In its 20 year history, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s clashes with Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs have only come few and far between. By those figures, the Hounds only face an MLS outfit once every five years.
Each time they’ve faced an MLS club, it’s been in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup competition. On Tuesday, the Hounds will take the three-hour trek west to take on the Columbus Crew for the first time ever in a competitive match in the 4th Round of the Open Cup competition.
This match provides a prime opportunity for the Riverhounds organization, despite a less-than-favorable 2-2-7 start in league play this season, to make some waves and turn some heads if they can walk away from Columbus with a win in Open Cup competition.
As Mark Goodman points out in his game preview and scouting report of Columbus, the Hounds can win this match.
The Hounds appear to have a pretty clear mindset heading into this match, recognizing there’s little to lose.
“The pressure’s not on us, it’s on them,” Robbie Mertz, Riverhounds SC midfielder said. “We just need to play free and try to make the most of it because it’s a cool opportunity.”
Oh, while the two clubs have never faced each other in a competitive match, they do have a history, as they were affiliate partners in 2016 and 2017.
During that time, players like Ben Swanson, Marshall Hollingsworth, Lalas Abubakar, and maybe most notably Manchester City-bound and USMNT goalkeeper Zack Steffen saw significant playing time at Highmark Stadium. Even the past two years, the clubs have been involved in loan arrangements for players from Columbus to get playing time in Pittsburgh, as Conor Maloney (2018) and Ben Lundgaard (2019) have represented the Hounds in USL Championship league play.
This won’t actually be the first time the two clubs have faced each other, as they’ve met over the years in friendlies, most recently during the time of the affiliation.
The Hounds’ overall US Open Cup record against MLS opponents is 1 win, 4 losses, with their lone victory coming in 2001 against the Colorado Rapids.
The 2001 tournament also marked the deepest run into the USOC the Riverhounds have ever made. After beating the Rapids then-A-league opponent El Paso Patriots in their first two games, but the Hounds were eliminated in the quarterfinals by their second MLS opponent of that tournament, the Chicago Fire, in a two-overtime, 3–2 defeat as the team went all the way to the Quarterfinals before being dispatched in a 3-2 extra time loss to DC United.
The last time the Pittsburgh Riverhounds faced an MLS opponent in the Lamar Hunt Open Cup was in 2015. It was DC United with a knockout win, once again, and it took place in extra time, once again, as the Hounds went out of the tournament at the hands of a 3 to 1 defeat.
While Columbus is a team that is dealing with its share of roster issues as pointed out in Goodman’s preview, the Hounds aren’t exactly unscathed at this point in their season either. We’ve learned that injuries to Caleb Smith and Prosper Figbe are likely to keep them off the field potentially into the second half of the season, and Mouhamad Dabo will be out of action for at least a few more weeks.
This leaves the Hounds left with 16 healthy field players, which will make Head Coach Bob Lilley‘s line-up choices for Tuesday’s encounter in Columbus fascinating, particularly after playing a tough home match just three days earlier.
“We have 16 to go to Columbus with,” Lilley said after the Hounds’ 2-2 draw vs Ottawa on Saturday. “It’s tough. It’s a quick turnover. Hopefully we’ll get our legs back. Then we’ll decide to who to go with.”
Lilley is hopeful that this trip to Columbus can provide his team with an edge and added focus that’s been missing for much in league play this season, where they’ve failed to hold onto second half leads with regularity and have already settled for more draws (7), than they have wins or losses.
“We have to be able to shut the door down,” Lilley said. “We haven’t been doing that. We’ve been paying the price.”
Then, Lilley got semi-cynical.
“We seem to be a resilient team because most teams that let someone off the hook, struggle,” Lilley said, then quipped: “We come back for more abuse. We keep doing the same thing. We shake it off and then put forth a good effort. I don’t enjoy it.”
The veteran head coach believes his club can beat any opponent, and facing an MLS opponent may be what can help his squad get over the hump.
“Our processes are good. We’re training well. We’re encouraged by what we’re capable of doing. But we haven’t delivered yet. That’s the next step. Hopefully we’ll do what we need to do. We stay positive in terms of what we need to do and how we need to play. We don’t need to change anything when we know we can play with anyone, home or away. The next step is to get the results.”
Mertz, who’s become a mainstay in the Pittsburgh midfield in the past month, knows it will be a tough to come away from Columbus with a win, but he realizes that this match provides a genuine opportunity for his hometown club to make some waves.
“It wasn’t that long ago I was in camp with one of those teams (MLS), the Rapids,” said Mertz. “For me personally, just trying to make sure that we’re prepared for the game, executing the game plan, defending together, those are the big things against teams like that because they’ll expose you if you get disorganized and there’s gaps, so you need to make sure you’re keeping it tight.”
Be sure to follow along tonight with our gameday live blog, plus Matt Gajtka will be in Columbus for on-site coverage, to get post-game reaction, and I’ll join him for the game podcast.
MORE RIVERHOUNDS OPEN CUP HISTORY VS MLS
June 27, 2001 – Riverhounds SC 2, Colorado Rapids 0 – Bethel Park Stadium – (Hounds Goals: Alfredo Ulloa 54′, Phil Karn 90′)
July 24, 2001 – Chicago Fire 3, Riverhounds SC 2 (2OT) – Wheaton, IL (Welton Melo 9′, Paul Dougherty 70′)
July 16, 2003 – D.C. United 2, Riverhounds SC 1 – Germantown, MD (Tiago Martins 74′)
June 18, 2014 – Chicago Fire 2, Riverhounds SC 1 – Bridgview, IL (Andrew Marshall 42′)
June 17, 2015 – D.C. United 3, Riverhounds 1, (2OT) – Highmark Stadium (Rob Vincent 24′)