PITTSBURGH — Five. Three. Four.
Those are the number of goals the Pittsburgh Riverhounds have put up an each of the last three games, including a 4-1 victory on Saturday against Birmingham Legion FC at Highmark Stadium.
“I think the biggest thing for us was just keeping the momentum going,” said Hounds midfielder Robbie Mertz, who scored twice and is up for USL Championship Player of the Week honors. “We talked a lot about that (last) week, coming off a couple wins against Atlanta and New York. We just want to make sure we are maintaining focus, executing offensively and defensively.
“I think everyone came in with a really good focused mindset, and that is the important part and people doing their job.”
Riverhounds keepers’ have also only allowed two goals over the previous four games, which includes two consecutive clean sheets against Atlanta United 2 and New York Red Bulls II.
Of the four goals Pittsburgh scored on Saturday vs Birmingham, three of them came on crosses.
“We know that we have good ability to get in behind with overlaps, you know our wide pieces whether it’s Dover, James, Noah, Kevin, they’re all pretty good servers of the ball and last year at times we didn’t get enough time in the box,” Hounds coach Bob Lilley said after the match. “We are always working on different ways to get behind but you know a lot of times the hardest place to get is when you get breakaways. When you get in, the service needs to be good.”
Pittsburgh is now 3-1-1 in league games in June and have gotten at least a point in all but two league games during the first three months of the season. They continue to climb their way back up the standings as they sit in ninth place with 22 points (5-2-7) after 14 games played.
But they have played at least two fewer matches than the eight teams in front of them in the USL Championship Eastern Conference Standings, and three fewer than Fourth of July opponent Bethlehem Steel FC, who trails them by three points.
In eight seasons playing in Pittsburgh, this may be the most impressive three-game stretch by the Hounds, as they’ve outscored its opposition 12-1 during this three-game run at Highmark Stadium.
“We expected better at the beginning of the year,” Kevin Kerr said. “Keeping the 10 or 11 key players from last year, we hoped it would have a positive effect. It didn’t at the start of the year. Now you’re starting to see it. The boys that have been around and the boys that have been under Bob, the last four games, we’ve looked really dangerous going forward.
“Obviously there’s little things on the back that we need to clean up, (because) Kyle (Morton) came up with some big saves tonight. But offensively we seem to be causing a lot of trouble.”
How impressive is this streak?
Lets take a look at some of the better streaks the Hounds have posted in the Highmark Stadium era:
- In 2013, the first season at the Stadium, the club ran an impressive 10-game unbeaten string to turn that season around. In the last six games of that unbeaten streak, lead by Matt Dallman and Jose Angulo (USL MVP that season), the Hounds scored 15 goals in a five-game stretch. That season also featured the only winning streak longer than three games, a four-game run in July and early August that secured the Hounds playoff positioning. The final two wins came in one of the most impressive road trips in club history, winning on back-to-back dates at VSI Tampa Bay then at eventual league champions Orlando City SC.
- In 2014, the Hounds were trying to salvage another season after a very poor start, and scored 11 goals in a four game stretch, including a 5-2 win vs Salt Lake Reserves when Angulo scored a hat trick in the first half, all on penalty kicks!
- In 2015, the Hounds were the second-highest scoring team in the USL, yet only won two in a row only twice that season, and never won three consecutive games. That team may have cushioned it’s goal scoring totals in two of its three wins vs Harrisburg (five and six goals) and one match vs Toronto FC II (five).
- The lean years of 2016 and 2017 were pretty void of scoring outbursts for Pittsburgh, with the closest dominant performances coming at the hands of then lame-duck Wilmington, as they took a pair of 4-1 decisions. There were also two three-game winning streaks in those seasons, coming in 2017, when the Hounds won three straight by 1-0 scorelines over Harrisburg, Toronto and Ottawa in April and May, then did it again to rejuvenate its playoff hopes by outscoring Harrisburg and Saint Louis on the road, then Bethlehem Steel FC at Highmark — by an 8-3 margin. That Hounds team would not win another match that season.
- Last season’s playoff season included two three-game winning streaks. In late June/early July (note the same time of year), the Hounds reeled off three straight vs Louisville City, North Carolina FC and Ottawa by ‘Bob Lilley Special’ scorelines of 1-0, 2-0 and 1-0. The second three-game streak of 2018 included wins vs Richmond, Toronto FC II and Steel FC by a combined 6-1 margin.
All those are decent, but not quite as impressive as this current streak. They’ve had hot stretches in recent years, but couldn’t sustain that success. With a win on Thursday, the Hounds will mark their second four-game winning streak of the Highmark era, and one of the longest in club history.
The longest though, is a streak that remains very, very safe. The club’s all-time winning streak record, came when they reeled off 16 straight wins during the 2003 campaign.
‘A TECHNICAL GENIUS’ — KERR TOPS AMONG HOUNDS PLAYMAKERS
When the Hounds capped a comeback effort vs Nashville earlier in the season to level a match that they were trailing 2-0, Kerr whipped in a ball in the 90th minute that Ryan James redirected into goal — that deflected off a Nashville defender.
Initially, it was announced at Highmark Stadium that Kerr would be credited with the assist, proclaiming that Kerr has surpassed David Flavous for assists with his 25th overall.
After further review, the goal was ultimately ruled an own goal — and Kerr had to wait until Saturday’s two-assist performance, both coming from crosses to Mertz, to finally be crowned as the all-time leader in assists, as he now stands as the club’s leader with 27 total helpers.
“I think Kevin is just a technical genius, if you will,” Lilley said. “You know he knows where balls can go to be dangerous. He can whip a ball, he can feather a ball. He has always had an eye for that pass and there is a lot of forwards who have benefited from that pass.”
Kerr was quick to deflect praise, and focus on his team’s third straight win.
“Obviously it’s not the main focus,” the 30-year-old Scotsman said. “When you turn up day to day, it’s not on your mind. It’s nice. The ball was out of play when the big (graphic) went up on the board. It was a nice moment. You stay somewhere long enough, you hopefully rack up a record or two.”
On the receiving end of both assists, Mertz grew up watching Kerr play when he was still in high school at Highmark Stadium, and now is a primary benefactor to helping his hometown team win, and gets to call Kerr his teammate.
“I think it is pretty awesome,” Mertz said. “I don’t think I thought about it in the game. I will say there is a difference between him carrying the ball down the sideline and a lot of other players. Because that is what I saw and I knew he is going to put the ball in the right place. That’s why I made the run.
“I think it is really cool to think about all the experience and everything he has put into the club is something to look up to and try to emulate. He has been a top class all the way through. Just major congratulations to him.”
MERTZ EARNS TEAM OF WEEK HONORS
For his two goals on Saturday, Mertz was in the running for Player of the Week honors in USL Championship, and came up short for that honor, but still earned a spot on the Team of the Week.
In his debut season, the Upper St. Clair native has suddenly become a fixture and solid option for the Hounds in the central midfield — providing the Hounds with solid production and work rate. Mertz has racked up four goals and one assist for nine points.
The rookie has averaged 1.80 points per game over the team’s last five matches. He’s started the last six league matches, playing in 557 minutes overall.
HOUNDS NAMED TO TEAM OF THE WEEK:
- Robbie Mertz: Week 17 – July 2
- Kenardo Forbes: Week 16 – June 25
- Steevan Dos Santos: Week 15 – June 18 *
- Kenardo Forbes: Week 9 – May 7
- Ryan James: Week 8 – April 30
- Kevin Kerr: Week 6 – April 16
*Also named Player of the Week
DABO STILL OUT; DOVER COULD DRAW IN
Our Matt Gajtka observed Mouhamed Dabo (hamstring) fully participate in Tuesday’s sweltering 90-minute training at Highmark Stadium, but Dabo will miss his eighth straight match Thursday as the club plays it safe with the 23-year-old defensive midfielder from Senegal. Dabo appeared 24 times last season for the Hounds, with 19 of those starts.
Assistant coach Dan Visser said part of the reason the Hounds don’t have to rush Dabo back is the rise of Mertz, plus the fact that midfielder Thomas Vancaeyezeele is typically deployed in a holding role.
“Our philosophy in general is that it’s never about one player,” Visser said. “That kind of goes to how we build the team in the offseason.”
The Hounds haven’t touched their starting lineup since this three-match win streak started, but there might be change at right wingback for Thursday. Jordan Dover is back at training, returning after a few weeks away to compete for Guyana in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
However, it’s tough to argue with the job done by explosive second-year Hound Noah Franke in Dover’s absence. Regardless of what Lilley and Co. decide, replacing Franke with Dover isn’t a complete slam-dunk move. Visser said that speaks to the depth on the roster.
“Jordan’s a big piece of our team, but it was never an end-of-the-world type of a situation,” Visser said. “We don’t want anyone to go down, but when it happens I think we’re pretty well prepared to deal with it.”
FOURTH OF JULY TRADITION AT HIGHMARK
It’s hard to believe that this will be the eighth 4th of July match at Highmark Stadium since it opened in 2013.
In recent years, Pittsburgh Soccer Now has chronicled each and every Fourth of July match as it’s become a bit of a tradition. This may be the one match that is almost always guaranteed to be a sellout.
A few years ago, Nick Milliron produced this video chronicling the 4th of July game.
PSN COVERAGE THIS WEEK:
Both Matt Harkins and I will be at Highmark Stadium on Thursday.
Gajtka will be posting his regular ‘View from the Booth’ column on Wednesday and we’ll have a slightly updated, recycled version of Mark Goodman‘s Scouting Report of Bethlehem Steel FC on game day — along with our live match day blog with all of the latest updates on the Fourth of July match.
The Hounds will have a super quick turn-around, having to play on Sunday in Charlotte. We’ll provide a match day blog and post-match analysis to follow.
On a side note, the Pittsburgh Soccer Now team will also be sharing some information about something we’ll be doing for Women’s World Cup Final, also on Sunday. Stay tuned in the coming days for more details.
Photo courtesy Rachael McKriger