The USL Championship’s final dash through the regular season has all the makings of a classic battle to the finish.
There are three teams, Indy Eleven, NY Red Bulls II and Tampa Bay Rowdies, currently tied with 56 points and another two, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Nashville SC sitting one point below with 55 points.
It’s a real logjam.
While it can be a lot of fun for some fans to scoreboard watch and follow every scenario, the primary focus of the Riverhounds head coach Bob Lilley and his players, is taking care of immediate business.
The most pressing business for the Hounds, who technically now have the highest odds of the group to finish first, will be dealing with Indy Eleven on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.
Both Indy and Pittsburgh have a game in hand against everyone else in contention. Winning this match could point one of these teams in the drivers seat.
The Eleven are a very talented club, as the Hounds found out earlier this season when they played in a quick pair of home-and-home matches in late May and early June.
The Hounds prevailed in the Open Cup match at Highmark Stadium, nudging past the Eleven when Kenardo Forbes came off the bench to break a scoreless draw late in the second half, delivering a decisive game-winning strike.
Indy Eleven returned the favor a few days later, beating Pittsburgh 2-1, at Lucas Oil Stadium. After Robbie Mertz scored his first-ever professional goal in the 15th minute, Indy roared back for a pair of goals late in the second half, including the game-winner by former Riverhound, Tyler Pasher.
Both clubs had mid-week matches on the road against clubs sitting below the playoff line.
Pittsburgh wrapped up a two-game road swing by beating Memphis 901 FC, 1-0.
While the Hounds came out of Memphis with three points, Bob Lilley knows that his team needs to put its foot down for a full 90 minutes, as the Hounds couldn’t quite shake Memphis.
“Memphis deserves a lot of credit for putting a lot of pressure on us in the second half. Thankfully we were able to hold out. I don’t want to go through many second halves like that.”
Meanwhile, Indy blew a chance to jump ahead in the standings with a game in-hand on everyone around them, but losing 2-1 at Atlanta United 2.
“I think it was a very open game. We’re disappointed to give away a goal on a set play because we really hadn’t given up too many chances, so that was something we have to improve on,” said Indy Eleven Head Coach Martin Rennie. “It’s not something we really have made too many mistakes on this season, but that was one we needed to improve on.”
With both teams being among the toughest to score against in USL Championship, this should be another tight contest.
PASHER SHINES IN INDY
One of the best match-ups to watch on Saturday will feature the Hounds back line, and most likely Jordan Dover on his side, defending a pacy threat who’s pretty familiar with Highmark Stadium: Tyler Pasher.
Back in 2015, Pasher was still a teen, having already had experiences with Newcastle United youth system and with PS Kemi in the Finnish third tier. The Canadian-born Pasher returned to his home country, still a teenager with Toronto FC’s Academy, where he even made an appearance against Liverpool FC in a friendly.
The following season, 2015, Pasher emerged as a key contributor to a Riverhounds team that would make the USL Cup Playoffs. Pasher took his talents to the MLS level, signing with the Sporting KC organization, where he would spend the majority of his time the following two seasons playing on USL Cup runner up Swope Park (Sporting KC’s affiliate) in 2017,
In a seven-year pro career, Pasher’s played for seven different clubs. While Sporting KC didn’t pick up his option after the 2018 season, Pasher landed in Indy last year. It wasn’t a great start for Pasher, as he dealt with a neck in injury in 2018, but this season, may be his best as a pro. The speedy left winger, who played some outside back when he was a Riverhound, has suddenly emerged as the top goal scorer for Indy Eleven, with 10 tallies.
One of those goals came when he hit the game-winner to beat the Hounds on June 1st, when he blew by the Hounds back line, and went top shelf to beat goalkeeper Austin Pack.
He’s netted three game-winners scored in the 80th minute or later.
Suddenly, the young kid that we watched here in Pittsburgh, has become one of the veteran leaders in Indy.
In his second year in Indy, Pasher told the Indy Star that he’s really in a place where he’s found his groove.
“I’m just hoping I can continue my stride and build more confidence and perform and contribute the way I’ve been contributing,” Pasher said. “My personal goals are my team goals. I want to win the league and the playoffs, which is what I want for my guys too.”
TOUGH TO SCORE AGAINST
If you’re looking for a trend among the top five teams battling for the top spots in USL Championship’s Eastern Conference, the one constant is solid defending. They represent the top four teams in terms of goals allowed (the lone exception is NY Red Bulls II).
Even after its 2-1 loss at Atlanta, the Eleven remain the staunchest of the group, having allowed 23 goals in 29 matches this season.
Scoring goals, well that’s another matter for Indy. Altogether, the Eleven have relied on its defense, scoring 42 total goals this season, which is in the bottom half of the league.
In addition to Pasher, Indy has some talented midfielders, they’ll tend to try to play a possession game, but in three appearances in Highmark Stadium, they’ve never held a lead, and scored two goals last year in September match when Pittsburgh took a commanding 3-0 lead. They also have the USL Championship’s all-time goal scorer, Dane Kelly, who’s scored seven this season.
It’s the Hounds though, who’ve been the most impressive defensive unit of late.
Pittsburgh’s currently on an impressive, club-record six-game streak without having surrendered a goal. It’s been a total of 556 minutes since the Hounds gave up a goal in the 76th minute in a road loss at North Carolina FC.
With its clean sheet win on Tuesday, the Hounds also move into the top spot in USL Championship in shutouts with 14. Three goalkeepers, Austin Pack, Ben Lundgaard and Kyle Morton have each contributed through the season.
In midst of a busy stretch of five games in 14 days, here’s the starting line-ups the past two games.
Saturday, Sept. 21 at Nashville:
GK – Kyle Morton, D – Joe Greenspan, Tobi Adewole, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Ryan James, Jordan Dover; MF – Kenardo Forbes, Mohammed Dabo, Rob Mertz, Steevan Dos Santos, Neco Brett
Tuesday, Sept. 24 at Memphis:
GK – Austin Pack; D – Greenspan, Vancaeyezeele, Todd Pratzner; MF – James, Noah Franke, Sammy Kahsai, Anthony Velarde, Kevin Kerr; F – Christian Volesky
There’s been plenty of squad rotation, and with a Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday stretch coming up, look for more of the same from Lilley. With Forbes, Dos Santos, Jordan and Brett all starting on the bench on Tuesday, look for them to get the start. Mertz has played more minutes than Forbes in the first two games of this stretch, so it will be interesting to see how the Hounds line-up in the midfield.
Here’s the projected line-up that we’ll likely see against Indy Eleven.
GK – Kyle Morton
D – Joe Greenspan, Tobi Adewole, Thomas Vancaeyezeele
Jordan Dover, Ryan James.
MF – Mouhamed Dabo, Kenardo Forbes, Robbie Mertz
F – Steevan Dos Santos, Neco Brett
We’ll have full coverage on Saturday. Ed Thompson and I will be at Highmark Stadium for this pivotal match for Hounds vs Indy Eleven.