FINAL: Riverhounds SC 1, North Carolina FC 0
With three points on the line against a top four team in the USL Championship standings, the Riverhounds local hero, Robbie Mertz, came though with the game’s lone goal in its 1-0 victory against North Carolina FC on a steamy hot Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.
To complete the game-winning goal, Mertz had some help, thanks to a fantastic play by his teammate Neco Brett.
It wasn’t always pretty, but the Hounds came away with an important three points to improve to 7-3-8, (29 points overall) in league play.
Maybe it was emblematic on this night, that only moments before coming up big, Mertz had fallen hard to the ground, and had to be helped off the field momentarily.
The Upper St. Clair product shook off the injury.
“It was pretty painful but it also just kind of gave us a chance to regroup there in the middle of the half, which is nice,” Mertz said.
Then, moments after stepping back onto the pitch, Mertz created a golden chance with a terrific cross that almost set up a goal, connecting with Steevan Dos Santos in the center of the box.
“That sort of thing is something that gets you into the game, gets the juices flowing if they aren’t already,” Mertz added. “So, coming back in and just trying to continue to create off the ball and that’s what lead to the goal.”
Dos Santos’ header just missed, sailing over the bar.
A minute later, with the Hounds’ ‘juices flowing’ and pushing forward again, Neco Brett held up a ball played to him at the top of the box, with a defender hanging all over his back. Brett waited, and Mertz made a run into the open space on the left side of the box.
Brett slid the ball over to Mertz, and the Pittsburgh kid delivered with a clinical left-footed finish as two defenders converged.
With the goal, Mertz pulled into a tie for the team lead in goals scored with five. Brett and Kevin Kerr also have five goals.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) July 20, 2019
“Neco did a great job of posting up, one-on-one,” Mertz said. “In that instance, I saw an opening in the back line, and he laid it off. From there, it was about putting it on target, and I did it with my left foot.”
Even though Head Coach Bob Lilley felt his team left a lot of chances out on the field in this match, he did take a moment to appreciate the work of Brett, and Mertz’ finish.
“It was a brilliant play,” Lilley described Brett’s ability to hold up his defender, then create an opening. “He’s so strong. If he’s in an area where there’s the ball, he’s going to get underneath defenders. He’s not going to win a lot of headers, but when he’s low to the ground, has leverage, he makes plays. In this instance, he’s spinning. He knew he (Mertz) was there. He didn’t over hit the pass. It was clean. As long as it gives him the right weight on that pass, and it did.”
The Riverhounds, utilizing a fluid 3-4-3 formation with Brett as the top man. Steevan Dos Santos was sandwiched between Mertz on his left and Kevin Kerr on the right of a three-man attacking midfield line. Team captain Kenardo Forbes anchored the central midfield behind the attacking front, with both Ryan James on left and Jordan Dover on the right pushing up and down the wings. In the back, were the central defending trio, with Joe Greenspan in the middle, with Tobi Adewole on his left, and Thomas Vancaeyezeele to his right.
After Mertz’ goal, the Hounds continued to create numerous opportunities in the first half as they pushed to build on its lead, owning the possession battle, pelting crosses into the box with a 15-3 advantage and a 7-4 edge in shots, with two on target. And they did so under the hot sun in the first 45 minutes as temperatures remained around the 90 degree mark.
It was Lilley’s intent to make sure the Hounds were the more aggressive side and emphasized possession.
“It was a lot of work on the part of Robbie and Kevin,” Lilley said. “I think they did a pretty good job of it and even Steevan was bumping up. We knew if they would just sit there, they would pass the ball. They are one of the highest passing percentage teams in the league and they stretch the field. We knew as hot as it is we may do more running sitting back. So the only way to get the ball away from them was to be brave and get in their face and it is not that easy when it is that hot.”
Pittsburgh defense was stretched and tested a few times in the first half. One of those came in the 18th minute when North Carolina found an opening.
Forward Robbie Kristo broke through a wide gap in the center of the Pittsburgh back line, took one touch after a solid through ball, but was tracked down by Hounds defender Tobi Adewole before getting a shot attempt.
The Hounds responded with fantastic chances of their own in the second but faced continual barriers from North Carolina goalkeeper Alex Tambakis.
Brett’s shot from the inside of the penalty box in the 55th minute was the first chance for the Hounds in the second half. A spectacular save from Tambakis in the 58th minute kept Pittsburgh’s Dos Santos off the scoreboard, keeping the score stagnant at 1-0. Mertz kept his offensive attack for Pittsburgh going into the 62nd minute, with a shot missing just wide over the net.
In the second half, particularly after the dangerous Donovan Ewolo entered the match for North Carolina, the Hounds were suddenly on the ropes a few times.
Things really opened up — with back and forth opportunities for both clubs from the 65th minute through the 80th minute. Overall, the side collected eight and nine total shots respectively in the half.
As things were getting dicey for Pittsburgh, dark clouds quickly hovered over Downtown Pittsburgh and the South Shore. After a couple strikes of lightning, the match was suspended in the 82nd minute.
“I feel like we were more aggressive during the first half,” Vancaeyezeele said. “Maybe second half we tried to sit a little bit deeper and it didn’t work out because they’re good at keeping the ball, playing through the teams.”
Lilley thought the delay came at a good time for the Hounds.
“It served us well tonight, I don’t know if we get to the end line without a break. We weren’t organized, they were playing through us pretty easily for a good portion of the second half. They brought their subs on and they played us up top,” Lilley eplained. “I knew they would when I saw the starting lineup, but obviously, it helped to get into the locker room and communicate clear instructions.”
Shortly after play resumed about a half hour later, the Hounds came knocking at the door step of putting the game away, again.
Finally, it appeared they’d get the elusive second goal following a 1-2 combination between Forbes and Dos Santos. Forbes was smashed between two North Carolina defenders en route to Dos Santos’ return pass intended for the Hounds captain in the box.
Forbes earned the penalty kick opportunity, but couldn’t covert — as he shot left — and North Carolina’s Alex Timbakis made his sixth save of the match to keep the score 1-0.
The Hounds would have to hold on in a tight match.
Five minutes of stoppage time wasn’t enough for North Carolina, and Pittsburgh walked away with a one-goal victory on a night when they could have scored three or four more goals.
Against two of the front-running teams in the USL’s Eastern Conference, the Hounds have picked up four of a possible six points.
“We needed to win it,” Lilley said. “We were generous and we’ve paid a lot when we have been that generous. I think the Bethlehem game we closed a little bit better, I think Tampa we closed that came out really well and just gave up that one chance. I think we managed the game much better against Tampa last week than we did tonight. It is just back to the drawing board.”
Kyle Morton (GK) – 7 – faced some dangerous balls into the box. Looked very confident coming off his line, had three saves and picked up another shut out. Solid night for Morton
Ryan James -6 – Mark Goodman likes to point out the Hounds like to play through James on the left side. On this night a lot came his way (team high 77 touches, five crosses with one connecting) as he was utilized more as a winger than a defending outside back. Created two chances, had three tackles, but also conceded two fouls. Damn, he’s always busy.
Tobi Adewole – 6 – may have saved a goal when he came flying in to deny a shot opportunity for Robbie Kristo. Was busy and under more pressure, especially in the second half. Won six of 13 duels.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 7 – there was one point where Tommy V made a run all the way up the left side, worked his way into the box, and nearly set up a goal in the first half. Another shut out for back line, and he’s been solid playing on Big Joe’s right.
Joe Greenspan – 7 – another shut out. Won 6 of 6 duels and had three clearances. Classic Big Joe line.
Jordan Dover – 5.5 – fairly quiet night. Created one chance, sent three crosses and won four of 11 duels.
Kenardo Forbes – 6 – sat behind the attacking trio for long stretches and also made runs and sent seven crosses (connecting on one). As usual, Hounds most accurate passer (82%). Would have been higher, but had missed PK.
Robbie Mertz – 6.5 – another goal, but had that one miss when he had all kinds of time. I’m sure he’d love to have that one back. Playing up higher in attacking MF trio — or almost as a forward. One interesting stat, didn’t attempt one long pass.
Steevan Dos Santos – 6 – another up and down night for Dos Santos. Commits fouls. Draws fouls. Held up ball numerous times brilliantly. On the ground a bunch of times. Brilliant 1-2 with Forbes that set up the penalty. One header saved by Timbakis might be a goal eight times out of 10. Had a few shots where he didn’t pull the trigger quick enough.
Kevin Kerr – 5.5 – He’s here. He’s there. He was working hard for 61 minutes.
Sammy Kahsai (63′) – n/r
Neco Brett – 7 – Two weeks in a row now, may the key play that led to the Hounds goal.
Christian Volesky (63′) – n/r
Subs not used: Austin Pack, Mouhamed Dabo, Noah Franke, Uchenna Uzo, Anthony Velarde
North Carolina FC – Alex Tambakis – Aaron Guillen, Sam Brotherton, Viktor Igbekoyi – Steven Miller, Nazmi Albadawi, Graham Smith (Duval Wapiwo 90’+1), D.J. Taylor – Ben Speas, Robert Kristo (Ulrich Ewolo 62′), Andre Fortune (Yamikani Chester 62′)
Subs not used: Darrin MacLeod, Timmy Mehl, Austin Panchot
PIT – Robbie Mertz 27′ (Neco Brett)
PIT – Steevan Dos Santos 75′ (caution)