Tuesday the Pittsburgh Riverhounds paced the turf at their familiar home along the Monongahela River, but with the increased vigor and purpose of a team in preparations for the USL playoffs. The game Saturday against Bethlehem Steel will be the clubs first playoff match since 2015, and the first-ever playoff match at Highmark Stadium.
The Hounds were all fit and involved in training, with the exception of Andrew Lubahn, who took laps around the field rather than participate in full training drills. There was no word on any injury, and early in the week, it is typical to hold a player with a slight knock out of drills. Check back at PittsburghSoccerNow later this week for an injury update.
The upcoming playoffs also brought increased media attention, as representatives from the Pittsburgh Trib, KDKA/CBS 2 Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh Soccer Now were all present to preview the upcoming match at Highmark.
The team spent much of the early part of practice concentrated on small-sided, tightly confined drills that forced players to move the ball quickly and avoid immediate pressure. Later in practice, Coach Lilley had his team in a full scrimmage for 30 minutes, and practice concluded with penalty kicks.
Coach Lilley had a specific purpose in mind in crafting a practice devoted to playing in and out of small spaces. “Today, I’m putting them in tighter areas and making sure they’re able to play under pressure.” Although he hasn’t yet revealed the master plan against Bethlehem to the Hounds, he knows that this week will be a bit more intense and focused than during the regular season.
“We’ll get a clear game plan for our guys this week and give them time to get a grip on how we want to play. I’m going to be extra detail-oriented in practice because I want to make sure we’re all on the same page and we’re ready to execute come game time.”
Bethlehem Steel are an affiliate-club of Philadelphia Union. As such they are a younger club, filled with Union Academy products honing their skills in hopes of making a jump to Major League Soccer. Youngsters like wide midfielder Michee Ngalina (18 years old), Anthony Fontana, (19 years old), and Derrick Jones (21 years old) bring speed and physicality to the Steel, even if they lack a wealth of experience. Bethlehem’s more senior players, Santi Moar and Fabian Herbers, are both 25 years old, making them virtually pups compared to the older and more seasoned Riverhounds.
Coach Lilley recognizes that Bethlehem are an impressive force in the attack, but that tendency to attack also can give Pittsburgh the opportunity to exploit them and shoot into gaps that might open up.
” I do feel like we’ve had success against Bethlehem Steel. Obviously they’re a good team and they’ve scored a lot of goals. Tactically, how we play against (Bethelem Steel), is different than other teams. We need to be connected, if there are a lot of gaps in the field, Bethlehem can exploit that.”
Overall, Coach Lilley was excited to have some time to focus and prepare properly for a game without travel or a midweek game to distract the club. And he was certainly anxious to show the league that the team’s exemplary regular season was no fluke – in fact, the Hounds are improving upon their stellar season when the playoffs roll around.
“I’ll be honest, the last couple weeks, we haven’t had a lot of prep time. We’ve been going from game to game to recovery and travel. It’s nice to have the time to get properly prepared for the Bethlehem game.”
“We finished third in a very difficult conference, and it feels like we left some unfinished business out there. We are capable of more, and I’m not sure we’ve shown our best level yet.”