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View From The Booth: Hounds left to grapple with hard truths

Pardon my sourness, but I’m going to need the winter to recover from that.

Steevan Dos Santos (below) suffers an injury Saturday night. - ED THOMPSON

View From The Booth: Hounds left to grapple with hard truths

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

Bob Lilley was right. In an Eastern Conference semifinal showdown with two-time champ Louisville, his Hounds were no underdogs.

Unfortunately, with favorite status comes a bigger fall when things go wrong, as they did Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.

All those well-wishes — both on social media and IRL — are obviously deserved for the 20th-anniversary edition of Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. Not only did the team win a division or conference for the first time since 2004, it ended that equally-long postseason hex, too.

Throw in the two biggest crowds in venue history for the two playoff games and that’s enough pioneering to risk contracting dysentery.

Seriously, bravo. To all involved with the franchise, from owner Tuffy Shallenberger on down to the guy who hangs up the kits for matchday.

But I keep coming back to something Robbie Mertz said before that Birmingham blowout. The rookie pro seemed to grasp the nature of the opportunity at hand, even if it was just his first lap around the USL Championship.

“We know as pros that nothing’s guaranteed in this business,” Mertz told me. “A lot of guys go their whole careers and struggle to get into the position we’re in right now, so it’s pretty special.”

It’s that sentiment that holds me back from projecting sunshine and rainbows across Hounds Nation.

To have the chance to host four playoff games in four weeks isn’t something to be taken lightly. The fact the Hounds only got halfway to that potential — or a quarter of the way, depending on your perspective — feels to me like a disappointment more than anything. We’re four days on now and I’m still not in a celebratory mood.

I have to imagine the players and coaches predominantly feel this way, too, at least for now. As Pittsburgh’s own aptly put it, this kind of pathway to a postseason crown might come around a couple of times a generation, if a franchise is both well-run and fortunate.

Regardless of who the opposition is, losing in the second round as a No. 1 seed is a letdown. As Lilley laid out matter-of-factly after Lou City slipped out of town with a hard-earned ‘W,’ anytime you lose at home in the postseason, it’s a failure.

Furthermore, the way it went down Saturday on the South Side was disconcerting.

The Hounds were supposed to be the team that wore down the opponent, not vice versa. The Hounds were supposed to have that finishing kick, like what we saw in their last three road games, when they rallied for a trio of encouraging wins with strong second halves.

For whatever reason, that wasn’t there last Saturday. Perhaps we should’ve seen it coming after the Pittsburgh-Louisville regular-season meeting in early September, when the defending champs took over late despite missing a few key players due to injury and international duty.

But I convinced myself that Pittsburgh would be able to learn from that and make the adjustment. Come Saturday, though, they couldn’t stay on the attack, and all that chasing became deadly in the end.

Maybe they could have held the ball more, if only Steevan Dos Santos was capable of playing a full 90 (or 120) minutes. His brand of hardworking hold-up play could’ve bought some time and saved some energy for his teammates, but that scenario sadly wasn’t to be. Ironic that a team largely devoid of significant injuries for seven months would have a crucial one pop up for the toughest game of the year.

Maybe they could have matched Louisville’s energy in the second half and extra time if Lilley had enough trust in Anthony Velarde, Noah Franke or Dani Rovira to deploy one or more of them off the bench. For what it’s worth, Lilley himself seemed to be second-guessing his substitution decisions in the immediate aftermath.

As the season went along and the Hounds kept piling up results, most of them with tight margins, I was increasingly convinced the team would be ready to execute once the nip-and-tuck games arrived in the postseason. Certainly I’m not going to take away anything for the demolition of Birmingham, but it’s a shame the Hounds didn’t get one of those classic tough playoff victories under their belt this fall.

In that way — on top of the fact that they’re going to watch the USL Championship Final like the rest of us — this postseason run just feels glaringly incomplete.

I suppose we can start writing the to-do list for next year, but that’s a long way away right now. This ending stings, as great of a season as it was overall.

What’s more, as the Hounds shift gears from the up-and-comers to the established contenders, it’s not going to get any easier. The honeymoon is over. The hard work remains.

I realize it’s not fashionable to pout, but I’m going to need the winter to recover.

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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