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View From The Booth: Hounds hanging onto home advantage

Loose play over their past three at home should have a significant smelling-salt effect.

Christian Volesky (right) battles against Louisville City FC last week. - ED THOMPSON

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

The streak is still alive.

You might have heard this by now, but the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has not suffered defeat at Highmark Stadium over a span of 22 regular-season games.

Throw in that playoff game against Bethlehem Steel FC last October — which technically goes down as a tie in the record books, dontchaknow — and that unbeaten streak is at 23 matches entering this Saturday’s meeting with the Charleston Battery.

But … so what?

If you listened in to manager Bob Lilley‘s unsparing press conference after last weekend’s 0-0 draw with Louisville City FC, you could be excused for thinking the Hounds have been stumbling and bumbling through the summer.

They have essentially done the opposite, going 11-2-2 since the middle of June. That’s the second-best record in the 36-team USL Championship over that span, bested only by the indefatigable Phoenix Rising FC, who last lost during the Obama administration.

The Hounds (13-4-9, 48 points) have all but clinched a second consecutive USL Cup playoff berth and sit within five points of first place in the Eastern Conference with eight matches to play.

At the same time, there’s been something about their past three games on the South Side that leave the door open to doubt.

Since annihilating Memphis 901 FC by a 4-0 count on Aug. 3, the Hounds have taken seven of a possible nine points at home, beating Swope Park Rangers and Loudoun United FC before drawing with Lou City.

Although that rate of result will more than suffice over the long run, there’s some legit nitpicking to be done.

For significant stretches over the past three outings, the opposing side has found plenty of room to gallop. On a playing surface that’s narrower than most across the league, a team with the Hounds’ suffocating philosophy should be able to inspire claustrophobia more often than they have.

“I have to look at why in the last two home games are we just kicking the ball forward and letting the spaces become gigantic,” Lilley said last Saturday.

That statement indicates the problem is more about lack of patience on the ball than consistent defensive breakdowns. Lilley has been harping on the Hounds’ need to keep the ball since March, but I don’t think he expects his team to boast the kind of possession numbers a team like Lou City does. (The two-time defending champs are at 58 percent on the season.)

Especially on the cozy confines of Highmark Stadium, the Hounds can make the most out of a handful of better decisions over the course of 90 minutes. Turnovers don’t have to be a terrible thing, assuming enough players are behind the ball and they aren’t committed in a questionable area of the pitch.

When the Lilley Era Hounds have been at their best at Highmark, they’ve been as dangerous without the ball as with it. Combine a committed high press with a faster-than-average track and you have one of the more reliable home-field advantages in the league over the past two seasons.

But they can’t get to their game by being wasteful with the ball.

“We’re able to play the smaller field and press a bit more,” third-year center back Joe Greenspan said after a recent training. “Teams are a little more uncomfortable on turf, whereas we train on it. … We’re really excited every time we get a home match.”

As well they should be, considering their South Side results since the Battery sneaked out of Pittsburgh with a 1-0 win last July 21: 12 wins, 10 draws, zero losses.

Moreover, in all but a handful of those games, the Hounds have never really been in danger of losing. They have trailed in the second half exactly twice over the past 14 months at Highmark — last September vs. Louisville and this April vs. Nashville.

But results can turn on a dime if you’re not careful. The Hounds’ loose play over their past three at home should have enough of a smelling-salt effect to last the final six weeks of the regular season.

Or, at the very least, it should be sufficient to power their preparation for USL Old Guard remnant Charleston. The Battery (8-7-10, 34 points) are one point out of the East playoff field, so you know they’ll be ready.

If I were Hounds operations man Jon Rotz, I’d start setting out the black-and-gold bumblebee getups right now. This team needs to get back to its buzzing, swarming identity if this home streak is to continue.

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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