It was a familiar scenario. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds fell behind Saturday night. Then they had to battle back to earn points, in a 1-1 draw with the Richmond Kickers.
This was the fifth time this season that they have trailed 1-0. Two of those games, they were able to salvage a tie at the end of the match (at St. Louis and Richmond). They have not overcome a one goal deficit to win a game yet.
Riverhounds head coach Mark Steffens may have said it best after Saturday’s hard-fought tie.
“In this game, it’s very hard to chase a lead. We’ve been in that situation way too much this year,” said Steffens, a member of the USL Hall of Fame.
Overall, it was a decent result against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
As I said last week, the Riverhounds are still a bit of a work in progress, but this performance is something to build upon, especially after coming off a tough loss.
Without further ado, here are three things that we learned about the Hounds from the first leg of a home-and-home series with the perennial USL title contending Kickers.
PATCHING UP THE DEFENSE
With a back line that was responsible for a few gaffes in Charleston that led to their biggest defeat of the season, and with the news that center back Fejiro Okiomah and regular starting goalkeeper Ryan Thompson would not play on Saturday evening, things didn’t look that promising for the Riverhounds.
Throw in the fact that Thompson’s replacement, Calle Brown was making his pro debut, and he appeared a little nervous in his first few touches, a long night potentially loomed on the horizon at Highmark Stadium for the Hounds.
Then, as the team intentionally kept their outside backs tucked in and they were mostly taking a cautious approach packing things in early in the match, one of their best defenders, Anthony Arena, slipped on a routine ball played back to him, leading to a Brian Ownby goal to give Richmond a 1-0 lead.
Bad to worse, right?
But something interesting happened after that.
They played 65 plus solid minutes of organized, mistake-free defense, keeping Richmond’s scoring chances to a minimum.
A turning point might have come when Arena chased down Ownby who was making a dangerous run on the left side, in space and into the box. Arena’s slide tackle to take the ball, and a potential second goal away from his former teammate, roommate and very close friend, was a big time play. If he doesn’t time that right, with his team trailing 1-0, we were looking at a potential penalty kick for the Kickers. At that point, it might have been lights out for the Hounds.
And for good measure, a defender, Arena, the guy who had the unfortunate slip earlier in the first half, scored the equalizing goal.
“It was a relief,” said Arena after the match.
“Mistakes happen. I had to keep my head.”
Sure enough, Arena, who started the season with three yellow cards in the first four games, played with fire and composure throughout the match with a rookie minding the net behind him.
Tyler Pasher, Willie Hunt and Matt Dallman were sold along the back, giving Hounds Head Coach Mark Steffens a lot of confidence that the back line will keep getting better.
“We are making progress,” added Steffens.
“Once we settled in, and Calle had a few touches, we played well. Our biggest problem is that we’ve had no consistency with our lineup. When that’s the case, it’s hard to develop chemistry. But the more they are playing together, they will be more comfortable back there.”
ARE STRIKERS DOING ENOUGH?
After eight USL contests, the Riverhounds have not had a lot of goal scoring production from their forwards. The two players who have started games at the center forward spot, Vini Dantas and Miro Cabrilo have combined for two goals.
Dantas had a golden chance in the later part of the first half to convert a brilliantly played, low cross from the left side that came right to the vicinity of his feet inside the goal box, and with a defender running step-for-step with him, and goalie stepping to deny him, he whiffed — missing a potential clinical one-timer.
At first glance, and after watching Dantas, who’s played the majority of the minutes at the forward spot, you might think that the Riverhounds are sorely lacking a dynamic threat at the top, who can create scoring chances by taking on defenders and using separation speed.
But that’s not what Dantas, nor Cabrilo do well. They not forwards in that mold.
And that’s just fine.
The last I looked, the Riverhounds have scored 17 goals, which is among the tops in the Eastern Conference and the entire USL. One of the reasons for this, is that they are using a system that is becoming more and more prevalent in higher tiers of U.S. soccer. They are utilizing a big, physically strong player, who has good ball skills and works with the midfielders and/or wingers to maintain possession and find openings in the defense. If a central forward is holding up the ball, and bringing attention from the central defenders, it frees up space for the outside midfielders to operate. This has enabled Kevin Kerr and Rob Vincent to work so well together, even though they are on opposite flanks most of the time.
Has Dantas, with one goal, two assists and 11 shots, and having shown the ability draw numerous fouls, and work creatively in tight spots, been a bust? Is he a limited player, who might be best suited for futsol or indoor soccer?
Not to this point. Sure there are opportunities that he has missed (most notably the converting the cross on Saturday). Maybe he (and Carbilo) are not the speediest players on the pitch, but they don’t have to be.
Cabrilo has shown from his minutes late last season, and early this year, he can be a threat, with this size in the box and in the air. If the situation calls for more speed up or different type of work rate up top, Steffens has, and will bring different players for that role. But as of now, the Riverhounds are concentrating most of their speed on the outside — with the wingers and outside backs who can stretch defenses.
Steffens commented after the match that he was pleased with the number of opportunities that his team was creating in the attack, against a pretty solid team.
So, for now, the answer to the question is, yes, the forwards are doing enough. There’s certainly room for improvement — and they do need to finish when they get good chances to convert goals.
ANSWERING THE CALL
Knowing that Ryan Thompson would be called up for Jamaican National Team duty in the coming weeks and months this summer, Steffens knew that at some point he would have to call on his other two goalkeepers to step in for some starts.
That call came a little earlier than anticipated. On Saturday, as Brown made the first start of his pro career, as Thompson sat out.
Brown is no stranger to playing in pressure situations, as he was the goalkeeper for the University of Virginia as the Cavaliers captured the 2014 NCAA Men’s Division I National Championship.
Brown used his height effectively on most Kickers set pieces and crosses to the far post. He was a little shaky on a few low shots, not quite catching the ball clean, but still came up with the saves when needed.
“Yeah he was a little bit nervous, but that’s okay. That’s going to happen,” said Steffens.
With a busy slate beginning this week with U.S. Open Cup games, Steffens will likely continue to call on Brown, and likely Ryan Hullings, the team’s third goalkeeper, to get some important in-game experience.
Having provided Brown with the opportunity to get baptized by fire, and play in an important match against a quality opponent like Richmond, will only help with this confidence and working with the back line.
In addition, both Willie Hunt and Tyler Pasher have been thrusted into key roles for the Riverhounds in recent weeks due to injuries. Hunt has filled in the center back role rather efficiently, staying on his mark and communicating well with Arena in the middle, and Brown behind him. Steffens said that he feels that Pasher, just 20 years old, is improving, cutting down on mistakes and creating chances with his runs on the left flank.
On Wednesday, May 20, at 7 p.m., Riverhounds will take on the West Virginia Chaos in the second round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament at Highmark Stadium. The winner would advance to a potential third round match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL). If the Hounds win, the game would be played at Highmark Stadium on Wednesday, May 27.
The second leg of the home-and-home USL Eastern Conference series with Richmond will be played on Saturday, May 23 at City Stadium at 7:30 p.m.