The Riverhounds came into Saturday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rowdies looking for a return to the dynamic offense that they’d displayed over the last month.
From June 15 to July 4, the Hounds put together a four-match unbeaten streak that saw them average 3.25 goals per game while conceding a grand total of just one.
That streak ground to a halt on Sunday, when Pittsburgh wasn’t even able to manage a shot on frame in a 1-0 loss to the Charlotte Independence.
So the first mission on Saturday night, facing the team at the top of the table in the USL Championship Eastern Conference, was to get the offense rolling again.
In that regard, mission accomplished.
The Riverhounds maintained a possession advantage throughout, out-shout and out-attempted the Rowdies in a 1-1 draw in front of 3,045 on hand as the Hounds feted their inaugural Hall of Fame induction class.
Especially in the first half, the Hounds were able to work the ball through the midfield trio of Kenardo Forbes, Kevin Kerr and Robbie Mertz to get forward from the very beginning.
Mertz had a glorious chance on a cross from Kerr that resulted in a shot on target in the second minute that was saved by Tampa keeper John McCarthy. Later Mertz had another chance, this one on a service from right back Jordan Dover, that resulted in back-to-back corner kicks, one of which was pushed just over the bar by McCarthy from the forehead of forward Steevan Dos Santos.
“I think Charlotte was a blip,” Kerr said after the game. “The four games before, we were flying. We were doing well and then Charlotte was a real disappointing performance. Today, we got back on track. We looked our usual selves. That was a really good Tampa team.”
The Hounds broke through in the second half, when the ball worked up the left side and through to a streaking Neco Brett, who split the Tampa back line and was taken down at the top of the box for a penalty kick.
Kerr was called on to take the kick from the spot and converted easily to the right of McCarthy to give the Riverhounds the lead.
But they had chances to make the game 2-0, as Pittsburgh still maintained a possession and shot advantage deep into the second half. Instead of a lack of opportunities like against the Independence, the Hounds simply suffered a lack of ability to convert on Saturday.
“I think the second half, even after we went up 1-0, we were able to break pressure and get some even-number situations, we just weren’t clinical enough to get a clear look to maybe go up 2-0,” head coach Bob Lilley said. “We panicked a few times. … The crosses aren’t good enough, the final decisions aren’t good enough, and against a team like that, you’ve got to try to find a second goal.”
CHANGING IT UP
One of the reasons that Pittsburgh was able to maintain a strong possession advantage was that Tampa seemingly didn’t want the ball. The Rowdies played long and direct over the midfield throughout the game, in what Lilley thought was an attempt to bypass the Hounds’ talented midfield trio and attack the back line directly.
“We didn’t expect them to be so direct, but I thought we handled it pretty well and limited their opportunities all game,” Lilley said.
Kerr felt that, as the Riverhounds’ high press with two midfielders and two forwards up top has given more and more teams problems, they may see more opponents decide to play direct, long balls.
“We’ve caused a lot of problems with our press over the last few games with teams trying to play out,” Kerr said. “Tampa, they came in and tried to give us nothing, go direct. We have to be able to deal with everything. You never know what you’re going to see each week.”
“We have players that are good with the ball on the ground playing an aerial game,” Lilley added. “But that’s how games are sometimes. You may have that type of a game in playoffs sometimes. I’m proud of the guys for staying tight the first half and finding a way to get in behind them.”
The Riverhounds dealt with the long ball approach well from an offensive and defensive standpoint. Tampa wasn’t able to muster much offense throughout the game, and the Hounds were able to swarm the Rowdies net, even if they were only able to finish once.
The reason the game left in a draw had nothing to do with the tactical change. Instead, it was just an uncharacteristic mistake by the Pittsburgh back line that let substitute forward Lucky Mkosana get in behind the defense and get a clean look at Kyle Morton’s cage in the 83rd minute.
“To me, I think it was a soft goal we gave up,” Lilley said. “They weren’t pouring on the pressure at that moment … We went close to 30 minutes looking more like we were going to score a second goal then they were going to score.”
Lilley also felt that his team could have been on the attack more in the final moments after Tampa Bay tied things up.
“I would have liked to see us take a little more risk,” he said. “I think we needed to try to win. We had a good crowd here. I told them. We just had a brief talk. We’ve got to keep playing.”
Tampa defender Papé Diakité was given a yellow card in the 51st minute, on Brett’s run. Fellow defender Tarek Morad earned a caution in the 13th minute.
Pittsburgh: Christian Volesky for Brett, 73rd minute; Mouhamed Dabo and Noah Franke for Mertz and Kerr, 85th minute.
Tampa Bay: Mkosana for Leon Taylor, 66th minute; Zach Steinberger for Malik Johnson, 72nd minute; Kwadwo Poku for Jordan Doherty, 73rd minute.
Subs not used:
Pittsburgh: Sammy Kahsai, Austin Pack, Uchenna Uzo and Anthony Velarde.
Tampa Bay: Shawn Berry, Mohamed Kone, Macklin Robinson and Jaime Siaj.
The Riverhounds remain in eighth place in the USL Eastern Conference with 26 posts in 17 matches. They are two points behind seventh-place Ottawa and three points ahead of ninth-place Charleston, both of which were idle on Saturday.
The Riverhounds will stay at home to host North Carolina FC on Saturday at 7 p.m. North Carolina lost on Saturday, 1-0 at Birmingham. Now 8-3-7, North Carolina is in fourth place in the USL Eastern Conference.