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View From The Booth: Playoffs to come, but let’s toast the champs

Pause to appreciate what we can consider the best team in franchise history.

Raise a glass ... before the playoff nerves set in. - ED THOMPSON

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

So, who’s going to sew the banner?

I’d do it, but my needlepoint skills leave much to be desired.

I write this column with the full knowledge that the postseason title is what all involved with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC are after, but let’s just take a breath before the madness sets in ahead of Saturday’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal match at Highmark Stadium.

Over the final 23 matches of the season — more than two-thirds of the schedule — the Hounds went 17-2-4. That’s 2.39 standings points per game, or 0.1 per game more than what Phoenix Rising FC pulled off over the full season.

Full credit to Phoenix for taking home the USL Championship Shield, by the way. They did it over the long haul, but the Hounds deserve almost as much love.

In my mind, Mark Forrest’s looping header Sunday evening in Alabama did more than clinch the top seed in the East bracket and lock up home-field advantage for the first three rounds. That goal secured a legitimate championship.

And as I found out Tuesday when I dropped by the Hounds’ first training of Playoff Season, I’m not alone in that point of view.

“They’ve won a championship,” manager Bob Lilley said. “That’s not going to be taken away from us. We’re going to give the guys credit, regardless. They deserve to have that in their back pocket. I’m proud of the guys.”

As you might imagine, Lilley went on to quickly reiterate how important the next four weeks could be for this franchise, both on and off the field, but it was quite refreshing to hear the bench boss allow for a moment of jubilation before switching back into his usual preparation mode.

I don’t treat playoffs with contempt, but I have long believed that regular-season success should be treated at least on the level with what happens after that. If you’re a fan of soccer, a sport that respects the full schedule more than most, you might not need much convincing of that, but I’m putting it out there anyway.

While the playoffs (in theory) include only the better teams, the regular season presents the biggest challenge human beings can face: The battle for consistency. Is there anything more difficult in sports than being at one’s best game after game after game?

I’d argue no. I’m most impressed by teams and athletes that can pull that off, or at least come close.

“That’s the value of the 34 (games), to show the quality of the group,” Lilley said. “We had 34 games to grow, to mature, to build belief in the group. To build adaptability in the group. To know all the ways we’re going to score goals. To know all the ways we’re going to get shutouts.

“The 34 games was to build these things into the team, and for them to gel and pull together, so in the biggest moments, they would be more prepared.”

To Lilley’s point, what happens in the regular season matters when the stakes are highest. It’s about forming winning habits, and not expecting to ‘flip the switch’ for the postseason. That’s another reason why I’m applauding the 19-win, 68-point, seven-month performance.

What’s more, considering how the USL Championship was set up this year, with each team playing a completely balanced schedule within its conference, there were essentially two different leagues playing concurrently.

A cap tip to Phoenix, bu the Hounds could only play who they played, and they came out on top after 34 matchdays. That’s banner-worthy in my eyes, enough to put this group even with many of the great pro teams we’ve seen pass through these parts.

Even if you’re more of a stickler for the preeminence of postseason titles, you still have to include the Hounds in the category with great Pittsburgh teams like the 2004 Steelers, the 1992-93 Penguins and the 1990-91 Pirates, all of which reigned supreme in their respective leagues after the regular season was put in the history books.

Yes, I called all those teams ‘great.’

Regardless of what happens after, it takes greatness to stand on top of the mountain after the round-robins are over. For me, that’s the best way to determine the best team in a given season, even though I understand the entertainment factor that keeps playoffs a viable method for hooking fans and selling merchandise.

But for a moment, before this whole endeavor comes down to a 20-team, single-elimination bracket, let’s all do what the Steel Army did Monday evening at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

Let’s pay tribute to a champion. At least for a few more hours.

“A lot of people are extremely excited,” Lilley said. “I think it’s a good accomplishment, but at the end of the day, we don’t want to just settle for a good regular season.

“That’s what I’m most excited about this year. I think we’re all looking forward to the challenge.”

So, congratulations to the 19th edition of the local club, just the second group of Riverhounds to ever finish on top of a division or conference. Factoring in the increased talent level in the USL Championship these days, it’s no stretch to say this is already the best team in franchise history.

Now we get to find out if they’ll make more history. Hey, what else would you rather be doing this time of year?

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.

Riverhounds MF Danny Griffin

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