It was late September 2015. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds were in the USL Playoffs, one of the hottest teams in the league, and on the verge of its first-ever playoff win in the modern era of the USL.
On that day, the Hounds battled NY Red Bulls II to a 1-1 draw in regular time, then seized the momentum early in overtime in the USL Eastern Conference Quarterfinal when defender Willie Hunt converted his second header of the match.
Hunt only scored one goal that regular season, but suddenly the undersized defender scored twice in a big playoff match. Maybe destiny was finally on the Riverhounds’ side.
But, it was all a tease.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh and the loyal group of Steel Army supporters who made the chartered bus trek all the way to Harrison, New Jersey that day, the Baby Bulls struck back — three times to be precise — in extra time, to bring a harsh ending to what was a memorable season, shutting the door on any kind of postseason run.
That result was emblematic of the 20-year history of the Riverhounds franchise.
Only two years before its playoff loss in New Jersey, Pittsburgh’s professional soccer club began the Highmark Stadium era with renewed enthusiasm and a solid 2013 campaign which landed them into the USL’s (then) eight-team playoff. A poor start to that season hampered the Hounds’ chances to host a home playoff, and with a seventh place finish they had to face MLS-bound Orlando City SC in the Citrus Bowl before more than 10,000 fans.
If you turned that match on a little late, you probably turned it right off. The Hounds were bulldozed by the eventual USL Cup Champions, 5-0.
In fact, the postseason hasn’t been kind to Pittsburgh’s pro soccer club this entire modern era.
Road playoff matches in 2010 and 2011 ended with ‘Old Guard’ rivals Richmond and Rochester shutting out the Hounds.
The promise from the 2013 campaign turned sour even before the 2014 season started. Just a few days prior to kicking off a new season, the Hounds organization, carrying major cost overruns from the construction of Highmark Stadium, found itself having to declare bankruptcy. The cloud of bankruptcy hung over what quickly became a tumultuous 2014 season, one that started out terribly without a win until early June, dealing with the embarrassment having to fire Head Coach Justin Evans, who also was the club’s first-ever draft selection way back in 1999 and had since become the club’s longest tenured coach.
Even after the nice turn-around in 2015, things fell apart pretty quickly again. While USL Hall of Fame coach Mark Steffens brought a wide-open, fun style of play to the club that produce the near playoff win in 2015, his second season with the club in 2016, turned into an outright disaster.
In a matter of a few weeks in May 2016, NYRBII’s Karl Ouimette was kicked from behind by a frustrated Romeo Parkes in an incident that went viral around the world. Then to add insult to injury, the Hounds would lose a home Open Cup match to an amateur club, Landsdowne Bhoys, at Highmark Stadium.
Steffens was fired.
Things didn’t get any better under the direction of former Navy Head Coach Dave Brandt.
Brandt’s tenure had only few bright moments — and after a year and a half, he completed a 14-29-19 record.
These were some pretty dark times for the Riverhounds SC.
After one of many interview sessions with Pittsburgh Soccer Report, Brandt, always a straight-shooter who was an ultra-successful coach in the college ranks, turned, shook his head, and said, “I don’t know what it is about this place. It’s like there’s always a cloud hanging over. Maybe there’s something in the water? I don’t know?”
Did Brandt believe in demons? Apparently he felt something.
Even when toying with success, things would somehow falter for the Riverhounds, even back in some of the franchise’s promising early years.
The club’s best season in its history came in 2004. After leaving the A-League, they stormed to a 17-2-1 record in the regular season, then winning a playoff two-leg aggregate home-and-away ‘series’ against former Keystone Derby rivals, Harrisburg City Islanders. Even with the better record, the primitive third-division USL league sent them to play the Utah Blitzz on the road in the league semifinal, where they lost 1-0.
That would be the closest the Riverhounds would come in 20 years to sniffing a professional league title.
Fast-forwarding back to 2017, Brandt’s pro coaching tenure ended on a USL / US Soccer stipulation that required coaches to have an A-Licence, that November. Without an A-license, Brandt was out, and Hounds owner Tuffy Shallenberger didn’t waste any time bringing in another USL Hall of Famer, Bob Lilley, quickly signing the long-time successful coach as the Rochester Rhinos franchise was about to cease operations due to major financial problems.
Even from afar, when his teams dominated the Riverhounds, Lilley never sensed anything wrong, or any metaphoric dark clouds hanging over Highmark Stadium. From his first press conference, Lilley believed that he could build a winner in Pittsburgh, and spoke glowingly about the resources and investment made by the Hounds organization to grow soccer in this region.
Lilley’s impact was immediate. The Hounds became a top three club in the Eastern Conference in his first season in Pittsburgh, as they were seemingly in position to finally have some postseason success. As the Hounds earned its first home playoff match in Highmark Stadium history, a post season win seemed inevitable.
As a three seed in an eight team Eastern Conference field, Pittsburgh hosted cross-state USL foes Bethlehem Steel FC, the sixth seed, and much like the match against NYRBII in 2015, the Hounds couldn’t hold on to 1-0, and 2-1 leads in a match that was played in terrible conditions, with the wind and rain making things difficult for the record crowd of more than 5,000 fans to stick it out.
For Pittsburgh, unable to put the game away twice, would see its turnaround season and potential for that elusive post-season win boil down to penalty kicks.
Steel FC completed the upset, 8-7 in PKs, and the Hounds had to endure a long off season, still waiting for that first playoff win in the Highmark Stadium and modern USL eras.
“It was so unfortunate. It was a sad way to go out,” Kevin Kerr, the longest tenured Hound, who has been through a lot with the franchise, in 2013 and 2015, and has felt the heartbreak in different ways multiple times. “Especially to go to seven PK’s. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, if you make first seven PKs, you’re going to come out of it with a win. Now, we just have to work hard to get back in that position again.”
Same old Hounds? More progress was made, only to have been dealt more post season heartbreak?
Or, was this most recent postseason failure just part of the process, and a blip in the club’s overall progression under Lilley?
REVERSING THE TREND
From the moment that playoff match ended last October in painstaking defeat, Lilley remained focused on his mission to get Pittsburgh to the next level and make an additional step forward in his second year in Pittsburgh.
Among his many past successful coaching tenures, Lilley’s second seasons with clubs have seen high water marks.
In Vancouver, he won the A-League in his second season, and in his second season in his return to Rochester, with a few current Hounds (Kenardo Forbes and Steevan Dos Santos) on the roster, Lilley’s Rhinos won the USL Cup in 2015.
A closer look at the 2018 regular season, Lilley’s Hounds finished on fumes, ending the season with just one win in its final five matches. The Hounds started last September closest to FC Cincinnati, and even had the front-runners on the ropes in Cincy on Labor Day weekend, leading 1-0 late in the match. In the final 10 minutes, MLS-bound FCC blew past Pittsburgh for a 2-1 win.
Second half defensive lapses and one of the league’s worst conversion rates compounded a much-improved Pittsburgh’s squad’s remaining shortcomings.
Under Lilley, the club’s culture changed. Success became the standard. Yet, they were still not quite there yet.
Like a mad scientist looking for a secret formula, Lilley started building a roster last November. Among his goals, was to have a squad that would get stronger down the stretch. There were many positive foundations already in place, as Lilley returned a core group of 10 players from the 2018 roster.
Lilley outlined a lot of what he wanted to do at the beginning of the off season, as chronicled here on Pittsburgh Soccer Now.
Although it couldn’t compare to the disastrous starts in 2014 or 2016, this season didn’t start out very promising.
After 11 matches, the Hounds were 2-2-7.
Some of the team’s closest followers were doubting some of Lilley’s moves. (i.e. – why trade away Christiano Francois for cash considerations, then sign Steevan Dos Santos — some questioned at the time). The Hounds were immediately better in one area where they were very poor a year ago: goal conversion rate. Even through this inauspicious start to the season that left them as low as 12th place in May and June, Pittsburgh were scoring goals at a greater rate, and getting contributions from a variety of players.
Neco Brett, who scored 15 goals in 2018, remains the team’s most consistent finisher, but suddenly contributions were coming from others, including Dos Santos, Kerr, hometown hero Robbie Mertz and both center backs, Tobi Adewole and Joe Greenspan were contributing on set pieces. Some of the defensive lapses lingering from 2018, returned early in the season, but that was in part due to Pittsburgh’s willingness to play more open-ended soccer that led to a slew of 2-2 results.
And orchestrating things as a versatile box-to-box midfielder, Kenardo Forbes made his case for an USL MVP season.
When the season’s second half began, Pittsburgh really dialed things up a notch defensively. Aside from a 5-0 debacle at North Carolina, playing on just two days rest and with 10 men in the second half, Pittsburgh has been the toughest team in the USL Championship to score goals against, leading the league in clean sheets (17) and third least goals conceded (30). They went on a seven-game match streak without giving up a single goal. In its final 11 matches, they allowed just two goals.
Since that result in North Carolina, the Hounds have been a team on a mission. Lilley’s attention to detail, roster management, tactical decisions and his players commitment to buying into what he’s selling has come together nicely as season two has evolved, much like it did in his other coaching tenures.
It really has been a momentous year for the Hounds organization, which has embraced its 20th Anniversary celebration — and deservedly so. Being around this long in the unpredictable and ever-forming American soccer landscape, is an achievement. This milestone season has also brought more progress. A new training facility is in the works, in partnership with Allegheny Health Network. Shallenberger has hinted at potential expansion to the stadium now that the Hounds have purchased the land at Station Square where Highmark Stadium sits.
Do you know what would be a nice addition ?
A league trophy and banner or two.
Another feather in the club’s cap this season was finishing unbeaten at Highmark Stadium with a 10-0-7 record in home league matches — plus two additional wins in the U.S. Open Cup at Highmark Stadium run the Hounds to 19 total matches at home without a loss.
Now, the road to the USL Cup Final through the Eastern Conference runs through Pittsburgh.
Of course, the end goal for Lilley, owner Shallenberger, and the tightly bonded group of players — and its most loyal supporters between the Steel Army and the Pittsburgh area’s loyal soccer fans would be to see the Hounds lift the USL Cup.
Finishing at the top of the table in the 2019 USL Championship’s Eastern Conference, ahead of 17 clubs, is a monumental achievement and should be celebrated. Sunday’s night’s celebration after clinching first-overall was certainly warranted.
Make no mistake though. This team has some unfinished business.
“I’m proud of the season the guys had,” head coach Bob Lilley said. “I think we’re worthy being Eastern Conference champs for the regular season. Now we have to turn our attention to the playoffs. It was a good close to the season, but the point is to have the best chance at playoff time. The work starts now as we get ready for these individual games heading into the playoffs.”
Your 'At the Airport After Winning the East Victory Selfie' featuring Mr. Bob Lilley!
— Steel Army (@SteelArmy) October 21, 2019
They’re within reach of the promised land.
Now is the time for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC to exorcise its past post-season demons.