Just a few weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds hit a rough patch.
With two games with the Richmond Kickers looming, it looked like the Riverhounds were facing a daunting task after consecutive road losses at NY Red Bulls (conceding a very late goal), and then taking their worst defeat of the season in a 3-1 defeat at Charleston.
However, in back-to-back matches against one of the top teams in the USL’s Eastern Conference, the Riverhounds responded with four points, and appear to be a team that will not get rattled in the face of adversity.
Can their latest win on the road be an essential building block for the rest of the season?
Here’s what we learned from their big victory.
NO STYLE POINTS – JUST GET THE RESULT
It’s cliche among soccer coaches — but when playing on the road — getting points — any way and any how is all that matters.
Sometimes winning doesn’t have to be pretty. Often it takes a combination of being opportunistic, make the most of chances provided, come up with some big plays, survive a flurry of your opponents best shots, and have a little luck along the way.
But often that’s what it takes on the road to get a valuable three points.
That’s what the Riverhounds did at City Stadium on Saturday night.
Jumping out to a two goal lead within the first 18 minutes helped set the tone for the evening for the Riverhounds. Going into Saturday’s match, the Riverhounds haven’t had a lead in a USL match since beating Toronto in late April.
It was just what Riverhounds Head Coach Mark Steffens wanted to see.
Lebo Moloto’s and Miro Cabrilo had timely finishes to give the Hounds a two-goal edge in the first 18 minutes, and then they hung on every way possible.
Ryan Thompson, back in the net after missing the previous Richmond game, and the U.S. Open Cup match on Wednesday, came up with some big second half saves.
There was a barrage of pressure that came from the Kickers throughout the second half. We saw (former Hounds and Houston Dynamo) Brian Ownby go into hyperdrive mode in the 2nd half and (another former Hound) Jason Yeisley have a few golden chances too. The Kickers kept sending long balls over the top that were getting to their forwards, but fortunately for the Riverhounds, they weren’t finishing.
In the 56th minute, Ownby on a run to the left side, was able to get past Riverhounds defender Willie Hunt’s missed sliding tackle, get back to his feet and send a ball back to Matthew Delicate who cut the deficit to 2-1 with a clinical finish.
Moments later, Yeisley missed an open look that just went wide. Then in the 75th minute, Yeisley’s header was saved by Thompson.
The Riverhounds were able to regain possession for stretches in the final stages, which was just enough to minimize late dangerous chances for the Kickers.
What a difference a year makes.
Last year, after losing 3-1 in their first game at Richmond, the Riverhounds held a 2-0 lead after the 65th minute in their second game. After a 0-2-2, start to their 2014 season against some very good teams, that 2-0 lead seemed to be the turning point that the Riverhounds were looking for last year to get their first win of the season.
But, they couldn’t close the deal, coming apart to settle for a 2-2 tie. They wouldn’t win a game until June, when they pulled off a “we’ve got absolutely nothing to lose, we’re 0-4-6, so lets get opportunistic goals and hang on to dear life” for their first-ever win at Rochester.
This year’s team appears to be mentally tougher, fitness is stronger, with more depth, and have shown consistent resiliency that last year’s team seemed to lack.
While winning on the road is never an easy task, the 2015 Riverhounds appear to have gotten over that hump at an important point of the season, and are up to the task to take more points on the road as the campaign goes on.
If they are going to contend to be at the top line of the USL’s Eastern Conference, they will need to be road warriors like they were on Saturday. Finding a result any way they can.
When looking for that one thing that separates this year’s Riverhounds team from the others we’ve seen in recent years, I keep coming back to one thing — composure.
And that’s a word that I’ve heard Steffens use quite a few times this year. He has stressed this a few times over.
While he’s admitted and been critical they can be impatient at times with possession. Very rarely do you see his team get rattled even when things are not going their way.
On Saturday, at one point when Kevin Kerr was fouled — and retaliated with a hard foul of his own — which even prompted the normally mild mannered Steffens to come off the bench — the team still kept its cool. There were other instances and hard challenges from Richmond — and again — cooler heads seemed to prevail.
Under attack for much of the 2nd half, and conceding a goal halfway — there was still never any panic.
Sure, they’ve already had their share of setbacks this season, but through it all, they seem to take on the demeanor of Steffens, and their leaders on the field.
Steffens, captain Danny Earls, the surprising scoring duo of Kerr and Vincent, Ryan Thompson in goal — along with Anthony Arena anchoring the back line, have demonstrated and exhibited their leadership this season.
Feedback from some of the players and assistant coaches has pointed that it all starts with Steffens.
All have credited the USL Hall of Fame coach’s even keel persona as a positive influence, rubbing off on the players, carrying over on the field.
In recent years, the Riverhounds have been mostly a second banana to teams like Charleston, Rochester, Harrisburg and Richmond in the USL.
What Steffens is trying to do, is change the culture within the organization by utilizing his veteran players to lead the way. This is important because there are a lot of young players on the roster. Having a core of players who can lead by example, can only help in the team’s matuation and development — not only through the course of a season, but also in changing the culture of a franchise. It’s not going to be an overnight success, but if this season’s early start is any indication, he’s making strides already.
The Riverhounds, not Richmond, were the team that looked like the one that’s been there, done that, at the end of the game the other night.
CUP COMES AT GOOD TIME
While the extra games from the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament mean less rest between games, the Riverhounds have managed to use it to their advantage so far.
They clearly carried the momentum from Wednesday night’s 3-0 win over the West Virginia Chaos into the match at Richmond.
The Riverhounds have not been getting off to good starts in USL games, but having a quick turnaround, they seemed to be in a good rhythm early in possession, and were able to capitalize. Moloto scored his first goal of the year against the Chaos, and playing with confidence, had no problem putting away the first goal against Richmond.
Cabrilo, making the start in place of the injured Vini Dantas, took advantage of his opportunity for the second goal.
The extra game also allowed the back line to work together for an additional 90 minutes. It appears that Matt Dallman is rounding back into top fitness for the first time this year putting in a full match performance at Richmond. Both Dallman and Tyler Pasher in the outside back position give the Hounds speedy presence that can make overlapping runs — opening up spaces in the attack. While Hunt doesn’t have the speed and strength of oft injured Fejiro Okiomah, he has paired up with Arena provide a steady presence in the middle.
And the beat will go on. The Riverhounds are in the midst of an exciting stretch. The Tampa Bay Rowdies of North American Soccer League come to town on Wednesday night for the third round of the Open Cup. At stake will be chance to host the D.C. United in June. Regardless of result versus the Rowdies, Harrisburg will come calling Saturday for the second leg of the Keystone Derby.
When I asked Steffens last week about the Rowdies after the win over West Virginia, he admitted that his focus was entirely on Richmond. And sure enough, that focus helped the Hounds get an important win.
Now, he can focus on the Rowdies.
One game at a time.
The beat goes on.