In their final tuneup before Saturday’s opening round match against Birmingham Legion FC, the team looked relaxed and ready to start the playoffs. With home-field advantage, against a 10th-seeded team that had to play a mid-week play-in game, the Hounds certainly have reason to feel confident. Add to that the fact that Pittsburgh is riding a phenomenal 11-game unbeaten streak, and you can understand why the overall mood was expectant and strong at training.
“There’s definitely a good buzz with the guys” said Assistant Coach Dan Visser. The staff wanted to feed into that atmosphere that the goal was to keep everyone focus and not switch up what has been working so well lately. Visser continued, “Our work as coaches is to keep it a normal game and not do anything too different than what we are used to doing.”
Midfielder Anthony Velarde, in his first year with the club, expanded on that idea. “We believe in ourselves more than in the begin of the season. We want to go to training and get the work in.”
He added that the success they’ve had, coupled with the overall cohesion of the team over the season, has put them all in an ideal head-space for the playoffs.
“We have good vibes now. We need to be pushing even more than at the beginning of the season.”
Add to that calm cool confidence the excitement of playing before a likely-sellout home crowd in a town that’s been starved for a championship-caliber team of any sort since 2009, and you’re talking about a megaton of pent-up energy that the players are excited to tap into.
Velarde told us, “The players have been saying ‘oh it’s going to be a sold-out crowd.’ I talked to the veterans and they were saying ‘you’re not even going to be able to hear yourself tomorrow. It’s going be awesome. The energy you get from the crowd, it’s amazing. The whole team is ready for it. We’re excited for it. And we’re prepared for it.”
Sure, the Hounds got booted from the USL playoffs in the first round in 2018. But nobody’s talking about that this year; the past is dead. Take the team’s preparation and confidence, the strong locker room atmosphere, the recent hot streak, a tired Birmingham Legion team, and add the nitro fuel of a banging crowd, and the cosmos seems aligned in a good way for Riverhounds SC’s first playoff match of 2019.
Firstly, throw out the Riverhounds result against the Legion on the road last week. The Hounds staff thinks it won’t portend anything for this match.
Riverhounds head coach Bob Lilley pointed out several reasons for that. For one, the Legion rested a number of their regular starters last Sunday after it was assured that they had clinched the final playoff spot in the USL Eastern Conference. And for another thing, the match last week in Birmingham was fluky, with the Riverhounds producing 24 shots to Birmingham’s paltry 3 shots, and yet the Hounds couldn’t find a winner until the final minute of the match, escaping with a 1-0 victory.
Coach Visser explained the oddness of it. “We’ve had games where we created fewer chances and scored a lot more goals. We created a lot of chances in that game, and for those not to go in is just the way soccer is sometimes. The lesson from that game is: keep grinding, keep creating chances, keep coming. We’ve used the phrase ‘keep turning the screws’.”
So how will Birmingham look, then?
Lilley isn’t taking his opponent lightly at all. “They have an experienced coach, they have experienced players, and they have quality. I think Birmingham is in good form, and they’re confident.”
Coach Lilley thinks that Legion FC are particularly on set pieces – corners and free kicks – where they’ve got some big bodies that can bang in headed goals. “They’re physical, they’re big, with JJ Williams, with Bryan Wright but also Femi Hollinger-Jansen.”
Visser also noted that in last weeks game, Birmingham defending fiercely in the middle but conceded the wings. “They’re a team that likes to set up to take away the middle of the field. The way that the game played out, we took advantage of the wide areas. We’ve got some good wide play from Jordan Dover and Ryan James this year. If they’re gonna give us that then we’re going to take advantage of it. But we can play through the middle of the field. We always like to take what the game gives us.”
But wait, there’s more.
Lilley added, “Their pace in transition is very good. They have explosive guys off the dribble: Prosper Kasim, Daniel Johnson; those guys are quick good on the dribble. How you defend that type of speed is through good team defending, good cover.”
That doesn’t really affect the way Bob wants the Hounds to play. He wants to beat teams the way they always do – dictate the terms of the game, possess the ball, create good final-third movement and attacks.
“If they’re playing deep and defending, I don’t think necessarily is going to be by design. I think it’s because we have the ball. And they’re comfortable countering with the pace they have in transition.”
“They’re not going to try and steal the game. They have enough quality. We’re going to have to play.”
Visser added that the team’s greatest advantage over Birmingham is Bob Lilley himself.
“I’m a big believer in our head coach and in the adjustments he’s able to make, and I’ll take him against any coach in the league.
All the Hounds were in training and healthy, except for Todd Pratzner, who we noted last week will be out for the duration of the playoffs with a broken cheekbone.
Anthony Velarde added something that I sometimes forget when it comes to the playoffs: a loss means you might be breaking up the band. “I played in the NCAA Division II playoffs. So I have some idea of the mentality and the pressure. When you play at a high level, you understand that you lose you go home, and you don’t get to play with some of these players again. So cherish the moment. Cherish that you guys are in this together; that you’ve made it this far. This sport, you never know where life takes you.”
“There’s no secret the USL is kind of on a year-to-year basis. That’s just how this league is. We’ve worked our asses off to be at this point, and to be the top team on the Eastern side. We’re looking to go forward and reach the final.”
It reminded me of a moment in the aftermath of the New York Red Bulls 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Union last week. Luis Robles took a moment to embrace Bradley Wright-Phillips, and it was evident that both players seemed uncertain if either would be with the team again in 2020.
Saturday night hopefully won’t be the end of the year for these players, but remember that the players on the losing end of the match might also be thinking about moving trucks and trialing opportunities when the final whistle blows.