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Riverhounds SC Notebook: It’s crunch time

File Photo courtesy of Ed Thompson

Riverhounds SC Notebook: It’s crunch time

Bob Lilley wasn’t in the mood last week to talk about how teams around the Riverhounds were doing in the standings.

Who could blame him? Louisville FC just outplayed his team and he was picking apart his club’s inability to perform to his high standards.

After a few days to absorb things, and with the Hounds back into training for an important match (aren’t they all important this time of year now), it’s probably safe to tackle this topic.

After all, it’s crunch time.  Every match will take on added significance from this point forward especially with things as tight as they are at the top of the standings.

Let’s take a closer look at where things stand for Lilley’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC relative to the USL Eastern Conference standings and the overall playoff race.

TOP SEVEN BATTLE FOR TOP FOUR SPOTS 

It’s pretty safe to say that the top seven teams in the Eastern Conference are pretty well set to earn a playoff spot. The eighth, Ottawa, at 39 points, have suddenly lost four consecutive matches and could be in trouble if they keep this up.

The only real battle remaining for teams to actually get into the playoffs remains between Charleston, Birmingham and St. Louis (and maybe Ottawa if they keep slipping).

For the top seven, it’s all about getting higher seeds and avoiding a rougher playoff road.

If you look at the final Eastern Conference standings the past four years, teams finishing the regular season in the top spot have ended up as USL Cup Champions with one exception, FC Cincinnati last year. What happened last year, the defending champions, Louisville City, got red-hot at the end of the regular season, reeling off six straight wins to blow past the Hounds to secure the second spot behind FC Cincinnati’s record-breaking regular season mark.

  • 2015 – Rochester (Regular Season – 1st overall / USL Cup Champions)
  • 2016 – NY Red Bulls II (Regular Season – 1st overall / USL Cup Champions)
  • 2017 – Louisville City FC (Regular Season – 1st overall / USL Cup Champions)
  • 2018 – Louisville City FC (Regular Season – 2nd overall / USL Cup Champions

As previously outlined here about a month ago, the top four spots are the most coveted for numerous reasons, but mainly because each of the top four teams will earn a home playoff game in the first round of the playoffs.  Teams that finish fifth and sixth will get a full week’s rest leading up to the first round of the playoffs, but will have to go on the road in the first round against the third and fourth seeds, respectively.

That leaves the seventh through 10th seeds with having to play mid-week ‘play-in’ matches, with the winners having to play against top two seeds in the first-round just a few days later on the weekend.

The Hounds currently sit in fifth place, and have really not broken through the top four much this season. The Red Bulls, Indy Eleven, Tampa and Nashville have kept strong enough pace to stay in the top four, even while both Pittsburgh and Louisville have combined to go unbeaten in nine of ten matches in the past four weeks.

Here’s the thing, there isn’t a team that’s running away with it this year.

When you look at Rochester, Red Bulls II and Louisville’s first Cup winning season, those teams created enough separation in the regular season that helped prepare them to play at home all the way through the postseason.  Although a Western Conference team hasn’t won the USL Cup since 2014 when Sacramento proved to be a juggernaut, Phoenix is putting together a record-breaking season as they’re going to have plenty of cushion and have a home field advantage this October and November.

Lilley was mostly preturbed by his team’s performance on Saturday against Louisville because they aren’t playing at the Championship level he aspires. This was also a lost opportunity for the Hounds to bust into the top four, and leave the defending champs behind by more points. As of now, Pittsburgh holds a four-point edge on Louisville, while remaining one point in front of North Carolina FC.

As pointed out previously, Lilley knows that the Hounds have to keep piling up threes if they want to make a run at the top and gain home field for one (or more) playoff matches. While the upcoming schedule will get busy with five games over a two week period from September 21 through October 5, including two mid-week contests at Memphis and Loudoun United, it should be noted that according to the standings, the Hounds have the second easiest strength of schedule among the teams inside the playoff line over the course of the final month of the season.

The first match in this stretch on Saturday night though is against an up-and-down — and desperate — Charleston Battery squad.  It’s time for Pittsburgh to deliver a decisive blow to its long-time, ‘Old Guard’ rivals.

Charleston had a prime opportunity to pick up three points on Wednesday night by traveling to last place Swope Park, but ended up settling for a 0-0 draw. Charleston’s lone win in the past five matches has come against Indy Eleven last weekend, and they’re generally a tough match for the Hounds. In fact, they’re the last team to beat Pittsburgh in a regular season match at Highmark Stadium.

These are the remaining two ‘old guard’ franchises still hanging around at the second division level, and suddenly the always tough Battery are finding themselves in a dogfight just to make the playoffs.

USL EASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS (as of 9/12/2019)

Pos. P W L T GD Pts Form
1 New York Red Bulls II 27 16 6 5 32 53 WLWWL
Face Charlotte this week (Fri). Can be first to clinch playoff spot. 
2 Indy Eleven 26 16 5 5 20 53 WDWLW
Bounced back from loss vs Charleston to beat Ottawa in mid-week win. 
3 Tampa Bay Rowdies 27 15 5 7 27 52 LLWLW
Lone team in this top group to win last weekend 
4 Nashville SC 28 15 7 6 24 51 WLWWL
St. Louis gave them fits, next up Birmingham before big clash with Hounds on 21st 
5 Riverhounds SC 26 13 4 9 20 48 WLWWD
Three points vs Charleston allows them to keep pace with Nashville before showdown.
6 North Carolina FC 28 13 7 8 19 47 WWLLD
Were on verge of first place few weeks ago. Can’t drop points to Swope Park this week 
7 Louisville City FC 27 12 7 8 8 44 WWWDD
Visit to Hartford this week should make for entertaining match. 
8 Ottawa Fury FC 27 10 8 9 5 39 WLLLL
Four losses in a row. Can they get back on track? 
9 Birmingham Legion FC 26 10 10 6 -8 36 WWWDW
Big one this week vs STL as both are looking to stay inside playoff line.
10 Saint Louis FC 26 9 9 8 0 35 LLWWW
Back on track with three straight wins. Can they push higher up?
11 Charleston Battery 26 8 7 11 -3 35 LLDWD
Things are getting dicey for the Battery.
12 Bethlehem Steel FC 26 7 13 6 -13 27 LDLWD
13 Charlotte Independence 28 5 12 11 -14 26 DLLDL

For an even closer look at each team USL.com’s Nicholas Murray provided a pretty detailed ‘Race to the Playoffs‘ this week.

LOTS OF HISTORY BETWEEN PITTSBURGH-CHARLESTON AND LILLEY-ANHAEUSER

The fate of the ‘Old-Guard’ Shield will be decided on Saturday. The teams battled to a 2-2 draw earlier in the season, so the competition created initially between the Supporters Groups for five USL’s franchises that dated back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, that include Pittsburgh, Charleston, Richmond (currently playing in USL League One), Rochester (dormant since 2017) and Harrisburg (dormant since last season).

This year, the Old Guard Shield decided to pit the competition for this honor between to two teams competing in the USL Championship. The Hounds are the current Shield holders, after winning it last season in a competition that included everyone but Rochester.

During the past Winter, it was announced that tentatively the Shield would have been played between the clubs that are in League One. As of now, Rochester and Penn FC are very long shots to return in 2020.

Not only do these franchises know each other well — Charleston leads the all-time series by the way with 13 wins, six losses and 13 draws — but their coaches have been competing against each other for more than 20 years.

Mike Anhaeuser has been Charleston’s Head Coach and General Manager since 2005.  Lilley’s been coaching at this level since 1997.  They both played collegiately in the late 1980s and early 1990s — and also played professionally in the early and mid-1990s (scoring two goals in 115 appearances) when professional soccer was still trying to figure itself out in the U.S.  Both have earn Coach of the Year honors, have won USL Cups and have been recognized as members of the USL Hall of Fame.

And they’ll be meeting each other yet again with plenty at stake on Saturday.

‘A PRETTY LUCKY GUY’

Hounds center back Joe Greenspan had a chance to share, in his own words an essay he wrote for USL.com as a special piece that was posted on Tuesday, the 18th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

As we already know here in Pittsburgh, Greenspan also serves as an officer in the United States Naval Reserves. We’ve profiled Greenspan here, sharing his unique story.

Greenspan’s docked and ready for duty in Pittsburgh

Ensign Joe’s wonderfully written piece on USL.com, though, is certainly worth the read, as he writes about what 9/11 and serving his country means to him.  Be sure to check it out!

I also interviewed Greenspan a few weeks ago, and he spoke about his recent duty with the Naval Reserves.

Joe Greenspan interview:

TOMMY V’s BACK 

He’s back! On Thursday, the one player who’s been on the field for more minutes and games than any other Hound in the past two season, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, returned to training.

Vancaeyezeele earned his first international call-up last week, for French Guiana.

He had an inauspicious start to his international career when FG was awarded a 3–0 victory over Belize when the visitors did not arrive in time for the match.  Vancaeyezeele eventually made his debut, starting and playing the full match, in the eventual 2–2 draw with St. Kitts and Nevis.

CHARTING PITTSBURGH’s IMPROVED ATTENDANCE NUMBERS

While it’s not a smashing increase, Riverhounds SC’s steady improvement in attendance has been constant this entire season. Pittsburgh continues to draw the league’s most improved overall attendance numbers from the previous season.

2019 ATTENDANCE AVG: 3,762 Total 2019: 52,669 14 games 2018 avg: 2,401   0.57 increase from 2018 is highest in USL Championship

last week’s attendance:

3,526

With two more home games in September, and another in early October, the Hounds have a chance to finish the regular season with its highest totals in franchise history. As of now, they’re on course to break the record for average attendance in the Highmark Stadium era (since 2013 season). In 2013, the Hounds drew an average of 3,273 fans. As of today, this season’s average (3,762) would be third all-time in club history (only 1999 and 2000 were higher – 4,178 and 3,808 per game those seasons).

INJURY REPORT 

This, once again, has not changed.

  • Prosper Figbe (out)
  • Caleb Smith (questionable)

HELPING OUT THE FOOD BANK ON SATURDAY 

This Saturday at Highmark Stadium, the Hounds will be holding a food drive with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

There will be donation barrels at the game, so make sure to check the list of needed items to donate.

PSN’s COVERAGE SATURDAY

I’ll be joined by Rachael McKriger and Ed Thompson will be at Highmark on Saturday. We’re looking forward to bringing you full coverage.

 

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including 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 United States. 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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