The engine that powered the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC to the top seed in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference and 20 consecutive unbeaten home matches ran out of gas, as the Hounds dropped a gutting, 2-1 extra-time decision to Louisville City in the Eastern Conference semifinal round.
The Hounds earned an early 1-0 lead on a set-piece goal, but conceded once in the 51st minute and again in the 118th minute, a gutting end to perhaps the most promising season in the franchise’s 20-year tenure.
Though the game remained within reach until the final moments, the Louisville goal seemed inevitable as Pittsburgh grew more and more weary.
Louisville finished the match with 60.7% of the possession. Pittsburgh’s midfield dynamos were gassed by the end of it.
Kevin Kerr played 74 minutes before being substituted for Steevan Dos Santos. With the big forward making an inviting target, the Hounds played more direct than they had in the early parts of the match when they were pressuring Louisville’s back line.
Trying to spring Dos Santos for an opportune moment wasn’t a winning tactic in the eyes of head coach Bob Lilley.
“When we played forward, we didn’t close the spaces,” Lilley said. “So every ball that spit out, they were picking those up and turning them into transition moments. That’s a big part of the game, when it’s that competitive: winning second balls, getting recoveries in the midfield.”
What has made the Hounds’ midfield so good has been the ability of players like Mouhamed Dabo, Kenardo Forbes, Kerr and Robbie Mertz to make the middle of the field an impassible piece of terrain with their skill and work rate.
Kerr expended a lot of energy playing at the top of the Hounds’ 5-3-2 formation, a rare spot for him this season, but the remainder of that midfield core played the full 120 minutes.
Lilley choose to keep them on the field, and not use fresher legs, citing an unwillingness to take out trusted penalty kick takers, like Forbes and the team’s leading scorer Neco Brett. Both men showed some signs of slowing down, and not closing out 50/50 balls later in the match as they did earlier.
Against a team as talented as Louisville that are a precise passing unit, with tons of players with playoff experience, a full 120 minutes of chasing took its toll.
“We said we have to be able to pressure them and disrupt their rhythm, which we did a good job for most of the game,” Lilley said. “I think we ran out of gas at the end. I said, ‘To do that, we’re going to have to have possession spells with the ball,’ And I don’t think we did.”
Forbes, wearing the captain’s armband, put that failure on himself.
“We didn’t execute the game plan,” Forbes said. “We didn’t keep the ball enough. That’s on us as players. That’s on me as the midfielder to get us possession and I didn’t do that today.”
With the Riverhounds chasing and chasing, it was only a matter of time before the visitors found a seam in that midfield wall of hard work and grit.
Former Riverhounds forward Brian Ownby, who came on as a substitute in the 60th minute, used his speed to attack down Pittsburgh’s left side. His grounded cross in the 118th minute skipped through Forbes’ legs and found Abdou Thiam. After a Kyle Morton save, Paolo DelPiccolo deposited the rebound into the back of the net with his forehead, essentially finishing the Hounds’ 2019 season.
Lilley finally did use a second sub, Mark Forrest, who came on immediately after the DelPiccolo goal. It proved to be too little, too late.
“It’s disappointing. We had a great season,” Lilley said. “We didn’t play well tonight in any phase. … We tried to jam it down one side, we turned it over and they countered.”
The 2019 season will likely be looked upon fondly by the supporters of the club, with the team’s second regular season conference championship, a 20-match home unbeaten streak and a thrilling, 7-0 first-round playoff victory.
But despite reaching new heights as a franchise, the season ended on a sour note.
“It doesn’t do us any justice at the end of the day,” Forbes said. “It’s a good season, but we didn’t achieve the ultimate goal.”
Look for more end-of-season reaction from Pittsburgh Soccer Now in the coming days
Post-Game with Kenardo Forbes and Thomas Vancaeyezeele