Pittsburgh Riverhounds (2016: 6-17-7) vs New York Red Bulls II (2016: 24-3-6, USL Regular Season and USL Cup Champions)
Saturday, March 23, 2017 — Highmark Stadium, 5 p.m.
WATCH: USL Match Center
FOLLOW: Twitter: – #PGHvNY | #PGHSOCCER
It a whole new season and time to turn the page for both teams that were on opposite ends of the spectrum a year ago.
While the Red Bulls II took the USL title after a convincing season, the Hounds did not have a single win against a team with a winning record in 2016, and can start off on the right foot with a win in the home opener. In three of the past four years, Pittsburgh have had terrible starts to the season, not picking up wins each year until May.
It’s been a while since the these two teams have met — as both meetings last year were in May. The first match will forever be known for the infamous Romeo Parkes kicking Karl Ouimette incident. By the way, the Red Bulls II won that contest, with a convincing 2nd half, scoring two goals to responding to an equalizer by Parkes, who had his contract terminated before the sun came up the next morning.
The second meeting, marked the debut of Hounds new coach, Dave Brandt, as the Baby Bulls dominated possession and minimized the Hounds chances in 1-0 victory at Red Bull Arena.
Maybe, just maybe, the Hounds, who’ve been practicing together since January, can steal a win from the Baby Bulls as they begin anew as well.
NYRBII will see significant turnover, as those who impressed the most in 2015 and 2016, are expected to move on to greater roles with the first team including 2016 USL Defender of the Year Aaron Long, and midfielders Derrick Etienne Jr. and Tyler Adams.
NYRB II had a record-breaking 2016 that included league records in wins (21), road victories (13), points (69) and goals (61) during the regular season. The Red Bulls II became the first MLS-owned-and-operated USL team to win the 2016 USL Cup Final against the Swope Park Rangers.
All Head Coach John Wolyniec knows for certain, though, is it will be much harder as the team defending the crown than the one vying to claim it.
For the Hounds, a positive result vs the defending champs will go a long way toward helping the team build confidence and help get off to an elusive positive start to the season.
Saturday also marks the 10th season of the Steel Army — the Riverhounds small, but passionate and loyal supporters group. They are apparently unveiling a new Tifo — and it should be fun to see them out doing their thing once again this year. They are an amazing group.
INJURIES / SUSPENSIONS
According to the Hounds, both Chevaughn Walsh and Bryan Arguez had been battling injuries that have limited their play this preseason. That changed yesterday when the Hounds and Arguez mutually parted ways for the time being. Otherwise, reports are that this team is mostly healthy heading into the opener.
Veteran returnee Danny Earls will be serving the remainder of his eight game suspension for pushing an official during an altercation (he’s already served five games), and will be available to return to the Hounds in April 12 game vs St. Louis.
THEY SAID IT
“Yeah, it’s always hard the season after you have a lot of success,” Wolyniec said in a Q&A on NewYorkRedBulls.com. “You’re going to have a target on your back. It’s certainly not going to be easy, but also with that success we’ve moved some guys on which is great so a lot of times it depends who’s with us. We’re ready for it, we want that, we want all the games to be hard, we want the other teams to give us their best, so I think it’s going to be a good year for us.”
WHAT TO EXPECT
Early season matches can often be a bit of a chess match especially in the early going. The Hounds in recent years have played tightly contested matches with one play here or there making a difference in the openers — as in 2016 they lost to then defending champs Rochester 1-0 as Sergio Campbell had one bad giveaway. In 2014, they drew another defending champs (what’s with playing all these defending champs on opening day anyway??) — Orlando City in a hard fought 1-1 draw.
The 2015 opener was the exception, when the Hounds and in particular, Kevin Kerr and Rob Vincent ran wild all over Harrisburg for a 5-2 victory.
Kerr’s now in his fifth year with the Hounds, will likely be seeing time at the top of the attack this year along side the team’s leading scorer from a year ago, Corey Hertzog.
What will be most interesting to watch will be how the Hounds revamped back line and new goalkeeper (still not sure who will start but I would say Trey Mitchell likely gets the nod) handle the pressure from NYRBII’s attack which will feature some young, talented players.
As previously mentioned, the Baby Bulls have lost some of the key players from last year’s team that helped them win the title, but expect Junior Flemmings – a USL 20 Under 20 selection last year – and Stefano Bonomo, who re-signed with the side for his third season at the club to be a couple of dangerous threats.
Where the Bulls bring back some continuity is in the midfield with their French Connection –duo of Vincent Bezecourt and Florian Valot are both back for the new season after playing a key role in the club’s success in the second half of last season. Bezecourt had six goals and two assists, while Valot had two goals and finished tied for the team-lead with six assists.
The one player that will be fascinating to watch to see how quickly he develops for the Red Bulls will be another midfielder, MLS SuperDraft pick Zeiko Lewis.
Brandt used Stephen Okai and Mike Green quite a bit together in the preseason as the pairing at central defensive midfield, and expect some combination of Ryan Adeleye, Jamal Jack, Taylor Washington and Rich Balchin on the back line.
It’s the first game after a long preseason for Pittsburgh, so chemistry and communication will be put to the test by a team filled with Major League Soccer pedigreed players.
You can follow Saturday’s Riverhounds opener and the team all season long, by following Pittsburgh Soccer Report’s John Krysinsky on Twitter @pghsoccerscribe.