CORAOPOLIS, Pa. — In the relative quiet of the Montour Junction Sports Complex on an unseasonably crisp late-spring afternoon, the conditions were prime for eavesdropping.
Er, I mean, the conditions were prime for observation. Yeah, that’s it.
At any rate, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC manager Bob Lilley wasn’t holding back the encouragement for his squad following Tuesday’s training session at the team’s home away from home. (Sammy Hagar has the run of Highmark Stadium for a couple of days.)
I couldn’t make out every word from the venerable coach as I leaned forward from behind a short fence, but the gist was crystal clear: Don’t let down now, because results are close.
“Maybe we haven’t gotten the breaks, but you gotta stay on course,” Lilley projected to his stretching players. “Just have to keep plugging away.”
One might imagine that, after the Hounds squandered a second-half lead Saturday in Indianapolis and ran their USL Championship winless streak to five (0-1-4), Lilley’s biggest task is fending off frustration.
To that end, Lilley referenced just how close the Hounds (2-2-6, 12 points) are from a 5-1-4 mark and a spot near the top of the Eastern Conference table. Indeed, Pittsburgh has carried leads into halftime in each of their past two completed road matches — 2-0 at Charleston on May 4, 1-0 at Indy last Saturday — and the Hounds also had myriad chances to put away Charlotte two weeks ago at Highmark in a game that finished 0-0.
Christian Volesky has played for Lilley before, during the 2015-16 seasons in Rochester. The Hounds’ 26-year-old striker told me the coach’s reputation helps that kind of pep talk hit home.
“It’s powerful,” Volesky said. “He’s been in the league for so long. I’m not sure he’s ever missed the playoffs. (Ed. note: He hasn’t, in 18 previous seasons as a pro coach.)
“But at the end of the day, it’s our job. He does a good job getting us ready, but it’s on us players to produce. It’s a players’ game. We’re on the right track. … We’ll get there. We’ll get there.”
In an alternate way, the Hounds have already gotten there. Their 1-0 home victory over Indy in last Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup tie doesn’t help them in the East standings, where they are 13th of 18 teams, but it does assist psychologically.
“It’s a confidence-boosting thing that we beat them in the Open Cup,” Volesky said. “(Saturday), in the first half we might’ve outplayed them but in the second half we kind of lost our legs a little bit. We had the good game plan going in; it’s just a matter of finishing those games off.
“The longer we play together as a group, the more those games will turn into wins. Playing for Bob, I’m used to getting those results. Like I said, a matter of time.”
For those of us on the outside, there are reasons to keep that fight-or-flight instinct under control, too.
For one, the Hounds have multiple games in hand on nine of the 12 teams above them in the East, with eight of their next 11 league fixtures taking place on home turf. The opportunity is there, right now.
For another, Pittsburgh has been in every match this season, counting the abandoned tilt in Memphis in which it carried a 1-0 lead into the half. The Hounds have trailed by two goals exactly twice: Late in the opening 2-0 loss at unbeaten Tampa Bay and for about 20 minutes in what became a 2-2 draw with Nashville in late April.
Of course, we could take the opposing perspective and say that the Hounds haven’t had many dominant moments, outside of the 3-0 whitewash of USL League-1’s Dayton Dutch Lions in the Open Cup.
Regardless of how you look at it, the Hounds’ 2019 season has been largely competed on the razor’s edge. They’ve wasted a few leads, but they’ve also rallied to pull back points on multiple occasions.
“There are small margins and there are fine lines,” said wingback Ryan James. “Some of the things we’d been doing earlier in the season, getting some of the big ties on the road … We just need to convert them back at home and get the three points.”
Fourth-place Ottawa Fury FC (6-2-3, 21 points) comes calling this Saturday to start that aforementioned stretch of games on the South Side. The Hounds still haven’t lost at Highmark this calendar year, with a 3-0-3 record across all competitions.
On top of that, they’ve gotten through quite a bit over the season’s first two months, most recently a two-match week against one of the East’s contenders in Indy Eleven.
Now is the time to take advantage of a plum midseason stretch.
“All in all, we know we’re back at home this week,” James said. “We need to tighten up the defense, score a couple of goals and get the confidence back up.”