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Riverhounds SC Week 3 Notebook: A rivalry brewing with Bethlehem Steel FC?

Photo credit: Ed Thompson

Riverhounds SC Week 3 Notebook: A rivalry brewing with Bethlehem Steel FC?

The Riverhounds SC are going through some early season ups and downs.

As the early season grind continues, they’re now facing an impending match-up against a cross-state foe that knocked them out of the playoffs a year-ago – Bethlehem Steel FC.

The Hounds got back to training this week to prepare for Bethlehem Steel FC, whom they’ll only play twice in 2019 as that’s the way the cookie crumbles with the USL Championship’s revamped, balanced schedule.

Steel FC are also having some early season struggles.

After winning its opener on the road, Steel FC have returned to its new home in Chester, Talen Energy Stadium, home of its parent club, Philadelphia Union, where they’ve proceeded to be shut out twice in the past two weeks versus North Carolina FC and expansion Memphis 901.  **We’ll have more on Steel FC later in the week, as Mark Goodman will be sharing his Steel FC Scouting Report and Game Preview.

The Hounds on the other hand, have yet to win, losing at Tampa Bay, then playing Swope Park Rangers to a wild 2-2 draw in Kansas City on Saturday. Pittsburgh will have two more road games to play before returning for its home opener on April 13 vs Hartford.

For the Hounds, they’re focused on putting together a solid, full-90 minute performance.

“We just have to get better playing the full 90 minutes,” Hounds head coach Bob Lilley said after his team’s last result, a 2-2 draw at Swope Park Rangers. “I think we had less concentration lapses today than last week so there was improvement but we still have a long way to go.  We have stuff to work on. It’s early. I think we were a little bit better this week than last week at Tampa. It’s not easy going and playing everyone’s home opener but we’ve got two more road games and hopefully we’ll continue to get better.”

The fact that we’re even pondering this means that this is a year of transition for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, as for the first time since 2003, they will not have its longest standing, and most traditional rivals from Harrisburg (Penn FC) to play this season.

Even in the most difficult of seasons when postseason possibilities evaporated by July, the Riverhounds-Harrisburg games always took on extra meaning and provided tense, exciting games.

That rivalry reached its height when the Keystone Derby Cup was established in 2015, as the teams proceeded to play –arguably — one of the most legendary four-game season series in the history of North American soccer. One impressive five goal performance by a new-look Hounds squad, two epic comebacks, including the ‘Miracle on the Mon’ match, and in the final match not only did the Hounds clinch the Cup in Harrisburg, but also edged out its rivals for a spot in the USL Cup Playoffs.

Three more seasons of Keystone Derby Cup clashes never quite had as much at stake as that first one, but still, those games were almost always intense with loyal supporters from the Hounds side in the Steel Army made a point to travel each year to Central PA to support the Huonds. Two more times, those fans were rewarded with a chance to lift the Keystone Derby Cup.

Now, with Penn FC ceasing operations for this season, and announcing it will play in USL’s League One (third division), the Hounds are left to look further across the state for Keystone State supremacy with Bethlehem Steel FC.

The past few years, there have been some good games between the two, but things really intensified in last year’s playoff game at Highmark Stadium.

They may not be a traditional rival, but Bethlehem Steel FC certainly are now a nemesis for the Riverhounds SC.

The Steel FC are even officially touting the Hounds as ‘an enemy’.

Following the Hounds playoff loss to Steel FC, this is what I wrote about what is a rivalry brewing between these two franchises:

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 that isn’t going anywhere. 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 Western PA’s lone professional soccer outfit and 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.

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So building a rivalry on 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 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.

And guess what? Sure there’s turnover to both teams’ rosters, but both Chambers and Forbes are back wearing captain arm bands for their respective teams. And they’ve already renewed acquaintances this preseason, as moments into the February encounter, they were already pushing and shoving.

We should expect more of the same on Saturday.

The longest tenured Riverhound, Kevin Kerr has been at the center of all of the Hounds biggest games in the past seven years, and also feels something’s brewing.

“There’s definitely something there. As a club we waited a long time for the home playoff, and they came in a spoiled the party,” Kerr said this week. “After a slower start than we had hoped, all we care about is getting that first win. For the boys who were here last year, we certainly haven’t forgot.”

FORBES LANDS USL TEAM OF WEEK HONORABLE MENTION

Lilley has always been able to rely on Forbes.

Mark Goodman captured this perfectly last Fall for Pittsburgh Soccer Now.

Dependable’s got nothing on Kenardo Forbes

Once again, the veteran midfielder came through with a solid performance on Saturday in Kansas City.

In week two, Forbes  was paired up with the Hounds other veteran Kevin Kerr as the two were used as attacking midfielders in a match where the Hounds conceded a lot of possession, but were dangerous enough when getting forward. It was Forbes who helped fuel the attack on numerous occasions. It was Forbes who had majority of Hounds crosses (12), connecting on seven of those balls into the final third.

The Jamaican midfielder was involved with two dangerous chances, linking up with Neco Brett in the first half and early second half.  I am sure Forbes would have like to have another chance at that shot from the top of box in first half after receiving a cut-back pass from Brett.

When the Hounds finally drew a foul near the box, thanks to Steevan Dos Santos drawing a foul, it was Forbes who seized the moment in providing a perfectly placed ball into the box for Tobi Adewole to score the Hounds first goal of the season.

This week, Velarde shared his initial thoughts on playing at the pro level.

“I think it’s more demanding, more pressure, faster-paced,” said Velarde. “It’s a different aspect of the game and it’s a big difference from college. It’s been a good adjustment, and I’ve been adjusting well, so hopefully it keeps getting better and better from here.”

Smith came through the rigors of Lilley’s preseason as a player on trial, and earned a contract in early March.

“I think just playing quicker and trying to keep possession for longer parts of the game,” said Smith. “We have a lot of technical players, so I think when we have the ball you want to make the defenders chase and try to play our game, break lines and score a lot of goals.”

Both Smith and Velarde have been grateful to be playing alongside numerous veterans.

“A lot of veteran guys put their arms around us rookies and really show us how to be a pro,” said Smith. “I live with Jordan Dover and I think he’s been a pro for three years. He’s been really important for me.”

(quotes from KARDELEN OZSOY – USLSoccer.com report) 

PITTSBURGH SOCCER SHOW ON PGH SPORTS LIVE 

This week brought another edition of the Pittsburgh Soccer Show on Pittsburgh Sports Live, mostly discussing the start of the season for the Riverhounds.

 

HOUNDS vs BETHLEHEM STEEL FC COVERAGE

Mark Goodman will provide both the Preview/Steel FC Scouting Report late Friday/early Saturday, plus the post-game analysis piece on Sunday or Monday.

We’ll also have a Game Day Blog set up and will post a Match Report.

We’re also happy to announce that Matt Gajtka‘s ‘View from the Booth’ column will be returning starting next week. Look for that to drop Wednesday, April 3.

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the United States. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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