At one point late in the second half of Saturday’s match as the Riverhounds SC trailed a well-fortified and talented Nashville SC side by two goals, I turned to Matt Gajtka during the broadcast to say that it would take a remarkable turn of events for the home team to mount a come-from-behind effort to earn a draw.
In fact, I believe my words were: “Yeah, it might take a small miracle the way they’ve played tonight, and how good Nashville’s been.”
Despite being outplayed for most of the first 85 minutes, the Hounds still found some late-game magic.
Make no mistake, Nashville was the better team for much of the match, especially late in the first half and deep into the second, before Pittsburgh mounted a furious come-from-behind draw late in the match, thanks to Ryan James and a trio of super subs that ignited some life into an attack that wasn’t creative nor working hard enough to break down Nashville for most of the night.
After putting forth his best performance as a Hounds throughout the night, James capped off the comeback with a stunning equalizer that was ultimately credited as an own goal that stunned his former team.
Up until the 86th minute, Pittsburgh had barely penetrated beyond the Nashville back line and could only muster one shot attempt the entire match: a rushed Mouhamed Dabo effort in the 61st minute from the top of the edge of the penalty box.
For most of the first half, both teams exchanged physical play, with numerous hard collisions, with Hounds forward Steevan Dos Santos seemingly getting the worst of a few of those — including getting stepped on early — only 35 seconds into the match.
“You can see how big they are, (Nashville) how physical they are, the size; it was an extremely physical game. Steevan was the biggest reason we won against Louisville and Hartford, for sure I would more movement out of our front three,” Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley said. “To me, he tried to get in the box the first half, to me a lot is Kevin Kerr and Neco (Brett needing to) be more aggressive they need to be running as well. It’s not about one guy trying to run in the box.”
The Hounds came out in what looked like a 5-2-2-1 (or 5-4-1) formation held the possession edge, opting to play the versatile Thomas Vancaeyezeele way deep between the two center backs to help with guiding the ball out from the back. With a well-organized Nashville 3-5-2 set-up in front of them, the Hounds were relegated to working short passes through the flanks, an occasional long-diagonal ball (including one deadly accurate one from Joe Greenspan to James on the left side that set up a nice sequence) and attempts to Dos Santos outside the box.
Every time Dos Santos came near the ball, he was often surrounded by a pair of Nashville defenders. James’ continued to stretch the field on the left side, but the best he could do was send through a few crosses — with the best chance sailed over Dos Santos’ head in the 7th minute
As he pointed out after the match, Lilley wanted to see more of Kerr and Brett — flanked wide on either side just underneath Dos Santos — on those runs forward and cross attempts into the box.
While the Hounds were having their issues in creating shots and goal scoring chances in the final third – a pretty determined Nashville side, eager to shake off what Head Coach Gary Smith said was an embarrassing 3-1 loss at Charleston the previous week, would tilt the match in its favor take advantage of two set piece opportunities to pull ahead.
The Hounds couldn’t clear the ball on a corner played beyond the far post, then bounced back in front of Nashville’s Ken Tribbett, who half-volleyed the ball into the top half of the goal that silenced the crowd of 2,826.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) April 28, 2019
Smith was delighted with the way things were going.
“If I’m looking at what we achieved last week, how we attacked this, when we produced, to come away from home and dictate the game for large portions, at a place like this, is not easy,” Smith said after the match to Tim Sullivan, of ForClubandCountry.com.
It seemed as after Nashville went up, they really carried the momentum of the match into halftime, and beyond.
At halftime, the boys in gold held a 6-0 shot edge.
“I think they have a solid defense. It’s not always easy to break down. Maybe a little bit on our end, not trying to pierce the back line as much,” James said. “But we kept trying, we kept trying, and eventually it worked. Credit to their defense for keeping us out for so long.”
And it could have been worse for the Hounds.
The Hounds nearly gifted Nashville with another goal in the run of play, just moments after the Tribbet goal, after an errant pass.
Kharlton Belmar intercepted a poor pass out of the back line, as Tobi Adewole played a ball back to the middle for Vancaeyezeele, but Tommy V stepped back. Belmar took possession of the ball, then bolted to the left side of the box, sending a left footed shot too high as Hounds keeper Kyle Morton cut away his angle.
The second half Nashville continued to frustrate the Hounds, and again found a goal on a set piece that seemingly appeared to be a knockout punch.
The visitors doubled their advantage in the 66th minute from another corner kick as Tribbett headed a Vancaeyezeele clearance from first ball toward the near post back into a dangerous area and another defender, Bradley Bourgeois rose highest, past Vancaeyezeele, to head home past Morton, who didn’t react quick enough to get to the ball first.
“We felt like all game our second run, second chances were on [after set piece service]. Once it got played in and it got bounced out, for me it was all about trying to make that second run to the back post,” Bourgeois said. “Fortunate enough, Ken just put it in a good area and some might say it’s lucky, but I think hard work causes that.”
Again, it was a second ball — and the Hounds were beaten on a set piece.
“We’ve got a lot to work on this week in training,” Lilley would say in his post-game meet-up with the media.”
In this match, Lilley also decided to change things up, by starting Morton after Ben Lundgaard had started the previous three matches.
“Ben had a bit of a tight back, so it wasn’t anything more than that. They both need to be ready. We did have Ben originally scheduled, you know he tweaked his back and we made the decision yesterday that we would go with Kyle.”
If Lilley was not happy after the Hounds put forth a performance the previous week when his team could only muster seven shots on goal against Saint Louis FC, he had to be furious after the shot-less first half, and having only one shot attempt as the game headed into the final ten minutes.
For the first time all year, Dos Santos was clearly not going to finish the match after taking some hard knocks in the first half. Dabo again was expending a lot of energy, so naturally, they were to two players that Lilley would look to replace in the second half.
Lilley looked to find a spark that would ignite the Hounds attack by taking the big fella out, in favor of veteran Christian Volesky — and he also took out Dabo in favor of first-year pro Anthony Velarde.
Still, after the two initial subs came into the match, Nashville would score the second goal.
Holding a 2-0 lead, Nashville continued to stifle every Hounds attempt to build something up into the final third for the next twenty minutes.
“I thought for 87 or 88 minutes we played a perfect game there,” Smith added. “They’re always very difficult, they’re a very frugal team, and to be two-nil up, it was more than maybe we expected.”
Velarde struggled in his early moments in the midfield — showing some inexperience, trying to send a few through balls that were rushed and a bit ambitious.
The Hounds finally started to adjust, and playing with a bit more of a sense of desperation, they had to start to look to seize some opportunities. Along with captain Kenardo Forbes, Velarde started to play the simple passes, and used his energy to outwork the Nashville midfield.
Lilley then turned to Robbie Mertz to come off the bench in the 81st minute for Adewole, to add another piece that would provide another player who could do much of the same — use fresh legs and ability to keep possessions alive that would potentially fuel the Hounds final push to get back into the match.
Shortly before Mertz entered the match, the rain started to come down at Highmark Stadium. It looked like the rain would only compound and make things more difficult for the Hounds to mount a comeback.
The Hounds started to finally push their way into the final third.
Mertz scrapped his way to win a few balls in the middle — and kept a few possessions alive.
His hard work almost paid off in the 86th minute, with a shot attempt in the center of the box after Velarde somehow kept a clever ball from Kerr from going past the end line.
That would only be the Hounds’ second attempt of the match.
The two fresh midfielders in Mertz and Velerde were out-hustling Nashville for loose balls — while Nashville using its subs for its two forwards (Daniel Rios and Belmar) and a defender, former Hound, Taylor Washington.
Finally it would pay off — as the third sub, Volesky used his goal scoring instincts to get on the end of a Jordan Dover low chip into the box that Nashville keeper Connor Sparrow, was in position to field and redirected into the right side of the goal.
The play started with Forbes identifying that Nashville were pretty well organized after collecting the ball after long diagonal effort forward from Greenspan. Forbes decided to play it through the middle to Mertz who was in space in front of the Nashville back line. Mertz toyed with Nashville just enough, taking a touch and step forward with the ball, then pulling it back. That did enough to freeze the defenders positioned on top of the 18.
Mertz played the ball wide to Dover, who recognized the defenders again pushing up, while Volesky anticipated and saw the opening.
Dover then, seeing Volesky start to make his move, sent a perfectly low angled chip toward the inside of the near post.
Volesky had to get low to get his head on it.
It worked as it tricked up Sparrow — who didn’t move — and suddenly in the 88th minute, the Hounds were right back in the game.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) April 28, 2019
“It was an instinctual goal. I couldn’t put my foot on it, but Bob [Lilley] tells me all the time it’s easy to get your head on those types of goals,” Volesky said. “It’s just instincts. Lucky to be in the right place at the right time and I made the right run.”
And now, there was enough time for some late game magic.
Shortly after the fourth official posted their would be five more minutes of play in stoppage time, the Hounds came though with another great build-up in the run of play,
And it was the venerable Riverhound Kevin Kerr who was there to set it up. Volesky won a ball played into the box, then played it back to Dover, who then found Ker breaking wide toward the corner.
The Hounds veteran had plenty of room to size up a perfectly played ball to the back post.
As that play built up, James was watching it develop, then he made his move.
“I knew I had to get there, and make sure I was on the end of that one,” James said. “I think everyone just knows at home, especially when you’re at home, whether you’re away or at home, and you’re down a goal or down two goals, you just have to gamble sometimes and try to get the goal and try to salvage some points.”
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) April 28, 2019
With all of the momentum on the Hounds side after gaining the equalizer, they had about four minutes to push for the go-ahead goal.
Could another completed ‘Miracle on the Mon’ take place?
“Everyone just comes together, you put a couple positive vibes in, and everyone’s now thinking positive again,” James said. “You kind of flip the switch and you’re on the other end of it. You’re no longer thinking negative, you’re thinking positive.”
Kerr nearly pulled another miracle out of his hat, after playing a corner kick toward the near post that was played back to him, he took the ball into the right corner of the box, sending a bending ball toward the far post that was intended for Greenspan. Sparrow had to fight off the Hounds defender in the nick of time to deny what would have given Pittsburgh a comeback win.
Instead, the Hounds couldn’t complete the comeback, and referee Charles Murphy blew the whistle, as the contestants would have to settle for a draw.
“I think the subs made a big difference. It’s disappointing how we played the first half, I thought we were a little bit better the second half,” Lilley said. “We’re not doing a good enough job on the ball, once we were able to connect passes the key is we have to do it when the game is level.”
The Hounds never stopped coming, even as they didn’t play their best soccer for most of the night.
“Obviously being down 2-0 right after I came on, it was tough. But we know what we’re capable of and it’s a resilient group. To come back at home and get a point at least, we want three every time we step on this field, but to get a point, we were rewarded for out hard work,” Volesky said.
Both clubs, with high aspirations heading into the season, came off the soggy field with a sense of disappointment and still find themselves in the bottom half of the USL’s Eastern Conference standings after nearly two months of play.
“So, I’m, of course bitterly disappointed we haven’t taken all three – it feels like a defeat,” Smith said. “However, I think at moments like this, we certainly have to look at the positives. I’d like to think if we attack games and give the type of performance that we have tonight, we get more out of these away games than we did last week.”
Lilley was equally disappointment in the hole that his team had to dig out of because his team waited until very late in the match to finally create dangerous chances.
“I don’t think last week against Saint Louis we did enough, and it ended 0-0. Today, we were even more anemic,” Lilley said.
Nevertheless, he recognized that the team showed fight in coming back to draw it up. “I’m proud of them for battling to get a point.”
Lilley didn’t mince his words about where his team stands after seven matches.
“It’s disappointing that on a three-game homestand we only got five points out of nine.”
James echoed those sentiments. “I’d like to think they everyone in the locker room isn’t satisfied.”
Kyle Morton – 5 – has started three games, and has been consistent, giving up two goals per contest. The first goal may have been tough to stop, but the second one, he was a little late to react.
Jordan Dover – 7 – second or third time you watch that ball in from Dover, the more you have to appreciate what he and Volesky did there. He also was part of the build up on the second goal too. Worked hard all night on the right side.
Joe Greenspan – 6 – still the clearance machine in the back, and was solid in keeping Daniel Rios from hurting the Hounds in the run of play. But boy, those two goals came from second balls, which the Hounds have to do a better job of denying and closing out space.
Tobi Adewole – 5.5 – nearly gave away ball that led to a second goal in the first half, but was pretty solid in run of play.
Ryan James – 7.5 – what a night for the former Nashville player. James was active up and down the left flank,with numerous interceptions, winning most of his battles. If it weren’t for a few crosses for Steevan Dos Santos that sailed a bit too high, score would’ve been even higher.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 5 – for as much as he played between the center backs, he could be included as part of the defense on this night. Had the first clearance on the second goal, but Bourgeois beat him to the second ball that came back to the same area.
Mouhamed Dabo – 5 – much like the previous week, Dabo again was doing his best to play up higher to pressure Nashville.
Kevin Kerr – 6 – wasn’t the best of games for Kerr, but he kept pushing forward all night long, and finally paid off with his quality cross on the equalizer to found James on the far post.
Kenardo Forbes – 5 – stayed back for much of the match, wasn’t really bad one (Hounds did own possession battle 57/43. He didn’t really make impact until later when he was instrumental in starting the build-up of a play that led to the first goal.
Rob Mertz – 7 – terrific late game energy that the Hounds needed — and did some nice thing to keep possessions alive especially on the build-up that led to the first goal.
Anthony Velarde – 6 – thought he played better than last week and adjusted well where his simple passes were more effective. Also that save on the end line to keep the Mertz shot attempt sequence going was in a play-maker’s blood.
Neco Brett – 5 – it was a fairly quiet night for Neco. Lilley said he wanted to see more from Kerr and Brett, and it just didn’t seem like Neco had many touches.
Steevan Dos Santos – 5.5 – another valiant effort from Dos Santos, who took three hard knocks in the first 30 minutes. He didn’t have a lot help, and for the first time this season was the first Hounds player subbed off.
Christian Volesky – 7 – involved in both goals. Won the ball that led to the equalizer, but his ability to read the play and then the ball in from Dover paid big dividends in this match.
Riverhounds SC – Kyle Morton – Ryan James, Tobi Adewole (Robbie Mertz 81’), Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Joe Greenspan, Jordan Dover – Kenardo Forbes, Mo Dabo (Anthony Velarde 63’) – Neco Brett, Kevin Kerr – Steevan Dos Santos (Christian Volesky 65’)
Subs Not Used – Ben Lundgaard, Noah Franke, Sammy Kahsai, Uchenna Uzo
Nashville SC – Connor Sparrow – Taylor Washington (Justin Davis 75’), Ken Tribbett, Liam Doyle, Bradley Bourgeois, Kosuke Kimura – Bolu Akinyode, Michael Reed – Daniel Rios (Ropapa Mensah 85′), Matt LaGrassa, Kharlton Belmar (Cameron Lancaster 74’)
Subs Not Used – Matt Pickens, Tucker Hume, Darnell King, Lebo Moloto
NSH – Ken Tribbett 41’
NSH – Bradley Bourgeois 66’ (Ken Tribbett)
PIT – Christian Volesky 88’ (Jordan Dover)
PIT – Kosuke Kimura 90’ +2 (own goal)
NSH – Bradley Bourgeois 22’ (caution)
NSH – Daniel Rios 73’ (caution)
PIT – Anthony Velarde 90’ +5 (caution)