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View from the Booth: Hounds seek stability during strange start

The 20th anniversary season for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has already taken on a unique character. We might even call it downright strange.

CORAOPOLIS, Pa. — The 20th anniversary season for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has already taken on a unique character.

We might even call it downright strange.

For one, no Hounds squad has ever started a season with four consecutive road matches like this one is. Pittsburgh has bounced from Tampa to Kansas City to Philadelphia and, finally, to Louisville this upcoming weekend for a showdown with the two-time defending USL champs.

“If you could draw up the start of the season, that wouldn’t be it,” cracked seventh-year Hounds midfielder Kevin Kerr with a smirk after a competitive Tuesday training session at the Montour Junction complex.

Not only have their games been on the road, the Hounds have been regularly practicing about 20 minutes down the Ohio River from Highmark Stadium while the turf at their six-year-old home gets fully replaced. (Word is they’ll be back on familiar ground before the week is out.)

Even from my outside perspective, it’s been a weird opening stretch, with the club taking its unprecedented Highmark hiatus. Indeed, I won’t don my play-by-play headset until more than 10 percent of the schedule has elapsed.

If I’m getting antsy to open the home schedule, how do you think the Hounds feel? They’re the ones traipsing around the continent from the Ides of March through Masters week.

“I think guys are handling it well,” third-year center back Joe Greenspan told me. “Obviously we’re disappointed in the results so far. But … to get two tough results on the road and battle back, that shows a lot of grit and determination.”

Ah, yes, the results. Suppose we should get to those at some point.

The Hounds (0-1-2) enter this Saturday’s tilt in Louisville still pursuing their first victory of 2019, but also coming off consecutive successful second-half road rallies. Greenspan himself netted the equalizer last week against Bethlehem Steel FC, nodding home a Kenardo Forbes corner kick for Pittsburgh’s second set-piece goal of the season. For reference, it took the Hounds into August last year to get their first goal off a restart.

What’s also different is this: The Hounds have allowed six goals in three matches, one year after starting the season with four consecutive clean sheets en route to a 4-0-6 start.

The boys in black and gold could probably stomach their defensive record a little better if they were on a clear upward trajectory. But after a heartening performance two weeks ago against a Swope Park Rangers team fortified by Sporting KC talent, all involved know they have to be better than they were in Philly … even if the match finished with a second straight 2-2 score line.

“The Bethlehem game was a disappointment,” Lilley said bluntly. “They were desperate to pick up their first win and obviously they have good quickness and athletic ability in those attacking areas. We were played through a little too easily on the goals.

“Our collective defending wasn’t good enough. We were exposed the most there. Some was them and some was us.”

I’ll have more from Lilley on possible stylistic adjustments in Thursday’s Riverhounds notebook, but suffice it to say the mood in Montour was more determined than deterred.

And why not? Yes, there was some roster turnover from last year’s third-place team — Christiano François, Hugh Roberts, Dan Lynd and Ray Lee out; Steevan Dos Santos, Christian Volesky, Ryan James and Ben Lundgaard in — but nothing unusual by USL Championship standards.

“We had a good group of guys last year, but we’ve added to that,” said Greenspan, who elected to re-sign in Pittsburgh over the winter. “We have to find the cohesion we had last year. It takes time. Some teams may be better at it than others, but I think we’re finding it. It’s taking longer than we’d like, but we’re finding it and we’ll turn that into results.”

Greenspan’s seen a few players come and go in his time as a pro, more so in the 2017-18 offseason, when the Lilley era kicked off with minimal personnel continuity. (And for good reason.)

But Greenspan’s got nothing on Kerr, who’s seen four coaching regimes during his time in western Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh pro soccer stalwart shared a few thoughts on how this year’s edition can meet those elevated expectations.

“It’s a strange one, because in the preseason you read some things (that say) we have a better squad,” Kerr said. “But last year we found a formula and we were winning games and getting results, so maybe we need to take a step back and work hard to get back to that level that we had last year.

“I would agree we have a higher ceiling (than last year), but before we even get to that level, we have to work to hard to get to where we were last year.”

Paradoxically, the man who is at or near the top of the franchise’s all-time leaderboard in every offensive category points to defending as this team’s North Star when the seas get stormy.

“We were just so tough to beat (last year),” Kerr continued. “No one enjoyed playing against us. It was just miserable. No one could get chances and we have to get back to that. If we can add some more offense and possession with new players, great, but what made us good last year was being tough to beat and being stingy at the back and always giving ourselves a chance.”

At this point it’s fair to note that every team is different, even ones that return a veteran coach and a host of established footballers. As Justin alluded to on this week’s episode of Mon Goals, the Hounds’ past 14 games have included 46 total goals, five more than the first 24 matches of 2018.

Maybe this team is still evolving, but perhaps a clean sheet or two would go a long way toward instilling some sought-after normalcy to a start that’s felt rather foreign.

“We have to stay positive,” Kerr concluded. “We still believe in the squad, but obviously we can’t dig a hole that’s too big. We still believe we’ll find our feet and have a great year, but at some point we’ve got to get it going. Hopefully it’s this weekend.”

Matt Gajtka (pronounced GITE-kah) is a columnist, analyst and reporter for Pittsburgh Soccer Now. In addition to his four-year role as play-by-play broadcaster for Riverhounds SC, he has experience covering pro and amateur sports for over a decade. Matt got his start in soccer while calling games for the Marshall University men's and women's Division I teams. He fondly remembers attending Hounds matches at Bethel Park High School, although he lapsed during the Moon and Chartiers Valley years. Like many, the construction of Highmark Stadium in 2013 rekindled his passion for the club and local soccer in general.

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