Heading into the 2019, there was much talk about how much more difficult and competitive the 34-game USL Championship regular season would be with a whopping total of 18 teams in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s a completely different league now. It’s four times more difficult. This league constantly evolves,” Bob Lilley, Riverhounds head coach explained to me in the off season. “It’s easy to be optimistic and say we can make this group better. Even being marginally better may not even get us in the playoffs next season. The East is going to be so difficult.”
We’ve passed the halfway point of the season, so it’s safe to start talking about the USL Championship Eastern Conference standings, and dare we say…. playoffs.
If the season were to end today, the Riverhounds would be an eight seed, in an expanded playoff format.
A year ago, ending up as an eight seed would have given them a full week of training and preparation between its final regular season match, and the first-round of the playoffs. In previous format with the top eight teams qualifying, they would have to go on the road.
With the 10-team per conference playoff format set up for 2019, finishing in eighth place would actually give the Hounds a home playoff match. However, it would be on very short rest, played during the week as part of ‘play-in’ games between 8th and 9th seeds and between 7th and 10th seeds.
That scenario would provide a few challenges if the Hounds finished in 8th place at season’s end.
For one thing, the Hounds final match of the season is at Birmingham on Sunday, October 20, at 5 p.m. (EST). If they enter the playoffs and must compete in a ‘play-in’ game, they’ll have to deal with very little turnaround time after playing late on Sunday in a different time zone.
If the Hounds do fall into being one of the lower seeded teams that host a playoff game, it could conceivably happen that they’ll just have a few days to sell tickets. The Hounds front office may have to be creative in selling advance playoff tickets, even if they may not know their fate until the final weekend of the regular season.
Even if they win a home playoff match potentially as a seventh or eighth seed, they’ll have to turn right back around three days later and play either the number 1 or 2 seed. This clearly creates a distinct advantage for the top two teams, who themselves will have a full week’s rest prior to the playoffs starting.
What this means is that every point matters.
The Hounds’ top priority would likely be to finish in the top six, with hopes of pushing for an even higher finish. This would rule out any scenario of playing mid-week ‘play-in’ games.
A top four seed is still critical because it means hosting the first weekend, much like the Hounds did a year ago, but now, the top two seeds will be even more coveted under the new format.
CURRENT USL EASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS (7/25/2019)
- Tampa Bay 43 points / 20 matches
- NY Red Bulls II 38 / 20
- Indy Eleven 37 / 18
- North Carolina FC 34 / 20
- Nashville SC 32 / 19
- Ottawa Fury 32 / 19
- Louisville City FC 30 / 20
- Riverhounds SC 29 / 18
- Charleston Battery 26 / 18
- Charlotte Independence 24 / 21
11. Bethlehem Steel FC 22 / 20
12. St. Louis FC 21 / 17
13. Birmingham Legion 19 / 19
14. Loudoun United 16 / 16
15. Memphis 901 FC 15 / 18
16. Swope Park Rangers 15 / 19
17. Atlanta United 2 14 / 19
18. Hartford Athletic 13 / 21
Pittsburgh, which has posted a 2-2-1 record against the top four teams in the standings, will have to take advantage of having played less games (18) than most every team in front of them except for Indy Eleven.
While Lilley’s initial prediction that playing a 34-game schedule against a difficult grind holds up, it still appears that halfway through the season, there’s starting to be a significant split between the teams in the top half of the standings and the teams in the bottom part. It’s clear that the MLS ‘2’ teams and the expansion franchises are struggling the most. The exception, again, being NY Red Bulls II, who sit in second place. And that’s interesting too, as there appears to be some momentum heading in the direction that MLS 2 teams may be relegated to USL League One by 2021, as reported by The Athletic.
In addition, with a stretch of matches coming up against three of the bottom four teams in the next three weeks (at Hartford, home to Swope Park and Memphis 901), the Hounds will have look to maximize points, starting this weekend on the road against Hartford.
Beyond that, of the matches remaining against top seven teams, four (Red Bulls II, North Carolina, Nashville and Ottawa) are on the road.
Indeed, every match and every point will matter from this point forward.
Final Third Efficiency
One of Hounds coach Bob Lilley’s goals when constructing this year’s squad in the off season, was to put a team on the field that would be more efficient in the final third, and provide balanced scoring.
In terms of goal scoring, the Hounds sit right in the middle of the pack (15th in goals) in the USL, with no single player near the top of the leaders in any individual statistical categories. Where it gets very interesting when looking further into the stats, is that they’re nearly last (35th out of 36 teams) in total shots and passing accuracy while 27th in total passes.
But here’s the kicker: they’re tied for first in conversion rate (20%).
The Hounds are making the most of their shot opportunities this season, even though they took a heck of a lot more a year ago.
Again, harking back to past conversations with Lilley, he said putting forth a bunch of shots wasn’t enough, and pointed to the Bethlehem Steel FC playoff loss last year, a match where the Hounds out shot its opponent by nearly a 3 to 1 margin, but couldn’t convert.
“We didn’t create enough clear-cut opportunities. We didn’t work their goalkeeper enough. One of the reasons was it was a tennis match. we had lot of unforced errors. We passed the ball out of bounds. We passed the ball behind players. Simple execution mistakes. We just weren’t good enough on the night passing. That game would have been more one-sided, and I don’t think it ever gets to penalty kicks. We can’t miss out on that point.”
“There were many moments in games where we had great moments where we broke the midfield line, but the final pass wasn’t good enough,” Lilley added. “That comes with development. You don’t go to the store to pick up a ready-made team. You have to build it. We made some good purchases, but maybe picked up a few defective toys. We have to make some more good buys this off season.”
After 18 games this season, it appears that there’s more quality in the final third with the wealth being spread around. The Hounds have three leading goal scorers with five goals apiece: Neco Brett, Robbie Mertz and Kevin Kerr.
Right behind the three top dogs, you’ll find Steevan Dos Santos with four goals, then three players have two goals (Kenardo Forbes, Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Christian Volesky). Rounding out the goal scoring on the roster would be Anthony Velarde, Joe Greenspan and Tobi Adewole with one each. There was also the ‘own goal’ equalizer against Nashville, that began with a Kerr cross and was heading into goal it was redirected by Ryan James.
Taking an even deeper look at the way the Hounds are scoring, and you’ll see they’ve been far from being one dimensional but there are some trends.
Pittsburgh has scored 26 goals inside the box, something that appears to be trend with Lilley’s teams more right footed goals than left (16-4). Two-thirds of their goal production have come from assists (20 total), with James and Forbes, tied for the club lead with four each, as Kerr is closely behind them with three helpers. Dos Santos and Brett have two each. Keeping possessions going in the final third have been key to this success. The big bodied Dos Santos has been key in holding the ball up on many occasions, while the one surprising addition to the attacking midfield, Mertz, leads the Hounds with a 75.3 percent passing accuracy in the opponent’s half. This leads the club of players with at least 110 passes (Mertz has 391 total passes this season). Forbes, Brett and Kerr have been stellar in this area too — each with 79 percent overall passing accuracy or higher — and each over 69 percent in the final third.
The Hounds have also set up seven penalty kick opportunities, converting four of seven tries. They’ve scored once on a free kick, and four tallies have come from outside the box.
Pittsburgh only scored two header goals in the regular season in 2018, but this season they already have seven, with two new additions, Dos Santos and Volesky accounting for four of those.
They’re not a scoring juggernaut, but with balanced scoring, and an improved conversion rate, the Hounds are creating more clear-cut opportunities and keeping opposing keepers pretty busy this season.
Katic leaves for FC Cincinnati DA after 10 years in Pittsburgh
Niko Katic has been part of the Riverhounds organization for more than a decade, first as a player and also as a coach with its Academy in its most formative years.
For a club that’s been around for 20 years, Katic’s been one of its mainstays.
This week, it was announced that he’ll be moving on, accepting a new role as a coach within FC Cincinnati’s Development Academy.
The FC Cincinnati Academy will debut in 2019-20 within the U.S. Soccer Development Academy structure, and Katic will join the organization ahead of this youth season.
“I love the Riverhounds,” Katic said. “It is a part of who I am. The Riverhounds were a great fit for me, and I feel like I was a great fit for the Riverhounds. It’s been a tremendous ride. I’ve worked with tremendous people and worked with tremendous players. I was coached by some amazing coaches as well.”
“We are sad to see Niko leave a program that he has helped build and create from the beginning,” Academy Director Scott Gibson said. “He has inspired many young people through his passion for the game and outstanding coaching over the past 10 years at the club. We are delighted however that he has an opportunity to advance his coaching career at FC Cincinnati and wish him nothing but success.”
Signing his first contract with the Riverhounds SC professional team in March 2009, Katic would go on to play 70 career games with the squad.
As his playing days were winding down, Katic also became pro club’s interim head coach in 2014 — leading the franchise to the finish line in one of its most difficult seasons in club history. After Justin Evans was sacked after 11 games without a win, Katic rallied the club to win eight of its final 13 matches, but fell short of earning a USL PRO playoff berth.
There are, maybe, five people that set the mark for what this club should and could be.
Niko Katic is one of those people.
— Steel Army (@SteelArmy) July 25, 2019
The next season, Katic would serve as an assistant to USL Hall of Fame coach Mark Steffens, as the Hounds enjoyed a turn-around season.
In recent years,Katic has been exclusively coaching with the Academy teams, where he had an impact in developing young players.
Congrats and good luck to @nikola_katic. He will be joining @fccincinnati Academy. He coached many @WestABoysSoccer players at the @HoundsAcademy. He coached @natedragisich since the age of 10. Taught him everything! You will be missed Niko! Great coach and a better person. https://t.co/7ZNcy9QxWv
— West A Boys Soccer (@WestABoysSoccer) July 25, 2019
Katic still will always hold the spot for the best post-game ‘drop the mic’ rant to the media after the Hounds lost a match in 2014.
“No heart. No passion. No desire to win the balls. No desire to win the tackles,” Katic said as we all stood there taking this all in on the field after the game.
“There was no desire to play for this organization and no respect for themselves, let alone the game of soccer. There are people that would do everything to play this game, be in our shoes to play the game. I’m disgusted by the effort,” said Katic.
And with that, Katic walked away.
In ten plus years with the Hounds, Niko brought plenty of heart, passion, desire and played a big part in elevating the game in Pittsburgh.
He’ll be missed here.
Pittsburgh Soccer Now Coverage this week
I will be traveling to New England this weekend as it worked out that the Hounds match at Hartford on Saturday precedes my assignment on Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough for the International Champions Cup assisting with the broadcast and media support team. Two teams that have been to Pittsburgh in recent years will face off against each other in that one — AC Milan and Benfica.
Looking forward to providing live coverage before, during and get reaction after the match at Dillon Stadium in Hartford.