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Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Hounds do it all but score in draw with short-handed Charlotte

Pittsburgh has less than 90 hours to get over a wasted chance to keep pace at the top of the East.

Neco Brett runs for a first-half chance Saturday night at Highmark Stadium. - ED THOMPSON

PITTSBURGH — Missing their starting goalkeeper in Dan Lynd and their longest-tenured player in Kevin Kerr due to injuries, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC didn’t look much worse for that wear Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.

But despite large advantages in possession, shots and chances, the Hounds couldn’t get over the hump against Charlotte Independence, settling for a 0-0 tie that ended their three-match win streak.

Neco Brett‘s finishing touch had provided much of the propulsion behind Pittsburgh’s recent push up the USL Eastern Conference table, so it was fitting that his handful of misfires doomed the Hounds (12-3-8) to a downer draw against a stumbling Charlotte team that hasn’t won in its past five.

The one bright spot for Pittsburgh, now seven points behind first-place FC Cincinnati? The Tampa Bay Rowdies come to town on Wednesday for a chance at redemption.

“We just told the guys, ‘Look, it’s disappointing,’ ” Hounds coach Bob Lilley said after his team’s sixth scoreless draw of the season, and fourth at home. “All we can do is get ready for Tampa and try to get the three points against Tampa before we go out on the road.”

That trip Lilley alludes to includes stops in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, giving the Hounds a chance to test their mettle against two of the East’s likely playoff teams.

However, this month is just as much about taking advantage of a soft home schedule, like Pittsburgh did two weeks ago in dispatching Richmond and Toronto in a three-day span. Both Charlotte (7-8-9) and Tampa Bay (7-10-6) are out of the playoff zone, so gaining six points wasn’t out of the question.

On the other hand, the Independence certainly didn’t lack for desire, even as they chased the game for the vast majority of a sticky night on the Monongahela.

“Charlotte deserves credit for defending well the whole game,” Lilley said. “We had a chance early and a few late in the first half. They were difficult to play against tonight because they did defend well.”

Still, with Brett unable to convert sparkling setups from Kenardo Forbes and Jordan Dover, plus a pair of sharp-angle misses late when the ball bounced his way, this draw felt as much like a loss as any the Hounds have earned in this otherwise-impressive season.

That feeling was exacerbated over the final 30 minutes, when Charlotte midfielder Greg Jordan was sent off for his second yellow card of the night. Down to 10 men, the Independence bunkered in and barely attempted a counterattack, seemingly content to bleed a single point if they could.

That development meant rookie keeper Mike Kirk felt rather lonely through much of the second half, following up a first half that at least featured a save and a couple of intercepted crosses.

“Once they went down to 10 men, it was pretty quiet back there,” said Kirk, who is the third Hounds goalie, along with Lynd and the injured Kyle Morton, to earn a clean sheet this season.

“We just pushed everyone up. So a lot of it was (about) staying focused, stay on (Joe) Greenspan and Tommy (Vancaeyezeele) in the back to stay connected and get everyone moving.”

Move they did, but the Hounds lacked the finishing touch, marking the seventh time they’ve been blanked in 2018. Charlotte keeper Andrew Dykstra, of the 35 Major League Soccer appearances, used his right foot to great effect twice, preventing what appeared to be sure Pittsburgh goals.

Dykstra’s efforts could’ve easily produced a road win, in fact. Independence substitute Jake Areman worked his way past Hugh Roberts for a glorious opportunity midway through the second half, but he pushed his left-footer wide. One wonders if 10-goal man Jorge Herrera hadn’t suffered a first-half ankle injury, would Pittsburgh be looking at a loss? What if Charlotte’s eight-goal striker Cordell Cato wasn’t left home in North Carolina with a leg issue?

The average soccer match contains plenty of what-ifs, though. As for what actually happened, the Hounds have to be pleased with over 70 percent of the ball and a 13-5 shot margin, even if they couldn’t nick a goal for the home fans.

And yes, the lack of scoring continues a season-long trend. Pittsburgh has allowed just two(!) goals in 13 home matches, but being able to score just 15 times at Highmark Stadium means that some points have been left on the table.

Still, the bedrock of the Hounds’ success this season remains intact. Their league-leading 15th clean sheet ensured they wouldn’t go home empty-handed, and it functioned as a promising christening for Kirk, who will likely have at least a couple more starts ahead of him with Lynd recovering from a fractured cheekbone.

“We train at such a high level (that) the game was natural,” the 24-year-old Kirk said. “All of the movements were natural. Nothing was overwhelming by any means. It was a good, solid night.”

At least on one side of the ball it was. When Greenspan’s last-ditch header bounced wide left, the Hounds had less than 90 hours to get over the squandered chance to keep pace at the top of the East.

On to Tampa.

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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