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View From The Booth: Something completely different

Not only did the Hounds finally win a playoff game, they did it with style.

A striking Steel Army TIFO helped set the tone Saturday. - ED THOMPSON

View From The Booth: Something completely different

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

Every loyal fan, of every team, in every sport, should experience a night like Saturday at Highmark Stadium.

Of course, we know that’s not the reality, which makes the Seventh Heaven achieved against Birmingham Legion FC all the more savory for Riverhounds SC.

If any franchise in the modern USL knows that fairy tales aren’t real, it’s the Hounds. John Krysinsky aptly described the reasons why last week, but suffice it to say that Saturday ran as counter to historical trends as imaginable for this Pittsburgh Soccer Club.

You probably already knew about the eight-match, 15-year postseason losing streak, but there were some eerie similarities to last year’s quarterfinal elimination at the feet of Bethlehem Steel.

Not only was the weather nearly identical to the only other previous playoff game on the South Side, the Hounds were playing another team wearing black and gold with a steelworker motif, not to mention an athletic lineup with Major League Soccer pedigree.

In short, if you lean toward the nervous side of the temperament spectrum, you had plenty of reasons to be uneasy before the opening kick.

And then none of that mattered. At all.

Not only were the Hounds superior in essentially every way — especially in that gobsmacking first half — they also ran into a welcome, uncharacteristic vein of good fortune.

Each of their first four goals required a little luck. The post ricochet that hit Birmingham keeper Matt Van Oekel in the back, instead of landing safely outside the penalty area. The deadly deflection of Robbie Mertz‘s cross off Kyle Fisher‘s head. The rebound of Steevan Dos Santos‘ attempted entry pass to Neco Brett, giving ‘Duba’ a second chance. The penalty call on Van Oekel that could’ve easily gone unwhistled.

The Hounds took full advantage of every one of those breaks, which is what good teams do, if you can indulge the sports cliché. But you need a lot to go your way to win any pro soccer match 7-0, let alone a single-elimination playoff game.

We shouldn’t expect anything of the sort this coming Saturday, but if you’re a believer in this team’s championship potential, though, you have to appreciate the opportunity for the Hounds to show their mettle against Louisville City FC.

Not only have the boys in purple won back-to-back USL playoff titles, the franchise has never failed to make the Eastern Conference final in four previous seasons of existence. In 11 all-time postseason contests, Lou City has lost twice: In penalties to New York Red Bulls II in 2016, and 1-0 to Bob Lilley‘s Rochester Rhinos in 2015.

There will be plenty of analysis of the coming East semifinal matchup, but as much as I enjoy discussions on tactics and strategy and psychology, I still can’t get over what we saw last Saturday on the shores of the Mon.

Just go back one more time and listen to the reaction of the capacity-plus crowd when Brett’s first goal deflects into the Birmingham net.

Heck, listen to my reaction, and that of color analyst Paul Child. It’s a release of emotion the likes of which I’m not sure this franchise had experienced before:

I’m not ashamed to admit I fired off a Tiger Woods-like fist pump after that goal went in. Yes, the Hounds had two separate leads in last year’s playoff loss to Bethlehem, but this felt different, didn’t it?

Maybe it was just the accrued confidence in watching this team battle its way to the top of the East standings, or the thought that they wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, if they could just get that early lead.

Perhaps the players felt that, too, since they appeared to grow more sure of themselves by the minute, after they got their noses in front. As Mertz told me last week, these guys know they have a rare chance to do something special this postseason. Everything feels a little bigger when a title run could be in the balance.

That’s why all of us should remember Seven-Nil no matter what happens after this. That was the night championship dreams became a lot more tangible. Not only had the Hounds finally won another playoff game after eight empty attempts, they had done it with style and panache.

Yes, those were really the Riverhounds out there. Apologies to Monty Python, but that was something completely different. And boy was it ever fun.

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.

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