck a François cross first-time and nearly beat FCC keeper Spencer Richey inside the right post.
Not long after that, in the 39th minute to be specific, old Harrisburg City Islanders friend Jimmy McLaughlin polished off a beautiful three-way combination from the left side of the penalty area. After Laing served a long ball to Emery Welshman at the penalty arc, McLaughlin beat Hugh Roberts to the spot for only goal before the break:
— FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) May 23, 2018
“It was a cagey affair the first half, but you’re going to have that against top teams,” Lilley said. “On our field there’s not a lot of room. That was the disappointment in the first goal. It was a long ball that wasn’t challenged, we fall asleep and lose the runner. We had numbers back.”
So the Hounds had been perforated for the first time at home in 2018, but they still had enough moments in the opening half to lead spectators to believe it wouldn’t be a cruise to the finish line. (FC Cincinnati having allowed 14 goals in 11 matches coming in also contributed to that feeling.)
Switched to the right flank after the half, François nearly set up a second own goal in the Hounds’ favor over the past week. His cross in the 58th minute deflected off an FCC defender and the crossbar before Brett fired a volley over the crossbar. Pittsburgh was hemming the visitors in their defending third and it seemed a matter of time.
“We needed to get around the edges,” said Lilley, who was generally pleased with the attack. “We needed to create balls flying across the box from wide areas. I think our guys took more risks in making runs and getting behind.”
It actually was a matter of time before the next goal, but it didn’t go to the Hounds.
Against the run of play, a Tobi Adewole 30 yards from Dan Lynd‘s goal set up Laing with a free kick on the right wing in the 61st. Unlike in the first half, when Lynd tapped a Laing curler over the crossbar, the lanky Jamaican midfielder crushed the ball over a three-man wall and past Lynd’s futile dive:
— FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) May 24, 2018
As if that wasn’t crushing enough to the Hounds’ rally hopes, Haber cleaned up the rebound of Welshman’s 15-yard crack for a three-nil advantage in the 62nd, punishing Roberts’ poor clearance:
— FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) May 24, 2018
From there, the home side was in desperation mode, but had nothing to show for all the possession time and dangerous approaches until, in the 88th minute, 30-year-old Hounds striker Dennis Chin finished the remains of Andrew Lubahn‘s drive off the post from the edge of the box.
Both men involved in the goal were substitutes, as was Romeo Parkes. The big man up front replaced Brett and was robbed of a flick-on assist when Franke couldn’t beat Richey from point-blank range in stoppage time.
“I thought Romeo had some good sequences,” Lilley said. “We’ve known we have lots to work on. We have gears we haven’t even shown you yet. I’m just anxious to get to Saturday and play a good game Saturday.”
Lilley said Lubahn will draw into the lineup against Penn FC, but Chin will again ride the pine as he tries to fully recover from an early-season ankle injury.
“It’s been rough for me to miss so many games,” said Chin, a former USL Golden Boot winner in 2012 for Orlando City SC. “I would’ve loved to get the win, but I guess a goal is good to get.
“Mentally it’s tough. I’ve been involved everywhere I’ve been. Our team’s been doing well. It’s been impressive and Bob has these guys going. I just needed to get where I need to be.”
Although the Hounds will enviously watch Thursday’s fourth-round U.S. Open Cup draw to see where FC Cincinnati (6-2-2 in USL) ends up, there was a sense of optimism from the boys in black and gold after this one.
Wednesday night represented an opportunity missed, for sure, but the fourth-place Hounds are still unbeaten (4-0-5) in league and have two home fixtures in the next seven days as they try to climb to the top of the Eastern Conference table.
Who knows, maybe being forced to attack throughout the second half will boost a Pittsburgh attack which has been stagnant as often as it’s been dynamic. And maybe popping one ball into the net late can provide some offensive belief against two teams that blanked the Hounds earlier this season.
“When these guys heads go down, you have to be a positive influence on the field and bring some energy,” Chin said. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. We have to build on that going forward.”
Kickoff against Penn FC is set for 7 p.m. Saturday, with a ‘blackout’ scheduled for Highmark Stadium. The two teams drew 0-0 back in late March in the first of three legs in this year’s Keystone Derby.
FCC – Jimmy McLaughlin (Emery Welshman) 39’
FCC – Lance Laing (unassisted) 61’
FCC – Daniel Haber (unassisted) 62’
PGH – Danny Chin (Andrew Lubahn) 88′
FCC – Lance Laing (caution) 68’
PIT – Andrew Lubahn (caution) 78’
FC Cincinnati: Spencer Richey, Lance Laing (Blake Smith 92+’), Forrest Lasso, Sem De Wit, Matt Bahner, Michael Lahoud (C), Will Seymore, Daniel Haber (Kenney Walker 75’), Jimmy McLaughlin, Russell Cicerone, Emery Welshman (Tomi Ameobi 86’)
Bench: Mark Village, Nazmi Albadawi
STATS: Shots 10, Shots on Target 7, Fouls conceded 13, Corner kicks 2, Offsides 2, Saves 4, Possession 45.8%
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC: Daniel Lynd, Raymond Lee, Jordan Dover (Andrew Lubahn 72), Tobi Adewole, Todd Pratzner, Hugh Roberts (Dennis Chin 72’), Noah Franke, Kenardo Forbes (C), Christiano Francois, Joseph Holland, Neco Brett (Romeo Parkes 80’)
Bench: Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Ben Zemanski, Kevin Kerr, Michael Kirk
STATS: Shots 18, Shots on Target 5, Fouls conceded 13, Corner kicks 9, Offsides 4, Saves 4, Possession 54.2%
Referee: Kevin Fikar