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BREAKING DOWN THE HOUNDS: Urgency Prevails As USL Playoff Race Heats Up

Pittsburgh Riverhounds (9-8-4) vs. Charlotte Independence  (6-6-7, 25 points)
Saturday, 7 p.m., Highmark Stadium

Independence at a Second Glance 
As the only Eastern Conference team without a road win this season, the Independence will need to buck that trend with four of their next five matches away from Charlotte. The Independence are below the playoff cutline, where the Riverhounds currently occupy the sixth and final spot.
Interestingly enough, the Independence are riding a five-game unbeaten string, not having lost a game since July 11, when they fell 1-0 to the USL’s hottest team, Louisville City.  Since then, they’ve tied (0-0) and beaten (4-2) the USL’s top team, Rochester Rhinos during a streak of two wins and three ties.
Charlotte had a chance for a road win with a 1-0 lead on the New York Red Bulls II with less than 20 minutes remaining on Wednesday. But host NYRB II’s Stefano Bonomo found the equalizer to push Charlotte’s road record to 0-4-4.
Unlike the Riverhounds, Charlotte’s individual scoring is more spread out among their roster, with Ryan Finley leading the team with 4 goals.  Andrew Ribeiro, who played briefly with the Hounds last season, is the only Independence player to start and play in  every game this season (19 starts, 1652 minutes).    Like the Riverhounds, they’ve also seen five different goalkeepers minding the net, including some former Hounds keepers Hunter Gilstrap and Mike Lisch — and Matt Lampson, who ironically started one game for the Hounds on loan against Charlotte earlier this year.
Previous Meeting
Charlotte was victorious by a 2-1 margin in the first ever meeting between the sides on June 13 at Winthrop University’s Eagle Field in South Carolina. Lebo Moloto gave the Hounds a first-half lead that was canceled out by Carlos Alvarez after seven minutes of the second half.
Game Storylines 
The Riverhounds have rebounded from their three-game losing streak in July with back-to-back wins to open August.  The Riverhounds are 6-2-3 at Highmark, where they have scored 28 of their league-leading 45 goals this season.
Rob Vincent has led the offensive charge all season for Pittsburgh with 17 goals and Kevin Kerr’s nine assists are tops in the USL.
The Hounds have benefitted from favorable results around the Eastern Conference in recent weeks. Charlotte’s back-to-back ties with the New York Red Bulls II have left the first-year club needing to win its two games in hand to pull level with the sixth-placed Hounds in the standings.
A recent slump from the Richmond Kickers has given Pittsburgh an opportunity to jump into fourth spot and close in on a potential home playoff game if the Hounds can build on their two previous wins this month.

“This is the most defining game of our season,” said Riverhounds president and general manager Richard Nightingale.

The club expects a season-high attendance and possibly even a record crowd for a Riverhounds game at Highmark Stadium.

“This is really a key game for us and all the guys know it,” said Hounds head coach Mark Steffens. “We won’t have to pump them up too much for this one.

“Charlotte is a very good team when they put it together, but like us they have lacked consistency. We’ll need to put a really good performance together to beat them.”

Injury Report / Roster Updates 

Steffens has a near complete roster to choose from this weekend. Drew Russell will definitely miss out as he recovers from a knee injury. Vini Dantas is back in contention after recovering from his heel problem. Jamaican national team goalkeeper Ryan Thompson could also return between the posts.

F.C. Dallas youngster Jesse Gonzalez featured for the Hounds in last week’s 3-1 win at Toronto F.C. II. The Mexican Under-20 goalkeeper was recalled to Texas this week. Calle Brown is expected to play if Thompson fails a late fitness test on his troublesome knee.
The Hounds were forced to cancel a loan agreement with Orlando City defender Conor Donovan this week after the United States Under-20 national team player tore his ACL after 10 minutes of his Major League Soccer debut last Saturday.
The Riverhounds announced late this week that defender Ben Newnam has agreed terms for the remainder of the United Soccer League season.

Newnam played under Steffens at the Charlotte Eagles during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. The Kernersville, North Carolina native notched four goals in 54 appearances for the Eagles. He previously played four years of college soccer at Wake Forest University alongside Hounds defender Anthony Arena.

“Ben is a tough, blue collar player who brings the technical side of the game with him,” Steffens said.
“He’s a simple player and a smart player that will fit right into the way we try to play.”

I will have to agree to disagree with Riverhounds President Richard Nightingale, who by all indications, has done a terrific job this season bringing this organization around.    I don’t think it’s a “season defining” game.   There’s just too much soccer left to be played.  A lot can happen in seven games.   But maybe the Riverhounds president and his coaching staff are trying develop a sense of urgency to bring more consistent results — and that’s fine. I could discuss the merits of whether this is or isn’t a season defining match, but bottom line here is this is a great opportunity for the Riverhounds to get a stronger grip on a playoff spot.  They will need to do this by playing more consistent, avoid mistakes that have cost them in so many of their losses this year.   Charlotte has not been beaten in the last five games, and after blowing a late lead at NY Red Bulls II on Wednesday, they will be hungry to get three points.
Charlotte outplayed Pittsburgh in their previous game in early June, especially in the second half.  The Hounds hopes to win that encounter took a serious blow on one play, when Danny Earls was shown off with a red card for a deliberate handball preventing a Charlotte goal. The pick-up of Newnam is fascinating.  The defender started all 11 games for the Independence.  Now he’s playing against his former team.  The question will be, can he fit right in with the Hounds back line that has shown at times can be a good unit when everyone is healthy and playing mistake free?    By all indications, Newnam gives them more depth in the back, and may allow Steffens to utilize Matt Dallman and Tyler Pasher less in the back line, and more in outside midfield (likely as subs) roles. In terms of chemistry, Newnam and Arena were college teammates and Newnam played under Steffens for two full seasons, so there should be something that could be said for that. Also, keep in mind, Steffens also utilized Fejiro Okiomah at forward in their last match against Charlotte.  It was the only game he played in the target forward spot, and he set up Moloto’s goal.  By picking up Newnam, will Steffens be looking to move Okiomah up again?   If they’re trying to get the best 11 players on the field, it might be the move that the Hounds coaching staff employs in this important game.
Projected Starters: 
Calle Brown (G), Anthony Arena, Ben Newnam, Willie Hunt, Sterling Flunder, Danny Earls, Stephen Okai, Kevin Kerr, Rob Vincent, Lebo Moloto, Fejiro Okiomah.
Riverhounds’ partner Highmark is sponsoring 3,500 black and gold Hounds towels that will be given away free to fans Saturday night on a first come, first served basis.

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

Glory on the Grass

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Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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