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Riverhounds SC Notebook: Stakes high as defending USL champs come to Highmark

Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC will meet Louisville City FC on Saturday in a match at Highmark Stadium that will have significant implications in the race among the teams fighting to get into the top of the USL’s Eastern Conference standings. 

The Purple and Gold find themselves in a rare position. Since entering the USL Championship in 2015, Louisville City’s never finished lower than second in the Conference, have played in the USL Cup Conference Finals each of the past four USL Cup playoff tournaments — and have finished ahead of the Riverhounds each season. 

Heading into Saturday’s match, Louisville City find themselves sitting in seventh place at 43 points, two spots and four points behind the fifth place Hounds (47 points). The Hounds (25) have also played one less match than Louisville (26). 

In addition, Pittsburgh carries a 21-game unbeaten run at home in all regular season matches.

How tough is the competition in the top of the Eastern Conference this season?

Both Pittsburgh and Louisville City have won four of their last five matches — and they’re still trying to crack the top four in the conference.  It’s a contest that could see a significant swing in the race, especially if Pittsburgh can pull ahead with three more points and finally get a leg up on Louisville when it matters.    

Pittsburgh, who are coming off an impressive 4-0 thumping of eighth place Ottawa in the Canadian Capital last Friday, can create more separation, and have a chance to inch closer to an elusive top-four spot. 

“Our focus is on winning games,” Bob Lilley, Riverhounds head coach said. “They’re (Louisville) are trying to move up as well. We have to hold serve.” 

If this match-up on Saturday looks and feels familiar, it is. While Pittsburgh has lost some of its traditional rivalries in the past year or two, the series with Louisville has developed into one that could continue to evolve from its already interesting five-year history as both franchises play very meaningful games against each other late in the season. 

A year ago, heading into a pivotal September match against Hounds at Highmark Stadium, Louisville City trailed Pittsburgh in the standings. And, much like last year, the Hounds picked up a narrow 1-0 win earlier in the season in the Derby City. In last year’s return match, the two teams battled to a wild, 2-2 draw at Highmark Stadium, which the Hounds rallied for two late goals to level things after Louisville dominated. 

While salvaging a late draw, the Hounds showed some fight. That resilience though, didn’t carry over into the a strong finish for Pittsburgh.  

At the time, that result left the Hounds with a two-point edge over Louisville City with each team having six games left in the season.

“They won their final six games, we didn’t,”Lilley said when reflecting with Pittsburgh Soccer Now a few weeks after the 2018 season ended. “They put the pressure on us, and we had to keep throwing up threes. That was an immediate response to what happened. Louisville had a busy schedule too. When we were settling for draws, they were getting mid-week wins. When they were using depth, rotating guys in and out — they were still getting wins and we were doing the same, we settled for draws.”

Saying Louisville City finished strong may be an understatement, as they showed their championship mettle, staying hot and playing with confidence all the way to the USL Cup final, which they won for the second straight season. 

“They found way to get it done,” Lilley acknowledged. “And we didn’t.  I believe next year team or core that’s been together will handle those moments little bit better. As staff we’ll have to approach things differently.  Hopefully it’s not a trend. Generally, the trend for my teams is when in winning position, has been we have teams that don’t give games away. We did that in first half of season. I am sure we can get that mojo back. We have to look at what we can do better. Maturing as a group. Players and coaches.”

That’s what makes this week’s match so tantalizing.

In year two of the Lilley era in Pittsburgh, the Hounds appear to be more prepared for the stretch run through September and October.

But, again, here comes Louisville.  In five years of play, the Hounds have never defeated Louisville City at Highmark Stadium, as all three wins in 11 contests have come at Slugger Field. The all-time series is in City’s favor (5-3-3).

This season Louisville had been lingering around the edge of the playoff line, but have recently won four in a row until a 1-1 draw vs Indy Eleven at Slugger Field last Friday,

“This is an important stretch, and we’ve had a really tough schedule, so to be hot at this point, and more importantly to see us confident in the way we play, and the belief that we can play with anybody and get the results we need. That’s most important to us.” John Hackworth, Louisville City’s Head Coach, said earlier this week on Louisville’s WDRB.

Hackworth and Lilley, who’ve both lifted USL Cups, know that they each control their own destinies.

“We just need to continue to play well,” Hackworth added. “We’ve closed the gap significantly, and we need to continue to do that. This game against Pittsburgh is a perfect example.”

To take a run at the top, the Hounds will have to knock down one of the top dogs who’ve been prowling at the top for some time now.

Lilley added.

“If our mindset is the hold the position that we’re in,” the veteran coach said. “A tie would work. But I think everyone knows how valuable three points is. If we want to move up, we have to find ways to get three points. And it goes without saying, that in front of our fans, we’re always trying to get the three points.”

With a win on Saturday, Pittsburgh will get one step closer to where they want to go.

With Vancaeyezeele on international duty, Hounds’ depth will be tested

While it was very good news to see Thomas Vancaeyezeele earn a call-up to be part of the French Guiana team for the CONCACAF League of Nations, his absence will likely come in the next two matches — starting on Saturday against Louisville City.  

Vancaeyezeele gets callup to French Guiana National Team

While Tommy V has already logged over 2,000 minutes this season as he’s been the Hounds most durable player, Lilley will have a chance to have his roster depth tested once again. 

The Hounds had to play without Vancaeyezeele in its 1-0 win vs Loudoun United, a choppy, uneven victory which, when needed, they defended well enough to post one of its 10 clean sheets this season.

The most obvious change with Vancaeyezeele out of the line-up would be for Pittsburgh to revert to a four-man back line, and use Mo Dabo and Kenny Forbes as holding midfielders (of course Forbes would have more freedome to push higher). At that point Lilley has attacking options, including inserting Robbie Mertz back into the starting line-up after he sat last week, with Kevin Kerr and Steevan Dos Santos as attacking midfield trio, leaving the team’s leading goal scorer Neco Brett at the top of a 4-2-3-1?

That would be the likely strategy, but we’ll see what the Hounds do. Lilley’s been known to mix things up. Against Louisville City earlier this year, he started Dabo higher up in the attacking midfield, to use his ability to disrupt passing lanes and bring high pressure against a team that has traditionally been one of the best possession rates. City heads into this match with 79 percent overall passing accuracy (while the Hounds are at 73%) — and have attempted 2,000 more passes than Pittsburgh this season (9,791-7,752).

Regardless of how they come out tactically, or whomever gets the nod on the line-up card, if a team is going to get on a roll — much like Louisville did last season — they’re going to need to have contributions from everyone on the roster between now and the end of the season.

As Lilley pointed out during the off season, it is critical this time of year to have a quality roster from top to bottom. 

“Louisville won (the USL Cup in 2017 and 2018) not because they were the best team player-for-player, but because they were very good collectively,” Lilley explained. “There are a lot of quality, talented players, 10 to 12 deep on some teams, but it doesn’t always translate to winning.”

The Hounds will not only have tap into its reserves to replace Vancaeyezeele, but when they hit a stretch in late September through early October when they’re playing mid-week games three straight weeks, they’ll be counting on its full roster to get them through that stretch.  

Paco Craig to sit out too 

Tommy V won’t be the only key player who will be sitting out on Saturday.

Louisville City FC’s Paco Craig, a vital cog in the midfield for the defending champions, has been suspended for one game for caution accumulation after receiving his eighth yellow card of the season against Indy Eleven on August 30. Craig will be unavailable for Louisville’s contest against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on Saturday.

Tale of the Tape

Some other interesting stats heading into this match:

Pittsburgh Louisville
Games Played 25 26
Points 47 43
Goals 48 38
Shots on Target 102 136
Conversion Rate 21.10% 11.20%
Clean Sheets 10 6
Goals Allowed 28 30
Successful Passes 7,752 9,791
Passing Accuracy 73.80% 79%

Injury Report 

With the exception of Mouhamad Dabo sitting out for a few months, Pittsburgh has been relatively healthy this season.

They’ll begin September with just one player on the injured list that remains listed as out: Prosper Figbe (knee injury). Caleb Smith (groin) has returned to full training with the team is listed as questionable on the injury report.

With Tommy V out this week due to his call-up, Lilley will have options with his 18, as he’ll likely need Uchenna Uzo (only other center back beside Joe Greenspan and Tobi Adewole) to be available and ready.  

PSN Coverage for #PITvLOU 

We’ll have a full crew on Saturday!  Mark Goodman, Ed Thompson and I will all be there. Look for blanket coverage on this one!  

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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