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View From The Booth: No harm in smelling the roses

If this were almost any other season, talk would be about sneaking into the playoffs, not jockeying for position.

Christiano François celebrates a goal. - ED THOMPSON

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

The Highmark Stadium press box was shaking last Saturday night.

Actually, check that. The press box was rocking when Neco Brett polished off Christiano François‘ cross at the back post, helping deliver a 1-0 win over Toronto FC II that capped a six-point week for Riverhounds SC.

As you’ve undoubtedly read on this very website, Bob Lilley and many of his players weren’t pleased with their energy level early against the Young Reds, but that didn’t matter much to a raucous weekend crowd ready to erupt.

No, the 3,000-plus in attendance were simply enjoying the 90-minute rollercoaster. And when the car plunged over the final hill, there was no worry about an uninspired start to the night.

So it was a little more Thunderbolt than Kangaroo, but we all survived, right?

As sports — and by extension sports fandom — becomes more and more analytical, more measured, more savvy, we can fool ourselves into thinking like coaches all the time.

There’s definitely a time and a place for that sort of thing, but as Saturday’s post-goal bliss made the commentary booth feel like a teeter-totter, those of us outside the parameters of the team can feel free to live and die with every moment. And after a lackluster first half against TFCII, that second half contained enough heat to even the most calm among us on a slow boil.

That’s my true takeaway from this past week, which saw the Hounds (11-3-7) take two much-welcomed victories against what we can all agree was inferior competition. If there is any hope of a regular-season Eastern Conference title, Pittsburgh absolutely has to cash in on the favorable matchups.

As a result, an early-August game against the dregs of the USL took on enhanced importance … and enhanced relief when the result was achieved.

“That’s what we get paid to do, to make the plays when we have to,” said a sweat-soaked Dan Lynd in the aftermath of arguably his best performance of a season that has him in contention for a pair of Golden Gloves.

“That’s what a good team does,” Lynd continued. “Still finding goals. Still finding the clean sheet. Ultimately find way to get the three points. We have things to work on this week in training, but we still got the three points.”

Lynd’s always-looking-forward mindset is typical among high-performance athletes, but it also highlights one of the central challenges for Hounds followers this season. How do you balance the appreciation of what’s already guaranteed to be one of the best seasons in two decades of Pittsburgh pro soccer with the desire to see this team take full advantage of this championship opportunity?

I suppose we can all have our own answers to that question, but amidst the week-to-week drama of a six-month season, I find it healthy to respect the accomplishments already on the board. Chief among those are the 11 wins in the bank, matching the 2015 team for the most in the Highmark Stadium era (2013-present).

In fact, since that eye-popping 17-2-1 record in 2004 — still the Hounds’ only regular-season title in team history — Pittsburgh is 86-128 in games not ending in ties, good for a .402 win percentage. Counting draws, the Hounds have earned just 38 percent of available points since ’04.

Just that perspective alone should be enough to realize exactly how far this club has come at least in terms of securing results. Only three times in 21 league matches have the 2018 Hounds left the field with nothing, earning 63 percent of available points.

That’s how a team puts itself in plum position with two months to play:

Clearly, it’s appropriate to be thinking about playoff seeding at this point, although a loss at Bethlehem Steel FC on Sunday evening will trigger some nail-biting among long-time Hounds backers.

On the other hand, a victory should shift sights to securing home-field advantage in the first round of the USL playoffs, set to begin in mid-October for the second straight year. As you can see in the table above, that promises to be a fight to the finish.

With these long-awaited goals within legitimate reach, it’s understandable to look for ways to improve. The Hounds weren’t at their best against lowly TFCII, no doubt, but don’t forget to revel in the level of this edition of the Hounds.

If this were any other season for the past decade-plus, talk would be about sneaking into the playoff zone, not jockeying for position on the backstretch.

Then again, if Saturday’s Richter scale reading in the Highmark stands was any indication, plenty of local soccer fans are managing to smell the roses while still keeping an eye out for those pesky weeds.

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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