Technically, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has had hotter starts this season than the one it put together for the home opener. The game sheet from March 30 match at Bethlehem Steel FC reveals as much: Kevin Kerr 4′.
That’s a little quicker than the 14th-minute header netted by Steevan Dos Santos last Saturday at Highmark Stadium, but excuse me if I was more moved by the performance in front of 5,000-plus Hounds partisans.
It took a little bit longer to get on the board on the South Side than in south Philly, but I thought the Hounds were on the front foot right away in their 3-1 defeat of Hartford Athletic. After four games of rise and fall, Pittsburgh dictated the tempo and was rewarded for it.
It wasn’t an all-out domination, mind you. The Hounds outshot Hartford 18-9, but possession was nearly even (52-48, Pittsburgh) and the visitors rose up for some moments of quality in the middle third of the match especially.
“We played pretty well tonight,” Bob Lilley said afterward. “But it was touch and go there.”
But pro soccer exists as an entertainment entity, and the brand of football the Hounds put out on that sparkling new artificial pitch last weekend was, from this commentator’s perspective, more outwardly engaging than the no-frills, workmanlike style often seen in 2018. From the referee’s first whistle, Pittsburgh was determined to put the pressure on its winless opponent.
Scoring thrice helps, too. Although it lost just twice in regulation at Highmark last year, Pittsburgh reached the three-goal plateau just five times in 19 home matches — counting U.S. Open Cup and USL Cup games — and one of those was a last-minute relocation from Toronto that predictably drew few fans.
As John Krysinsky wrote in his column Monday, putting on a show in front of the second-largest home crowd in venue history is significant. While you can watch every Hounds game on either ESPN+ and/or Pittsburgh’s CW, at this level of the sport, gate receipts and positive word of mouth are critical to building a franchise to its potential.
And one thing I like about soccer is that players aren’t afraid to admit that they might play a little more energetically at home.
“Even when the guys were tired, the crowd got us going, which is really really good,” said Neco Brett on Saturday night. “It’s always important to have a good crowd to help us on the field. We appreciate the fans.”
And judging from the reactions in the stands to some of the opener’s magic moments, the fans appreciated what they saw.
This about sums up Saturday night for the @RiverhoundsSC … great to be back with the cast and @cdevivo‘s crew at @highmarkstadium! See you next week. https://t.co/TxpWs1wpqs pic.twitter.com/oNLx4nWLYW
— Matt Gajtka (@MattGajtka) April 14, 2019
(Love that kid.)
Even outside back Jordan Dover got into the crowd-pleasing fun, twice escaping from tight spots along the right touch line with some exceedingly fancy footwork.
But if you’ll pardon my plebeian fixation on the attack — moar goalssss — the newcomer Dos Santos makes such a difference up top. No longer is Brett running himself ragged on the chance that a cross would be sent his way.
As my broadcast partner Gene Klein noted Saturday, Brett should benefit from Dos Santos drawing attention, as occurred on Brett’s crossbar shot just before José Angulo’s golazo. Dos Santos pressed ahead to the six-yard box, leaving space for Anthony Velarde to slip a ball to Brett.
“He’s doing a great job for us,” Brett said of Dos Santos. “He’s doing the dirty work. Everybody’s doing their jobs. He’s working really hard so it could be a little bit easier on the midfielders and we appreciate his work.”
A strong start, a savvy striker … what am I missing? Oh, right, the new playing surface.
I entered Saturday’s game curious about how the ball might settle better than the older, speedier pitch that was torn up last month. Part of me wondered whether the Hounds could actually lose some home-field advantage if both teams enjoyed playing on those fresh follicles.
My slight skepticism quickly vaporized when I saw how the Hounds comfortably played with the ball at their feet during the opening moments of the match.
Do they still bury three goals on the old carpet? Maybe, but given the skill they’re putting in play this season, I can’t help but look at the surface as a net positive.
There will be stiffer challenges ahead. Two more matches await on this homestand, including this Saturday’s battle with first-place Saint Louis FC, so the standard for gaining all three points will almost certainly be higher.
If the Hounds can stay spruced up, though, there’s a real opportunity to match or exceed those sterling results at Highmark from last season.