Pittsburgh Riverhounds (4-15-4) vs Wilmington Hammerheads FC (6-10-7).
Kickoff 7 p.m. – Highmark Stadium
Broadcast: USL Match Center with live stream
KEY STORYLINES / WHAT’S AT STAKE
Since there’s not much at stake tonight except for the fact that the Hammerheads are hanging on by a thread (trailing the last playoff spot by 7 points with seven games left) in the USL’s Eastern Conference playoff race, I thought I would share some of the history between these two franchises.
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Wilmington Hammerheads have been playing against each other for more than a decade and have come to establish a rivalry of sorts as common opponents during a period when both franchises have bounced around the second and third divisions of US pro soccer.
Wilmington, which is sort of celebrating its 20th season, announced that they will not be fielding a team in USL in 2017, and the future beyond that is fairly cloudy.
Even though the Riverhounds were founded in 1999, they didn’t become common foes with the Hammerheads until 2005, when the two teams became a part of the USL’s second division.
Each team suspended operations for a year, the Hounds went on hiatus in 2007, and in 2010, the Hammerheads took a year off as well.
In 2011, the teams reunited in a revived USL PRO, and the teams would battle and play some memorable games — often in key matches that decided each team’s playoff fate.
While the Hounds currently hold a three-match unbeaten streak against Wilmington, they’ve only began to get the upper hand on the series in the past few years, as the Hammerheads hold a 4-7-1 since 2011.
The Hammerheads last win was a 5-1 trashing, on May 23, 2014 in the first game after the Hounds Head Coach Justin Evans was sacked, as current assistant coach Niko Katic took on the interim Head Coach role.
The Hammerheads got the better of the Hounds in their home opener that season in a thrilling 4-3 game that had a little bit of everything from the Hounds coming back from deficits, a Joseph Ngwenya game tying goal in the dying moments that was waived off — and saw former Fullham striker Collins John score in his his Hounds home debut — but also receive a red card and multiple game suspension.
In 2013, when the Hounds were in the thick of a playoff race with Wilmington for the final playoff spot, in a season which Matt Dallman led the league in assists, his second half, quick reaction goal in the box, helped the Hounds surge ahead of the Hammerheads in the standings.
After a number of years of futility in making the long trip to Wilmington, the Hounds finally ended a losing streak in August 2015 with a 1-1 tie at Legion Field, when Vini Dantas game-tying goal helped keep the Hounds right in the thick of the playoff race. Earlier that month, Rob Vincent had a hat trick as the Hounds cruised past Wilmington 3-0 to help the Hounds get back on winning track.
And last month, the Hounds finally won a game at Wilmington for the first time since the two sides have played in USL, with a 4-1 triumph which saw Corey Hertzog score and pick up two assists.
In their past five meetings, the clubs have combined to score 23 goals, with Pittsburgh holding the goals for lead at 12-to-11.
With the uncertainty facing the Hammerheads, who lack a soccer specific stadium of their own in the ever-changing pro soccer landscape, where USL expansion franchise fees are getting into the millions — it might be a safer bet that the Hammerheads may follow some recent USL clubs like Charlotte Eagles and Dayton Dutch Lions, down to the fourth division PDL.
TACTICS & STRATEGIES
The Riverhounds have been up and down in late July and into August. After a 4-1 win at Wilmington, they had decent showing vs second place Louisville City before a complete disaster at Montreal where they lost 4-1.
The rebounded again at home against a struggling Bethlehem Steel FC for a 2-1 win. But they went to Rochester for a 3-0 drubbing on Saturday.
At least the good news for Hounds fans is that Wilmington continues to struggle — and are winless in its last seven games, falling seven points behind in the race for the last playoff spot.
The Hammerheads were without their two top scorers (and center backs!) in the last meeting with Pittsburgh, as both Bruno Caldini Perone and Ashani Fairclough sat out due to suspensions.
The Hounds took advantage of a disorganized and undermanned Hammerheads back line on their way to an easy win as things really opened up in the second half.
It won’t be as easy this time around, but the Hounds are at home and should be looking to bounce back
It will be interesting to see if Head Coach Dave Brandt opts to sit Danny Earls, who’s sitting on four yellow cards (five yellow cards results in automatic one-game suspension), with the next game being at Harrisburg on Saturday in what amounts to the only game of significance remaining this season as the Hounds will attempt to keep the Keystone Derby Cup.
In addition, the Hounds have a new addition, Chevaughn Walsh, who was the MVP of PDL, was signed to the team last week and he’s eligible to play tonight. The smart move would probably be give him some minutes off the bench in the second half, but you never know what Brandt might be thinking.
The Hounds have gone with Columbus Crew loanee Zach Steffen the last two games in goal, but with Mauricio Vargas not on the injury list now, it will be interesting to see if the Costa Rican will get the nod tonight.