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Pittsburgh Riverhounds

View From The Booth: Time is now to capture hearts and minds

Maybe someday it’ll just be about winning for this franchise, but we’re not there yet. 

The crowd at Highmark Stadium on May 30 got two looks at Joe Holland. - ED THOMPSON

View From The Booth: Time is now to capture hearts and minds

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.

For Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, there will be no U.S. Open Cup matchup against a Major League Soccer team this year.

There will be no madcap 6-5 victories, either, if the early results of the Bob Lilley era are any indication.

What there will be, for the first time in three years, are meaningful matches throughout the United Soccer League season for the Riverhounds.

As I wrote last week in my maiden column here, these Hounds certainly appear to be the real deal through approximately a third of the season. Is a contending team enough to get more seats filled at Highmark Stadium and more brains hooked on the Beautiful Game this summer?

To be painfully honest, I’m not sure.

I’ve been officially affiliated with this club for three years and I’ve attended Hounds matches dating back to the 2000 season, when home was Bethel Park High School. It’s amazing, but nearly two decades later, I’m still internally debating whether Pittsburgh’s local club will ever truly insert itself into the local pro sports conversation.

It’s happened for short spells, most notably during the 2015 season, when a tight U.S. Open Cup showdown against D.C. United hinted at all that soccer could be in Pittsburgh. Furthermore, Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr were working their attack magic all year, too, boosting a playoff-bound Hounds team that spent most of the year as the USL’s highest-scoring squad.

This year’s team could be even better, since it’s operating with a foundation of defending that this franchise has probably never seen … certainly not in the Highmark Stadium era. Even after taking last weekend off, the Hounds are still tied for second in the 33-team league with seven clean sheets; they are first in goals conceded, with seven allowed in 12 matches.

That’s a formula for success, even though the 5-1-6 Hounds have too often come up a little short at the finishing end.

“Even in training, it’s hard to play against the defense we have,” forward Christiano François told Hounds host Haley Timple at training this week. “Our defense has been good this year because our coach is a very defensive coach.”

But, after watching closely during this still-young season, I feel that to label the Hounds as some shut-it-down outfit determined to win one-nil at home and draw nil-nil on the road isn’t accurate.

Don’t let this team’s lack of quality around the opposing goal fool you into thinking Lilley has had his Hounds on leashes. Yes, there have been a few dull moments to go with the four(!) 0-0 ties, but there have been chances for a attacking group still looking for some confidence at the moment of truth.

And, as that overturned Neco Brett game-winner from May 26 against Penn FC demonstrated, a little luck would help, too:

Pump a few more goals in the net and this year’s brand of soccer is a much easier sell that it is if you simply looked at the 12 final scores. If you actually watch the games, you know LilleyBall is anything but passive.

Listen to wingback Jordan Dover describe the Hounds’ approach to the game and see if that sounds boring.

“Just trying to get pressure on the ball whenever we can, so they have a hard time connecting passes,” Dover said. “Try to get on top of them (defensively), counter and get up in the attack whenever possible.”

That high-pressure game will be truly tested this month, starting with a Saturday home meeting with New York Red Bulls II and ending with trips to challenge Charleston Battery and Louisville City FC. This weekend’s visitors sport the top goal total and shot total in the Eastern Conference, so rope-a-dope wouldn’t be wise, anyway.

If Pittsburgh can stay on the attack, it should be a match high in entertainment value for those in the stands. With the World Cup booting the Stanley Cup to the curb, the Pirates sagging in the standings and school out of session, the time is right for the Hounds — and soccer — to grab eyeballs in western Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, Lilley’s boys have just two home matches in the next five weeks. The moment is theirs for the taking, albeit boiled down to 90 minutes this Saturday and 90 more on the Fourth of July.

You can obviously follow the road matches, but not in the way that major-league sports fans are accustomed to doing. Home results still reign supreme in this league, and the Hounds have been blanked in three of their past four at Station Square.

The pressure is on, gentlemen. Not just to stay near the top of the East standings, but to win hearts and minds, too. Like it or not, that’s the Riverhounds’ reality, as it always has been.

Maybe someday it’ll just be about winning, but we’re not there yet.

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[…] I wrote last week about the need to show off in front of summertime home crowds, so consider Saturday a mission accomplished from that superficial point of view. There were opportunities at both ends, sure, but the Hounds were the better team through the run of play and both strikers converted chances, with Parkes punctuating his headed blast with a signature backflip. […]

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