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View From The Booth: New breed of Hounds passes significant test

Bigger challenges ahead, but there’s little doubt Lilley’s men have set themselves up well.

The Steel Army and Amo. - ED THOMPSON

View From The Booth: New breed of Hounds passes significant test

Editor’s note: Riverhounds play-by-play broadcaster Matt Gajtka brings his perspective on the team throughout the season in his weekly ‘View From The Booth’ column.

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds have not made the United Soccer League playoffs since 2015. They’ve had a winning record just six times in 18 all-time seasons. They have never hosted a postseason match in the modern USL era, which started in 2011.

So, the Hounds should be ecstatic about their 5-1-6 start to the 2018 season, right? Not quite, if we are to seriously consider Bob Lilley‘s “hogwash” statement after a 0-0 draw with Penn FC on May 26.

Lilley, a USL Hall of Fame coach, has spared no quarter in his post-match assessments in his first season on the Hounds bench, but I had no quarrel with the tough love as a so-so May lurched into June. It took until May 23 for Pittsburgh to lose in any competition and another week after that for its first USL defeat, but a five-match winless streak against pro competition combined with a one-goal-in-four-matches drought at home put the team on an unequivocal downward trend.

That’s why that 2-1 comeback victory in Richmond last Saturday seemed so significant to the Hounds’ hopes for continued success. Turning a potential two-game losing streak into three points heading into this week’s bye surely prettied up the standings from a black-and-gold perspective.

 

That third-place spot looks mighty lofty now, especially for a franchise looking for its footing, but the Hounds theoretically could’ve been knocked out of the playoff zone this weekend if they had lost to the Kickers. That’s crazy for a Pittsburgh team that didn’t lose in its first 10 league matches, but that’s also the reality in a congested Eastern Conference.

“I think we definitely needed the win, coming off the form we (had),” central defender Todd Pratzner said at a training session this week in the South Hills. “It’s nice to have the week off and kinda get the legs back and refresh.”

Not that we should be terribly concerned with the table with four months and 22 matchdays left, but there’s not a huge margin for error. I’m not questioning the confidence of these pros, but for a roster that’s been almost completely revamped since the Dave Brandt era, it has to be nice to look upon their works from the opening 11 weeks and know they haven’t been spoiled.

Heck, even a draw at Richmond would’ve left the Hounds vulnerable during their off-week, so Romeo Parkes‘ bit of volley magic in the 79th minute at City Stadium was important in more ways than one.

While we’re on the subject … Could the Hounds’ second-half attack in Richmond be a blueprint for how Lilley might deploy the Jamaican duo of Parkes and Neco Brett up top? The tenacious, hard-working Brett is more than capable of cleaning up the front of goal while Parkes hides in the weeds, waiting for the opportunity to slide into creases and receive service.

It’s enough to dream on for Hounds fans, at least, as they look ahead for the team’s return to the pitch June 16 against New York Red Bulls II at Highmark Stadium. There’s no questioning the Hounds’ defensive record — their seven goals conceded is tied for the league lead with Nashville and defending champ Louisville — but finishing has still been a trouble spot, as Lilley bluntly reminded a couple of weeks ago.

“We’re not getting shut out because we’re not creating chances,” Lilley told reporters, including our John Krysinsky, after the team’s fourth nil-nil draw of the season, and second against passive Penn FC.

“We’re getting shut out because we’re soft right now in terms of really putting the hammer down. We have teams in trouble, and we’re casual in front of goal.”

If you respond more to hard data than the manager’s words or anecdotal evidence, the Hounds rank a decent 12th of 33 USL teams in shots (153 in 12 matches) but just 18th in goals (14). As you might imagine, that conversion rate is in the bottom half of the league.

That’s why connecting twice on a soggy Saturday in Richmond had to have been refreshing to the weary Hounds. In their seventh match in just over three weeks, Pittsburgh generated 55 percent possession, served in 30 crosses and put eight of their 20 shots on target. It’s easy to be inspired when trailing, but to put up such a fine attacking performance on the road showed some impressive fight, not to mention a level of quality Lilley frequently has expressed belief in.

“Obviously it’s nice to get those two goals after trailing,” Lilley said Saturday. “I think we played very well. It is disappointing that we didn’t get on top of the game, and obviously Richmond is very good on this field, all of their wins are here. We knew it would be difficult since we played Wednesday.”

Now, with nothing but training sessions on the docket until the middle of the month, the Hounds can look back at the gauntlet they just passed through as positive reinforcement more than anything.

“That was kind of tiring,” said star rookie Thomas Vancaeyezeele. He would know, since he’s played every minute of every league match so far.

“Now we have a break, so we’re going to be fresh.”

Bigger challenges lie ahead, like trips to Charleston and Louisville to close the month, but there’s little doubt the Hounds have set themselves up well. Maybe it really is a new era.

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