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View From The Booth: Spirits, expectations both high for leveled-up Hounds

The arrival of a new decade brings an honest-to-goodness excitement, but also raised standards to live up to.

Bob Lilley (center) speaks at the Riverhounds' 2020 media day. -- MARK ASHER GOODMAN

View From The Booth: Spirits, expectations both high for leveled-up Hounds

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC play-by-play broadcaster since 2015, Matt Gajtka brings his perspective on the sport in his ‘View From The Booth’ commentary. 

What happens after The Big Season?

That’s the question about to be answered by the 21st edition of Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, and it’s got me equal parts excited and anxious.

If you’re familiar with Bob Lilley‘s coaching history, you know that his second season with a club typically produces hardware. And in many ways, 2019 did bear copious tangible fruit — from a club-record 19 wins and a regular-season Eastern Conference championship to a league-best 55 percent attendance increase, headlined by two overflow crowds for playoff showdowns.

The objective of raising the USL Championship title trophy still sits unfulfilled, but there’s ample reason to believe the Hounds have never been closer to accomplishing that.

“I feel good,” a grinning Lilley said definitively after the team’s final preseason match, a nil-nil draw against Toronto FC II at Highmark Stadium last Saturday afternoon.

The Hounds’ third-year boss was referring to the state of his team entering this Saturday’s season-opener at Charlotte, but it was hard not to project that sunny feeling on the organization as a whole.

After having attended three off-field events over the past couple of weeks — the team’s media day, the Steel Army annual meeting and the season-ticket holder kickoff — I’m content in stating that, with the possible exception of the inaugural season of 1999, there’s never been more organic energy surrounding the start of a Hounds season.

Even in 2013, the seminal opening year of the Highmark Stadium Era, that buzz was as much about the facility as it was the team on the pitch, if not more so.

That new-venue smell doesn’t linger any more on the South Side, but it’s been replaced with an aura more profound: Honest-to-goodness excitement about the soccer club and where it might go from here.

Of course, none of these proclamations will matter much without the team (and organization at large) continuing to grow and progress, but there’s no doubt there’s an elevated starting point for this season compared to the 20 that have preceded it.

There are two sides to every position, though. With elevation comes expectation.

You might have noticed that the Hounds finished their exhibition schedule with six straight winless games (0-2-4). For those who are concerned about a repeat of 2019’s 2-2-7 start, it hasn’t appeared ideal.

But, as you might’ve gathered from Lilley’s opening statement above, the man going into his 20th year as a pro soccer head coach isn’t getting bogged down by the results of preseason play.

Lilley, whose teams have never failed to qualify for the playoffs, cited injuries to key returners Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Ryan James and Steevan Dos Santos as well as visa-related arrival delays for attackers Ropapa Mensah and Albert Dikwa.

“It’s hard to gauge it, because you don’t have all your players,” Lilley said. “Our (preseason) record is the worst of all three years, but I feel like we’re a better team now — and closer to doing what we need to be doing in the games — than last year’s team.”

In fact, Lilley actually cited last year’s 5-1-3 preseason record as a detriment to how the regular season started, because “experienced” players were able to generate results from a process that wasn’t so sound.

“I kinda saw it coming in the preseason,” Lilley said of the unsavory first couple of months. “I was on them to clean it up and travel together, but they kept winning so I was on the pay-no-mind list.”

Lilley smiled, and continued.

“It caught up to us. Until we got humbled in the first 11 games and, as a good group, they got around to buckling down and started winning.”

And they didn’t stop winning until Louisville City midfielder Paolo DelPiccolo‘s rebound header hit the back of Highmark’s east-side goal on an early-November evening. That multi-month surge into the shortlist of championship contenders is the main reason why many of us are expecting more winning nights on the South Side and elsewhere this season.

Even after the departures of the club’s top scorer from 2018-19, its all-time leader in minutes played, its No. 1 goalkeeper and the league’s defender of the year, you can’t deny the foundation that’s been built — or the fact that returning constants like Vancaeyezeele, James, Dos Santos, Robbie Mertz, Jordan Dover and Kenardo Forbes provide tangible reasons to believe.

Much work (and, hopefully, fun) lies ahead, but it’s time to accept the Hounds have leveled up, with all the benefits and pressures that come with it.

“I always tell the guys every year is different,” Lilley said. “You have to establish who you are. You don’t get anything from last year that carries over.

“It’s a new season. You have to do it.”

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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