In speaking to goalkeeper Kyle Morton after a team training session last week, our conversation turned to the matter of confidence.
As in, you have to earn it. Ethereal as it is, confidence doesn’t automatically roll over from year to year, month to month, or even match to match.
Morton was on the topic because of the knee injury that cost him several months of playing reps, but I soon found myself thinking about Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC as a team.
To be clear, the only thing they had to overcome was the offseason following a breakout 2018. Still, encores in life can be notoriously difficult, and sports are no exception.
After putting together consecutive victories by a combined score of 8-0, the Hounds could very well be warming to the task in Year 2 under Bob Lilley. The manager himself has been claiming as such for a few weeks now, even as the results continued to drag.
“I feel like we’ve been really good for four or five weeks in our focus in practice and the intensity of how we’re training now,” Lilley told me a day before the thrashing of New York Red Bulls II. “Not every day is perfect, but I feel like we’re locked in as a group. I’m happy about that.
“I was bugging them a lot through preseason and the early stages of the season that it wasn’t good enough. It took a little bit longer to find our rhythm. I feel like we’re there now.”
In being present for several training sessions this season, I can confirm that Bob was indeed bugging the boys a bit, but not all of it was negative in nature. One particular post-workout statement that rings in my head is that results usually follow form, but sometimes it takes longer than you’d like.
There were plenty of opportunities since the start of May for the Hounds to let that reality bother them, from three blown second-half leads in a four-game span, to a scoreless draw with cellar-dwelling Charlotte at Highmark Stadium, to a rope-a-dope near-miss at MLS Columbus.
Talk about a reminder that last year’s third-place finish was nothing but a pleasant memory.
“I think we were complacent,” Lilley conceded. “I think we had some players who had good years for us last year and weren’t maybe quite as sharp or fit in preseason as they could’ve been.
“(We) kind of took for granted that we were a top team last year, and we bring most of the group back and we get some good players, we should be better. But everyone else is trying to get better, too.”
In any endeavor in which excellence is the goal, the biggest obstacle will usually be simple human nature. One could argue that successful coaching is combatting the urge we all have to settle for less than our best.
It would be hard to blame many of the Hounds for feeling like last season should carry over at least a little. Three of the previous four seasons had finished with the team out of the USL Cup playoffs; it took serious work to get this ship turned around.
The hope now is that Pittsburgh (4-2-7, 19 points) didn’t squander enough points to eliminate its margin for error in the season’s second half. The Hounds’ back-to-back wins have effectively moved them from a three-way tie for 10th in the Eastern Conference to … solo 10th.
That solo position is important, since 10th is the final postseason spot. But, counting preseason, the Hounds have put in five months of labor to essentially tread water against their East rivals.
More mental endurance will be required to ignore the greater context and give themselves the best chance to win week in and week out.
“Sometimes you get results when you play 60 or 45 minutes well,” Lilley said. “We’ve put ourselves in this position where we need to put 90 minutes together on a more consistent basis to make sure we’re giving ourselves the best chance to win. I feel good about where we’re at, but I know there’s a lot of hard work in front of us.
“But the guys are stepping up. I feel like we’re in a good mental space right now as a group, to put that extra work in but also tighten the screws and do that little bit extra that’s required.”
There are 21 matchdays remaining in the USL Championship regular season, with the next one arriving Saturday on the South Side against expansion Birmingham Legion FC, which lurks just three points behind Pittsburgh on the East table.
The Hounds haven’t achieved much yet, besides keep themselves alive to repeat last year’s run of contention. That’ll have to be enough to sustain them for now.