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Pittsburgh Riverhounds

View From The Booth: What’s really behind these beauties

The gorgeous goals have been pouring in, but the Hounds are honestly earning them.

Kevin Kerr scans the field for an opening. - RACHAEL MCKRIGER

View From The Booth: What’s really behind these beauties

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC play-by-play broadcaster Matt Gajtka brings his perspective on the team throughout the season in his ‘View From The Booth’ commentary. Listen to the audio version here.

For all the mind-boggling offensive totals the Riverhounds SC has put up in recent games — seriously, the most goals in a three-game stretch since 2004! — aesthetics still matter in this sport.

The Hounds (5-2-7, 22 points) have scored some beauties over the past couple of games, starting with Neco Brett‘s long-range chip two Saturdays ago and including two precision crosses from Kevin Kerr to the head and right foot of Robbie Mertz in that 4-1 blitz of Birmingham Legion FC.

But there’s much more to goals like these than the pretty finish, as Mertz reminded me after Tuesday’s team training at Highmark Stadium. For him, the most difficult part is arriving on the scene.

“I would say, honestly, (it’s) just the desire to get there,” Upper St. Clair’s own said. “Soccer’s a fast-paced game, and the first halves of these games are pretty hot, usually. Especially from a deeper midfield position, it’s not always the most desirable thing to want to make that run into the box.

“But when (Kerr) gets in a wide position like that, you know Kevin’s going to put in a good ball. That’s what was going through my head: This is going to be in a good spot.”

You know who else was in a good spot on that third Hounds goal, the one that ended with Mertz’ sliding volley? Steevan Dos Santos and Brett, both of whom blew through the Birmingham box after Kerr charged down the right touch line, allowing Mertz to take advantage of some vacated space.

It doesn’t matter much if you’re 5-foot-7 when your teammates help to that degree.

“Steevan and Neco both made good near-post runs, which Bob talks about all the time,” Mertz continued. “Drew the defenders away, and I was just in that space behind them. The delivery was perfect.”

Off-the-ball movement, especially in the opposing penalty area, is one of Bob Lilley‘s frequent points of emphasis in training, so the manager had to be smiling at the half.

“One of the things that made me happiest was our movement in the box,” Lilley said Saturday night. “We put a lot of time into that, so it’s nice when you see actually goals going in from good runs and good movement. We know that we have good ability to get in behind with overlaps in our wide pieces.

“Last year we didn’t get enough in the box and get on the end of crosses. We’re always working on different ways to get behind. We work on that pretty much every week. Last year we did that every week and it didn’t really sink. This year we seem to be catching up to that curve.”

There seems to be a great deal of correction going on at Hounds headquarters in general. Not only has a previously erratic attack grown some serious teeth, boasting a league-best 23 percent conversion rate, the goals against have almost completely dried up.

Certainly keeper Kyle Morton is due some credit on that, with 12 saves over the past three matches, but the opposition simply isn’t getting a lot of clean looks. According to Mertz, who’s been playing box to box, the defense is feeding the offense, and vice versa.

“I think organizationally, on the defensive side, we’ve really just settled in,” Mertz said. “We’ve been a little more comfortable on the defensive side, so when we’re springing forward in transition, everyone knows where they’re supposed to be.

“I think the work rate has been high. The focus has been high. We knew we were putting together good performances; it was just a matter of getting the results. Now we’ve gotten a few of those and the confidence is building on that.”

Funny how that works.

When the fundamentals are nailed down, it gets a lot easier to roll the highlight reel, too. Now the task is to stay hungry for improvement, even as the good results and the scintillating strikes continue to pile up.

“There’s not much room or margin for error,” Lilley said, referring to the USL Championship in general. “When you’re in a good spell, you need to make it count.”

Matt Gajtka (pronounced GITE-kah) is a columnist, analyst and reporter for Pittsburgh Soccer Now. In addition to his four-year role as play-by-play broadcaster for Riverhounds SC, he has experience covering pro and amateur sports for over a decade. Matt got his start in soccer while calling games for the Marshall University men's and women's Division I teams. He fondly remembers attending Hounds matches at Bethel Park High School, although he lapsed during the Moon and Chartiers Valley years. Like many, the construction of Highmark Stadium in 2013 rekindled his passion for the club and local soccer in general.

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