CORAOPOLIS, Pa. — It was the kind of goal that looked much simpler than it actually is.
Neco Brett‘s chip-shot strike last Saturday vs. New York Red Bulls II put Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in sudden command after absorbing pressure for most of the first half.
It was the kind of goal that changes a game, or even an entire season, given the scenario at the front end of a crucial three-match homestand for a Hounds team that had stagnated in the USL Championship standings.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) June 22, 2019
It was also the kind of goal that some strikers wouldn’t try; for instance, those who are a little off their previous season’s scoring pace.
Obviously, none of that bothered Brett, who simply registered that New York rookie keeper Rashid Nuhu was off his line and delicately parachuted the ball on a parabolic arc, finessing it into the goal.
Considering the goal was scored on artificial turf ‘tight lie,’ while moving at a high rate of speed, Brett might not have a higher-quality strike this year.
“I always try to be confident in front of goal,” the second-year Hounds forward said Thursday. “I know what I can do. I always believe in myself.”
Brett was quick to turn aside my assertion that, if he hadn’t been on a two-game scoring streak entering the night, he might have tried to round the keeper or cross the ball instead of the route he took. In fact, Brett reminded that he tried a similar shot back in mid-March at Swope Park Rangers that missed.
Touché, Neco, although his attack-minded running mate Kevin Kerr saw it differently.
“You don’t do that unless you’re full of confidence,” said Kerr, breaking a smile shortly after a sweltering workout at Montour Junction. “I was actually behind him and it looked like it was a simple pass into the right corner. Hopefully it continues.”
The ‘it’ Kerr refers to is Brett’s push to improve upon the 15-goal standard he established last season. The Jamaican-born former Robert Morris University star isn’t hiding from those results and the expectations they created for Year 2.
“I’m just trying to do better each year,” said Brett. “Trying to score more goals and help my team as much as possible. Hopefully we can win a championship.”
And if that means ignoring a slower start in the goal category than he’d prefer, then that’s what it takes. Funny thing is, with another goal this Saturday at Highmark Stadium against Birmingham Legion FC, the 27-year-old will be almost exactly on a 15-goal pace.
“Without confidence, you’re twice defeated in the game of life,” Brett said, quoting the late Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey. “If you don’t have confidence, you can’t score goals. That’s No. 1 as a striker.”
STEP BY STEP
You don’t fall behind on the table in a couple of weeks, so it naturally follows that you can’t catch up in a couple of weeks, either.
That’s the reality ahead of the Hounds (4-2-7, 19 points), who will aim to maintain their spot in the Eastern Conference playoff field when expansion Birmingham (3-9-4, 13 points) invades the South Side for the first time. With matches in hand on virtually every team above them, the green light remains on for this club to squirrel away more points.
Last week, Hounds boss Bob Lilley said he preferred matches like the one against second-place New York, since it’s a chance to make a “statement.” Lilley altered that perspective this week, focusing on the promising form of his club, now unbeaten (2-0-1) in its last three league fixtures.
“For us, it’s the right mentality, the right habits (that are) going on right now,” Lilley said. “It’s always more fun going into games when I think the guys are ready.”
Kerr, the longest-tenured Hound at seven years of service time, admitted that the first third of the season was disappointing for a club that retained 10 players from 2018. On the other hand, he’s bullish that this edition can still be one of the franchise’s best.
“We were hoping for a bit of a quicker start,” said Kerr, 30. “A lot of new teams in the league, some big turnover in some squads, so we were hoping to get out of the blocks fast, but it didn’t quite work out.
“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, but the last three weeks have been real positive. Ottawa (a 2-2 draw) was dropped points, but performance-wise it was up there with one of our best games. A couple of crazy scenes and they tied it, but to bounce back in the last two and score eight goals … ”
Kerr noted that even though prized offseason signing Steevan Dos Santos has two goals and two assists over the past two games and Brett has found his footing, seeing players like Thomas Vancaeyezeele (two goals) and Robbie Mertz (goal) chip in offense lifts spirits around the team.
“The goals have been kinda spread out,” Kerr said. “It’s not one guy carrying the team. Hopefully that’s good for the whole offensive unit.”
LEGION OF DOOM?
Birmingham might have the nickname of ‘Pittsburgh of the South,’ and its first-year pro soccer team might also play next to a railroad track on the south side of town, but there’s little in common between the Hounds and the Legion for this matchup.
While Pittsburgh has been picking up points rather consistently, Birmingham has fallen on hard times after a promising 3-2-1 start. Head coach Tom Soehn‘s Legion haven’t won a league match since April 27 against fellow expansion classmate Loudoun United FC, with a 3-0 Wednesday loss at surging Indy Eleven just the latest in a string of empty results.
“Winning and losing is a habit,” Soehn said via telephone Friday morning. “Getting over the hump is a challenge, but the group is sticking together.”
That 0-7-3 skid the Legion totes to town doesn’t seem to portend well for their chances, but with an off week coming up, followed by a season-long three-game stay in Birmingham coming up, Soehn hopes his players have it in them for a furious push Saturday night.
“It would be nice to end the first half of the season on a high,” said Soehn, whose résumé includes Major League Soccer managing stints with D.C. United, Vancouver Whitecaps and New England Revolution. “After this, we’ll take a hard look at what we can do differently.”
As for tactics, Soehn said his squad will have to stay organized when they concede the ball to the Hounds, lest they get burned on the counterattack. The Legion have gone with three center backs in recent games, but they’ve conceded 32 goals, the fourth-most in the 18-team East.
Soehn lauded the Hounds’ willingness to “put in work” in all areas of the pitch, something he said he’s trying to inspire in former Pittsburgh attacker Joe Holland.
A former top-10 pick in the MLS SuperDraft, the English-born Holland has exceeded his playing time under Lilley last year, appearing in eight matches and starting as recently as last Saturday vs. Hartford Athletic. However, he’s yet to generate a goal or an assist and has just six shots for the Legion.
“Joe’s soccer brain is good,” Soehn said. “We’re just looking for more consistency, performing at the same level day in and out. He’s gotta earn his time.”