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View From The Booth: Hounds on pace to rise above past

It’s worth a reminder: This team is good. And it could be great.

Joe Greenspan rises to strike a header. - ED THOMPSON

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

I dropped by a Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC training session last Thursday, curious about the demeanor of the team after letting five points slip through their grasp on that Indianapolis-Cincinnati trip.

What I saw was a full-steam-ahead practice on a very steamy Highmark Stadium turf, followed by a powerful thunderstorm that chased everyone into the locker room. Well, everyone but the goalkeepers, who were on the receiving end of a pointed speech from coach Bob Lilley.

If you’re into symbolism, you could say the rain cleansed the Hounds’ minds as they prepared for a three-match homestand, all against Eastern Conference playoff teams. Looking at the result against Bethlehem Steel FC last Friday, a 4-1 victory featuring a season-high 24 shots, you could also say any lingering doubts from the brutal road trip should be put to bed.

This team is good. And it could be great.

It sounds weird to say in a season that’s brought a drastic franchise transformation, but longstanding Hounds fans have good reason to waver in their belief. Traditionally, this team hasn’t followed up on promise, especially when it comes to late-season events.

We need only look back to last year for an example of that unfortunate phenomenon. After winning three in a row to close August, Dave Brandt‘s club earned just three standings points from the final seven fixtures, knocking the Hounds out of the USL Cup playoffs for the second straight season.

Even in seasons that were more successful, there has been a feeling of ‘what if.’ Look back to 2015, when potent Pittsburgh blew a pair of leads — including one in second-half stoppage time — to lose its first-round playoff matchup against New York Red Bulls II.

But it bears mentioning that, if any edition of the Hounds could put its past fully in the rear view, it’s this group.

For one, there are just a handful of players who have any direct experience with previous Pittsburgh shortcomings. Kevin Kerr is in his sixth season here, but the amount of roster turnover in the offseason makes comparisons with recent seasons seem rather irrelevant.

Of the Starting XI against Bethlehem last Friday, only Romeo ParkesJoe Greenspan and Tobi Adewole saw the pitch for the ’17 Hounds. Parkes was the only holdover from ’16, and he played just a handful of matches early that year before getting suspended.

Beyond personnel, though, the personality of this team as instilled by Lilley and his assistants Mark Pulisic and Dan Visser has proven just as important in the Hounds’ second-place standing as anything else.

Yes, the Hounds have conceded game-tying goals in four straight outings, but for the most part they have earned points when they have been in position to do so. Prior to two weeks ago, Pittsburgh went four full months without conceding a lead.

It hurts that FC Cincinnati has pulled back points against the Hounds twice, no doubt. Flip those two results at Nippert Stadium and that early-October meeting on the South Side could’ve decided the top spot in the East.

However, in my chat with Lilley last Thursday, the Hounds’ manager insisted that he’s derived more optimism than discouragement by how his team has competed against the top clubs in the USL, particularly the boys from Cincy.

It might sound jarring to hear about moral victories from Lilley, who was again dispensing tough love following the win over Bethlehem, but we can only take the man at his word.

“I believe,” he responded to my question about the Hounds’ capability to take on all comers. “I hope the players do, too.”

Lilley’s men might not have have performed the way he wanted in breaking a four-match winless streak — admittedly the game got a little too open in the second half before the Hounds popped in a pair of insurance goals — but from this angle Pittsburgh should be heartened by the offensive outpouring.

Four goals might not sound like much, but even getting past one goal has been a struggle at times this season. But as I remarked on the broadcast after Kenardo Forbes‘ bomb hit nylon Friday night, maybe the ball is going to start going in for the Hounds a little more.

If the Hounds find a little more finishing touch, all the pieces are there for a serious run into the autumn. Even after burying four against Steel FC and seven overall in its past three matches, Pittsburgh is still in the bottom half of the league in shot conversion rate (14 percent).

As Friday reminded, the Hounds might not have lit up the highlight machine often this season, but they have largely controlled play, home and away. Unlike in past years, they don’t have to outscore teams to cash in victories.

Still, it’s nice to know they can pump a few into the net from time to time. Most of the wins have been grinding, but don’t let the style distract from the substance.

While they might not be blowing many teams out, these Hounds are definitely different.

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.

PItt MF Michael Sullivan

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