The Pittsburgh Riverhounds early season world tour continues. After getting off on the wrong foot to start the season in Tampa, Florida, the men of steel will head to the other geographical side of the USL Championship Eastern Conference to face Swope Park Rangers Saturday at 5:00 pm EST.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Swope Park Rangers… why does it feel like I know nothing about them?” It is likely because you know nothing about them. Founded in 2015, SPR, the farm team for Sporting Kansas City played their first three years in the Western Conference before the topsy-turvy migration, reorganization, and/or total collapse of a number of USL teams led to their being relocated to the Eastern Conference in order to balance the two divisions appropriately. If you’re wondering what conference Sporting Kansas City is located in, it is the MLS Western Conference. Because, of course.
Swope Park’s first match of the season was last week, on the road at New York Red Bulls II. It resulted in a 3-1 loss.
NYRB II played the same characteristic high, harassing press as the Red Bull senior team plays, putting three or four players deep in their opponents territory to try to either force a turnover in a bad place, or to force the goalkeeper to kick it long rather than control the ball and play out of the back. It really worked for most of the game. Swope Park Rangers seemed to barely have the ball at all through the first 25 minutes of the game. Eventually, New York scored and relaxed the pressure a little, but overall, Swope struggled under intense pressure throughout the match.
New York scored in the 26th minute as Swope goalkeeper Eric Dick, in trying to make a play after the SPR defense had been flanked, badly misjudged the play and went for a tackle at the wrong time and place, giving New York’s Tom Barlow the goal.
Swope Park would come back later in the first half. Young midfielder Felipe Hernandez knocked a 35 yard driven through-ball to striker Jerome Ngom Mbekali, who made a pair of wing passes before striking a low cross back to Hernandez at the far post, where the 20-year-old buried the ball on the volley to draw the match. Red Bull came back in the second half to score two more goals, though, to send SKC Junior out of New Jersey without any points.
In theory, look for Swope Park to play possession football – trying to retain the ball and move it around backwards, forwards, and sideways in order to get the defense out of position. The other advantage of possession football is that it functions as an aid to the defense. An opposing team has a hard time scoring goals if you refuse to let them have the ball.
In their game against RBNY II, however, it didn’t play out like that at all – Swope barely possessed and had to counterattack by winning the ball in midfield spots, since NY refused to let them have possession.
That’s why tactically, it was hard to take too much from their first game. The Red Bull’s press is quite specific and unique, and this game was SPR’s the first of the season and took place on the road. There’s nothing to indicate that this team had a chance to truly express its own tactical identity at all in this match. They spent 90 minutes struggling and surviving, and showed momentary flashes between all of the pressure and chaos.
You could say that SPR looks vulnerable under a high press. A person might also note the Swope’s back four of Alexsander Olivera Andrade, Justin Bilyeu, Graham Smith and Jaylin Linsey really struggled to stay organized, as time and again the Red Bulls charge with the ball right into gaps or made passes into space against Swope. One reliable piece that Swope have going for them is holding midfielder Wan Kuzain, who had a cup of coffee in Major League Soccer last year with Sporting KC when the team needed him. He’s a good dribbler, a good defender, and a strong passer, and scouts think he’s likely an MLS-starter sooner rather than later.
There’s a fair amount of excitement around Jerome Ngom Mbekali as well. The young Cameroonian is on loan to Sporting Kansas City from Czech side MFK Vyskov, and he looked talented and dangerous in his first career runout on this side of the Atlantic. Lastly, Jaylin Linsey also has a pretty sizable degree of hype to his name. The 18-year-old fullback has 5 starts for the USMNT U-23 team, but was not called up this week by U-23 head coach Jason Kreis for a pair of matches this weekend against Egypt and the Netherlands. As a result, Lindsey may be playing Saturday with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove.
Last Week’s Lineup
Date: Saturday, March 23
Time: 5 p.m.
Location: Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, KS
Television: Pittsburgh’s CW
Live Statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live Updates: Twitter at @RiverhoundsSC and #SPRvPIT
Picture care of Swope Park Rangers via twitter