The Hounds are on a roll, winning three straight, scoring nine goals and giving up just two in the past three weeks — and they’ve won seven of its last nine matches. In addition, there’s a lot of positive momentum for the organization in the past month, with the announcement that they’ll be breaking ground on a new training facility and the additional news that Hounds owner Tuffy Shallenberger purchased the land at Station Square where Highmark Stadium currently sits (more on that below). Plus, as Matt Gajtka pointed out in his View from the Booth column last week, attendance is up this season — as the Hounds are averaging more than 3,000 fans per game for the first time since 2013.
Of course, talk to Head Coach Bob Lilley and many of the players, and they know a lot of work that remains.
The Hounds currently are sitting in sixth place in the 18-team USL Championship’s Eastern Conference. Despite its 7-1-1 run in its last nine matches, a heavy dose of draws early in the season have left Pittsburgh in a position where they’ll have to keep winning to assure a top three or four finish in the standings.
That top four spot is the elusive place to be in the standings at season’s end. That guarantees a home playoff match with a full week of training to prepare. Anyone finishing lower than fourth won’t be so fortunate.
MEASURING UP EASTERN CONFERENCE FRONT RUNNERS
At the very top, Tampa Bay is not slowing down. The Rowdies have only lost twice this season, to North Carolina FC in June, and recently to the surging NY Red Bulls II. Still, The Rowdies rebounded from its 2-0 loss to NYRBII with a resounding 5-0 road win at Charleston last week.
Since coming into the USL from NASL, the Rowdies achilles heel was that they’ve been a lousy road club. In fact, in three previous meetings played at Charleston’s MUSC Health Stadium, the Rowdies lost every game without scoring in 270 minutes of play.
The lousy Rowdies road woes are a distant memory though, as they’re an impressive 7-1-3 on the road this season.
Under the direction of one of its former players, Neil Collins, the Rowdies are showing that their strong start to the season wasn’t a fluke. After its first road loss of the season to the Red Bulls II, Tampa lost its spot at the top for the first time this season, but quickly bounced back after its impressive win at Charleston.
What about the Baby Bulls? Even with players going down, and playing different line-ups each game, Head Coach John Wolyniec continues to plug in Red Bull academy players along side his group from the first-team roster to thrive as USL’s highest scoring outfit.
Since the Hounds tamed the Red Bulls II at Highmark in June, with a 3-0 win that turned late in the first half, and after a couple of 1-1 draws with Ottawa and Charleston, the Baby Bulls have been unbeaten, scoring 18 goals in its last five matches.
Creeping up the standings, much like the Hounds, are MLS-bound Nashville SC in its final USL season. The boys from the Music City, also just like Pittsburgh have handled the bottom table teams (shut out wins vs Memphis, Hartford, Swope Park), plus an impressive 2-0 win at home against fourth place Indy Eleven. It’s been quite a week for Nashville. On Wednesday, early in its 4-0 win at home against Hartford, its captain, center back Michael Reed suffered a gruesome broken leg injury in the third minute when Athletic’s Mads Jørgensen came in hard with a reckless tackle. This will be a tough blow for Nashville, but they have depth. The club announced only earlier in the day that, much like last year’s MLS-bound FC Cincinnati, they signed another player in advance of 2020 campaign in MLS, David Accam. That deal though, won’t be retroactive until the following season. This last move won’t affect Nashville’s final USL push, but it shows they’re taking the same risks FC Cincinnati did and as an organization, are juggling a few things at once. FC Cincinnati took plenty of flak for hemorrhaging its reserves of Allocation Money in the buildup to its 2019 season (and the on-field results have indicated that criticism was likely warranted). Not only that, despite finishing with USL’s best record in the regular season, they were vulnerable in the USL Cup playoffs, getting knocked out by Wolyniec’s Red Bulls II. Nashville does have three players currently on its roster, Daniel Rios, Cameron Lancaster and Derrick Jones, who are going to be part of its MLS roster heading into 2020.
Indy Eleven, with it’s depth and talent should be a solid bet to stay in the top four, but they’ve been a little inconsistent of late. They hit the skids a bit with a 2-1 loss at Hartford (in first game ever at Dillon Stadium) was a bit of a head turner, then another loss at Nashville, but bounced back nicely by beating North Carolina FC to stay in the top four. Just like Pittsburgh, Indy has two games at hand (only played 20 matches) on the teams in front of them (all have played 22 matches).
North Carolina FC are another team that the Hounds beat at home in July, but remain in strong position, in fifth place. Unlike the rest of the teams in front, and right behind them, NC FC are showing signs of teetering downward. They’ve lost three of its last five. Its only two wins during this stretch have come against bottom-dwelling Loudoun United (2-0), and Atlanta United 2 (4-2).
We’ve gone this far — and haven’t mentioned the defending champs, Louisville City FC, who are sitting right behind Pittsburgh with 33 points, but are laboring through the campaign with close matches most nights — and only carry a goal differential of plus-two. By comparison, Pittsburgh’s goal differential is 18. (Front-running Tampa are 24, and NYRBII are league best 25). Right now, Louisville is looking like a play-in game candidate unless they can get on a roll.
“It’s just one of those nights,” Charleston Battery‘s long-time coach Mike Anhaeuser said after getting trounced by front-running Tampa Bay last week. The other remaining old guard franchise in addition to Pittsburgh that go all the way back to the 1990s and early days of second division soccer in the U.S., Charleston, traditionally one of the stronger clubs in USL, is currently in ninth place, and struggling to stay above the playoff line.
Despite all the changes in the past five seasons in USL Championship’s Eastern Conference, there are still a few common denominators to determining how far a team can go. One of those is survive a playoff fight from a Mike Anhaeuser, John Wolyniec or Bob Lilley team — or go home.
Lilley’s Rochester Rhinos won it all in 2015, and were eliminated by eventual champs NYRBII and Louisville City in close matches in 2016 and 2017.
Louisville City survived this gauntlet the past few years, and despite all their struggles, they’ll likely remain a tough out in the one-and-done playoff format.
FC Cincinnati couldn’t do it. That’s what’s in front of the Tampa Bay, Indy Eleven, Nashville, North Carolina — three former NASL clubs and an expansion team heading to MLS next year. The race in the final two months of the regular season, the cream should rise to the top.
The two hottest teams in the league right now are Wolyniec’s Baby Bulls and Lilley’s Hounds.
After the Hounds play last place Swope Park Rangers this Saturday at Highmark Stadium, they go on the road to face the Red Bulls II and then North Carolina FC.
These two matches, in a span of four days, will present a great opportunity for Pittsburgh to stake its claim into the race for the top spots in the standings. Four points will be a solid showing — and six will send a message to those top teams of the Eastern Conference.
If they stumble in Jersey and Cary, North Carolina though, finishing in the top four will be more challenging down the stretch for Pittsburgh.
Regardless, it looks more and more like the fight is just getting started.
CURRENT USL EASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS
- Tampa Bay 46 points / 22 matches (last 5: 3-1-1)
- NY Red Bulls II 44 points/ 22 matches (last 5: 4-0-1)
- Nashville SC 41 / 22 (4-1-0)
- Indy Eleven 40 / 20 (2-2-1)
- North Carolina FC 37 / 22 (2-3-0)
- Riverhounds SC 35 / 20 (3-1-1)
- Louisville City FC 33 / 22 (2-2-1)
- Ottawa Fury FC 33 / 21 (1-1-3)
- Charleston Battery 26 / 19 (1-2-2)
- St. Louis FC 25 / 17 (1-3-1)
11. Charlotte Independence 24 / 23
12. Birmingham Legion 23 / 21
13. Bethlehem Steel FC 22 / 22
14. Loudoun United 18 / 19
15. Memphis 901 FC 19 / 21
16. Atlanta United 2 17 / 21
17. Hartford Athletic 16 / 24
18. Swope Park Rangers 15 / 20
GREENSPAN BACK IN TRAINING
The previous two weeks, Hounds center back Joe Greenspan was preoccupied with his Naval Reserve duties that kept him from training with the team each day. Greenspan still made the trip to Hartford (and played the final 45 minutes), and also was an available sub in Saturday’s 4-0 win vs Memphis (didn’t play).
Greenspan has been back training with the club this week, so look for Ensign Joe to be utilized and inserted back into the line-up. However, also be aware that Greenspan is the only Hound also carrying four yellow cards into the match. If he plays five matches without picking up a yellow card, he will have one deducted from his total count. This week will be his fifth match since receiving a yellow card in the 90th minute of the July 4th match vs Bethlehem Steel FC.
Overall, the Hounds have the least amount of yellow cards in the 34 team USL Championship, with just 20 cards.
SCORING RACE UPDATE / ANOTHER TEAM OF WEEK NOD FOR FORBES
Steevan Dos Santos and Robbie Mertz both scored again for Pittsburgh in its 4-0 dominant win vs Memphis on Saturday. This now means there’s a three-way tie (again) for the team lead in goals — as they join Neco Brett with six goals apiece.
Kenardo Forbes earned a spot on the USL Championship’s Team of the Week for a team leading third time this season for his two assist performance on Saturday. Forbes is alone in the team lead for assists with six overall, while Ryan James, who added an assist on Dos Santos’ late goal, now has five assists.
Other noteworthy team leaders are Dos Santos (40 Shots) and Thomas Vancayezeele (1,800 league minutes played.
HOUNDS ARE NOW GROUNDED AT STATION SQUARE
Last week, Hounds Owner Tuffy Shallenberger was finally able to share the news that his investment group had officially purchased the property upon which Highmark Stadium is located from Station Square.
“We owned the stadium, but they owned the dirt,” Shallenberger said. “We basically just bought the dirt.”
In the past few years, there had been discussions about what the long-term future held for the Hounds’ home stadium. There’s been some speculation that the team could even move away from the South Shore location, which the Hounds have called home since 2013, in order to build a facility of its own elsewhere that they could had more flexibility to expand.
Shallenberger put to rest any doubts about where they will be playing home games for the foreseeable future.
The $8 million transaction by Shallenberger Properties LLC puts the stadium under his full ownership, a deal he expects to allow for future upgrades.
“It gives us a lot of flexibility to make things better. Hopefully as the years go on, you’ll see some improvements, do more with events, do some expansion,” Shallenberger said on the Mon Goals podcast. “Hopefully the crowds will continue to be growing and we’ll build up the fan base even more.”
The deal closed recently, according to county records, and comes on the heels of a $1 million grant from Pennsylvania through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital program, funding, that’s expected — according to the Pittsburgh Business Times, to help expand the facility from 5,000 seats to 5,500.
Shallenberger said on the Mon Goals podcast, that they’ll be bringing in an architect to start to look at some additional upgrades, emphasizing the importance to generate money, while at the same time making Highmark Stadium more fan friendly, with better access. He discussed the potential for ‘sloped seating’ in the current area front of the Suites, potentially doing more to create seating in the corners of the stadium — and put more products out there to sell and drive profits.
THIS WEEK’S PSN HOUNDS COVERAGE
Matt Gajtka‘s View from the Booth was posted on Wednesday, with his perspective of the Hounds currently surging and climbing up in the standings.
Mark Goodman will be at Highmark Stadium on Saturday to bring you the latest updates and coverage of the Hounds match with Swope Park Rangers.
Look for the return of Analysis & Player Grades after this match from yours truly.