PITTSBURGH — After one of the narrowest victories in memory, the Hounds have conjured up a no-lose situation.
The June 11 U.S. Open Cup confrontation with Columbus Crew won’t be at Highmark Stadium as we all hoped, but there’s still a lot to like about the pending trip to MAPFRE Stadium, which will double as Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s closest road match of the season.
In fact, I’d argue that by squeaking their way to a 1-0 decision on Wednesday night, the Hounds can already declare this rare two-match ‘series’ against Indy Eleven a win.
Funny how that works, considering that I agree with Bob Lilley that this might’ve been his team’s least-inspired performance of the young season. As PSN newcomer Matt Harkins wrote in his post-match reaction piece, the Hounds’ bench boss was unequivocal in criticizing his squad, despite the positive result.
“We have a lot to sort out before Saturday,” Lilley said, alluding to the imminent Indy rematch in the Hoosier State. “That’s about as poor as we’ve played in the last month, maybe all season.”
But thanks to some luck, a few sparkling saves from Kyle Morton and some late-game magic from Noah Franke and Kenardo Forbes, the Hounds are moving on to the fourth round of Open Cup for the first time in four years. And that’s when the big boys of Major League Soccer turn up.
I’ve long been outspoken in my belief that a team in the Hounds’ position should more than take the Open Cup opportunity seriously; it should prioritize it.
Judging from statements and actions from team management over the years, I don’t think we’re completely simpatico on the concept, but all involved can agree that a multi-round run in the world’s oldest continuously-running soccer tourney can capture attention in a way late-spring league play likely won’t.
This is the third time under the current Open Cup format — USL teams join in Round 2, with MLS sides jumping in for Round 4 — that that Hounds have earned the chance to punch up.
The first of those chances, in suburban Chicago against the Fire in 2014, has been relegated to a dusty corner of the fanbase’s collective memory bank. John Krysinsky stated it well on Wednesday’s Pittsburgh Postgame podcast: That rain-shortened showdown didn’t resonate. No one really talks about it, even though it wasn’t very long ago.
But the second of those MLS tilts certainly sent up a flare. The 2015 hosting of D.C. United has only one rival — last year’s home USL Cup playoff game — for Most Important Match of the Highmark Stadium Era.
Yes, the Hounds lost. (Just barely. I still occasionally think about Drew Russell’s point-blank miss that could’ve tied the match in extra time.)
Result aside, I struggle to think of a moment that put the Hounds front and center in Pittsburgh more than that idyllic June evening four years ago. As I wrote last week in this space, this is a town that wants to feel big-league at every opportunity. Regardless of how we feel about it, those three letters — M-L-S — play around here.
That’s why, although the Hounds will be on the road for the fourth round, this week has already been a success, even before we know the result of Saturday’s league tilt at Indy.
Pittsburgh (2-1-6, 12 points) is inching closer to standings-induced angst in USL Championship play, but from a 30,000-foot view, there’s nothing that will help the Hounds turn heads more than beating an MLS side.
That’s right, I said beating an MLS side.
Since this match isn’t at Highmark, Pittsburgh will have to upset the Crew to get those outside the typical Hounds orbit to sit up and pay attention. That’s a tall task, but there will be almost no expectations, even though Columbus currently sits ninth in the MLS Eastern Conference.
There’s literally no downside to this one. Even the travel will be easy, with Ohio’s capital less than three hours away via bus.
If the Hounds lose, we all will move on to the next USL fixture. If they win, that’s literally breaking new ground in 20 years of franchise history. (And there’d be a 50-50 shot of hosting the next round against either Philadelphia Union or D.C. United.)
Setting up such a win-win scenario sounds like a big victory to me. Now, about Wednesday’s ugly first half …
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC play-by-play broadcaster Matt Gajtka brings his perspective on the team throughout the season in his ‘View From The Booth’ column.