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.
The goal for any United Soccer League team is to win the USL Cup. That can’t happen unless said team makes the playoffs.
Not exactly Mensa stuff, but it’s important to remember that fact as the final two weeks of the USL regular season approach. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC is in, and that’s the most critical accomplishment of Year 1 of the Bob Lilley era.
Especially for a team that’s sat out the postseason in three of the past four years, the first priority was simply getting into the dance. That mission was memorably accomplished last Wednesday when the Hounds pulled a 2-0 result out of swampy Harrisburg.
They’re in, so they have a chance at a title.
But we would be remiss to not admit that this Hounds team is different at home compared to the road. That might seem weird to bring up after they just went unbeaten on a two-game trip, but even after they got a little loose during the most recent homestand, they’ve been better at shutting down teams and controlling games at Highmark Stadium.
This isn’t necessarily an oddity. The mysteries of home-field advantage have been debated over the years, but generally teams across sports perform better in familiar environments.
For this year’s Hounds, though, there’s something extra baked into that formula. They’ve made no mistake about their desire to play a high-pressure game in all areas of the pitch, an approach that’s better tailored for the tight, quick conditions at Highmark.
In case you didn’t realize it, the Hounds’ home turf introduces a little more chaos and a faster pace to matches than ones played on wider, natural surfaces elsewhere around the USL. Pittsburgh thrives on creating offense from defense, so they’d prefer their matches more on the pinball side of the spectrum, which Highmark provides in spades.
To wit, 11 of the Hounds’ league-best 16 clean sheets have occurred on the southern shore of the Monongahela River. Prior to their memorable three-game stand at Highmark last month, they had allowed three goals total in 14 USL home dates. Their only two losses at home were by 1-0 scores. (A 3-1 loss to FC Cincinnati in U.S. Open Cup back in May should be noted.)
Don’t get it twisted: The Hounds aren’t a one-dimensional side in the least. Their attack has awakened considerably since Labor Day weekend, scoring 16 goals over their past seven matches, including multiple goals in five straight entering this Saturday’s tilt against Cincy.
At the same time, the Hounds have shown a more consistent ability to keep opponents under their thumbs in Pittsburgh, which is why locking up at least one home playoff game was so important to their Cup chances. And that’s why the quest for a top-two seed in the Eastern Conference is quite pertinent for the home stretch.
“I think it’s a big accomplishment for our guys to lock down a top-four spot,” Lilley said after that come-from-behind draw at Charlotte over the weekend. “Now we have a target to try to get in the top two.”
Normally, I would say playoff positioning is overrated. Obviously, you still have to win the games regardless of where they’re played. Still, there’s something about this Hounds team that makes them more dangerous at home, so finding a way to edge out Louisville City FC for the second spot on the table is worth fighting for.
Whether they’ll be able to lock up home field through the first two rounds of the USL Cup playoffs is very much up in the air. Not only does Lou City have two of three at Slugger Field to end the season, their lone road game is against last-place Toronto FC II and they currently hold the total wins tiebreaker over the Hounds.
Meanwhile, the Hounds have to fend off USL Shield-winning Cincy, then power through a trip through Atlanta and New York before crossing the finish line.
Add all the circumstances together and it’s no surprise that data-crunching site Sports Club Stats pinpoints Pittsburgh’s 2-seed odds at just 28 percent. It’s a long shot at the moment, although algorithms can’t determine how seriously Cincy will take Saturday’s game, since they have nothing to play for until playoff time.
At the very least, though, the Hounds will be hosting in the East quarterfinal round on Saturday, Oct. 20. It’ll be a serious reward for Pittsburgh soccer fans, but also a significant advantage for this breed of Hounds.