Earlier this week, in his ‘View from the Booth’ column, Matt Gajtka wrote that the time is now for the Riverhounds SC to make their move up in the standings.
As the race for the top spots in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference heats up, many of the most faithful Riverhounds fans are starting to watch the standings and the results coming in from the other teams.
Bottom line for Pittsburgh though, is taking care of business.
And it starts with a ‘business trip’ that includes a two-game road swing through the Volunteer State, playing in two different baseball stadiums.
First up, they’ll return to Music City USA for the first time since last year’s season opener at Nissan Stadium.
To commemorate the start-up of Pittsburgh Soccer Now, we were there to take in the scoreless nail biter played before more than 20,000 fans. Bob Lilley sensed after that match that Gary Smith’s club would be a legit USL contender, even way back then, after playing its first-ever match.
Nashville was the first team to beat the Hounds last season, a 1-0 dogfight at Highmark Stadium. In three matches with Nashville, Pittsburgh’s never held a lead.
Just as we’re getting used to this becoming a fun series, it will all come to an end, and Saturday’s meeting may be the last ever between Pittsburgh and Nashville. This year, the boys from the Music City are playing as USL Lame Ducks — preparing to transition to Major League Soccer next season. They’ve loaded up the roster — and have put a very good USL squad together.
When the two clubs met previously this season, Nashville took a 2-0 lead halfway through the second half, and appeared to hand Pittsburgh its first loss at home in the 2019 campaign.
For 80 or so minutes, it was a lackluster effort by the Hounds who were out-classed by Nashville.
Then, Pittsburgh woke up in the final 10 minutes. They showed resiliency, led by former Nashville outside back, Ryan James, and Christian Volesky, battling back for a very exciting 2-2 draw at Highmark Stadium.
The Hounds have still not lost a match at home. And have since shaken off some of its defensive inconsistencies to become one of the stingiest outfits in USL Championship. In fact, they’re on a streak of playing 376 minutes without conceding a goal. Goalkeeper Kyle Morton has posted 12 total clean sheets in his career, and with his next shutout, will surpass Dan Lynd on the club’s all-time list.
It’s likely another lackluster effort for 80 minutes will result in a loss on the road. Nashville are equally tough to solve — and this could become another tense affair where one moment or two may make the difference.
The Hounds have made it a habit to play in tight ones the past few weeks (scoreless draw vs Louisville City FC on September 7, then a 1-0 win vs Charleston last week).
We’ll probably expect more of the same on Saturday.
At the beginning of the week, the teams were level in the standings, with 51 points apiece, but Nashville won a 1-0 battle with Birmingham (on an own goal in the 90th minute) on Tuesday night to push three points ahead and now sit alone in third place.
The Hounds have a chance to either surge into that spot with a win, or at the very least, keep pace with a draw while they still have two games at hand on Nashville.
While sentiment among those of us who cover the Hounds (by the way, check out Mark Goodman’s interview with For Club and Country) is that this is not an absolute, must-win match, three points for Pittsburgh in Nashville could very well swing the pendulum in a direction where a top-four finish will be more likely.
FROM THE NASHVILLE SIDE
With its win on Tuesday, Nashville clinched a playoff berth. They’re 3-0-2 in its last five matches, and hold a 7-3-3 record at home this season.
There have been a few injuries that Head Coach Gary Smith’s had to deal with, including losing captain and center back Michael Reed for the season after a terrible ankle dislocation injury against Hartford and having Cameron Lancaster (only 16 appearances) in and out of the line-up for much of this season. Still, Nashville is a deep club, and they’re primed for a run in the USL Cup playoffs.
“It’s fantastic to clinch with five games still to go,” Smith said in a news release. “Our focus, however, has always been and will continue to be the Eastern Conference title which is still in our sight.”
At the top of the attack is Daniel Rios — a super dangerous threat who’s already scored 17 times this season. In the first meeting, the Hounds center backs in particular, did a pretty decent job to bottle up Rios to limit his opportunities. They’ll have to do the same on Saturday. When Rios is in the line-up, Nashville’s attack averages nearly two goals per game, but when he’s out, they’re just at around one goal per game.
Rios draws so much attention, but the Hounds can’t ignore the rest of Nashville’s arsenal.
In its showdown with Tampa a few weeks ago, when battling in a 1-1 tie the second half, Smith needed a boost off the bench.
Alan Winn entered for former Hound Lebo Moloto in the 62nd minute, which added another workhorse to the midfield that allowed Nashville to regain some balance in the game. Winn finished the game winning four of five duels and completed 12 of 14 passes, exactly what was needed.
Nine minutes later, Smith brought on Kharlton Belmar for Cameron Lancaster.
It was Belmar, who started in the first match against Pittsburgh and displayed some inability to finish off opportunities on that night in April, showed off why there were such high expectations when he arrived alongside Lancaster and Rios this offseason with a sublime finish off Bradley Bourgeois’ lifted through-ball that proved decisive.
In summary, everyone that Smith slides in and out of his line-up can be pretty dangerous, and the Hounds have to bring their A-game on Saturday to the Music City.
FORMER HOUNDS TO WATCH
Moloto and Taylor Washington each played with the Riverhounds, and each made connections with Pittsburgh fans and those in the soccer community.
Both have been instrumental contributors in Nashville, as Moloto, an attacking central midfielder has continued to evolve into one of the best playmakers in the USL Championship, already picking up nine assists along with four goals. Moloto has played in 26 matches (23 starts), but was kept off the roster for the mid-week game vs Birmingham.
Washington, a speedy left winger who can also play as an outside back, has started 19 times in 23 appearances and has two assists.
NO EASY PICKENS
Nashville goalkeeper Matt Pickens has been around the pro game for a long time, as he’s a rare USL Championship player that continues to play into his late 30s.
After Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Birmingham Legion FC, Pickens joined Nick Rimadno of Real Salt Lake in the MLS as the only two active American-born goalkeepers with 100 clean sheets in American professional soccer.
“If you look back at his career and what he’s achieved, he’s one of the top goalkeepers, one of the best goalkeepers I’ve seen in the U.S. in my time,” said Nashville SC coach Gary Smith, who coached Pickens at both the MLS and USL levels. “The ability for him to continually move his career on and the amount of games that he’s played … is a testament to the professional nature of the world that he works in.”
Since beginning his professional career in 2004, Pickens has had success at every stop along the way. From 2004-07, Pickens picked up his first 14 shutouts with the Chicago Fire and then joined the Colorado Rapids where he earned his next 33 shutouts from 2009-13.
When not in goal, Pickens is a vital part of Smith’s think tank on the Nashville SC coaching staff, as he’s split time with Connor Sparrow (10 starts) this season.
HOUNDS ARE AT FULL STRENGTH
If you checked out a Hounds training session this week you’d notice that the team had a full squad out on the Highmark Stadium pitch for much of the week, and one new addition, Todd Pratzner.
In its pre-game injury report for the Nashville match, the Hounds have no one listed.
— John Krysinsky (@PghSoccerScribe) September 19, 2019
This means Lilley will have a full selection to choose his 18, and his starting eleven.
The only little cloud hanging over the Hounds roster is Joe Greenspan and Jordan Dover are playing on four yellow cards each, which means they’ll have to sit out the next match if they are booked.
With a full roster, what will Lilley do with two games in four days?
Conventional wisdom is that he’ll go with a strong line-up for the Nashville match, then look to use more of the guys on the depth chart for the Memphis match on Tuesday. Of course, the result of the Nashville match could go into Lilley’s decision making, but here’s a sense of what the Hounds could do heading into these two matches. With the likes of Moloto, Rios, Lancaster, Belmar, lurking — Pittsburgh will do everything they can to bottle up the middle. Nashville also will look to win the physical battles as the Hounds look to play through Steevan Dos Santos. The last time these two teams played, Dos Santos took an absolute beating, and had to be subbed off in the 66th minute. What got the Hounds back into the match in April was the high energy efforts from Robbie Mertz (one of his first appearances!), Anthony Velarde and Christian Volesky.
Lilley has been well-prepared with a solid game plan by defending well and controlling the tempo against teams on baseball stadium fields. While the Hounds first visit was at the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, Nissan Stadium, most of NSC’s home matches, including Saturday’s, are played at First Tennessee Park, a baseball stadium.
A look at how the Hounds have fared against Louisville City FC at Slugger Field against a very similar opponent who actually like to possess the ball even more than Nashville, may give some indication that Pittsburgh has the M.O. to steal three points on the road.
The Hounds came away with two 1-0 wins with goals in the later part of the second half of each match at Louisville. Lilley’s teams wore down Louisville each time. Looking at this, and the smaller pitch, I can see Lilley going with a 3-5-2, putting Mo Dabo and Kenny Forbes on top of the back line and keeping five in the back when they need to (dropping wingers Ryan James and Jordan Dover to tuck into a tightly formed shape when defending).
vs Nashville (3-5-2)
GK – Kyle Morton
D – Joe Greenspan, Tobi Adewole, Thomas Vancaeyezeele,
MF – Jordan Dover, Ryan James, Mohammad Dabo, Kenardo Forbes, Kevin Kerr
F – Steevan Dos Santos, Neco Brett
GK – Austin Pack
D – Tobi Adewole, Todd Pratzner, Thomas Vancayezeele, Dani Rovira
MF – Robbie Mertz, Sammy Kahsai, Kenardo Forbes, Steevan Dos Santos
F – Christian Volesky