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.
PITTSBURGH — Hell yeah, I’m nervous.
Since I took this gig nearly four years ago, I’ve been waiting for this moment. A chance to call a home playoff game for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.
I can only imagine what the players feel like.
Actually, I can ask them! Media status has its privileges.
“There’s a buzz in the air,” second-year Hound Joe Greenspan told me after Wednesday’s training session. “There’s a lot of guys here, including myself, who haven’t played in a playoff game since our professional career started.
“So yeah, I think a lot of guys are excited. I know the city’s excited. There’s lots to look forward to this weekend.”
That’s a positive take on all of it. An attitude of gratitude, if you will.
But there’s something else in the air at Highmark Stadium: Tension. Six months of work — actually, closer to eight if you factor in preseason camp — will boil down to 90 minutes Saturday night on the South Side.
For all the (deserved) hoopla about the Hounds hosting a postseason game for the first time in 12 years, the fact is that Pittsburgh should beat Bethlehem Steel FC and advance to the second round of USL Cup.
And that’s not just based on the final Eastern Conference standings. Just take a look at the two-match season series, which saw the Hounds outscore Steel FC 6-2 and outshoot them 43-10 (18-4 on target). The second of those matchups, a 4-1 Pittsburgh win Sept. 7 at Highmark, was one of the few times this season the Hounds truly rolled the highlight reel, turning a 1-1 game through 40 minutes into a rout.
Reason for optimism? Sure, but it also sets the Hounds as a clear favorite, not a familiar position for this franchise and its fans.
“It’s soccer,” Greenspan said. “It’s one of those sports where anybody can win on any given day. We gotta take it just like another match. Go out, prepare as best we can and perform as best we can and hopefully we get on the positive side of the result.”
Again, a healthy approach to it. Control what you can control. We could all learn from that, even if Bethlehem and its fluid roster situation as Philadelphia Union’s farm club presents some uncertainties.
That being said, the Hounds are leaning on a tactical focus this week to settle their minds. When you have an experienced bench boss like Bob Lilley, that’s the only way to go.
“There are always going to be curveballs at playoff time,” said Lilley, whose teams have won four of five first-round USL playoff games since the creation of the league in 2011. “You also have the pressure and expectations. You have to manage your emotions. You don’t lose your identity.”
More on that in my Wednesday training report, but the message from Lilley is as much about mentality as it is anything else.
The Hounds’ coach mentioned Kenardo Forbes and Ben Zemanski as players who can share insight and wisdom from their experiences in must-win scenarios. Forbes anchored Lilley’s Rochester Rhinos during their USL Cup run of 2015, while Zemanski made several trips to the MLS Cup playoffs, including a title with Portland Timbers three autumns ago.
“We’re fortunate to have some experienced guys who have been through the playoffs,” Lilley said. “With Kenardo and Zemanksi and these guys … the players will get some information from those guys, every bit as valuable as what they’ll get from us coaches.”
Forbes, who exudes calm in the cauldron of midfield, laid it out plain and simple to this commentator Wednesday morning.
“This is what we’ve been preparing for all season,” he said. “For a lot of the guys, this is their first time. Some guys have been in the playoffs, but they (haven’t) won a game. Everyone is pretty locked into the game plan this weekend. I think we’re ready.”
For Forbes, who went 5-2 as a Rhino in USL playoff games, there’s a refuge in honing in on details.
“Just stick to the game plan,” he said, sounding rather measured while bundled up in a stocking cap and gloves. “Stick to what (Lilley) tells you. He’s been in it for a pretty long time. He knows what the playoffs are like. That’s the only thing we have to worry about: The tactics.”
Greenspan had similar thoughts.
“I think the most important thing is (giving) 100 percent,” the big man in the middle told me. “The coaches are going to give us a game plan. We have to implement that as best we can and do the right thing. I think you’ve seen all year, that gives us a great chance to win matches.”
Feel calm yet?
Indeed, the Hounds have gotten to this position honestly. In the 33-team league, only MLS-bound FC Cincinnati lost fewer times than the Hounds’ five, and even though there might’ve been too many draws for the team’s liking, there’s plenty of good to draw from when the tight moments arrive Saturday night.
What all this means for those of us on the sideline — whether we’re broadcasting or cheering — could be debated. The playoff pressure will be new to most of us, at least in terms of a home match. In some ways, it’s more challenging for us to keep our composure, since we have nothing to do with the outcome.
As for the people who have some control, just know that Lilley had to kick his players off the pitch on a brisk Wednesday morning. The grueling 34-game regular season is in the rear view, the cool air of fall has replaced the humidity of summer … and the Hounds’ future is only as long as their play will carry them.
Call it adrenaline, excitement or nerves, but these guys are more than ready to meet their fate.
“We’re going to get a boost from the crowd,” Lilley said. “This is what you work all year for. I don’t see the last two weeks of the season holding us back.
“It’s been three weeks since we had the extra time to be ready and prepare. I think we’ll be raring to go.”
I think we all will. See you on the other side.