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Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Double time: Hounds hold off Penn FC to clinch playoffs, Derby

Pittsburgh made the absolute most of what might’ve been its final trip to Harrisburg for a league match.

Neco Brett cuts in front of Kyle Venter (blue jersey) Wednesday at FNB Field. - DELANEY HOOLAHAN / RIVERHOUNDS SC

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Much like Neco Brett and Andrew Lubahn made the most of their few minutes on the pitch, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC went the efficient route at FNB Field on Wednesday night.

Not only did they officially lock up their first USL playoff berth since 2015 with a 2-0 squelching of rival Penn FC, the Hounds also ensured the Keystone Derby Cup would remain in their possession for the third time in its four years of existence.

Pretty good for 90 minutes of work, although the foundation for their midweek accomplishments has been under construction for several months.

And, fittingly, the Hounds (15-4-11) got back to what helped them earn respect across the league at the start of the season: Defense. Pittsburgh’s USL-best 16th clean sheet was the team’s first since Aug. 16 vs. Charlotte, ending an unsettling stretch in which the Hounds allowed multiple goals three times.

“It was a big night to put in a full 90 minutes,” said center back Joe Greenspan, who was his usual overpowering self. “Everybody put in a shift. Everybody battled. To keep a shutout was even better.”

There would be no celebrating for Penn FC on this night, with rookie Mike Kirk making four saves for his second shutout in six starts and the Hounds limiting their cross-state foe to nine total attempts at goal.

Pittsburgh was coming off a three-game homestand in which it scored nine goals — nearly a quarter of its season total — but the attack didn’t come as easily Wednesday.

Slumping Penn FC (9-14-8) controlled possession at a 65 percent rate and didn’t concede a single shot on target until the 38th minute. Even after a 90-minute delay at the start to allow a rain-soaked surface to drain, the natural grass still wasn’t conducive to fancy footwork.

“Because of the surface, everyone was a bit cagey,” Greenspan explained. “The field was pretty muddy and no one wanted to make a mistake. Everyone was feeling each other out.”

Of course, the 38th minute proved pivotal for the Hounds, as Kay Banjo slid into the six-yard box to poke home a loose ball for a 1-0 Pittsburgh lead. Banjo’s first goal of the season was the result of a quick move down the right flank by Christiano François, who offered up a short cross that caromed off surprise starter Ben Fitzpatrick and in front of Penn FC keeper Sean Lewis.

“We’ve been taught all season just to get across the goal,” Banjo said. “Because you can get easy goals like that, just tap-ins. Nothing special. You just sniff the ball and put it in the net. Christiano did all the work. Ben got it across and it’s my job to follow up.”

Both teams seemed to freshen up from there, with Penn FC pressing to tie before the half, then the Hounds emerging from the halftime break with ideas of making it 2-0.

But Fitzpatrick was robbed on the doorstep by Lewis, then François’ cross from the left side deflected off Lewis and just wide of a charging Fitzpatrick, who was making his first start and second appearance of the season.

Substitute Isaac Osae probably had the best opportunity for Penn FC moments later, when Kirk spilled a rebound into the center of the box, but Osae knocked his volley high from 10 yards.

“We knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Hounds coach Bob Lilley said. “They’re a good team and they created some good moments, but I thought overall our defending was good and we created some good moments on the road.

“It was a tough surface but we found a way to get in behind them. I liked the effort of guys getting into the box. We’ve been working on that and it’s starting to happen more often.”

Despite a slip-up here and there, the Hounds never seemed to lose their balance, putting their signature swarming defense to work along with sound positioning and the occasional foray upfield. None of those counters bore fruit, though, until Lubahn picked off a desperate through-ball just past the 90th minute.

Working a two-man game with fellow late sub Brett, Lubahn received a pass at the top of the penalty area, bulled his away through a backtracking Prince Baffoe and beat Lewis with a left-footed stab to double the lead.

“We got the second goal and the game was ours,” Greenspan said. “We rode it out well.”

Lubahn’s goal was his first as a Hound, but Brett’s assist was the latest example of his all-around attack contributions. Brett entered for Banjo in the 76th minute as Lilley tried to massage his lineup with another road fixture coming Saturday at Charlotte. Both Tobi Adewole and Ben Zemanski didn’t play, while Jordan Dover only entered in the 85th minute to close it out.

Close it out they did, clinching a playoff spot in Harrisburg for the second time in four years. Nearly three years ago to the day, the Hounds defeated the then-City Islanders on the final Saturday of the 2015 regular season to squeeze into the postseason.

This year, Pittsburgh is safely in with four matches yet to play. The Hounds nudged their noses two points clear of Louisville City FC for second place in the Eastern Conference, a spot that would guarantee a second home playoff game should they get that far. Finishing in the 2-spot would also ensure that they wouldn’t face league-best FC Cincinnati until the East final.

“It’s a big night, you know?” Banjo said. “It’s great to win it, but we want more. We always want more and we can never settle.”

For now, though, the focus is on ending this two-game trip on a positive note … and celebrating the latest triumph over Penn FC. The Hounds haven’t allowed a single goal in six straight games against their chief Old Guard rival, and they’re now 3-1-2 in Harrisburg since the establishment of the Keystone Derby.

“It was a good team win,” Lilley said. “The guys worked hard. It’s good to know we’re officially in. We want to get a result at Charlotte to keep ourselves ahead of Louisville.”

Penn FC’s future in the newly-rebranded USL Championship is reportedly up in the air, so this might’ve been the last intraleague meeting two franchises that have now squared off 45 times in their shared histories.

If this is it — at least for a while — the Hounds crafted another indelible moment at the expense of their closest league rival. It might be a new era under Lilley, but there’s something to be said for keeping up a few older traditions.

Thanks to Anthony Meier and Anthony Picardi for the assistance tonight!

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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