COLUMBUS, Ohio — The opportunity was there. Isolated, but there nonetheless.
At the culmination of an 83rd-minute counterattack Tuesday evening at MAPFRE Stadium, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC midfielder Kenardo Forbes accepted a square ball from Robbie Mertz and struck his shot cleanly from the edge of the Columbus Crew SC penalty area.
The ball blew past the outstretched glove of Crew keeper John Kempin. And then it sailed over the crossbar.
That was the only shot attempt of the second half for the Hounds, who gradually fell off the pace after a promising first half, losing 1-0 to Major League Soccer’s Crew in the fourth round of U.S. Open Cup play.
“I think we executed the game plan well for the most part,” Forbes said after the Hounds dropped to 1-5 all-time vs. MLS foes, and 0-4 on the road. “Unfortunately I hit it over the (bar). Just one of those days.”
Columbus, which has stumbled to a 5-9-2 mark in league play and was missing four starters to international duty, scored the only goal it needed when Ghanian attacker David Accam deflected Pedro Santos’ cross past a helpless Kyle Morton in the 55th minute.
Santos missed a penalty kick in the 67th minute, plus Columbus had 69 percent of possession and 17 shots, so the fact that Forbes had an opportunity to equalize at all was rather fortunate.
Playing on two days’ rest following Saturday’s USL Championship draw with Ottawa Fury FC, the Hounds’ plan consisted of fortifying around Morton and striking on the counter.
“Once we adjusted to the speed of the game, after 10 or 15 minutes, we grew into the game,” Pittsburgh head coach Bob Lilley said. “That’s what we talked about. Get yourselves firmly into the game and give yourselves the opportunity, because you will get moments to break out against them and they won’t want to track you.
“I think it played out how we thought it would, we just couldn’t take advantage of those moments.”
Bob Lilley on the performance … he thought the Hounds gave themselves a chance to win but had too many turnovers coming upfield on counters. pic.twitter.com/ktwsAjfG1c
— Matt Gajtka (@MattGajtka) June 12, 2019
For 45 minutes, the Hounds’ strategy seemed to be working just fine.
Each side had only one shot on frame in the first half, with the Hounds’ Christian Volesky taking advantage of a stumbling defender to get a clean look in the box at the half-hour mark. In a match like this, that probably needs to fall if the underdogs want to pull it out.
But like Forbes’ late chance, Volesky’s strike left something to be desired. Kempin made the routine save and the Crew escaped to the locker room at the half.
“Normally in game like that, when a team sits in and makes it a defensive game, it’s difficult,” said Crew manager Caleb Porter. “I thought we came out fine, just fizzled out in the final third at times but for me, when a team plays like that, it’s difficult.
“I’ve seen that game hundreds of times and half of those games ended in a draw, maybe the other quarter end in a loss and other quarter end in a win – so it’s difficult when a team plays that defensive and it’s easy to destroy a game.”
Following the break, Columbus generated 11 shot attempts to the Hounds’ one. According to Porter, it took some time for his reduced-strength team to find the right combinations, especially after a 10-day break from match play.
“They played very narrow,” Porter said of the Hounds. “You could tell it was set up to allow our outside backs to make the game. In the second half, they delivered. In the first half, not as much, but I think it’s a little bit of us figuring out how to unlock their team.”
Speaking of outside backs, both of Pittsburgh’s had their moments.
Building on his game-deciding assist two weeks ago in the Open Cup win over Indy, second-year pro Noah Franke showed flashes of dynamism on the flank before running out of ideas and/or passing options close to goal.
On the other side of the pitch, rookie Dani Rovira made his third straight start and created a couple of decent attacking opportunities in the first half. On the flip side, Accam was Rovira’s man on the night’s decisive moment.
“The (young) guys did well,” Forbes said. “Rovira played the last game at home, 90 minutes. He played 90 minutes tonight. It’s kind of tough, but they did well.”
Hounds captain Kenardo Forbes on the challenge of midweek Open Cup matchups: “We have a game plan to win every game we play. Maybe if we had more jump, we’d create more chances. … Just one of those days.” pic.twitter.com/YOnfLMKTFi
— Matt Gajtka (@MattGajtka) June 12, 2019
Lilley called his team’s overall performance “gutsy,” considering that his available subs on this night — Kevin Kerr, Ryan James, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Neco Brett, Steevan Dos Santos — usually all find themselves in his starting lineup.
We could argue the Hounds should’ve pushed more chips to the center of the table, considering the possible reward of an attention-grabbing home match against an MLS side next week. Practically speaking, with the team having claimed just two wins in 11 USL games to date, maybe Tuesday night wasn’t the right opportunity.
As it was, Pittsburgh started four rookie pros in Anthony Velarde, Mark Forrest, Sammy Kahsai and Rovira in the franchise’s first match against an MLS team in four years.
“It was going to be difficult to play everyone knowing it may go 120 (minutes),” Lilley said. “We play this weekend, and if we won (Tuesday), we’d be stacking a lot of games. Knowing that was a possibility, it made sense to rotate.”
Added Forbes: “We just try to win the game. Most players in our locker room aspire to play in the MLS, so it’s a good time to show these kids and show their talent to these MLS coaches.”
It also figured that, even if the Hounds threw caution to the wind and started a full-power lineup, Columbus was probably going to control the flow of the game. Much like Pittsburgh’s USL track record this season, though, there wasn’t enough quality in the attacking third to maximize all the sweat equity.
And that meant that — despite holding the Crew to three shots on frame in 90 minutes — the Hounds were unable to string together three consecutive Open Cup victories for the first time in their 20-year history.
“I think we limited their chances,” Lilley said. “We knew they’d have more of the ball. I actually liked the amount of times we got out clean in the first half, but I think if we passed it a little better, there were more clean chances we could’ve carved out.
“I think we worked together well. We covered for each other well. We put up a ton of resistance and had the ambition to try to break out.”
With MLS still in its international break, Pittsburgh might face an stronger-than-usual Atlanta United 2 side Saturday in Georgia. If so, this could just be the start of a difficult week on the road.
At least the Hounds will be a little more rested this weekend than they were for their first-ever match against the Crew.
“Maybe if we had more jump on the ball, we’d have created more chances,” Forbes concluded. “That’s a good team over there and they keep the ball. Guys were tired so we didn’t get a lot of opportunities.”
John Krysinsky joined me via telephone to discuss the challenges and frustrations of U.S. Open Cup play, in addition to the ebb and flow of Tuesday’s match, on a Pittsburgh Postgame podcast: