As the Lansdowne Bhoys FC trotted off the field at Highmark Stadium jubilantly after a 2-0 win over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the second round of the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday night at Highmark Stadium, the Hounds were left to ponder the most bitter defeat in 2016 season already filled with disappointment and no wins after eight games.
At least 10 minutes after the game ended, there were still Hounds players remaining sitting on the field in disbelief.
Others went quietly into the locker room — and gathered behind closed doors to face each other after losing a game to an amateur team that had never played in the Open Cup prior to last week.
Eventually, members of the media that stuck around after had the opportunity to talk with one member from the team — Hounds Assistant Coach Josh Rife, who offered no-frills and straightforward words of disappointment with some silver linings.
“Are we disappointed, yes. Extremely disappointed. Sure,” said Rife, who is in his second season as Riverhounds Assistant Coach.
“Up to this point, there’s not a game where we’ve not been in. But we don’t seem to have what it takes right now. Whether or not that’s the coaching staff. The players. It just has to be better.”
“The reality is, it was a Cup game, and we still have another 23 league games to go.”
For the Riverhounds, this has been a trying two months.
After putting one of the highest scoring outfits in U.S. pro soccer in 2015, the Hounds have stumbled to find the back of the net for much of the season with one exception — from the foot of a player (Romeo Parkes‘ five goals) who’s been released from the team and suspended by the USL for the season for a much maligned (and publicized) incident for kicking an opponent in the back after receiving a red card.
Since Parkes’ goal in the first half of that game against the NY Red Bulls II on May 7, the Hounds have now gone nearly three full games without a goal. They’ve been outscored 8-2 in four losses at Highmark Stadium, including the 2-0 defeat to Lansdowne Bhoys.
The Riverhounds only lost two home league games last season — and three if you include U.S. Open Cup 4th Round match to DC United. They’ve already lost four times at home and it’s only May.
When I asked him about lack of quality scoring opportunities, Rife concurred that the team’s attack is missing the final pieces, and offered his thoughts:
“I agree. It’s a chicken and egg type of thing. We’ve struggled in possession all year long so far. We were able to possess better the last game — and today,” said Rife.
“Conversely, what we need to do is have possession with a purpose. We need to be getting shots. When playing against a team that’s going to pack it in like that – we need to take the opportunities to get better shots on target. At least stretch them.”
“Final pass is second part of that. Giving ourselves an opportunity. We’re just not, having enough quality with the final pass, the final ball, the final shot. Last two games we’ve done a good job of getting into the final third. It’s that final component now – that’s been lacking all season – but when you put yourselves in situations like we are – it becomes a little bit more tougher.”
The loss put the Hounds into more notorious company in U.S. Open Cup history, as it’s the fifth time that they’ve been eliminated by an amateur team (Mich. Bucks twice, Ocean City and Des Moines).
Now, after four seasons in Highmark Stadium, they’ve had three seasons which they didn’t record a win until at least mid-May or later.
Maybe the problems are deeper than scoring goals.
While a few of the players were utterly disappointed with the loss — and on the surface the effort seems to be there — I am wondering watching the team go through the motions last night if they have a sense of defeat — or are they simply lacking confidence to bounce back when adversity arises.
A year ago, if the Hounds were trailing — they were almost always certain to battle back — even in losses – to the final whistle.
I am not sure if I’ve seen that in this team much to this point this season — with a few exceptions.
Rife didn’t hide the fact that the team’s psyche is shaken at this point.
“Confidence. It’s hard as a coach to give it. Scoring and attacking requires a lot of confidence,” said Rife.
“I hate to dwell on this, but Rob (Vincent) thought every shot he hit was going to go in. Confidence kind of breeds confidence.”
“And right now, disappointment breeds disappointment. Obviously it’s a vicious cycle.”
In his first season, Head Coach Mark Steffens, Rife and the coaching staff were able to find the right formula for success — with players that were full of confidence.
Not only did they earn a playoff berth, go on a run in the U.S. Open Cup — and even with the Keystone Derby after winning three of four memorable contests over the City Islanders FC.
But the honeymoon is over.
A year ago, Steffens was able to harness instant chemistry from players that had been playing together for a few years — and were peaking as players at the right time — especially with Vincent, Kevin Kerr, Danny Earls and Lebo Moloto.
Really good teams — and organizations find a way to overcome losses like they did when Vincent departed for a great opportunity with DC United.
Steffens and Rife have both said that the team would have had to have more than one or two key scorers in the line-up even if Vincent returned –and without that they wouldn’t be able to sustain success.
“We knew we would have to find more balance from the other guys. Historically, if you look through the line-up we have now, there are guys here that have more goals in them,” claimed Rife.
“They just have not found it yet.”
New players have been brought in — and with the exception of Parkes — as Rife said none have found the goal with the exception of Corey Hertzog penalty at Louisville, and Conor Branson free kick on a trick play at Toronto.
Are there a lot of hits and misses in players they’ve picked up?
Can they produce goals from this current group?
Those a legitimate questions to ask from a team that has failed to produce quality goal scoring chances most of the season in and around the box.
For all of the promise and strides that were made after the organization cleared the hurdle of bankruptcy — and the hiring of a new president (Richard Nightingale who only stayed for less than one year in 2015) and new coach (Steffens), the Hounds are now where they were two years ago when they fired former player and original team member, Justin Evans.
The organization cleared the black eye of bankruptcy thanks to a new principle owner in Tuffy Shallenberger who has invested his own money into ensuring Riverhounds franchise can get on decent financial footing.
Shallenberger and the Riverhounds front office, which recently hired a new General Manager, Tom Smith (formerly of Nemacolin Woodlands) for Highmark Stadium operations and Riverhounds front office, clearly are being very careful with expenditures.
For the pro team, there is nobody in the position of General Manager or Sporting Director — leaving Steffens and his coaching staff to solely handle personnel decisions with Shallenberger’s approvals.
Steffens has had a tremendous track record of success. He has earned Hall of Fame honors from the USL. There’s no doubt that he’s been a first-class guy to deal with.
But, is he up to the challenge of building a consistent winner in Pittsburgh?
And is he getting the most from this group of players that he’s brought together?
Does he have the support he needs from the team’s management and front office — and his players?
This is what we’re going to find out in the coming weeks and months.
I’ve received various tweets and messages from Hounds fans who believe that Steffens should be sacked. My take is that I would find it hard to believe that at this point in the season, with his success last season, and with the team’s budget and finances, that they would explore that route.
With the exception of the inaugural season at Highmark Stadium (2013) and last season, the Hounds have been a team that has struggled for the good part of the past 12 years or so to put together a consistent winner.
And now, with more than two years of having primary control of this organization under new ownership, and a coach that has won elsewhere — it’s a fair question to ask — will the Riverhounds pro team ever sustain consistent and long-term success?
And can Mark Steffens lead the Hounds in that direction?
STEEL ARMY SHOWS SOLIDARITY
In the darkest of times (on the soccer field as the team is 0-4-3 — and owns an additional loss in US Open Cup to amateur side Lansdowne Bhoys), the Riverhounds small, but loyal fan base of supporters, the Steel Army, are sending a call out to their members and all Hounds fans to show solidarity.
Here’s what was posted on the Army’s website earlier today:
“Echoing the blackout post earlier in the week- the team isn’t looking too good lately, and morale is obviously down. Doubly so after the loss last night against Lansdowne Bhoys. Even though we’re feeling down, it shouldn’t stop us as supporters from being just that- supporters.
Soccer is a crowd sport. In intimate settings like Highmark Stadium supporters can play as much of a hand in wins and losses as the team on the pitch. Supporters are the most passionate fans and the harshest critics. It’s no secret that we’re tired of the Hounds losing as much as they are. The team can hear us loud and clear. Last night there was quite a bit of anger thrown around. It wasn’t entirely undeserved either. However, we have to remember the players on the field are not the enemy. If there’s anger to be had it should be directed at the FO and coaching staff (both of whom we have plenty of questions for). We support the players. We’re not saying don’t be mad, or disappointed, or silent on the current state of affairs. We just can’t let it define us.
It’s time we reminded everyone who the Steel Army is. We’re the insane jagoffs who chanted for 15 minutes straight in Harrisburg to carry the Hounds to a crucial victory. We’re the warpaint clad yinzers that stood against DC United for 100+ minutes and showed the world that this can be a soccer town. We’re the ones who signed up for and went on a crazy 24 hour bus trip to New York in the playoffs last year. We love this team. We fight alongside them. We feel the same heartache and jubilation that they do. Our passion for Pittsburgh soccer is why we’re here. Not because we’re glory hunters (though we really do want to win a championship). We’re here because we support this team. That’s what the Steel Army is all about.
Like we mentioned earlier in the week, the Steel Army is calling for a show of solidarity on Saturday. We are calling for a second blackout. We are calling for our members to get out there and show support of the Riverhounds, OUR team.”