PITTSBURGH — They were just a few minutes from running the gauntlet without a nick or a scratch.
Tasked with playing five games in 15 days, the Riverhounds SC survived a lengthy man-down situation at Nashville, grinded out a short-rest win at Memphis, completely ambushed Indy at home, rallied for a victory at Loudoun and … came within one late set piece of smothering Atlanta.
That 1-1 draw Saturday night at Highmark Stadium marked the first time this season the Hounds have lost a lead past the 85th minute. But considering how they thrived through a stretch that could’ve killed their home-field chances for the upcoming playoffs, it’s tough to lower their grade for one momentary lapse.
Even the newly-named USL Championship Coach of the Month confessed to being satisfied with his team’s performance.
“Pretty good,” Bob Lilley assessed after a lengthy training session this week. “We got through it with a decent record. It would’ve been nice to cap it with a home win, but overall we did well and we stayed healthy. That was the important thing.
“It probably couldn’t have gone any better except over that last stretch.”
Incredibly, despite piecing together a season-long nine-match unbeaten streak, the Hounds still haven’t guaranteed anything besides a bye through the play-in round.
It’s unlikely, but they could still finish as low as fifth in the Eastern Conference, even as they hold a one-point lead for the top spot with two matches to play.
Because of that uncertainty, there’s plenty riding on the Hounds’ upcoming trips to St. Louis and Birmingham. There will be no experimental lineups or resting of regulars. At least not yet.
“It’s going to be tough, but I like our chances,” Lilley said. “I like our road form. We’ve won some big games on the road. We know it’s going to be a dogfight in St. Louis. They’re physical and they have experienced guys. It’s already essentially a playoff-type moment, because the difference between first and fifth is significant.
“For us, they’re must-win situations now, and it’s a similar case for Saint Louis. We’ll see where we are after that and make decisions when we get to Birmingham.”
After Nashville’s latest stoppage-time win Tuesday, the Hounds are now slightly more likely to finish second than first, per FiveThirtyEight’s projections. Third and fourth are still feasible, too, although fifth is a true long shot.
Regardless, any spot is better than the one beneath it, so there’s no thought of simply playing out the string. After all, it doesn’t take much to remember the 2-2-7 start that had many questioning whether this team could build on 2018.
“At the beginning, we dropped some points,” Steevan Dos Santos said, “and now to be two games from the end and we’re in first? It’s good because we know how hard we fought to get in this position. Now we just want to stay there.”
TIME FOR TODD?
As was the case a few weeks ago, midfielder/defender Thomas Vancaeyezeele will miss league action due to an international call-up.
While Vancaeyezeele will be absent for only one Hounds game — this Saturday at Saint Louis FC — he’ll play two for French Guiana in the CONCACAF Nations League before returning to Pittsburgh.
Thus, it’s probable the Hounds will turn to recent re-acquisition Todd Pratzner to augment their back line. The 25-year-old Xavier grad has made four appearances in his second stint with the club, but this is the type of scenario he was brought back to seize.
“He’s a grinder, but he’s intelligent,” Lilley said of Pratzner, who has now played for him three separate times as a pro. “You need players like that. You know what you get anytime you put them out there. It’s a way to add depth without introducing an (unknown) personality. We didn’t have to worry about any of that.”
Lilley pointed out that, last year, he had five center back options from which to choose: Joe Greenspan, Tobi Adewole, Hugh Roberts, Pratzner and Vancaeyezeele. This year, due to injuries to Prosper Figbe and Uchenna Uzo, the depth at that position has been lesser.
For his part, Pratzner was more than happy to jump from a Memphis squad that was below the playoff zone to a team that will be one of the favorites to come out of the East.
But it’s not all about the standings.
“It’s a pretty easy transition,” he said, noting that Lilley also coached him as a youngster growing up in Lancaster, Pa. “I definitely fit in his system. You’ve got to be a hardworking guy. You’ve got to read the game well. You’ve got to be tactically sound. I know what he wants.”
Much like the Hounds appreciate Pratzner’s unassuming demeanor, the feeling is mutual.
“It’s a great group of guys, guys who work hard and work for the team,” Pratzner said. “Another reason it’s been easy is it’s such a great group of guys. Looking forward to going to the playoffs with these guys.”
A GREAT FIT
Another Lilley favorite, Dos Santos, has to be pleased with how his season has turned out.
After spending two fairly productive years in Ottawa with Fury FC, Dos Santos decided to reunite with his former coach last winter, with the goal of adding some horsepower and ideas to the Hounds attack.
“I knew to come here and play for Bob would be huge to get back in the playoffs, and possibly win the league,” Dos Santos said.
Thirty-two matches, nine goals and four assists later, Dos Santos has been as important as any Hound when it comes to putting away more results. In terms of finishing, he’s on a similar pace to his two seasons in Rochester, where he netted 17 goals in 48 appearances.
Specifically, Dos Santos’ partnership with 13-goal man Neco Brett heated up with the summer and has continued to bear fruit into harvest time.
“This year, Neco has helped me a lot,” Dos Santos said. “You see in the games how Neco and I are helping each other. I’ll assist on some of his goals and he’ll assist on some of mine.”
Now in his fifth season in North America, the 30-year-old Dos Santos has been impressed by the increasing home support throughout the year. The Hounds averaged 3,376 fans per game, a 36 percent increase over last year — the largest in the 36-team league.
In fact, ‘Duba’ is probably feeling some déjà vu. In 2015, his first season in Rochester playing for Lilley, the Rhinos went unbeaten at home — the last USL team to do so before the Hounds finished the deal Saturday.
Dos Santos’ goal total in the regular season that year? Nine.
“We’ll try to get as many (playoff) games at home,” he said. “Our record here was almost perfect. We’ll try to get all the games at home.”
Another couple wins would clinch just that, at least through the East playoffs.
BIG BEN TOLLS AGAIN
With the completion of Columbus Crew SC’s Major League Soccer season, loanee keeper Ben Lundgaard is expected back at Hounds training this week.
Lilley said the team knew Lundgaard would be back this month, so they didn’t pursue a third goalie before the USL Championship roster freeze a couple of weeks ago.
In a rarity, the Hounds haven’t had a third keeper since Lundgaard returned to Columbus in mid-May. Prior to that, he had made four starts with Pittsburgh — his first four as a professional.
The Delaware native and former Virginia Tech standout didn’t play for Columbus this season, but had two clean sheets and a .667 save percentage in his brief time with the Hounds.