Thus far, this has been a bit of a tough off season for the loyal Riverhounds SC fan base.
It’s not what some were probably expecting following a season with a lot of positive momentum, as Pittsburgh finished at the top of the table of the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference and attendance was as good as it’s ever been in the Highmark Stadium era. It seemed as if many fan expectations were that the core of the club’s roster would stay intact.
It started out that way.
The club waited until after a few days after the November 30 deadline to announce the eight players who’s contacts they would pick up, with a solid core of returnees, including All-USL First Team midfielder Kenardo Forbes, Steevan Dos Santos, Robbie Mertz, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Dani Rovira, Anthony Verlarde, Mark Forrest and Ryan James.
Following that announcement, the month of December and early January has only brought one signing — Lukas Fernandes — who impressed Bob Lilley and the Hounds coaching staff during invitational tryouts.
There were other players who didn’t have a significant impact on the 2019 roster, who’s option years were not picked up. Among those, Uchenna Uzo (Chattanooga / League One) and Christian Volesky (Colorado Springs / USL) have already signed elsewhere.
Watching some of the best Hounds players who were out of contract sign elsewhere though, has been the biggest blow to many Pittsburgh soccer fans.
Right there, the Hounds will be losing its two center backs, a defensive midfielder who was part of the regular lineup, its starting goal keeper and its leading scorer from the past two seasons.
Loved Joe & Neco for the @RiverhoundsSC, didn’t love on field Kyle but he had some moments. For those @SteelArmy & other fans thinking sky is falling…this is extremely big for @USLChampionship and shows huge progress for league. In @Tuffy_Shall we trust!
— Bryce Davis III (@BLDavisIII) December 24, 2019
Damn! Just heard Joe Greenspan signed with San Diego. He was my favorite @RiverhoundsSC player. I have faith that Bob Lilley and company will put together a competitive team, but No Nico Brett or Joe Greenspan it could take me awhile to warm up to the new squad.
— Hiltongnar412 (@hiltongnar412) December 24, 2019
During Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s sit down with Hounds coach Bob Lilley in December, as you might imagine, the veteran coach appeared to be very well prepared this very scenario, and admitted he wasn’t going to move too quickly on making too many roster additions unless it made sense.
For the most part, despite frustrations being aired out on social media platforms, the Hounds fan base has a lot of faith in the man making all soccer-related decisions for the club.
Final Thoughts of 2019:
– This has been an amazing year. Let's not take the good times for granted.
– USL has made some great strides the past few years. It's still a garage league.
– Where's AMO?
– In Bob We Trust
– Yinz be responsible tonight#UNLEASH
— Steel Army (@SteelArmy) January 1, 2020
The New Year has come — and still there haven’t been any additional roster signing, but alas, there will be signings. Lilley can’t go into the beginning of preseason, starting February 1, with only nine players signed to the roster.
Club officials confirmed that the Hounds will be making signing announcements before camp opens, “likely sooner rather than later.”
With the MLS SuperDraft concluding this past weekend, the pool of available players has widened a bit more, and will expand even more after MLS camps start to make their first waves of roster cuts, Lilley and his staff will be very busy.
This year, more than ever, Lilley will have to rely on his ability to find players between now and mid-March who will fit into his scheme. If you look at the Hounds roster from the past two seasons, you’ll find plenty of players who were significant contributors those seasons, that came in late.
The bottom line, is that Lilley has produced rosters that had successful, winning seasons. Hounds fans should have plenty of faith, and should enjoy the process of seeing how this year’s squad will come together.
February / March / April Roster additions in 2018 & 2019
- Neco Brett
- Dennis Chin
- Mohammad Dabo
- Prosper Figbe
- Mark Forrest
- Joe Holland
- Bakie Goodman
- Ethan Kutler
- Andy Lubhan
- Robbie Mertz
- Todd Pratzner
- Hugh Roberts
- Caleb Smith
- Uchenna Uzo
- Thomas Vancaeyezeele
- Ben Zemanski
Early thoughts on 2020 schedule (by month)
at Charlotte (14th), vs Lou City (21st), at Tampa (27th)
What a surprise — the Hounds open the season on the road. This is the case for the third straight season. The last time Pittsburgh opened the season at home was in 2017, against NY Red Bulls II, in that wild 3-3 affair. Charlotte brings back Jorge Herrera, Hugh Roberts and Brandon Miller to a club that clearly underachieved in 2019. Under veteran coach Mike Jeffries, they could very well be starting the 2020 season a chip on its shoulders.
Home opener vs Louisville City FC. It shouldn’t take much for the Hounds and its fans to get up for this one. Last season’s home opener was played before 5,000 plus fans. Anything less would be a disappointment for the Hounds.
Last year, the Hounds traveled early in the season to Tampa, and were clearly outplayed by the Rowdies. They have a Friday night encounter at Al Lang Stadium, and something tells me it will be equally challenging.
Finishing the abbreviated March schedule with at least six points would be a decent start.
vs Birmingham Legion FC (4th), Tues-Thurs, April 7-9 – Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – 2nd Round, @Sporting Kansas City II (11th), vs Loudoun United FC (18th), Tues-Thurs, April 21-23 – Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – 3rd Round, vs Saint Louis FC (25th).
Neco Brett returns to Pittsburgh in the second home game of the season, then the Hounds will get a good look at its roster depth as the Open Cup will provide mid-week opportunities early in the season for Lilley to take a deeper look at his squad. Winning both rounds in April will test the Hounds roster depth, but can also provide important minutes for everyone on the roster early in the season. Only playoff teams from 2019 on the April schedule include Birmingham and Saint Louis, who finished 9th and 10th in Eastern Conference a year ago. This should be an opportunity to build points. Anything less than 10 points will be disappointing for Lilley’s crew.
@North Carolina FC (2nd), Philadelphia Union II (9th), Memphis 901 FC (16th), Tues-Thurs, May 20-22 – Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – 3rd Round, @New York Red Bulls II (23rd), Hartford Athletic (30th)
A pretty busy month again, with only one potential weekday match if the Hounds can advance to the third round of the Open Cup, most likely against a MLS club. More teams on the schedule that had disappointing 2019 seasons fill the May schedule. North Carolina should be a tough challenge on the road, as they were a year ago, but Union II, Memphis 901 FC and Hartford were all non-playoff teams in 2019, and the Hounds will have them at home. The clash vs Hartford on the 30th will be on the fifth anniversary of the ‘Miracle on the Mon’.
@Miami FC (7th), @Philadelphia Union II (14th), @Atlanta United 2 (17th), @Loudoun United FC (21st), Indy Eleven (27th)
Four straight road matches in June will test the Hounds as they approach mid-season. Traveling to Miami, then a three-game in seven day stretch in Philly, Atlanta (in June!) and Loudoun, is going to be tough. Again, the Hounds will need to dip to its roster to get through this stretch. Plus, at the end they finally see Indy Eleven, then follow that up with a trip to Louisville. We’ll really see where they stand after those back-to-back matches against two clubs that have (on paper) a lot of returning players to rosters that finished high in the standings in 2019.
@Louisville City FC (July 1), North Carolina FC (July 4), @Birmingham Legion FC (July 11), @Charleston Battery (July 18), Charlotte Independence
The brutal stretch continues early into 2020. A trip to Louisville City’s new stadium, then playing the Fourth of July match only three days later, then two more road matches through the South. No way to sugar coat it. That’s freaking brutal stretch from early June through mid-July. The month ends with a date at home vs Charlotte.
Loudoun United FC (Aug 1), @Memphis 901 FC (Aug 5), New York Red Bulls II (Aug 8), Tampa Bay Rowdies (Aug 23), Sporting Kansas City II (Aug 29).
The schedule gets a bit more favorable in August, as the Hounds will be home for four of the five league matches. However, there a final mid-week match, again on the road, that lurks on August 5 between two home games. There’s also a rare Sunday home match, against Tampa Bay. What nice here, is there’s a bit of a break of 15 days between games. They’ll need that.
@Philadelphia Union II (Sept 4), @Hartford Athletic (Sept 9), Atlanta United 2 (Sept 13), @Indy Eleven (Sept 19)
This is the wonkiest combination of days of the week we’ve seen on the Hounds schedule in a long time. They’ll play a Friday, Wednesday, Sunday stretch through the first three games of September. That’s right, they’ll have a second Sunday home match. With the Steelers schedule yet to be released, it will be interesting to see how things shake out with the match times for those Sundays. Again, the Hounds have a decent break in the schedule between Sept. 19 and October 3, unless make-up games get added.
October & November
@Saint Louis FC (October 3), Miami FC (October 9), Charleston Battery (October 17)
Closing the season out at home is nice. The Hounds will close out the 2020 season, as long as things go well, playing for playoff positioning with an advantage of being at Highmark Stadium.
Here’s the USL Championship playoff schedule:
Oct. 21 – Eastern and Western Conference Wild Card Round
Oct. 24-25 – Eastern and Western Conference Quarterfinals
Oct. 30-Nov. 1 – Eastern and Western Conference Semifinals
Nov. 6-8 – Eastern and Western Conference Finals
Nov. 12-16 – 2020 USL Championship Final