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Pittsburgh soccer media revised 2020 USL Championship predictions

File photo by Ed Thompson

Pittsburgh soccer media revised 2020 USL Championship predictions

Putting together our media predictions column for the 2020 USL Championship season, yeah, that was going to go well, right?

As we here at Pittsburgh Soccer Now were preparing for the Riverhounds SC’s opener back in March, we set out to post our annual predictions, as we posed a few questions about the upcoming season to various local soccer scribes to gather their thoughts on the upcoming Riverhounds and USL Eastern Conference season.

Special thanks to Mark Goodman, Rachael Kriger, Matt Popchock and Matt Harkins for contributing to this year’s predictions.

Of course, we did collect a handful of responses at that time, but a day before this was to be posted, and a few days prior to the Riverhounds SC’s opening match in North Carolina, the 2020 USL season was suspended indefinitely.  Some of the previous feedback, as you’ll read, is still fairly relevant, and some of it (how many points will the Hounds get this season) is not going to matter. We decided to keep it all in there as you’ll read below, as a fun exercise to see what everyone was thinking at that time.

Now, with the rest of the American sports landscape trying to get things going again with varying results, the USL Championship is set to restart its 2020 season this coming weekend with a revised 16-game regular season with the Eastern and Western Conferences divided into four groups each. There will be four or five teams in each grouping. The top two teams from each group will earn a spot in the USL Cup Playoffs which, if all goes well, would commence in October.

The Riverhounds SC have been included in a group with four other Northeastern corridor clubs in the Eastern Conference. This five-team group includes the Hounds, Hartford Athletic, Loudoun United FC, New York Red Bulls II, Philadelphia Union II (or as we’ll be calling them this year: U2). Every game matters in a short season. It will be a mad dash, and if things play out to the finish, should be fun to watch.

First, here are the questions we posed prior to the shut down…

Q1: Would you call 2020 a rebuilding season for the Hounds? Or, do you believe they’ll be a legitimate contender in USL’s Eastern Conference after finishing at top of the table in 2019?

Mark Goodman: Somewhere in between, leaning towards rebuilding. The team will still have some key pieces from 2019 – Robbie Mertz, Ryan James, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, and Kenardo Forbes. But the backline is a huge question mark, as is goalkeeper. And other than Ropapa Mensah, I dunno if this team is going to have goalscoring firepower or the ability to create havoc on the dribble. A finish between fourth and eighth feels likely.

Rachael McKriger: This is certainly going to be a rebuilding year for the Riverhounds. I don’t want to be bummer, but being a competitive team means keeping the players that made you competitive, working with them. I feel like every two years, it’s a cleaning project with the Hounds. I understand the implications around contracts, and how they’re usually just one-year deals with a club option for the next year. But, the Riverhounds had one of the most talented rosters. Kevin retiring isn’t the straw the broke the camel’s back for me. I firmly believe that Tobi Adewole, Kyle Morton and Neco Brett could have worked out a deal to stay. I don’t know what happens behind closed doors at the club, but it seems like it’s back to square one in regard to signing guys just out of college.

Matt Harkins:  I wouldn’t call the 2020 season a rebuilding season for the Hounds, the biggest loss this off-season I believe is Joe Greenspan on the back line.  I still think that this Hounds team is a legitimate contender in the USL’s Eastern Conference still with players like Steevan dos Santos, Robbie Mertz, Jordan Dover and Kenardo Forbes.  Also, I will never ever count out a Bob Lilley coached team because he always seem to know what buttons to push to get the most out of his teams each season.  It should be a fun season on The Mon and I am very curious to see how the crowds are to start this year because last season in the 2nd half the crowds were big and they were rocking, but it was a slow start in terms of attendance to start the year. last season and want to see what that looks like at the start.

Matt Popchock: I think, because of roster attrition, if not the general emergence of other teams in the East, we might see the Hounds come back to the pack a bit, but I don’t think the team’s contender status will be impacted. This club will challenge for championships, or, minimally, playoff runs lengthier than last year’s, as long as Bob Lilley is at the helm. He doesn’t know anything other than success in this league, and he knows exactly what kind of team he needs to build to find that success, as he has demonstrated in his first two seasons in Pittsburgh. I’m really amazed at how much the culture and attitude surrounding the team has evolved, not just on his watch, but overall in its “modern” (i.e.: Highmark Stadium) era. There’s no playing favorites. These aren’t MLS retreads or refugees here to a pick up a couple more checks before they call it a career. These are capable, emotionally invested players with whom Lilley will be famously hands-on, and from whom he will expect nothing less than excellence over the long haul. And they’re going to be eager to prove that finishing atop the Eastern table, earning a liberating playoff win and taking the two-time champions to the dying minutes of extra time was no accident.

Krysinsky:  With Bob Lilley at the helm, and the core of returning players coming back, I don’t expect a huge drop-off, but winning the Eastern Conference would be really impressive, especially as Louisville and Indy have reloaded.  Hounds should finish in the top-four in the Eastern Conference — putting themselves in contention once again.

Q2: How many points will the Hounds reach this season/where they will finish in the Eastern Conference/can they make the playoffs?

McKriger: I think having guys back like Kenardo Forbes, Jordan Dover and Ryan James is going to be huge. Even some new guys are veterans. Take Xhelil Asani. He’s only 24 and he’s almost got 100 appearances playing soccer, since he turned professional at 18. That’s a guy that brings a lot of quality leadership to the club, along with goalkeeper Tomas Gomez and, of course, Ropapa Mensah. Back to the question, I think inexperience is going to haunt the Hounds a little bit, but they’ll still be contenders. I say the team finishes in ninth place with a total of 45 points. They’ll make the playoffs, barely, but it will be the inexperience that doesn’t get them too far.

Goodman: Fifty-six points and a sixth-place finish.

Popchock: Confession: I’m wary of making predictions. Their frequent lack of accountability makes me wary; plus, how many times have we heard analysts say, with courage of conviction, “This is how this game’s gonna go,” and it ends up nothing like that? Alas, for our purposes, I’ll call a fourth-place finish, because that’s what my instincts keep telling me. It can’t be overestimated how hard it is to repeat any kind of first-place finish in any sport, and also, as I said, I think having new faces in new places will slow them down. Still, once they’ve had time to absorb “Lilleyball” and develop the requisite chemistry, the Riverhounds will show us, like they did last summer, that sprinters don’t win marathons, and with Nashville’s matriculation to MLS, I wouldn’t put it past Pittsburgh to sneak up into third at the last minute. In any event, last year’s fourth-place team in the East was, lo and behold, Louisville City, with an even 60 points. Those 60 points came on a 17-8-9 record, so that’s what I’ll go with.

Harkins: I would say 60+ points and a Top 4 finish in the conference is not a crazy expectation to have for this upcoming season for the Hounds.  I feel like we are going to see a repeat from the start of last season to start this season.  This team will be the king of always getting a point the first month and a half of the season, but will have trouble finding the 3 points with the outright win early on this season.  But, once this team gains the game chemistry, the trust in each other they will start to pile up some wins and Highmark Stadium will be buzzing along The Mon all Summer.

Krysinsky:  Last season’s fourth place finisher, Louisville City FC, ended the season with 60 points. I’d say this Hounds group will finish with 59 points.

Q3:  Who will be the Riverhounds SC’s leading scorer?

Goodman: Ropapa Mensah will score 15 goals. He’s a special talent who just needs to create chemistry with his midfield – once that happens he’ll be trouble.

Harkins: I feel like a lot of people are going to say Steevan dos Santos and I really can’t argue with that one he always finds a way to get multiple golden scoring chance opportunities each game and a majority are going to go in. But, I can also see Kenardo Forbes being a scoring threat this season teaming up in the middle with Robbie Mertz to create scoring chances for himself and getting the ball into the box for dos Santos.

Popchock: Let me put it this way: Kenardo Forbes, voted team MVP for 2019 by the Steel Army, is one of the premier playmakers in the USL Championship despite being on the wrong side of 30, so whoever meshes most effectively with him likely gets top team scoring honors for 2020. Selfishly, I’m hoping it’s Robbie Mertz, Forbes’ fellow midfielder. The departure of Neco Brett was as much of a sentimental blow to me as it was to many Riverhounds fans, so I’d love to see the team’s last remaining player with Pittsburgh ties follow in his massive boot steps. And as if he weren’t one of their most marketable guys already, he’s young, talented and very energetic, and his six goals in 2019 were the most of any of the middies. Honestly, why not Mertz?

McKriger: Ohhhh boy. We can’t pick our safe-bet option Neco Brett anymore. The preseason wasn’t entirely friendly or fruitful for the Riverhounds in terms of results and scoring goals. But, this isn’t Ropapa Mensah’s first rodeo in the league. He’ll be the team’s leading scorer, narrowly edging out Steevan dos Santos.

Krysinsky: My hunch is that Ropapa Mensah will be the go-to-guy late in the season, but it might take him a while to mesh with his teammates.  Look for a balanced attack, with Dos Santos around eight or nine goals, Mensah with 10.  Based on what I saw in the preseason, Lukas Fernandes is capable and Mark Forrest will play a lot more this season, so it will be important that they share and make the most of their chances. If all goes well, and they score more than five goals each, plus the talented midfielders adding their contributions, this Hounds team can have a nice balanced attack.

Q4: Which new player are you most interested to see this year?

Popchock: Score one for Captain Obvious, perhaps, but I’ll have an eye (two, occasionally) on Ropapa Mensah. Last year, Nashville was the only team in the East with a better regular-season goal differential than Pittsburgh’s, and with the second-most goals on Nashville’s last USL side ever, Mensah certainly had a say in the matter. He has previous USL experience with a certain central PA outfit that shan’t be named, so I’m curious to see how he fares on the other side of that discontinued rivalry, especially with fans desirous of another impact player to pick up where Neco left off.

Harkins: Mark Lindstrom is my new Hound to watch this season as a defender that could be used to fill Joe Greenspan’s shoes in the middle back.  Greenspan’s size helped to deter opponents from the middle of their offensive zone and Lindstrom has the size to be a nice replacement there for the Hounds.  And just reading up about him, he reminds me a lot of Greenspan, he’s not going to provide a lot of offense, but he is going to be a solid defender who is just going to clear balls out of the defensive zone and start counter attacks by getting balls to Ryan James, Forbes and Mertz in the middle and outside.

Goodman:  Skylar Thomas. He may not crack the opening day lineup, but he’ll eventually make a mark on this back line. Thomas is big and talented, and I’m excited to see if he can fill the ball-winner/clearance machine role that Joe Greenspan had till now.

McKriger: I’m biased because he played in the second-tier division in Russia, my home country, but I have to say Xhelil Asani. He’s a guy with an incredible soccer knowledge, something I got to witness first hand when listening to him speak. As mentioned, he’s only 24 but already has a veteran status with his experience. No matter what division it is, overseas experience is second-to-none. It’s top notch. Europe is so ridiculously crazy about soccer, no matter what division someone is playing in. I’ll be interested to see how he adapts to his first professional season in the USL, and in America. I’m also looking forward to seeing the connection that he and Anthony Velarde will have in the midfield and/or on the left.

Krysinsky: Tony Walls. His teammates that played with him in Rochester have spoken glowingly of what he brings to this team from his experience, versatility and leadership. Great story — Kenardo Forbes told me that when he first saw Thomas Vancaeyezeele break into the squad in 2018, he said, he’s our Tony Walls. He’s just like Tony Walls! That speaks volumes. Lilley has added another versatile player who he can plug into numerous positions. It will be fun from a week-to-week basis to see how Walls is used.

Q5: Who do you think will win the USL’s Eastern Conference?

McKriger: Call me a sellout if you must, but I’m going to go with North Carolina FC. Being totally honest with the readers, when looking at their roster, no name looks familiar or stands out to me in any way, shape or form. But, their manager does, and he will for the rest of the season. Dave Sarachan was the right-hand man of Bruce Arena, the fallen from grace U.S. men’s national team coach. He took the reins of the USMNT after Arena’s departure in 2017 and he did a lot of good things with some young players. I’m excited to see what he can do with his roster that includes Brazilian midfielder Pecka and former Ottawa Fury forward Hadji Barry.

Harkins: I can see the Hounds getting back to the Eastern Conference semifinal this season, but until you see how the back line plays in the game, the strength in net, I can’t pick them to win the conference.  It is also really hard not to pick Louisville City FC because they are just like a giant pest and find ways to make runs in the playoffs even when you don’t think they will.  But, my preseason pick is going to be the Tampa Bay Rowdies, they started the 2019 season on a blistering pace with a strong offense and a pretty solid defense.  The Rowdies fell off a little bit late in the season and fell to the middle of the conference, but last season was a good learning season for that team and they are going to be a threat in the Eastern Conference this season.

Popchock: My wholly unscientific pick is Louisville. We’ve seen them cheat death before, and until somebody figures out how to knock them off, at the risk of sounding trite, they’re still the champs–of that half of the league, anyway. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Riverhounds go into their new stadium that’s actually a soccer stadium this time, and rewrite the sordid ending of 2019’s playoff script. Stranger things have happened–and we know Hounds fans know a thing or two about strange things. 

Goodman: I really like Tampa Bay Rowdies to have a big year. Neil Collins is proving to be an able manager. They have their most talented players back, like Guenzatti and Leo Fernandes and Juan Tejada, and they added the massive and massively talented center back Forrest Lasso too. Indy and Louisville City will be near the top of the league, once again, but I think the Rowdies are the team to beat in 2020.

Krysinsky:  It’s hard to bet against Louisville City FC in a long 34-game campaign with the depth that they have at every position, and playing in a new stadium.

Here are our additional questions we asked our panel prior to this coming weekend’s USL Championship restart: 

UPDATED Q1: Will the USL season be played. What are your thoughts on how this might play out?

Harkins: I think the regular season will be played and completed in its entirety, but will be curious to see what the playoffs look like.  I hope that everything gets and remains under control with COVID and we will be discussing a regular playoffs when that time comes.

Popchock: I don’t think there’s any question the USL season will be played, but the more appropriate one might be, will the USL season be completed? Frankly, I have my doubts. After the eyebrow-raising developments in Orlando and Dallas (and now Nashville!), both of which impacted MLS’ and the NWSL’s one-off tournaments, I’m fully prepared to see an entire USL side get wiped out next.

Goodman: Who the heck even knows, man. Honestly, I doubt it.

To be blunt, USL’s plan of traveling players in buses, staying in hotels all over, and hoping that constant and regular interactions and contacts with other people in states and cities all over their respective region is not great.

MLS took a big risk with their ‘bubble’ tournament. But the central principle is – if we can get everyone inside the bubble to be screened, and we screen out any infected players, and we take great caution with food prep and eliminate player contact with anyone not on team staff, we can basically build a ‘clean’ room. It might not work perfectly, but in theory, it could work.

USL’s plan assumes that player will take precautions; team staff will take precautions; hotel and food prep staff and bus drivers and stadium employees will take precautions. Not only that, but everybody that those people come into contact with will take precautions.

What we’ve learned from Covid in America up to this point is: somebody’s always lax; somebody’s always being irresponsible. I think it likely that some players test positive. I think it likely that some games get forfeited. I think it more than 50-50 that a team just can’t string together eight healthy games. What would a season even mean if results on the field are mostly determined by the vagaries of contact tracing and infectious disease outbreaks?

It all boggles the mind. I can’t even believe I had to write most of that stuff I just said, it’s so bizarre.

Krysinsky:  So far, I’ve been amazed that USL teams have been, for the most part, able to keep its operations mostly COVID-19 free. The real test will come when teams start traveling this week and there are quick-turnarounds. My hunch is that we may see varying degrees of groups that may see more outbreaks than others based on how many cases are in each region. Right now, the Northeastern group that the Hounds are in keeps them away from any significant hot spots, however, as we all know, Allegheny County has seen an uptick in cases over the past 7-10 days. This is a bit concerning. Trips to Louisville and Indianapolis are also part of the itinerary for the Hounds in addition to travels around the Northeast.

UPDATED Q2: What are your thoughts on how things might play out in the coming months as the Hounds and the USL embark on a 16-game regular season?  

Harkins: I’m curious to see how teams use their substitutions in this 16-game season. With less opportunities to get points, getting 3 points with a win will be much more crucial this year.  I don’t think we will see many teams settling for 1 point draws this season.

Popchock: Still, the league appears committed to seeing this through, and, with no positive tests coming out of Pittsburgh–yet–the Riverhounds do as well. But even if they do thrive, I think there’s a good chance fans will ultimately look at this season with a jaundiced eye. It’s one thing to play elite football at a sustainable level against an entire conference, over an entire 30-week regular season, as they did last year. It’s quite another to be successful by dominating a smaller group of teams within a smaller sample size. For their part, I fully expect the Riverhounds to do just that.

Krysinsky: The five-sub rule will be a necessary addition. I expect some very sloppy play early on — in the first few weeks. It’s likely that mistakes and lack of cohesion could also lead to a lot of goals. Injuries may be a more significant factor and training staffs for each club are already under a lot of pressure due to COVID-19, will also have to be treating players for nicks and knocks. Still, teams like Pittsburgh, Louisville and Indy have plenty of veteran leadership, and I expect the intensity of those games to be pretty high. They know that there’s little room for error in a short season. Add that some of these games will be played on national TV, I am sure we’ll get plenty of exciting soccer.

UPDATED Q3: Will the Hounds get out of their group? Which two teams win the group. Do you have thoughts on who the other teams that will come out of the other groups in the Eastern Conference?  

Harkins: I think the Riverhounds at minimum will be one of the top two finishers in this group, but I also think they have a great chance to win the group outright.  I think the two top teams in this group are definitely Pittsburgh and New York.

Popchock: The Baby Bulls are the only other team in Group F that remotely scares me, so winning the group (or, failing that, placing) and making the 16-team playoff is a wholly realistic objective. What scares me more, aside from the general pressure on live sports, like the USL, to hurry back amid the recent spike in cases, is the prospect of a slow start by this infamously slow-starting franchise sinking them in a truncated season. In 2019, it took the Riverhounds until the dawn of summer to find their form. In 2020, they won’t have that luxury. I’d bet on Bob Lilley continuing to find ways to keep the train on the tracks, but even if this year doesn’t end with the Steel Army celebrating a championship, hopefully we’ll be able to celebrate that this thing happened.”

Goodman:  If there are zero forfeits (which is unlikely) in our regional grouping, I’d pick the Hounds to finish second to RBNY2. As I said a loooooong time ago where the season was *originally* supposed to start, the Hounds central defense seems questionable, especially knowing the Mark Lindstrom is out. I also know that the Hounds have spent the past two seasons grinding out non-stop nil-nil draws to open the season, only to get hot later on. They don’ have that luxury this year – if they sputter for ei games trying to find their sea legs, they’ve wasted half the season.

If we don’t see a Covid outbreak, I think the Hounds have a good shot at a 4-5-6 seed in USL playoff.

That is, If there are USL playoffs.

Krysinsky:  The Hounds should be one of the two teams to get out of its group, but this is a short season, so anything can happen.  With its first two ‘group’ opponents coming on the road (at Philadelphia and at NY Red Bulls II), it’s critical that they pick-up road points in those matches. They can’t afford to fall behind in their group, especially in those critical head-to-head matches where winning can provide a three-point swing.  What does help is that NY Red Bulls, probably the team that will challenge them the most, already lost their first match to Tampa Bay Rowdies in March.  Loudoun and Philly both have a draw in their only match. I do expect Hartford to be much improved from last year, so they’ll be an interesting team to watch early on.  My prediction is Pittsburgh and Hartford one-two finish.

 

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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