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View From The Booth: In more ways than one, the time is now

For the Hounds, the next three matches are when preparation meets opportunity.

Kevin Kerr plays a ball in last Saturday's win over Charleson. - ED THOMPSON/PSN

View From The Booth: In more ways than one, the time is now

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

As much as any of us might like to believe otherwise, there are probably just a handful of times in our lives in which we can make a massive impact.

For the group of players and coaches that make up Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, one of those times appears to have arrived.

The team may currently stand in fifth place in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference, but we could argue the Hounds have never been in a better position to win a regular-season title in the league’s modern era (2011-present), to say nothing of earning home field in the upcoming playoffs.

Not only are the Hounds five points out of first place — currently shared by New York Red Bulls II and Indy Eleven — they still have one game in hand on New York and fourth-place Tampa Bay Rowdies, and two in hand on third-place Nashville SC.

“There’s still everything to play for,” manager Bob Lilley said after last Saturday’s grind-it-out 1-0 win over Charleston Battery.

The bench boss is right, even though jumping four teams with five weeks to go isn’t the most realistic goal to set.

But unlike last season, when the Hounds sat in second place in mid-September but were miles behind FC Cincinnati, the table possibilities are still vast. That’s still the case even after Nashville rescued three points Tuesday with a stoppage-time goal against Birmingham Legion FC.

Fortunately for the Hounds, they have those two games in hand on Nashville as the two sides prepare for a Saturday night showdown in the Music City. Pittsburgh (14-4-9, 51 points) will have the rest advantage for that, too, as well as the memory of knocking off New York and Ottawa in two of their past three trips.

“Let’s show that we can keep winning these big games on the road,” Lilley told me last week. “It’s no small feat to win on the road. If you’re looking at a top-four finish, you’re looking at us or Nashville, and each of us can finish as high as (first).

“Huge game. It’s going to be a huge test.”

Another thing to the Hounds’ advantage this Saturday: The chess match against Charleston last week will be good preparation for a similarly well-structured Nashville side.

In fact, Nashville has had more success on the defensive side of the pitch than the Battery, with only Indy (20) and Tampa Bay (24) having conceded fewer goals in the league than Nashville’s 25 against. Don’t expect the wide-open spaces that greeted the Hounds in Ottawa two weeks ago.

“That’s how games against the top are,” said seventh-year Hounds midfielder Kevin Kerr. “They’re fine margins. We’re not going to go out and dominate like we have against lower teams in the standings. I think they’re going to be super-cagey affairs, coming down to one or two moments of magic.”

Kenardo Forbes and Steevan Dos Santos delivered one of those moments last week, which calls to mind another reason to be bullish on this squad in the upcoming pivotal matchups with Nashville and Indy.

At the stroke of midnight Tuesday, Dos Santos officially turned 30 years old, giving the Hounds three players working on their fourth decade: Forbes, Kerr and Dos Santos.

That trio is undoubtedly among the most important Hounds, boasting a combined 17 years of USL experience. At the same time, they’re not too experienced to make a difference in the matches that matter.

“It’s not going to be plain sailing through the rest of the season,” Kerr said. “We’re going to have times when our back is against the wall, and our senior boys maybe have to figure out how to turn it around.”

Pittsburgh’s past two matches weren’t terribly clinical, but at least they got results. Particularly against Charleston, the Hounds didn’t allow the visitors’ passive posture to destroy their decision-making.

If you’re into good signs, you probably liked that. Either way, the next three matches — including a short-rest special next Tuesday at Memphis 901 FC — could easily determine the outcome of the entire regular season.

Ready or not, here they come. This is when preparation meets opportunity.

“We still have a lot of work in front of us,” Lilley said, “but we’re a good team that’s shown we can handle it. We’ve definitely been better at securing wins in the back half of this year than we were last year.

“We’ve won big games and we’ve had longer winning streaks. The clearest indication of how much growth we’ve had will be how we handle these games.”

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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