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Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Hounds Opener a Doozy, in more ways than one

“It’s a big game right out of the gate.”

Bob Lilley, Riverhounds SC head coach, was specifically referring to the importance of starting strong in the Hounds first match of the 2020 season. He was referring to how tough it will be to play a match against defending USL Eastern Conference champions Louisville City on Sunday. He was referring to the critical nature of every game in this shortened 16-game USL season.

I’m not sure he meant to call attention to the fact that the game will be the first match played with fans in attendance in the United States since the Covid-19 pandemic shut down American sports back in March.

But its a **very** big game for that reason as well.

Members of the media joined into a Zoom call on Wednesday to catch up with Lilley in advance of the Hounds long-delayed season opener, and someone ultimately broached the subject of the Louisville-Pittsburgh match having fans in attendance.

Lilley’s response was a balance of enthusiasm and diplomacy: “Not every venue is going to be ready to host fans, but Louisville is.”

Louisville City is going ahead with hosting fans in person for two significant reasons. First, LCFC has been anxiously awaiting the chance to open their all-new soccer-specific stadium, Lynn Family Stadium. The team broke ground on the facility in 2018 and the gates were slated to swing open to paying customers on April 11, 2020 against the Birmingham Legion. And now, three months delayed, they finally get to inaugurate their glittering new home ground.

Second, Louisville is opening up because they can. While Governor Tom Wolf declared that Pennsylvania sports teams must play without fans while the state is in the ‘green’ phase, Kentucky governor Andy Beshear gave LouCity permission to open up to fans at 50% capacity. It has been reported that the capacity will be somewhere around the 5,000 mark. Social distancing, masks, and other restrictions will be in effect.

Kentucky has generally managed the Covid-outbreak well. They rank 32nd in terms of US states by total number of Covid cases reported, with 18,204 to date. As of July 9, Louisville’s Jefferson County has reported 4,323 total cases, or 1 in every 177 persons. And after four months of quarantine, we have learned enough about Covid to know that outdoor activities that involve social distancing and mask-wearing can be relatively safe.

There is, of course, a counter-argument. The US overall is seeing a significant rise in Covid-19 cases over the past month, and Kentucky is part of this trend. From May 26 to June 26, Kentucky saw between 175 and 300 new cases each day. That rate has increased of late: Kentucky reported 285 new cases on July 3; 752 cases on July 6*, 356 on July 7; and 384 on July 8. And medical professionals have generally determined that outdoor sports venues are likely sites for spreading the virus. Jeff Rueter’s piece in The Athletic ** included the wisdom of Dr. Preeti Malani, an expert and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. In response to the question ‘Is there a way to keep a baseline level of safety when there are 5,000 people around a concourse?’, Dr. Malani responded “There’s not.”

“The issue is that you can’t control the behavior of that many people, particularly around mask-wearing. They’re outdoor; if you think about some of the protests that brought 5,000 people, there wasn’t a lot of spread from the protests — it was the (indoor) afterparties that caused the spread. A lot of families come to these games; let’s say everyone’s masked and are sitting in their family units away from everyone else. In theory, you could do it, but it’s difficult. I think the appearance of it is concerning to me because you don’t know that it couldn’t be a super trigger event. Although we say we’re going to distance, what if people don’t want to? What if they are screaming? What if people say they’re not wearing a mask?”

All this is unlikely to affect the Hounds players and staff. They’ll (hopefully) take all precautions to avoid exposure to illness, and interaction with fans will likely be minimal or nil.

It is a big game for the Hounds. It is a big game for USL. It is a big game for sports in America.

Whether it will ultimately be remembered as ‘a good idea’ and ‘a positive step forward’ or ‘a public health calamity’ will take some time to discern.

Game Notes

– Most of the pre-game Bob Lilley quotes from the press conference are echoes of things Lilley said to John Krysinsky earlier this week. For more, read up on his article ‘Lilley focused on getting Hounds to grow rapidly in shortened season’.

– I asked about team cohesion and the mental side of the game. Lilley pointed out that even the new players have gotten to integrate into the team despite the four-month quarantine because most players live together in an apartment complex. The rent is covered by the Riverhounds. A few players, though, elect to live elsewhere.

– In addition to two Hounds players, Patrick Bunk-Anderson and Albert Dikwa, that Krysinsky mentioned as stuck overseas due to visa problems related to Covid, Lilley mentioned that two other Hounds players, Steevan Dos Santos and Mark Lindstrom, will be out of Sunday’s game due to injury. Both should be back in the coming weeks.

– If you’ve followed the Riverhounds for a while, you know that Lilley likes to keep folks guessing when it comes to which goalkeeper is the presumptive ‘number one’, and this year is no exception. The options to start Sunday are Danny Vitello, Tomas Gomez, and Anthony Mwembia. Lilley gave zero indication as to whom he favors for the match. Logic would dictate that the presumptive favorite is former St Louis FC and Rochester Rhino Gomez, since he has the most (the only) in-game experience at the pro level. But with Bob, you never know.

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* They reported near-zero cases on July 4 and 5, though, so this uptick is likely delayed reporting from the holiday weekend.

** You should subscribe to The Athletic, if only for Rueter’s reporting on USL. He rocks.

Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

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