They’ve done so much, but there’s still so much left to do.
That’s the reality for Riverhounds SC with two-thirds of the USL Championship regular season in the can.
Just a week after they scored what was arguably their most significant result of the season — 2-1 at first-place New York Red Bulls II — the Hounds are back in sixth place, still looking up at that much-desired top four.
Even after bursting up the table with a 9-1-1 run that rivaled any stretch of pro soccer before seen in Pittsburgh, the Hounds are still more likely than not to finish fifth or below when mid-October rolls around.
They’re still just six points shy of first as we speak, but Saturday’s 5-0 defeat at North Carolina FC functioned as a reminder that similar slip-ups will have to be fewer and further between the rest of the way, if the Hounds hope to start the playoffs at home and on regular rest.
That’s not to say Pittsburgh (11-4-8, 41 points) should be down about last week’s results.
Beating New York showed more positives about this club than the weary letdown on Tobacco Road revealed negatives. If there’s such a thing as a ‘schedule loss’ in the USL Championship, that stop at NCFC on 70 hours’ rest was it.
But there’s little doubt that the Hounds’ early-season inability to convert leads into wins continues to haunt their present. Change just one of their eight draws into a victory and they’re looking like even money for a top-four position. Change two of them and they’d be favorites to host another home playoff match.
Instead, they’re left to play catch-up, even with a match left in hand against three of the teams above them. The problem is, with no bye weeks left for the Hounds, any matches in hand will be made up as part of a two-match week, so any additional points won’t come easily.
That’s the task with 11 matches to play, starting with a Friday night special on the South Side against expansion side Loudoun United. Yes, three of the Hounds’ next four are at Highmark Stadium, but with Louisville City FC and Charleston Battery set to visit soon, this match against Loudoun is yet another one Pittsburgh needs to get if it harbors hopes of continuing its climb up the standings.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
To the Hounds’ credit, they have taken care of business nearly every time the situation has presented itself. Against non-playoff teams this year, they’re 5-1-2, including a 4-0-2 mark at home. (Birmingham Legion FC’s rise to 10th took one of those wins off the board, but remember they were struggling when the Hounds kept them down in late June by a 4-1 count.)
With Loudoun suffering through a season-long four-game winless streak, the next fixture sure looks like another chance to pile up those precious points. The Hounds haven’t taken many opponents lightly in recent weeks, but after absorbing the franchise’s first five-goal defeat in five years, there won’t be a lack of hunger from the home side.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but we’ll know a lot more about how difficult the Hounds’ championship quest will be after 90 minutes are spent Friday night.
A win means North Carolina was a hiccup and the top-four push remains alive.
Anything less than three points and the realistic goal shifts to staying in the top six, in order to avoid the new play-in round that involves seeds seven through 10.
That might sound dramatic, but with five of the next six matches against likely playoff teams, opportunities like Friday’s can’t pass by uncaptured.
What happened last Saturday was understandable, even if the final score line was shocking. The Hounds hadn’t experienced a game like that under Bob Lilley in his two years in charge.
The good news is, they won’t have to wait long to prove that was merely a blip in what’s been a sizzling summer.