At the start of the season, I took a “wait and see” approach with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
With one win, three losses and a pair of draws — and slipping toward the bottom of the USL’s Eastern Conference standings, the Hounds have provided merit for my reservations.
For Pittsburgh soccer fans, it has to be frustrating to watch this team show some promise, play with a lot of fight at times, but still keep coming up short.
Heading into the season there were too many unknowns, changes, a new system of play and a new coach in a league that seemed stronger than ever for me to be too bullish on a major turnaround for the Hounds after a poor season a year ago.
The Riverhounds have trudged through the first half dozen games of the 2017 season looking very much like a team that plays hard to the final whistle, but still missing some key ingredients that keep them from being a contender.
Despite all of that — after three games, things looked promising though.
The Hounds battled defending league champs NY Red Bulls II to a high-scoring draw to start the season. They followed that with a loss in a game against FC Cincinnati where they were playing down a man. But then they bounced back, accomplishing something they hadn’t done since 2011 — stunning first place Charleston with a comeback 2-1 win on the road.
The Charleston win especially was something to build on.
A few days later, back at home, they took a 1-0 early lead on Saint Louis FC after getting a gifted goal.
Suddenly a 2-1-1 start to the season was looking like a real possibility.
Instead what followed was a 2-1 loss that included a pair of defensive breakdowns and a lackluster second half effort against Saint Louis which few generated chances fluttered away into the night. Then another sub-par performance at Charlotte was only salvaged by a brilliant goal by newcomer Key Banjo in the early moments.
From my vantage point, Head Coach Dave Brandt has been doing everything he can to instill a winning product on the field for Pittsburgh’s pro soccer team.
A self-admitted ‘high energy’ coach who was successful in the college ranks for more than 20 years, Brandt has shown that he’s doing what he can to adapt to the pro game, managing personnel and dealing with a grueling schedule.
After a prolonged preseason which started way back in early January with this mix of players, he implemented a quick-strike, counter-attacking approach that also relies on keeping a conservative defensive shape.
Brandt demands a lot from his players, and it struck me immediately in the early part of the season that he had the buy-in and the players attention. They were doing what he wanted them to do, and they looked like a sharper team than a year ago.
Unfortunately though for the Hounds, they still have limitations.
In the most recent loss on Saturday evening at a rain drenched City Stadium in Richmond, against a team that scored only once in four games to open the season, the Hounds left themselves vulnerable on a counter-attack and on a free-kick rebound in the box. Richmond took advantage of Riverhounds momentary defensive lapses to double its scoring output for the season.
Another valiant effort followed when the Hounds fell behind by two goals, but again, as has been the case for much of the season, it wasn’t enough despite a terrific goal by Marshall Hollingsworth, and the Hounds lost 2-1.
These problems are not going to go away until the Hounds have better cohesion defending as a unit and clean up their back line woes.
All the teams that played Richmond three games prior found a way to come away with a 1-0 win.
Not the Hounds.
For much of the season, Pittsburgh have rarely played with the lead, gone through a revolving door of center backs (seven different players have played the two center back positions this season), seen mediocre play by goalkeepers who lack extensive experience and the team’s attack, which looked great for 90 minutes in the opener, has mostly been inconsistent since.
While Brandt has fostered competition among players for opportunities to break into the game day line-up, overall team chemistry on the field still appears to be a work in progress.
There are instances of excellent chemistry (Kerr and Hertzog have been playing off of each other very well along with Banjo and Hollingsworth), and other instances where things are a bit questionable (back line communication issues have led to giving up questionable goals and collisions/mishaps between goalkeepers and defenders).
Injuries have no doubt been a factor, as a handful of players that were on the field in the opening game (Gale Agbossoumounde, Ryan Adeleye, Stephen Okai and Ben Swanson) have been out of the line-up for a large portion of the first six games.
All of this has made for a turbulent and inconsistent start to the season.
Yet there have been bright spots.
Some of the younger, newer players that have shown promise and quality include Banjo at the top of the attack, Jamal Jack at center back, technically skilled Victor Souto in the central midfield and Hollingsworth as an attacking midfielder along with reliable leadership and a few clutch performances from veterans Corey Hertzog and Kevin Kerr.
Jack has probably been the team’s most consistent defender, but he was injured and had to leave early in Saturday’s loss at Richmond.
The affiliate partnership with MLS Columbus Crew has also shown to be fruitful (as Hollingsworth has shined, and Abuchi Obinwa and before he was injured, Swanson, have provided solid minutes).
Still, the bottom line here is that there’s been just too much roster instability — and while that sometimes is a part of life in second division soccer, ultimately team chemistry has been affected, and that above everything else has been the primary reason for the Hounds only posting one win in six tries.
Brandt has his work cut out.
After another week of training, they will look to get their first win at home this season, and a leg up in the Keystone Derby against in-state rivals Harrisburg on Saturday.
Last year proved to be a very disappointing Derby series against the City Islanders (two draws and one loss), the Hounds will be motivated to reclaim the Cup they lost a year ago to another team that is trying to avoid a fourth loss.
Veterans like Kerr, Mike Green and Danny Earls know how much this game means to the Hounds, and something tells me that they’ll be ready to play and motivation should not be a factor.
There is still time for things to come together and I have little doubt that Brandt and the veterans will work tirelessly to make this happen.
A win against rivals Harrisburg (2-1-1, 7 points) will be a great way to turn things in the right direction.
If not, they’ll find themselves right where they were a season ago — at the bottom of the USL’s Eastern Conference standings.