PITTSBURGH — Second-year Hounds keeper Kyle Morton didn’t dance around the issue.
Coming off a long rehab for a knee injury suffered last spring, the 25-year-old Philadelphian thought he was in a prime spot to roar out of the gate in 2019.
“I thought it was going to be easier coming back from injury,” Morton said after Friday’s sunny team training at Highmark Stadium. “But the first couple of games, I just didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t feel 100 percent mentally.”
Morton’s performance over his first four USL Championship starts this season — four saves on 12 shots, no clean sheets — put him behind not just Columbus Crew SC loanee Ben Lundgaard on the depth chart, but also newly-signed Austin Pack.
When Lundgaard suffered a back injury at the end of April, manager Bob Lilley gave four of the Hounds’ next five matches to Pack, not the keeper the Hounds decided to retain in the offseason via a contract option, letting Dan Lynd go as a result.
But with Pack having conceded four goals in his past three halves of action — including that long-range softy vs. Ottawa two weeks ago — Morton might again be the man.
That notion was advanced this week, when Lundgaard returned to the Crew for at least the time being to cover for the ballyhooed departure of former Hound and current U.S. Men’s National Team starter Zack Steffen. Crew coach Caleb Porter indicated Lundgaard could be in central Ohio until the close of the international transfer window on Aug. 7.
This uncertainty benefits the next guy in line on the South Side.
“When Bob said they were going to pick up my option, I knew they still believed in me, coming off a major injury,” Morton said. “Got a lot of rehab reps, but nothing replicates training and game reps, but now that I got them, I’ve been able to get my game back in order.”
Morton pointed to the midweek start against Indy Eleven in the U.S Open Cup three weeks ago as a potential turning point for him. He notched a five-save shutout and followed it up with a solid performance under siege at Columbus on June 11.
The former James Madison University star had to stop just two shots in a 5-0 defeat of Atlanta United 2 last weekend, but this appears to be his opening to seize control of the starting spot.
Lilley didn’t reveal who he would tap for Saturday’s showdown with second-place New York Red Bulls II, although recent events seem to point to Morton. If so, the assignment would be hard-earned.
“It was just hard work every day, going through the process of becoming confident again and getting everything back in order,” Morton said. “Trusting yourself and believing you can do it again. … I felt like I was getting somewhere, then I made a couple of saves against Indy and felt more like myself.”
‘IT’S TIME TO GO’
As I wrote in this week’s ‘View From The Booth,’ the Hounds (3-2-7, 16 points) have opportunity ahead of them with three straight games — and seven of their next nine fixtures overall — slated for Highmark Stadium.
Lilley shares that same feeling, even as he cautioned about reading too much into last Saturday’s eye-popping offensive output in Georgia. Pittsburgh scored five goals for the first time in more than four years while stomping a five-game league winless skid (0-1-4).
“It’s hard to evaluate that game,” Lilley said. “We got three goals so early. We deserve credit for finishing those chances off, but we capitalized on a couple of their mistakes. … You can pick up bad habits sometimes, when a game is done by halftime. I thought we managed it better in the second half.”
Regardless, six of the Hounds’ next nine opponents are either tied with or below the Hounds in the Eastern Conference standings, even if the incoming Baby Bulls are surging on three straight victories.
And as you see on the above table, the Hounds have at least one match in hand on nine of the 10 teams ahead of them.
“We need results,” Lilley said. “We’ve put ourselves a little behind where we want to be. Now we have to deal with the pressures of being a little further back in the table. The time to go is now. We’re in the middle third of the season. For us, it’s time to go.”
Against New York II, which has a 68-38-32 record in USL play since joining the league in 2015, Pittsburgh certainly won’t be able to ease into Saturday’s 7 p.m. kickoff. John Wolyniec‘s squad leads the East with 31 goals and traditionally deploys three forwards to amplify the pace to its preferred tempo.
“The game this week will feel a lot different,” Lilley said. “They play at a tempo offensively that’s exceptional. They put a lot of stress on your backs in trying to get behind, but they also will press early. Sometimes it’s hard to play out (of the back) and if you make a mistake in a bad area, they’ll punish you. We need to be locked in on our game plan.”
The Hounds’ record might not show it, but they’re in position to build off a week that saw them grind with Columbus through 90 minutes, then pummel a green-but-talented Atlanta side that they were previously level with in the standings.
“I think (playing Columbus) gave us a lot of belief that we were able to hang around, and it was only 1-0,” Morton said. “I think we sat back a little too much, but some of the young guys showed pretty well in a tough place to play.
“That, and the fact we were able to rest some of our older guys, that helped spur us on at Atlanta.”
JORDAN GETS AIR(TIME)
If you’re a U.S. soccer fan, you probably at least caught highlights of the USMNT’s Gold Cup opener against Guyana on Tuesday night.
The Stars and Stripes prevailed 4-0 in St. Paul, Minn., to begin group play, but the Hounds’ own Jordan Dover might be the person involved who took the most from the match. Not only was Guyana making its debut in CONCACAF’s biennial tournament, Tuesday also marked Dover’s first cap with his parents’ birth nation.
Starting at right back, where he’s established himself as a reliable performer since arriving in Pittsburgh last year, Dover got caught chasing U.S. midfielder Paul Arriola on the game’s opening goal.
THERE IT IS! 🇺🇸
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 19, 2019
Otherwise, the 24-year-old Canadian-born Dover impressed his club coach.
“It’s just good to see him out there,” Lilley said of Dover, whom he’s coached both here and in Rochester. “I sent him a text and he said, ‘I didn’t protect my corner well enough,’ and I said, ‘You did better than you think.’ It’s a tough matchup with Arriola with his movement and his quickness, and Christian (Pulisic) was in that channel as well.
“He had plenty to do and I thought he coped well. He can’t end up on the wrong side of the player and the ball. But I thought he was good on the ball, with his feet. Sometimes that’s not his biggest strength. I thought he looked comfortable and did a reasonably good job.”
Dover and the Guyanese have two group-play matches left to rebound, against Trinidad & Tobago and Panama.
Despite the difficulty of missing one of their more steady, heady players for the next couple of weeks, Lilley and the Hounds are banking on Dover improving further after dipping his boots into the international cauldron.
“I think it’s a really good experience for him,” Lilley said. “Jordan doesn’t get beat very often. I think he’ll be better for it. I think we’ll get back a player that’s a little more confident than he already plays. He’s been a big part of the past two years.”