For a team that’s been struggling early in the season, things could not have started out any better than they did on Saturday for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds against the New York Red Bulls II at Highmark Stadium.
After a feel-good pre game ceremony honoring Breast Cancer survivors and with the team decked out in pink uniforms to pay tribute to those fighting cancer, the Hounds struck first in the 10th minute thanks to a brilliant goal from Romeo Parkes.
After a nice play by former Red Bull Corey Hertzog jumped in the air to clear the ball forward, Parkes niftily took the ball away from a New York defender, blew toward the middle of the box, and buried a left footed shot past Red Bulls II goalkeeper Kyle Reynish.
For Parkes, who has catapulted to become the Hounds top goal scorer, it was his 5th goal in the last five games.
Just a minute later, the Red Bulls wiped out the Parkes tally with a goal from a Anatole Abang header that went into an open goal, as Hounds keeper Hunter Gilstrap came off the line to play a very high ball in the air that came from a cross on the left side.
Both teams then traded scoring opportunities and possessions — with the Hounds having the better of the play for parts of the first half, and in the first 20 minutes of the second half, particularly after bringing on Stephen Okai at center midfield.
After the match passed the 70th minute however, the Riverhounds appeared to lose their step. That’s when things started to unravel.
The Red Bulls pieced together a nice build-up along the left side — all one touches — a low cross that sailed past Gilstrap and the Hounds defenders in the box and to the foot of Stefano Benomo by the far post.
Easy finish for Benomo, and the Red Bulls took the wind out of the Hounds sails.
In the 83rd minute, the Red Bulls executed another brilliant goal from a ball swung in from deep in the right corner from Junior Flemmings that found Derrick Etienne inside the box. The Haitian midfielder, Etienne, delivered a flawless one-time volley past Gilstrap, that sealed the match.
Unfortunately for the Riverhounds, things got uglier.
A whole lot uglier.
In a match that was physical, but clean throughout with referee Marco Vega keeping a consistent whistle for most of the first 80 minutes, he issued a caution to Red Bulls II’s Tyler Adams after a hard tackle on Willie Hunt.
As the Hounds’ Kevin Kerr lined up to take the ensuing free kick — players lining up inside the box began pushing and shoving. In the middle of it was Parkes with NYRBII’s Karl Ouimette, Flemmings and a few others.
Vega raced over — and once the scrum subsided — pulled Ouimette and Parkes over to the corner of the box where he booked them both with straight red cards for what appeared to have been some hard pushing — and possibly punches thrown. The game’s live feed didn’t pick up what happened as there was a lot of activity when Kerr lined up to take the kick.
But whatever happened, was malicious enough for Vega to pull the red card.
By now, many have seen the video — and what happens next can only be explained as a complete meltdown by Parkes, who delivered a nasty, spikes-first kick to the back of Ouimette.
Much of Highmark Stadium watched in disbelief — as the Hounds players had to restrain Parkes, and escort him off the field while a number of Red Bulls II contingent were visibly upset and pleading for Parkes to get off the field as their teammate lay on the ground.
Ouimette, who has played in six games this season for the Major League Soccer senior team, was called to play with the Red Bulls II for the first time this season in this match.
“It’s an unfortunate situation, and it’s embarrassing for the organization, myself and the coaching staff,” Riverhounds coach Mark Steffens said.
“He’ll be dealt with by the USL and by us, as well.”
Vega added eight minutes of stoppage time, but all of the positive energy that the started earlier in the evening had faded away as the game played out with little interest from everyone remaining.
The result leaves the Hounds (0-3-3, 3 pts) at the bottom of the USL Eastern Conference standings, and without its top scorer, who put together an impressive run of five goals in the past five games.
The USL acted swiftly, only a few hours after the match, suspended Parkes indefinitely for his actions. This indefinite suspension will remain in effect until the USL Discipline Report is released on Tuesday, when a more formal suspension will be handed out.
As Steffens hinted, the Hounds will be taking a course of action as well. Based on the response, it’s very possible that Parkes could be cut from the team even prior to the USL issues its weekly disciplinary action on Tuesday.
STUNNING TURN OF EVENTS, FALL FROM GRACE FOR ROMEO PARKES
Parkes scored his fifth goal in five games — and recently was named to USL Team of the Week — and subsequently named to the preliminary 40-man roster for Jamaica’s National team for the Copa America Centenario.
Things could not have been any better for Parkes.
All those achievements and accolades were washed away with one stunning — and dirty kick to the back of Karl Ouimette.
Quickly, with social media frenzy that followed, Parkes’ actions instantly become vilified as the video clip became viral.
And just like that, Parkes went from being a rising star for the Riverhounds and in the USL, to tarnished athlete who lost his mind along the lines of what we’ve seen from the likes of Luis Suarez, Ron Artest and many others.
There’s no doubt that it appeared that Parkes simply and completely lost his composure and sanity. As he was walking away from Vega after getting issued red card, you could see before he delivered the kick that he was saying something to Ouimette — and walking erratically behind the Red Bulls player.
I’m not a mental health professional, but from my vantage point, it looked like a burst of temporary insanity from Parkes.
The Hounds teammates and coaching staff were as stunned as everyone else by Parkes’ actions.
“(Parkes has) been the shining light of this season, to be fair. He sits next to me in the locker room, and he’s the nicest guy you’ll meet,” Kerr said.
“Obviously, we’ll wait to see what happens, but I think it was out of character.”
After the match, when I asked Steffens, who has said repeatedly about the importance of having high character players with the organization, if he had any reservations about Parkes when bringing him to Pittsburgh.
“No. None what-so-ever,” stated Steffens, USL Hall of Fame Coach, who has won multiple championships in second division of U.S. Soccer.
“This was way out of left field for him (Parkes). We didn’t see this coming at all. He’s been a quality player for us. Obviously we’re very disappointed in this behavior.”
Hours after the match, he offered his apology on Twitter. And also said that he spoke with Ouimette and issued a direct apology to the man he struck in the back.
His apology aside, Parkes will have to pay the consequences for his actions. And they will likely be very steep from the Hounds and USL — and likely also will cost him a spot with his National team.
And the Riverhounds will have to find another go-to guy in the attack.
ANOTHER HOME LOSS
Maybe lost a bit in light of the Parkes incident, the Riverhounds are sitting in a pretty big hole after six games, as they’ve lost all three home games with only three road draws to hang their proverbial hats.
The early goal gave them momentum they needed, but in a turn of events that may be a microcosm of this season, they gave up a goal right away, on another questionable decision made by goalkeeper Gilstrap.
The veteran keeper left his line to punch a ball away but couldn’t quite get to it.
The Hounds played well at times — building possession and getting some good opportunities, with some crosses and shots at Raynish.
“I thought the first half was actually really good. We didn’t try to overcomplicate the situation we’re in,” Kerr said.
“We kind of have to grind out our first win. It doesn’t have to be pretty. Every weekend that goes by, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, you know? That first win. So we’re all desperate to get it.”
But as previously mentioned, once they hit the 65th minute, the Hounds lost some of that steam.
The end result was much like last year’s playoff game, when in overtime the younger Red Bulls overtook and overpowered the Hounds to deliver a few knockout blows.
“We played pretty well — it was encouraging to see, but that second goal really was tough,” said Steffens.
“We’re six games in now — we can’t keep saying it’s early — and there are no excuses to be made. We can’t keep going the way we are going right now.”
Steffens said after the match that changes will have to be made.
He didn’t provide specifics.
Steffens said he would assess the goalkeeping situation with keepers coach Jeroen Walstra. (back up Mauricio Vargas has a dislocated finger — and local product Brendan Alfery served as the back up last night).
TOUGH ROAD AHEAD
Heading into this match, I thought this would be a tough match up for the Hounds. The Red Bulls II had lost at home the week before, but they had started off the season unbeaten and posted shutout for over 400 minutes of play.
They fielded a very strong line-up — even calling up Ouimette and Reynish from the senior team to make every effort to secure three road points.
Former Robert Morris standout Devon “Speedy” Williams played well in the midfield, and the goals in the second half were top-notch from a team playing in sync — particularly the final goal between two very talented players in Flemmings and Etienne.
The Riverhounds will have a return match at Red Bull Arena at the end of the month, and it will be a tough road ahead to try to get back into the race.
The Hounds have to regroup, and it won’t be easy to get back on track without their leading scorer.
The next two games will go a long way as they will travel to play the expansion FC Cincinnati, who will likely have more than 20,000 fans in attendance on Saturday — then return home to take on Toronto FC II. They will also be hosting a 2nd round US Open Cup match on Wednesday, May 18 at Highmark Stadium with the opponent still to be determined. Six points in the next two USL matches, and they could right the ship a bit. Anything less, and it could be a long season for the team — and its fan base.