On a historical evening at Highmark Stadium, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC season came to a crashing halt in the cruelest form of losing a penalty kick shootout after allowing the Bethlehem Steel FC to rally twice to find equalizing goals on Saturday night.
The immediate disappointment was evident among the players, coaches, everyone involved with the Hounds organization, along with the many new and long-standing fans that packed Highmark Stadium despite the cold rain and windy conditions.
Only a few days have passed, and while there will be time to pick some more things apart and look at what players may be coming back and which ones are going to be gone, here are some immediate takeaways from this result.
CAN’T WIN IN PLAYOFFS WHEN YOU CAN’T PUT TEAMS AWAY
The harsh reality is the Riverhounds were probably not going to be league championship material this season.
There’s no doubt that head coach Bob Lilley instilled a winning culture, molded the 2018 Riverhounds into a team that was very difficult to beat and the roster as it was set up was more than capable of making a run to the USL Cup Final.
However, in the biggest game of the season their demons couldn’t be exorcised.
The Hounds couldn’t lay the hammer down in numerous games down the stretch this season when they held leads. They were unable to add goals and clamp down with a lock-down defensive performance when needed. This become a common theme.
After the first half of the season when the Hounds went on two impressive shutout streaks (both more than 400 minutes), and they were on pace to be one of the best defensive seasons in USL history, they began to have trouble holding leads.
This trend came to the forefront in four games in late August and early September when they dropped points against non-playoff squads Charlotte and Tampa Bay at home in settling for draws when they held leads. This was followed by a road trip to Indianapolis and Cincinnati where they blew 1-0 and 2-1 leads in Indy to hold on for a third straight draw, but then saw another 1-0 lead against front-running Cincy before more than 30,000 fans evaporate in the final 10 minutes.
They appeared to right the ship a bit, against Bethlehem Steel FC on September 7, with 3-1 win. That night, as I wrote in my Analysis/Player grades piece afterwards, they did lay the hammer down on its opponent. They were outplayed the following week by Louisville City FC, but showed plenty of fight and resolve to score twice in the late stages to earn a 2-2 tie against a team they were battling for second place. A week later, they beat Indy Eleven 3-2. — but again showed flaws in protecting what seemed to be a commanding lead.
A rousing final Keystone Derby Cup 2-0 win at Penn FC on September 27 on a terrible field would be the final win of the season for the Hounds.
They would follow that up with three ties (at Charlotte with a goal in stoppage time, a fairly well played nil-nil draw vs a FC Cincy team that had already locked everything up and blowing yet another lead against lowly Atlanta United FC 2), and a loss at NY Red Bulls II.
So, since mid-August the Hounds held 1-0 leads in six regular season and one playoff game — and were neither able to hold the shut out, or build on these leads. The only time they held a two goal or more edge, they raced past Bethlehem Steel with two goals in the second half on September 7, and saw Indy Eleven cut 2-0 and 3-1 leads within moments of scoring goals.
In the drivers seat on Saturday night, holding a 1-0 lead, and starting the second half with Bethlehem looking shaky playing the ball out of the back with a driving wind and rain in their faces (and a noisy Steel Army at their back), the Hounds failed to put the game away.
“At 1-0, we had chances to put the game away. Not just protect the lead. And actually put the game away,” Lilley said after the match. “I think energy up top, movement. I look at the starting three up top. Christiano (Francois), Romeo Parkes and Neco Brett, and they needed to keep attacking the game. It’s disappointing we didn’t get the second goal.”
Without the second goal, the match tilted when Bethlehem found some new energy with it substitution of Faris in favor of Chris Nanco. who delivered two shots, both on target, forcing Hounds keeper Dan Lynd to make dynamite saves.
The Hounds quickly became susceptible to counter attacks from Steel FC.
This group of Hounds have been training and playing on Highmark Stadium’s tighter than most field dimensions, in all kinds of weather conditions since January, and still couldn’t hold a lead at home.
The Steel FC, third in the league in fouls conceded, certainly brought a physical element to the playoff game from the start. The Hounds had to battle for every inch. Even after Pittsburgh had broken through for the game’s first goal, and they owned the possession statistics, the Steel FC did every thing they could to disrupt the home team’s rhythm.
Lilley was correct when he said his team were the better team through much of the match.
The Hounds won 94 duels to 74 for the Steel FC, with edges in shots (20-10, but only 6-5 on target), 13-4 on corners, 23-15 in open play crosses, 10-0 in headed shots and 56% possession.
After Roberts header gave the Hounds a 2-1 lead in the 105th minute, and with Highmark Stadium rocking, the Hounds had to hold on for 15 minutes.
Considering that this team locked opponents down twice this season for more than 400 minutes — they could certainly do it with all of that momentum.
Instead, after a tough call that went against them, a free kick from super close range erased yet another Hounds one-goal lead.
“We’ll need to be a little bit more consistent closing out games in those moments next year. We all know this a team that was a strong third. We played all the top teams well,” Lilley said. “We had more ties because we couldn’t finish teams off. This is something we’ll have to look at and do a better job next year.”
If you look at many pro sports Champions — and even closer look at the past four USL Champions (Sacramento, Rochester, NY Red Bulls II and Louisville City) — each were fueled by playoff disappointments in prior seasons. And now look at what FC Cincinnati has done this season, racing out to a record regular season points mark after its first two seasons when they had suffered 1st round playoff defeats.
With momentum from a fantastic first season under the guidance of Lilley, and his staff, the page will turn to 2019, where the seeds to a future pro soccer championship in Pittsburgh may have be sowed in Saturday’s playoff defeat.
A RIVALRY AND A VILLIAN IS BORN?
While some of its biggest and most traditional rivals are dropping down to USL’s League One (third division), the Hounds may have found a new nemesis.
Steel FC, on the heels of another playoff appearance, with many young players from the Philadelphia Union system, appear to be building a solid second division outfit. The Hounds have committed to being in the second division as well, and with all of its other chief rivals dropping down into the third division, this could be the beginning of a more intense rivalry between Pittsburgh and the Eastern PA’s Steel FC.
The other thing you may not want to discount — is the long-term potential for this rivalry. As part of U.S. Soccer and MLS’ initiatives, the Union organization works feverishly to develop homegrown talent and bring many young players into its system from its regional area. The Union’s Developmental Academy is flourishing, and they’ve clearly built a solid foundation for its second team under the direction of Brendan Burke.
Ultimately, the goal for U.S. Soccer — maybe we’ll see this someday — is to see Pittsburgh, and soccer in Western Pennsylvania develop a similar feeder system that already exists in Eastern PA, South Jersey and Delaware. Right now, that is not the case, but having an independently run, successful second division pro franchise in the Riverhounds and if its Developmental Academy can develop accordingly, it can certainly help.
And seeing the Youth Academy there in unison on Saturday, may have been a sign of things to come.
Our @RiverhoundsSC may have fallen tonight, but we see the top now. We know how to get there. This is our path.
WE GO TOGETHER.
Thanks to all fans, and to the amazing support from OUR CITY. pic.twitter.com/NIuCMCmUMw
— The Riverhounds Academy (@HoundsAcademy) October 21, 2018
So building a rivalry at the pro side — even in the second division could be a good starting point.
Rivalries are born from when two sides are evenly matched, battling for high stakes and when one desperately wants to knock off the other.
We saw that in the Highmark Stadium era between the Hounds and Harrisburg City Islanders (now Penn FC). That that rivalry fizzled out this season and with a number of financial and management issues in Harrisburg.
While the Hounds took the two regular season matches, Bethlehem showed a lot of resolve in coming back twice in tough conditions on Saturday night. Bethlehem, having already battled Pittsburgh twice this season, kept making things difficult enough for Pittsburgh, and executed its game plan.
At the center of it was its captain, James Chambers. It seemed as if Chambers was having words with the officials all night long and battling hard with every Riverhounds that came his way. The one lone veteran signed to an exclusive contract with Steel FC, while many of his teammates are under contract with the Union, was setting the tone for his squad’s resolve.
All season and for much of his splendid career, Hounds’ midfielder and captian Kenardo Forbes rarely, if ever, has lost his composure. On Saturday, after yet another midfield duel with Chambers, Forbes lost his cool for a moment. The two captains exchanged some heated words and there was some pushing and shoving.
It appeared that the Irishman had not only gotten under the skin of the Steel Army throughout the game, but he’d also succeeded in unraveling the Hounds captain.
Chambers added salt to the Hounds wounds when he banged in the game-tying free kick that quieted the Pittsburgh celebration after the go-ahead goal in Extra Time.
Then, after scoring the first goal in the penalty kick shootout — he put his index finger over his mouth to mock the Hounds supporters.
Chambers was relishing the moment — and playing the role of road villain perfectly.
Of course, Bethlehem would ultimately win the battle of penalties, and even with many young players — showed nerves of Steel in hostile territory.
“Both teams did a good job on penalties. Both teams deserve credit for holding their nerve there,” Bob Lilley, Riverhounds head coach, said. “Someone was going to miss at some point. Unfortunately, it was us. It’s a tough game to lose when I felt we were the better team tonight and for much of the season, but that’s playoff soccer.”
And with that, we may have the beginning of what could become a very good rivalry.
IT WAS AN ELECTRIC ATMOSPHERE
As I wrote in the days leading up to the match, this was a long time coming — and a great opportunity for Pittsburgh to really get behind its pro soccer team.
And the record crowd of 5,189 didn’t disappoint.
When I usually arrive at Highmark Stadium a few hours prior to a Riverhounds match (and I’ve probably been to about 95 of the 100 games played), the parking lot is almost always half empty. On nights where crowds have exceeded 3,000 fans in the past, the lot will eventually fill up.
Usually I can tell right away if there’s going to be a decent crowd.
On Saturday, I got there before 5 p.m. (kickoff was a 7), and the parking lot was mostly full. There were fans everywhere, and multiple tailgates going on. You could certainly feel a sense of excitement building with more than two hours to go before kickoff.
I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that before a Hounds game.
The wind, the cold, the rain wasn’t going to stop more than 5,000 fans from being a part of a historic night for a franchise that finally had its home playoff game at its scenic six-year old stadium.
The newly added 1,400 seats to the Paul Child Stand in the East End of the Stadium were filled and rocking like never before for much of the night.
— Logan Carney (@SentryCarney) October 20, 2018
“It would’ve been nice to give them a great victory tonight. They were awesome,” said Lilley. “They were fantastic. I hope they believe in what we’re doing, and we see more crowds like this.”
I want thank everyone from the bottom of my heart for the unbelievable support that you showed last night for the @RiverhoundsSC. That was always my vision and YOU made it happen. It was not the result I wanted but it is the beginning of what is coming!!!2019????
— Tuffy Shallenberger (@Tuffy_Shall) October 21, 2018