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View From The Booth: A not-so-secret weapon

Looking for a reason to believe in the attack in tight playoff games? Look no further than set pieces.

Kenardo Forbes' set-piece craftsmanship has been massive in 2019. - ED THOMPSON

View From The Booth: A not-so-secret weapon

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

Seven times over the past two months, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has gone on the road.

In four of those games, the Hounds have earned all three points with a victory.

Those results, in conjunction with a pair of draws, are a huge part of the reason they’re in first place in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference with one match remaining.

The most recent of those out-of-town wins might’ve been the most dramatic of them all, as the Hounds got their latest game-winning goal of the season on Steevan Dos Santos‘ corner-kick header in the 88th minute.

As you probably know if you’re a Hounds backer, that goal ensured the team would a) stay in first place by a point over Nashville SC, and b) have a chance to take the East’s No. 1 seed regardless of what its closest pursuer does on the final weekend of the regular season.

But as singular as that strike was, it shared a common thread with three others like it since the middle of August.

Indeed, in four of the Hounds’ five road wins in this season-closing stretch, they have scored the first (and frequently only) goal of the game off a corner kick.

If we agree that the first goal is almost always the most important of a soccer match, corner kick productivity is right up there with any aspect of the Hounds’ game in terms of late-season importance.

Especially on the road, where at times Pittsburgh has aimed to absorb pressure, this set-piece success bodes well for the upcoming playoffs, when time and space will be harder to come by.

“I think the first 10-15 minutes it was hard to string passes together,” manager Bob Lilley said of the taut affair at Saint Louis FC. “We worked our way into the first half and got better as the half went on. I thought we were very good in the second half. We tried to play in their half and get on the ball. Eventually, we broke them.”

If we’re being completely honest, the Hounds actually scored twice off corner kicks in Missouri, but the first of those — a Joe Greenspan open header — was erroneously whistled due to a phantom foul.

Regardless, in a season that’s seen Pittsburgh show off a finishing ability seldom witnessed in the 20-year history of the franchise, don’t ignore the restarts as a significant portion of that.

For further context, remember just a season ago, when it took the Hounds all the way into August before scoring a single set-piece goal — penalties excepted, of course. (Painfully, a set-piece goal conceded late in Highmark Stadium’s first playoff game ensured an early winter.)

The first indication that things would be different in 2019 came on Pittsburgh’s opening goal of the season, a Kenardo Forbes-to-Tobi Adewole set-piece strike at Swope Park Rangers on March 23. Greenspan scored of a Forbes corner the next weekend at Bethlehem Steel FC, helping the Hounds survive that early four-match road trip.

That trend has rolled through the entire season. Just look down the list of the biggest wins of the year, and free-kick goals have played a major role almost every time:

  • Two of them (Dos Santos and Thomas Vancaeyezeele) to put away New York Red Bulls II on June 22
  • A thunderbolt free kick from Forbes for the lone goal vs. Bethlehem on the Fourth of July
  • Forbes to Greenspan off a corner for a tying tally in a comeback win at first-place New York on Aug. 14
  • Robbie Mertz to Greenspan for the only goal in a short-rest victory at Memphis 901 FC on Sept. 24
  • Neco Brett‘s absolute bullet off a restart for the first goal of a 3-0 wipeout of Indy Eleven on Sept. 28
  • One more Forbes-to-Greenspan corner connection, putting Pittsburgh ahead for good at Loudoun United FC on Oct. 1

Need I type any more? By my quick count, that’s 10 goals generated outside of open play. That’s several more than last season, and as you can see, most of them have come at critical times.

If you’re looking for a real, tangible difference between Year 1 of the Lilley Era and Year 2 — and if you’re looking for a reason to believe in the Hounds’ ability to create in the tight games to come — set pieces are right at the top of the chart.

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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