It’s as much fun to look at the league table at this time of year and pontificate on the permutations and combinations of the Eastern Conference’s playoff situation as it is fun to break down and preview the games. Behind the final playoff spot by 6 points, and with 5 different USL opponents above them in the table, Penn FC basically have to win every single one of their remaining matches in order to qualify for the playoffs. I’m sure there is a situation in which 3 wins out of 4 will do the trick, but it would involve a number of other Eastern foes – Ottawa, Nashville, Tampa Bay, North Carolina, and Charlotte, to choke. Simply put, Penn are in a must-win situation. That means that the Pittsburgh Riverhounds are in the enviable position of having the ability to both beat their hated rivals in the Keystone Derby and knock them out of the playoffs. That’s pretty sweet.
And- AND! The victory might ensure that Penn wouldn’t claim the USL Cup for the foreseeable future, as the former City Islanders * may * elect to drop down a division next year to USL’s newly named ‘League 1’.
I could write more, but I think this gif just about sums it up:
Formation and Tactics
In their last match versus FC Cincinnati at home, Penn played a 4-3-3 formation. On defense, that morphed into a 4-1-4-1; that’s a fairly common look for a lot of teams, especially if they have a very good defensive midfielder to be that ‘in-between-the-lines’ guy. And Penn has that guy.
Penn used the formation for width and a counter-attacking advantage. They let FC Cincinnati possess the ball the early and tried to hit on the break. When Penn recovered the ball, they often tried to bypass the midfield with a long pass, getting the ball wide to their two wide forwards, Aaron Dennis and Paulo Junior. Ultimately, that got them a free kick in a dangerous spot that gave them the lead. In the end, FCC would come roaring back in the second half to win, 2-1.
Perhaps Penn’s most important player is defensive midfielder Richard Menjívar. The 27-year-old native Californian has played for the El Salvador youth national team, and leads Penn FC in minutes with 2,373. He shields two very sturdy central defenders, Kyle Venter and Tiago Calvano. You can put Calvano near the top of the ‘well-traveled veteran footballers’ list. The Brazilian 36-year-old has played in the Brazilian Campeonato, Italian Serie A, Swiss Super League, German 2.Bundesliga, Australian football league, NASL, and now USL. He also had this little, uh, moment of gamesmanship and/or romance with FCC striker Danni König on Saturday night.
You: "USL is boring."
— Mark Asher Goodman (@soccer_rabbi) September 26, 2018
I mean, that’s just, uh… wow. Let’s move on before I say something inappropriate.
To my mind, I have questions about Penn’s fullbacks, who in this match were Harri Hawkins at LB and Jake Bond at RB. They looked like they got pulled apart a bunch. When I see fullbacks that are occasionally too far up the pitch, coupled with centerbacks who are on the wrong end of 35, I think only one thought: bring on the Cheetah. Hounds speedster Christiano Francois can wreak havoc against a backline that doesn’t have it on lockdown. I hope Bob Lilley concurs.
Penn’s wide forward Paulo Junior is right-footed, and started on that side of the field, but flipped to the left midway through the first half where he looked really dangerous as a so-called ‘inverted winger’. It’s important for Bob Lilley’s defenders to remember who they’re facing and which foot they prefer. That may seem simple, but when a guy’s coming at you at a hundred miles an hour and you’re the last man, it’s harder than it sounds. Penn center forward Lucky Mkosana is solid-but-unspectacular. Of his 10 goals this year, 8 come from his right foot, 1 came from his left foot, and 1 was a header. Let’s hope someone in the Hounds coaching staff emphasized this to defenders Tobi Adewole, Joe Greenspan, and Thomas Vancaeyezeele – after wracking up shutouts early this year, Pittsburgh hasn’t recorded a clean sheet in their last 6 matches.
Penn FC have lost 4 of their last 5 matches. A loss to Pittsburgh tonight would almost certainly eliminate them from the 2018 USL playoffs. Expect fire. Expect aggression. And expect a Hounds opponent that will not settle for a draw.