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View From The Booth: Feel-good restart should fuel Hounds’ fire

It’s not a stretch to predict the endorphins released Saturday will ride the bus over the next week.

Romeo Parkes' header meant it was party time at Highmark Stadium. - ED THOMPSON

View From The Booth: Feel-good restart should fuel Hounds’ fire

Editor’s note: Riverhounds play-by-play voice Matt Gajtka brings his perspective on the team throughout the season in his weekly ‘View From The Booth’ column.

In retrospect, we should’ve seen a result like last Saturday’s 3-0 victory over New York Red Bulls II coming for the Riverhounds.

Not only was Bob Lilley‘s bunch fully rested from a 13-day break, the Hounds’ longest of the 2018 United Soccer League season, they were also playing a youthful Red Bulls squad that likes to open up the game.

Considering how structured and disciplined the Hounds have been this season, it was a recipe for a feel-good result at Highmark Stadium. For once, it played out that way in front of a season-best gathering of 3,652.

“When I came out (before the game) and saw the crowd, I was like, ‘Woah,’ ” said two-goal hero Neco Brett. “I turned to Romeo (Parkes) and I said, ‘We have to show up today and get some goals.’ That’s exactly what we did.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom about Lilley-coached teams, this was no ‘park the bus’ victory; the Hounds (6-1-6) were on the front foot from the first minute.

As the video shows, the high-scoring Baby Bulls weren’t clinical enough in the attacking third to make mistakes hurt, but the Hounds were relentless on the counter, striking twice before scattershot New York could find its bearings in front of its goal.

John Krysinski‘s analysis revealed there were some moments of danger for the normally-sound Pittsburgh back line, but a consistent attacking mentality turned the tables on New York’s pursuit-and-pressure approach.

Lilley wasn’t over the moon with the entirety of the performance, but he allowed it was “nice” and “great” to put three in the net and collect a victory going away for the first time since that 4-0 wipeout of Toronto FC II back in April. And as Brett referenced in his postgame comments, sometimes it’s not easy coming back from a week away from game action, so perhaps we can excuse the relative lack of execution Lilley lamented.

“We did things right tactically,” the coach said Saturday night. “But they definitely had moments in and around our box, and they breached our back line. I know it was probably great for the fans to see three goals and a win, but we can do better.”

It’s Lilley’s job to mind the details, of course. He’s not in the USL Hall of Fame for letting under-the-radar mistakes slide. He’ll continue to live up to his reputation and hold his first Hounds team accountable to the process.

But as for this club’s hearty supporters (and broadcasters), we can revel in Saturday’s result, to say nothing of the crackling atmosphere at Station Square.

Even in the midst of a franchise-best start to league play, the Hounds had been mysteriously impotent at home in the attacking third. Throw out a garbage-time goal by Dennis Chin in a 3-1 U.S. Open Cup loss to FC Cincinnati last month and the Hounds hadn’t scored adjacent to the Monongahela since a 1-0 triumph over Atlanta United 2 on April 28.

Great record or not, it’s difficult to get a fanbase truly ginned up without a match like the one we witnessed the other night. The aforementioned four-goal walk over TFCII did indeed occur, but it was moved from Toronto on a few days’ notice and occurred on a blustery afternoon. In other words, most Hounds fans hadn’t seen the team score multiple goals in person since 2017.

I wrote last week about the need to show off in front of summertime home crowds, so consider Saturday a mission accomplished from that superficial point of view. There were opportunities at both ends, sure, but the Hounds were the better team through the run of play and both strikers converted chances, with Parkes punctuating his headed blast with a signature backflip.

“It’s a great feeling,” Parkes said. “Coach has been begging me to score, to get on the end of one of those.”

From a player’s perspective, that’s how you build confidence. That’s also how you grow a fanbase. That’s how you build the hype, in diehards and casuals alike.

There’s a behind-the-scenes positive development, too: The Hounds are getting healthy.

Towering center back Joe Greenspan came on late Saturday, getting his feet under him for the first time since March, when a calf injury knocked him out long-term. Besides keeper Kyle Morton, lost for the season to knee surgery, only Mouhamed Dabo was on the injured list for start of play against New York. Although Ben Zemanski left the win with what appeared to be a groin issue, Kevin Kerr and Joe Holland are available to fill in the attacking midfield.

The Greenspan return might even help the midfield depth, as well. Rookie of the year candidate Thomas Vancaeyezeele could well bump up from the back line, where he’s lived for much of the season.

Although Vancaeyezeele found himself on the wrong side of shifty Baby Bulls attackers a few times Saturday, the Frenchman also demonstrated a creative instinct when he stepped up to punch the ball to Kenardo Forbes early in the second half. A few moments later, Brett had a brace, exemplifying Pittsburgh’s potential to be deadly and direct in the attacking third … and it started with a timely intercept from Tommy V.

“When (we) get chances,” Brett said, “we have to make sure that we finish them.”

Now tied for second place in the Eastern Conference, the Hounds have more chances from a macro perspective.

A two-match trip takes them to Charleston this Saturday and Louisville next Wednesday. The Battery (5-3-6) haven’t won in five, but they’re hanging in the East playoff zone and haven’t missed the USL postseason since 2007. Lou City (7-2-3) are the defending league champs and sit flat-footed with Pittsburgh for the runner-up spot in the East.

Then again, the Hounds haven’t lost in five league matches on the road (2-0-3), scoring multiple goals in four of those. It’s not a stretch to predict the endorphins released Saturday will ride the bus over the next week.

Matt Gajtka (pronounced GITE-kah) is a columnist, analyst and reporter for Pittsburgh Soccer Now. In addition to his four-year role as play-by-play broadcaster for Riverhounds SC, he has experience covering pro and amateur sports for over a decade. Matt got his start in soccer while calling games for the Marshall University men's and women's Division I teams. He fondly remembers attending Hounds matches at Bethel Park High School, although he lapsed during the Moon and Chartiers Valley years. Like many, the construction of Highmark Stadium in 2013 rekindled his passion for the club and local soccer in general.

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