PITTSBURGH — Immediately following the Riverhounds SC’s 2-2 draw with Nashville SC last Saturday, I said on the ESPN+ broadcast that the night probably “felt like a win” to the home team.
It only took a few minutes into my drive home on the Parkway North to second-guess that instant reaction.
There’s no doubt stealing a point with a pair of late goals provided a thrill to a lively Highmark Stadium crowd and a boost of confidence to the team, but there’s also no forgetting that it took a full hour to generate a shot attempt and 27 more minutes to guide the ball on target.
No, it probably didn’t feel like a win to the Hounds (2-1-4, 10 points) as they wrapped a three-game homestand with just one victory, even though they haven’t lost since opening night at Tampa Bay.
“We had the character and the mental (strength) to come back in the game, so that was good,” second-year pro Thomas Vancaeyezeele told me Tuesday on the South Side. “That’s a (better) scenario than the other scenario — losing three points. Still, I don’t think that’s a good result for us at home. We wanted to win.”
That sentiment matches the postgame comments from Saturday, so it’s safe to say no one’s changed their minds in that locker room. Certainly not the man in charge.
“I don’t think we’ve been bad — we’re unbeaten in six — but I know that tying all the time is mediocre at some point,” manager Bob Lilley said. “You don’t get to say, ‘We’re still unbeaten.’ You’re either winning the majority of your games or you’re not staying at the top of the table, so it’s important for us to figure out how to turn these ties into wins and keep the foot on the pedal.”
It’s funny: One extra shot goes in the net either against Saint Louis or Nashville and we’re talking about a seven-point stand at Highmark and a team finding its form.
But, that’s soccer and that’s sports. In the rapidly-blossoming USL Championship, there are razor-thin margins on most nights, especially in the Eastern Conference. Just look at the congestion in the top 13 of the table:
I concede that it’s early — just shy of a quarter of the way through the 34-match schedule — but you’re looking at 12 teams separated by the equivalent of two wins.
It was similarly crowded on the Highmark Stadium turf Tuesday morning, as Lilley guided the team through game-like scenarios on an artificially constricted playing surface.
With one goal placed on the midfield stripe and cones set up to reduce the width by about 10 yards on each side, the Hounds were trying to improve their decision-making under pressure, an area of their game Lilley and the staff think could use some improvement after Nashville’s high press proved effective.
For a player like Vancaeyezeele, who is often stationed amongst the back line to facilitate the build-up, the challenge is to avoid the temptation of bypassing the midfield when the space gets tight.
“I try to keep the ball as much as I can, and win the ball back,” Vancaeyezeele said. “I’d say I’m more of a possession player. Keep the ball and win the ball back.”
In Lilley’s view, the Hounds could afford to stay more connected, kind of like how they played through the Nashville lines and trusted the process when they trailed 2-0 in the final half hour last Saturday. That was a contrast to the first half, when Pittsburgh wasn’t “brave enough to play,” to use the manager’s words.
“The good thing is we didn’t shut down,” Lilley said. “We’re down late and we could’ve just launched balls forward, but we actually tried to play through the lines, getting multiple runs in the box. We were super-aggressive, but we were doing it constructively, as opposed to just pumping balls forward and seeing what happens.”
The hope is that the Hounds found something in that tactical aggression, something they can summon when the game is level or when they’re ahead and trying to secure the three points.
And so, the efforts continue to sharpen and refine on the training ground. Pittsburgh hasn’t dug itself into a hole, but with long road trips to Charleston and Memphis coming up before the next home match — plus U.S. Open Cup action mixed in — the time for feeling things out has rapidly evaporated.
“Two tough games, but we’re never going to be happy with draws,” Lilley said. “It’s about us getting better. You can be good at the driving range, but you’ve got to bring it to the golf course. We’re grasping (the concepts) and we’re starting to figure it out.”
For a team that justifiably entered the season with championship aspirations, the standards are higher. And that goes double for a team managed by a man who has yet to miss the playoffs in nearly two decades of coaching at the pro level.
In other words, this group of Hounds is far from heaven after seven.
“I don’t feel like we’re there yet,” Lilley said. “I think we’re a lot better than we’ve shown. I don’t think we’ve put it all together yet for even one entire game, let alone the seven. I think there’s still a significant jump I expect from these guys.
“I’m starting to see better intensity and focus in training. Now it’s about trying to bring into the game.”