It was business as usual on Tuesday at Highmark Stadium for the Riverhounds SC, as the USL’s Eastern Conference top seed were preparing for its showdown with Louisville City FC with an intense session that wrapped-up with a rare, full-field simulated 11v11 game.
This will be a match between two clubs with players and coaches who have become very familiar with each other over the course of the past five years.
This time though, when they meet at Highmark Stadium on Saturday night, the stakes will be a lot higher.
While Pittsburgh has lost some of its traditional rivalries in the past year or two, the series with Louisville has evolved from its already interesting five-year history as both franchises have met recently in regular season with a lot on the line. Now, they’ll play in the most meaningful game in the history of the series.
The Hounds will be coming off an impressive first round playoff victory — a 7-0 throttling of expansion Birmingham Legion FC on Saturday.
Pittsburgh has set its sights on bringing about a change of the guard in the USL’s Eastern Conference. Louisville has reigned supreme — lifting the USL Cup the last two seasons — and reaching the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference finals in each of the previous four years of their existence going back to its inaugural season in 2015.
Taking a look at the most recent history between the two teams, since Bob Lilley’s taken over the reins as the Hounds’ head coach in 2018, Pittsburgh owns the only two wins in the series.
A year ago,the two teams battled at the top of the standings right behind front-running FC Cincinnati. Pittsburgh won the first match on the road early last season. After the teams battled to a wild, 2-2 draw at Highmark Stadium in September, Louisville City FC showed its championship resolve, pulling away from the Hounds in the standings to claim second overall, finishing as the hottest team in the league.
“They won their final six games, we didn’t,”Lilley said when reflecting with Pittsburgh Soccer Now a few weeks after the 2018 season ended. “They put the pressure on us, and we had to keep throwing up threes. Louisville had a busy schedule too. When we were settling for draws, they were getting mid-week wins. When they were using depth, rotating guys in and out — they were still getting wins and we were doing the same, we settled for draws.”
Saying Louisville City finished strong in 2018 may be an understatement, as they showed their championship mettle, staying hot and playing with confidence all the way to the USL Cup final, which they won for the second straight season.
“They found way to get it done,” Lilley acknowledged after last season. “And we didn’t. I believe next year’s (Hounds) team or core that’s been together will handle those moments little bit better. As staff we’ll have to approach things differently. Hopefully it’s not a trend. Generally, the trend for my teams is when in winning position, has been we have teams that don’t give games away. We did that in first half of season. I am sure we can get that mojo back. We have to look at what we can do better. Maturing as a group. Players and coaches.”
In year two of the Lilley era in Pittsburgh, the Hounds finally mastered the stretch run through September and October — capturing the top-overall spot in the Eastern Conference.
In the Hounds current impressive 12-match unbeaten streak, its most difficult match was against Louisville when the clubs played to a 0-0 draw at Highmark in September — a match where even Lilley and his players felt they were outplayed.
“Obviously when we played them here. That was one of the few games where we got a bit fortunate. Lot of points have been well-earned for us this year, but we left that game, thinking we let them have too much of the game, too much of the ball. Too many chances. They could have punished us,” Kevin Kerr, Riverhounds midfielder who’s been part of this series since it began in 2015, said. “We’re not taking them lightly. The experience they’ve had over the past two years just getting the job done. That’s something we have to match. They have that self-belief. They’ve done it twice.”
And Kerr paused, then added with a smile.
“But, we’re ready.”
Again, here comes Louisville. A strong possession-oriented club which plays well on the field turf at Highmark, Louisville are one of the few teams that have handled the Hounds high press. In five seasons competing with foes from westward up the Ohio River, the Hounds have never defeated Louisville City at Highmark Stadium, as all three wins in 12 contests have come at Slugger Field, a baseball park. Two of those aforementioned wins came in the past two years under Lilley. Prior to Lilley’s arrival in Pittsburgh, Louisville dominated,. The all-time series remains in City’s favor (5-3-4).
“They’re tough everywhere. Talk about getting everyone on the same page, they’ve been really good at that,” Dan Visser, Riverhounds SC assistant coach, said. “We even saw a group without a coach. A player led team for a stretch there (in 2018) as well. I think that’s the cohesiveness and leadership of those players. Maybe they weren’t quite as good for the first half of the season, but, no doubt, they’ve turned it on for the last 10 games or so, and has been as good as anyone.”
This season, like the Hounds did early in the season, Louisville lingered around the edge of the playoff line, including a losing to Pittsburgh in their first match at Slugger Field in early April.
“They had a similar year as us. I think it just took them a little longer to turn the corner,” Kerr acknowledged. “I think their back end of the season was as good as anyone. I’ll put it right up there with ours.”
The defending champs have been quite strong of late, finishing out the season with only one loss in its final six matches, against Nashville on short rest. On Saturday, in yet another home playoff match, they took a 2-0 lead, then held off a late charge from Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The combined postseason experience on LouCity’s roster may be the biggest advantage the team has over everyone in the playoffs. Louisville has 10 players currently on their roster that have won back-to-back titles with the team, something that its coach believes justifies his team’s supreme confidence.
“I’ve said it many times before that there’s a reason why we’re back-to-back champions,” John Hackworth, Louisville City FC’s head coach said to Louisville Courier. “The majority of the guys that (are) back-to-back champions are still in that locker room. They’re the most experienced at this time of the year navigating all the obstacles and opponents.”
In the previous four seasons, under the direction of James O’Connor, and now Hackworth, Louisville City have made a regular habit to reach the Eastern Conference finals.
“They’re not coming here to tie. Not coming to sit back. They’re coming to win,” Ryan James, Hounds outside back, said. “They’re capable of winning and we are also capable of winning, and this is our home field. We need to protect it, and come out with a win. There’s no other way to put it. You win, you go on. You lose, you’re out. We’re just thinking about winning. “
Bob Lilley’s Rochester Rhinos in 2015, and again, in 2017 had intense playoff battles with Louisville before Lilley landed in Pittsburgh, along with current Hounds Kenardo Forbes, Jordan Dover, James and Kyle Morton, they battled Louisville in a tense, 1-0 Eastern Conference semifinal match that went to overtime in 2017.
“I remember we came real close. It was 0-0 at halftime. We were thinking really good things coming into the locker room. We were saying ‘we got this, we got this,” James explained of a match where that Rochester team was on the front foot for much of the first half, holding a 9-2 edge in crosses.
Drawing off the energy of its home crowd at Slugger Field, a former Riverhound, and second-half substitute, Brian Ownby put home the game-winning goal in the 77th-minute to give the Louisville the win.
“That’s just how playoffs are. One moment you are thinking one thing, and everything’s going your way, then one bad pass. One bad moment. And the game can switch on you,” James added. “What we have to do is be ready for every moment. If things aren’t going well, look and see how can we make things go well.”
Hackworth and Lilley, who’ve both lifted USL Cups, will be prepared for another tense, tight affair.
Pittsburgh has not lost at home this season (13-0-7 in all games) and they’re hoping being at Highmark Stadium will give them the boost they’ll need to knock off the champs.
“Last week, it (playoff win) was a special, special night. One of the best since I’ve been here. There was so much energy, and we fed off it,” Kerr said. “This week, it’s going to be a much tougher game. Maybe last week, we would have gotten by either way, but this week, more than ever, we’re going to need that energy. Maybe the atmosphere can be that key factor.”