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View From The Booth: Grasping the Hounds’ new normal

Much like last week, I find myself tempted to expect another commanding outcome.

Thomas Vancaeyezeele makes a move earlier this summer. - CHRIS COWGER/RIVERHOUNDS

View From The Booth: Grasping the Hounds’ new normal

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC play-by-play broadcaster Matt Gajtka brings his perspective on the team and the sport in his weekly ‘View From The Booth’ commentary. 

I nearly went there, but I backed off.

Prior to Riverhounds SC’s collision with Memphis 901 FC this past Saturday on the South Side, I thought about putting a little prediction out there for public consumption.

Somewhere between my head and my heart, this score line kept appearing: Hounds 3, Memphis 0.

Predicting any pro soccer club to win three-zero in league play is at least a bit daring, perhaps even cocky. But every time I considered the circumstances leading up to the match, I had a hard time figuring out how Memphis’ team bus was going to drive away from Highmark Stadium with anything but a loss stowed in the overhead compartment.

Pittsburgh should’ve taken care of business, and did indeed take care of business, as a 4-0 final score and a 23-4 shot advantage would indicate.

But even though I didn’t tweet my feelings, the simple fact that I was entertaining thoughts of dominance speaks loudly.

Yes, it was an expansion team visiting Highmark on short rest, but just a couple of months ago, that would’ve made me nervous about the possible squandered opportunity, instead of excited about the show I was about to witness.

With seven wins and a draw in their past nine matches, with an unbeaten record on the shores of the Monongahela, with five games of three or more goals since mid-June … the Hounds have certainly turned a corner.

The five clean sheets they’ve recorded since catching fire also show that the stifling defense they brandished in Year 1 of the Bob Lilley Era isn’t suddenly passé. Quite the opposite, actually.

“We’re getting tighter back there,” defender Tobi Adewole told me at a recent training. “We’re getting more confident and we’re working harder for each other. The mentality has changed in terms of getting back to what we had last year, with how many shutouts we had. I feel like we’re getting back into that rhythm.”

Of course, Lilley has felt optimistic about his team’s progress for longer than the life of this Hounds heater.

At the same time, the man nearing the end of his second decade of pro managing hasn’t let up on his famous standards. This 7-1-1 course correction has Pittsburgh (9-3-8, 32 points) on the verge of the Eastern Conference’s top four, but that’s where Lilley thought his Hounds would be all along.

“We still have work to do to prove that we’re a top team year in and year out,” Lilley said. “You only do that by being at the top, year in and year out. Last year we were. You need to be moving up the standings again; hopefully (get) a longer playoff run. There’s certainly value in getting yourself in the top three or four positions every year.

“To get yourself in the top and in the playoffs and being a significant team in the Eastern Conference and in our league is important for us.”

Fourteen games remain in the follow-up to last year’s franchise revival, with another should-win scenario coming up this Saturday at home. Swope Park Rangers aren’t an expansion team, but Sporting KC’s farm club has looked the part with an East-worst 15 points and back-to-back losses to Nashville and Ottawa by a combined 6-0 count.

Much like last week, I find myself tempted to expect another commanding outcome. Maybe it won’t be the Hounds’ “most dominant performance of the season,” as Kevin Kerr put it to me following the Memphis walk, but the standard is currently lofty.

Do I think the Hounds will score four goals for the third consecutive match, something they’ve never done in 20 years of soccer? I have my doubts, although I’ll gladly double up on last week’s internal prediction.

Three-nil sounds about right, and I’m not going to let any carryover from previous months (or years) get in the way of logic.

Perhaps my confidence is even fueled by that listless start, since the Hounds have evidently rejected that encore expectations could get the better of them.

“There were some ugly results, ties or whatever,” Lilley said. “We had enough low moments where this team could’ve gone on a spiral. We’ve been able to bounce back and stay after it, and that tenacity has served us well.”

That proclamation has born itself out in laughers against low-table foes and down-to-the-wire battles with contenders. I’m betting on the former when the Hounds next return to their home pitch, continuing this convincing summer step-up.

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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