Out at Highmark Stadium, the tone was typical of a Bob Lilley training session – focused, intense, businesslike – even though the circumstances for this weeks game are a little different than normal.
Either the Riverhounds match on Sunday will be one of the most important regular-season matches in franchise history, or it will be totally irrelevant.
That’s because the Hounds game on Sunday is highly impacted by what happens in Nashville SC’s game against Atlanta United 2 on Saturday night. With the Hounds sitting on 65 points, and Nashville at 64 points, that game at Nashville carries tremendous weight.
If Nashville beat ATL2 and go up to 67 points, then Pittsburgh will need a win in order to win the Eastern Conference and retain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
If Nashville draw on Saturday, the Riverhounds will need a win or a tie in their match the following day in order to clinch the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
And if Nashville lose on Saturday, then Pittsburgh win the Eastern Conference regardless of what happens in their match on Sunday at Birmingham Legion.
Coach Lilley and the coaching staff are prepared with the assumption that Nashville will take care of business on Saturday. “We think Nashville is going to win that game. Atlanta is missing their two best centerbacks, (Wesly) Decas and (George) Campbell, through suspension. I think we’re going to be asked to win, and we need to prepare for that.”
“If for some reason Nashville doesn’t get a result, it may affect the way we approach the game and the lineup we play on Sunday.”
That could mean the Riverhounds rest a few of their players or take a few veteran cogs off at the half in order to protect their health going into the playoffs. The top five players in terms of minutes played in the 2019 season are Tobi Adewole (2757 minutes played), Ryan James (2741 MP), Kenardo Forbes (2714 MP), Joe Greenspan (2664 MP) and Tommy Vancaeyezeele (2591 MP). James and Vancaeyezeele also logged minutes for their respective national teams at the Gold Cup this summer, and Vancaeyezeele also played in Concacaf Nations League matches.
The Hounds spent the final 30 minutes of training in a 9v9 half-field attacking scenario, a drill that puts into practice a lot of elements that Lilley has been preaching all season – decisive playmaking in the final third; and advancing the ball without hestitation or recirculation. From day one of the 2019 season, the Riverhounds have wanted to have a more aggressive and up-tempo attack to add to their already phenomenal defending. Lilley also highlighted his desire for the team to create aggressive patterns of lateral and through-the-lines ball movement, and not just lope long balls forward “north to south” in hopes that Steevan Dos Santos or Neco Brett would flag down a ball and create a bit of individual magic.
Todd Pratzner sustained a fairly serious injury in the Hounds last match against Saint Louis on October 12. We now know that the injury spells the end of Pratzner’s 2019 season – he will not be available at all during the USL Playoffs.
In a rough head-to-head collision that took place in the 70th minute, Pratzner broke his cheekbone. The injury may require surgery. Even if the defender does not have surgery, staff at the Riverhounds expect Pratzner to be out for 6 to 8 weeks. Pratzner was signed on September 18 after playing the beginning of the season for Memphis 901 FC, and was supposed to offer the team some defensive depth.
“He’s done, which is disappointing. I thought he made a big impact in the little bit he was here,” said Bob Lilley.
Other than Pratzner, the Hounds reported on Friday that the rest of the roster is fit and healthy in advance of Sunday’s game at Birmingham.
Ben Lundgaard is not currently with the Riverhounds in training, but remains on the roster in case one of the team’s primary goalkeepers goes down with an injury. It was initially reported that the Columbus Crew has loaned Lundgaard back to the Hounds at the conclusion of MLS season, but that move was effectively on paper only. Coach Lilley essentially confirmed, in not so many words, that the Riverhounds enter the USL playoffs with Kyle Morton as the starting goalkeeper and with Austin Pack as his backup. There probably wasn’t a great deal of confusion in regards to the goalkeeper depth chart on the Hounds, but in case there was, we’re glad we could make things crystal clear for you all.