Riverhounds SC reached the top of the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference standings, three points clear of Nashville SC, and the pack of others, with come-from-behind 2-1 win at Loudoun United on Tuesday night.
This wasn’t exactly a dominating win, but it was monumental, putting the Hounds alone in first place for the first time in the Highmark Stadium era — and the modern USL (since 2011).
After trailing and giving up a goal for the first time in seven matches — they needed a strong response — and that’s exactly what got by scoring twice within a five minute period.
With his club playing its fourth match in a 10-day period, Bob Lilley rolled out a line-up that included most of his regular defenders, a mix of first-and-second year midfielders with Neco Brett at the top of what was a 3-5-1-1 (or 3-6-1) formation.
The match played out pretty evenly in the first half, with Pittsburgh on the front foot — getting three of four shots on frame which forced goalkeeper Calle Brown to scramble to make three saves.
Despite the edge, they weren’t convincing or dangerous enough to get the early lead much like they did in the previous Tuesday’s match at Memphis with a similar line-up.
Unable to generate a first half goal, the Hounds pushed forward with a few opportunities early in the second half, most notably when Noah Franke delivered a cross from the right side for an unmarked Anthony Velarde, who couldn’t square up and make solid enough contact on his header attempt, which was easily saved by Brown.
Another failed counter came moments later in the 51st minute when Velarde found room to push to the edge of the box, then played it to Franke who was open on the right side. Franke edged into the box, and played the ball back to Velarde instead of taking a deeper run into the box. Franke’s pass didn’t connect with Velarde, and Loudoun were off to the races.
Suddenly the home side had an opportunity to get themselves into an open-ended counter, and they took advantage a rare moment when the Hounds were stretched extensively. Kevin Paredes’ cross from the right side found an unmarked Kyle Murphy which gave Loudoun the 1-0 lead.
It was the first deficit the Hounds faced in more than seven games.
Lilley inserted Kenardo Forbes for Sammy Kahsai.
Both Kahsai and Mertz were doing okay, each had shots on target of their own, but adding Forbes’ veteran presence helped get the attack get a bit more in-sync. There were times when Kahsai took chances, including a clever ball forward that set up Velarde’s first chance, a shot that missed from inside the left side of box that tailed away from the right post side. Mertz was extra cautious for stretches, often opting to play the ball back to the back line.
Suddenly, with the insertion of Forbes in the line-up, the Hounds began to navigate more confidently in its attacking opportunities. Mertz started play with more creativity and as more of an attacking midfielder, knowing Forbes was there behind him.
Forbes set up the first goal with a deep run into the box, getting just enough attention and freeze the Loudoun defenders, then sent his pass it over to Velarde at the right time. After a number of first half giveaways, Velarde on this sequence made a quick, smooth short cross that connected with the Hounds best finisher, Neco Brett for the equalizer.
The Hounds kept pressure on. After setting up a corner, it was Forbes who delivered the service, and Joe Greenspan, while brushing aside one defender, found himself with an easy tap in for the game’s go-ahead goal.
And from there, the Hounds clamped down. Lilley brought on Steevan Dos Santos, and later Mouhamad Dabo to close the deal. By the end of the match, Pittsburgh limited Loudoun’s remaining attacking chances to longer shots and some crosses that were easily cleared away. The Hounds held a commanding 18-4 advantage in shots, and walked away from second straight Tuesday night, mid-week match on the road with three big points.
“We were able to defend well in the back half of the game and limit their chances,” head coach Bob Lilley said. “It was an important three points. I’m proud of the guys. They had a lot of travel and a lot of wear and tear the past 10 days or so.”
With three games left, Pittsburgh’s in the drivers seat in the race to USL Championship Eastern Conference top spot, as seven points will guarantee the top spot.
It won’t be easy.
First up, they’ll be looking to finish the home campaign unbeaten, against Atlanta United 2 on Saturday, then finish with road matches at St. Louis FC and Birmingham, two teams fighting for playoff lives the following two weekends.
Kyle Morton – 6 – no spectacular saves and did get beat for the first time in a while, but overall, was solid.
Ryan James – 6 – settled for a lot of short passes, and was pushing up higher at times through the night.
Tobi Adewole – 6.5 – another solid night playing the ball out of the back to the tune of 93% passing and even created a few chances.
Joe Greenspan – 6.5 – Loudoun only attempted 11 crosses — but did score one when the Hounds were stretched on counter — forcing Greenspan to come way out as first man to the ball where he couldn’t do much to prevent the delivery. Big Joe had one clearance, and led the back line again in winning his duels and shutting down Loudoun the rest of the way.
Todd Pratzner – 5.5 – steady presence in his second straight Tuesday road match start, but was the lone defender that was marking Murphy on Loudoun’s header goal.
Noah Franke – 7 – as he usually does, created some moments on the width with his speed and ability to whip balls into the box. At one point, I commented that it would have been nice for some of his teammates to get on the end of one or two of those.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 7 – started the match in front of the back line, and went back deeper after they took the lead. Was more active in trying to move possessions past midfield.
Robbie Mertz – 6 – came on stronger in the second half. Seemed very conservative in the first half, playing a lot of balls to back line. Picked up another yellow, and will have to sit next match.
Sammy Kahsai – 5.5 – made a few clever passes, nearly set up Velarde for nice opportunity in first half.
Kenardo Forbes (53′) – 8 – immediately made his presence felt. Making league MVP case now.
Anthony Velarde – 5- up and down night for Velarde, but made up for it with the assist and kept plugging away. Good work rate too.
Neco Brett – 7 – Played with plenty of fire in getting start on short rest. At one point he wasn’t happy with Mertz for not feeding him a ball on a run deep into box. Got on the end of Velarde’s short cross for that critical equalizer.
Mouhamed Dabo (85′) – N/R
Steevan Dos Santos (74′) – N/R
Subs not used: Austin Pack, Jordan Dover, Kevin Kerr, Uchenna Uzo