Nothing is quite so invigorating as waking up on game day for your home opener in the United Soccer League Championship, and this home opener looks like it will be one of the best in recent memory. Coming into tonights 7:00 clash with Hartford, they are many good signs that portend a great opening night. Firstly, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds are coming off their first win of the season, a hard-fought 1-0 victory last week over two-time USL defending champions Louisville City FC. Second, the Hounds will be playing against a USL expansion team that has yet to win a game. Third, the Hounds will be playing their first game on brand-spankin’-new turf. And fourth, the weather is supposed to be gorgeous. Not to jinx it, but the forecast at kickoff is for partly cloudy skies and a temperature of 69 degrees. Nice.
All signs point to a good crowd, a pleasant night, and (hopefully) a win for Riverhounds SC over Hartford Athletic.
Tactics and Personnel
Expansion side Hartford have started the season with five losses in a row. Like the Hounds, they have played all their games to date on the road. Originally, USL planned Hartford’s schedule to allow them time to have their home ground ready for opening day, as the 83-year-old Dillon Stadium needed many improvements and repairs to get ready to host USL matches. But some unforeseen construction delays will mean that Hartford will open their home season May 4th at UConn’s football field, Rentschler Field, instead. Hartford’s first match at Dillon Stadium is now set for ‘sometime in mid-summer’.
With five losses in a row that includes just 2 goals scored and 11 goals conceded it doesn’t take a tactical genius to figure out that Hartford Athletic are bad. The problem is probably the personnel and not the tactics, although the preferred game plan in their last match was anything but inspired.
In their last match on the road to Tampa Bay Rowdies, Hartford play a very defensive 4-1-4-1 formation. When the ball swings wide or the opponent’s ball comes all the way into the final third, the formation will sometimes flatten out in a five-man backline as defensive midfielder Phillip Rasmussen drops in between the centerbacks.
Offensively, the plan is classic route one football – kick it long down either sideline, hope for wide midfielders Jonathan Brown or Giuseppe Gentile to run onto it, and make something happen. Hartford produced only 7 shots in this match, against 21 from Tampa, and lost 4-0, so suffice it to say it didn’t work last week. You’ll be able to recognize Gentile as he runs down the left side – his long blond hair flops like a cockatoo’s crest when he races for balls.
The idea of so-called ‘route one’ soccer is that, by kicking it up from your defensive line to your forwards, you can leave more players back for defensive, stay compact, and not get pulled out of your defensive shape, and if a fortuitous ball falls into the right place and your attackers can make a bit of individual magic, you can score a goal without exposing yourself to much risk.
I totally get why Hartford manager Jimmy Nielsen would do this – on a long eight-game road trip to start the year, with a new, under-talented expansion team, the goal is to keep it close and nick a goal here or there, maybe steal a couple of points, and then start getting wins later in the year when the team will have a home schedule that favors them. Nielsen, originally from Denmark, became a legend for MLS’ Sporting Kansas City in his time there from 2010 to 2013. He won Goalkeeper of the Year in 2012 and won MLS Cup in 2013, and upon his retirement after that season became a USL manager with OKC Energy.
The simple fact is that if you want to bunker and defend in order to win, you’ve got to defend *well*. Hartford has not defended well, conceding 2.2 goals per game. In this match, Hartford’s defense faced shots all throughout the first half, conceding only one goal. However, were it not for some heroics from goalkeeper Jacob Lissek, it would have been much worse. That lucky goalkeeping didn’t hold – they went on to concede 3 goals in the second half. Throughout the game, Hartford looked stiff and uneasy, and their defense was slow to react and produced a lot of weak and shaky clearances. They’ll need to do better against the Hounds if they want to emerge with a draw or better.
There is some talent at striker on this team. Striker Jose Angulo is a proven USL goalscorer, scoring 15 goals for OKC Energy in 2017. His backup, Mac Steeves, was an MLS striker with Houston Dynamo before coming to USL. Whether they will get the service they need in the right spots to score, though, is an open question.
One glimmer of hope for the team came this week when Hartford Athletic announced that the Columbus Crew had loaned them two players – wide midfielder Luis Argudo and goalkeeper Jon Kempin. Argudo had 18 games and 6 starts, and also played in two playoff matches last year for Columbus. He would be an immediate upgrade out wide or as the central attacker midfielder for a Hartford team that needs help creating chances. The 26-year-old Kempin is a well-traveled MLS backup/USL starter, having played for nine teams in his ten-year career. I think it almost certain that both will start this week in Pittsburgh. Whether the loan is just for this weekend or will extend longer remains to be seen.
Last Week’s Lineup
Date: Saturday, April 13
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA
Live Statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live Updates: Twitter at @RiverhoundsSC and #PITvHFD
Feature picture c/o Hartford Athletic via twitter