For the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, earning an early season win in April, a 2-1 come-from-behind result against Charleston Battery — on the road — against a team it hadn’t beaten in six years was exactly the type of positive result they need to build momentum and confidence just three games into the 2017 season.
It had been a long time since the Riverhounds had won a road game in April (2011).
It’s been more than a whole season since they beat a team with a winning record (the Hounds didn’t beat a single team that finished in the top seven spots in the standings a year ago).
The Hounds last win against Charleston, a perennial playoff team, stretched all the way back to the first season the teams competed in the newly reorganized USL PRO in 2011.
After a tough 2016 campaign, and a long preseason under Head Coach Dave Brandt, this Riverhounds team still had a lot of prove two games into the season. They had yet to pick up a win, and were staring at a challenging stretch of games in the next seven days, including two on the road against Old Guard teams (Charleston and Richmond) they’ve mostly struggled with in recent years.
The Hounds showed a lot of character and maybe more importantly — the ability to deliver a performance upon what Brandt envisioned from time he was assembling this roster back in the early part of the off season.
Despite surrendering an early goal, they held a solid defensive shape, won enough possession in the middle to create quick strike goal opportunities, and by the end of the match, they looked like the stronger of the two teams.
Now, the question will be, can they build on this win? Did the Riverhounds make a statement on Saturday and can they be a contender in the USL’s Eastern Conference after beating a team that some (including myself) has predicted to be one of the top teams in the league this year?
It’s just one of 32 league games, but it was the type of win that could set the tone, and make a team believe and build confidence.
Here are some of things we learned about the Riverhounds after a big, week three win at Chucktown.
WHAT WE LEARNED
Quick Strike Capability Fuels Hounds Attack
Brandt said early in the preseason that he was evolving as a coach. One of the key things he discovered with the personnel he had, that it would be best for the Riverhounds to be a counter-attacking unit, playing mostly in a 4-4-2 formation.
To make this work, the Riverhounds would have stay disciplined much of the match and to strike quickly at any given time when opportunities would present themselves.
That’s exactly what happened on Saturday.
In fact, that’s what happened in the opening match against New York Red Bulls II (a 3-3 draw). Three times after the Hounds surrendered a goal to the defending league champs — they responded with an equalizer.
In their week two loss to FC Cincinnati, the Hounds had the better of play utilizing this approach for much of the first half. Even FCC Head Coach Alan Koch admitted this to me in our post-game interview last week. Unfortunately, the Hounds were dealt with having to play down a man for the final 48 minutes of the match, and its attack suffered resulting in a 1-0 loss.
On Saturday, after conceding a goal in the eighth minute, on a sneaky good effort by Ataulla Guerra to squeeze a goal past frozen Hounds goalkeeper Trey Mitchell, an 11-man Pittsburgh unit kept its discipline, weathering a bit of a storm of better play from the Battery in the first half.
By the end of the first half though, the Hounds were getting into the final third with quality opportunities.
Then in the 58th minute, they showed quick strike capability.
A simple, 1-2, give-and-go, between new sub Key Banjo and Marshall Hollingsworth, and just like that, the match changed. Hollingsworth drilled a liner into the back of the net from the top of the box for the equalizer.
Again, the Hounds would almost concede a Charleston goal only moments later, but Mitchell was up to the task to make some quality saves. Charleston had another quality opportunity when an unmarked Heviel Cordoves was fed a pinpoint cross from Quinten Griffith, but the Cuban’s header sailed wide right.
The Hounds kept pressing forward.
When Brandt brought in Banjo in the 58th minute, he did something else. As I anticipated he might in my game preview — he moved Kerr back to the midfield, pairing up veteran Hertzog with the young Banjo at the top of the attack. This allowed Kerr to drop back a bit, and use his ability to be the one of the links, along with the energetic Hollingsworth, between the skillful center midfielders Victor Souto, and another player making his Hounds debut, Columbus loanee Abuchi Obinwa, and the forwards.
In the last 10 minutes of the match, passing was sharp and precise as the Hounds looked like a team not content playing for a road draw. Charleston also looked every bit as a team that could get the game-winner too, as things opened up making for an exciting finish.
Kerr and Hertzog almost hooked up for a goal earlier, as Kerr sent a perfectly placed ball to the right side of the box to Hertzog that a sliding Charleston defender Forest Lasso had to break up a dangerous shot attempt.
The two veterans would get it right the next time as the game reached its dying moments.
In the 90th minute, from the right side — finding enough of an opening — Kerr sent a lining cross to the near post area that Hertzog made a perfectly timed run and quickly headed into goal for the game’s go-ahead goal.
It was a fabulous quick-strike.
Brandt had to crack a smile at that end result.
One of the lowest scoring outfits in USL a year ago, the Riverhounds have now scored five goals in three games. They’ve had four tallies after trailing by a goal, and have mounted a come-from-behind win.
While Brandt would probably prefer to take a lead at some point before the 90th minute in one of these games, it’s a start to the season that has to please the Hounds coaching staff, players and fans alike.
CREW PARTNERSHIP PAYING DIVIDENDS
The Hounds did suffer a bit of a setback early in the match, seeing Columbus Crew loanee, Ben Swanson leave the game with an injury in the 9th minute.
But the team’s roster depth, notably from the Crew, really came through in this match.
This is the second year of the affiliation between the Riverhounds and Columbus, and it appears we’re starting to see the fruits of this relationship.
In addition to Hollingsworth, who scored the game’s first goal, Abuchi Obinwa, made his Hounds debut replacing Swanson, pairing up well with Victor Souto in central midfield for the remainder of the match.
Also getting his first pro start was another Crew loanee, Lalas Abubakar, who was baptized by fire at center back, but held his own.
Brandt said that he had spent time in the early part of the off season, when Columbus was still playing, with Gregg Berhalter and his coaching staff. This had to help provide Brandt shape his view of how to utilize some of the Crew players and has given him an integral role in the process of giving these players quality opportunities and meaningful minutes — all while looking to win games in Pittsburgh.
The Crew coaching staff have to be very pleased to see that Hollingsworth continues to show a lot of growth in Pittsburgh, where he’s been playing regular minutes since early 2016. Ironically, the high-energy player seems to be a great fit for what Brandt wants in player that’s going to roam around on the wing and be a key link in the attack.
Hollingsworth is tenacious, and will fight hard to win balls back, and now he’s starting to be a pivotal player in creating goal-scoring opportunities — an area where he struggled a season ago. Hollingsworth assisted on one of Hertzog’s goals in the opener, and then on Saturday connected with Banjo for the terrific give-and-go.
Saturday was our first look at both Obinwa (in central midfield) and Abubakar (at center back). They each provided quality minutes and stabilized the Hounds central defense.
Like Swanson, Obinwa, 19, is a young player who will benefit from extended playing time in Pittsburgh. Abubaker was the Crew’s 1st round selection in this winter’s MLS SuperDraft (5th overall) — and took advantage of the opportunity in his first pro start.
In addition, another player that hasn’t yet been brought into the picture this year, is Christian Martinez, another talented 19 year-old, Panamanian midfielder who played a bit for the Hounds toward the end of the season.
The only drawback for the Riverhounds would be if or when these players could be called back to Columbus. Now though, all is well in this partnership, as the Crew are relatively healthy and are one of the top teams in MLS with a 3-2-1 record (after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Chicago).
The Riverhounds will have a quick turnaround, as the club will face Saint Louis FC at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 12 at Highmark Stadium.
The game will mark the return of former Riverhounds leading scorer in 2013 and 2014, Jose Angulo. Angulo was USL PRO league MVP and Golden Boot Winner in 2013, and has started two of the first three games.
Like the Riverhounds, St. Louis (2-0-1) rallied for a late-goal to beat NY Red Bulls II, 3-2. Angulo, who once scored on three penalties for the Hounds in one half (yes it’s baffling how I remember these things?) scored the second goal, converting a penalty.
Riverhounds – Trey Mitchell – Taylor Washington (Kay Banjo 57’), Lalas Abubakar, Jamal Jack, Rich Balchan – Marshall Hollingsworth (Kenroy Howell 82’), Victor Souto, Ben Swanson (Abuchi Obinwa 13’), Jack Thompson – Kevin Kerr, Corey Hertzog
Subs not used: Keasel Broome, Ben Fitzpatrick, Mike Green, Nick Thompson
Charleston Battery – Alex Tambakis – Mikey Ambrose, Forrest Lasso, Taylor Mueller, Quinton Griffith – Dante Marini, Justin Portillo, Neveal Hackshaw (Tah Brian Anunga 68’), Maikel Chang – Ataullah Guerra (Kotaro Higashi 86’), Romario Williams (Heviel Cordoves 74’)
Subs not used: Odisnel Cooper, Ricky Garbanzo, Jeffrey Oto, Nico Rittmeyer
CHS – Ataullah Guerra (Dante Marini) – 8’
PGH – Marshall Hollingsworth (Kay Banjo) – 59’
PGH – Corey Hertzog (Kevin Kerr) – 90’+
CHS – Romario Williams (Caution) – 44’
PGH – Abuchi Obinwa (Caution) – 73’
CHS – Justin Portillo (Caution) – 85’