On Wednesday night at Highmark Stadium, the USL Championship showcased a match-up on national television featuring two of its upper-tier clubs from the past few years who each started the restart to the 2020 season without a loss or a draw.
For true, die-hard American soccer fans, this provided a juicy match-up on ESPN 2 as many on the East coast after their work days would likely be settling in to find some live soccer action. .
For some Pittsburgh sports fans hoping to finally see a live professional sporting event with the Golden Triangle in the backdrop, this match in the middle of a pandemic being played at Highmark Stadium helped provide some sense of normalcy for a few hours and some sense of civic pride with one of its teams playing before a nationally televised audience.
This clash-of-titans turned out to be a hard-fought, physical affair that appeared to be headed to the record book as a scoreless stalemate. That was the case until a stunning strike in the final, dying moments by the league’s top scoring threat, Tyler Pasher, lifted Indy Eleven past his former team, the Riverhounds SC, 1-0.
Pasher was completely held in check throughout the match by the Hounds unique tactics which neutralized him for more than 95 minutes. All it took though, was one moment.
The USL Championship’s top scorer this season proved the old adage: great players aren’t always great, just great when they have to be.
This result leaves the Hounds with a 2-1-0 record, still good for the top spot in the Eastern Conference’s Group F, while Indy Eleven surged forward with three more points as the league’s front-runner with a 4-0-0 mark. The teams will see each other again on August 15 in Indianapolis.
There was plenty to pick apart from this eventful match.
Anything but normal
While the excitement and build-up of this match, and the first two Riverhounds SC contests during this restart to the 2020 season have been genuinely enjoyable in providing some normalcy during these uncertain times, a sobering dose of reality hit when I arrived to an almost empty Highmark Stadium parking lot a little more than a half-hour before kickoff. Typically the parking lot is filled with cars and fans tailgaiting prior to the match. You can’t usually miss the Steel Army congregated to the far left side as you approach the facility. Once entering the building, and heading up to the second floor where the Suites are located on the West end of the stadium, I found only a handful of people in the spacious room that typically hosts fans amongst a full spread of food, beverages and cheer. Instead, there were four media representatives including myself along with a few team representatives and owner Tuffy Shallenberger.
Our primary photographer for Riverhounds SC coverage the past few years, Ed Thompson was very disappointed with being unable to take pictures as the USL and Riverhounds were following protocols to limit the number of people that would have on-field access.
It was wonderful to look across the field when the players were warming up, and see the Paul Child Stand decorated with the Steel Army’s TIFO which spelled out PHYSICALLY ABSENT, EMOTIONALLY PRESENT.
It’s a shame that the Riverhounds Soccer Club finally had a moment to showcase its scenic home stadium, and the Steel Army and Pittsburgh soccer fans couldn’t be there to add to the atmosphere and environment.
When the players finally took the field, another stark reminder of the times took place when they knelt during the playing of the national anthem. Most players on the field, the officials and those sitting on benches distanced from each other, took a knee, with a few exceptions.
Robbie Mertz stood behind his kneeling teammate Ryan James, putting his hand on his shoulder.
— John Krysinsky (@JohnKrysinsky) July 22, 2020
After the match, Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley, who along with his players, has worn an armband ‘BLM’ since the season restarted, was asked about this.
Lilley provided a pretty straightforward answer.
“We’re comfortable with that as an organization, that if players feel a certain way, and they want to stand or kneel, that’s up to them,” Lilley said after the game. “We have a close group. For me, I respect all of our guys to — and they’ve had the talks. We’ve let them have their talks and they’re comfortable.”
“Some coaches kneel; I stand. You know, my dad’s military,” Lilley said. “I still believe in Black Lives Matter, so to me, it’s just everybody doing what you feel comfortable with. … I think you need to be able to think in these times, and still respect everyone’s values and opinions and everything else.”
“There’s plenty of people that are probably kneeling right now that probably haven’t really taken full stock of everything that’s going on in our world.”
Lineup and Tactics
I am sure Lilley prefers to talk about soccer over everything else — so lets get right to it. The Hounds coach put together an unique game plan for this showdown against Indy Eleven that looked like something out of Bill Belichick’s wheelhouse.
With Steevan Dos Santos still working his way back to full fitness after dealing with a groin injury in the weeks leading up to the restart, the Riverhounds opted to give Mark Forrest his first start of the season at the top of the attack along with Ropapa Mensah. The provided a fascinating match-up between two young forwards against Indy’s veteran back line of Karl Ouimette, Paddy Barrett and Naveal Hackshaw.
Indy lined up in a relatively basic 3-5-2.
The Hounds’ back line had somewhat different look than what they did the previous two matches. Head coach Bob Lilley decided to focus on keeping a close eye on Pasher. He opted to not go with three center backs, but instead had Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Skylar Thomas paired up in the middle, with both Jordan Dover and Ryan James as the outside backs — with an additional wrinkle — Dani Rovira was going to man-mark the dangerous Pasher, who came into this match with goals in five straight matches dating back to last season. Lilley’s mindset — much like, say Bill Belichick — was not only focused on taking away Indy’s best player but also take away what they do best in the process. As Rovira stayed with Pasher, denying touches, the rest of the back line, mainly Vancayezeele and Thomas were still there in support to deny the short passes through the middle, and on alert when Indy started to play a bit more longer passes.
The central midfield was left to be patrolled by the trio of Kenardo Forbes sitting deeper, with Robbie Mertz and Danny Griffin trying to connect to the top of the attack.
Also, starting in goal, for the third straight game, was the veteran Tomas Gomez.
The Hounds didn’t go to the bench until deeper in the second half, when Dos Santos and rookie Lukas Fernandes came on to relive Griffin and Mark Forrest. For the first time, we got to see Dos Santos and Mensah on the field at the same time. While Mensah continues to be a high energy player, it appeared he hit a bit of a spell in the middle of the second half where he slowed down a tad. When Dos Santos and Fernandes entered, the Hounds started to push forward a bit more, and started to unleash more pressure in the final 15 to 20 minutes of the match — with a lot of crosses and a few corners.
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Indy Eleven, just 10 days or so after the return of USL Championship soccer, provided an intense match that despite having no fans in attendance, had a playoff feel. While both teams provided some moments of quality, the match was physical with neither side giving in all that much, putting the pressure on the game’s officials, led by Eric Tattersall in the middle.
Trying to keep some order in the match, Tattersall penciled in seven players into his book for yellow cards, with five of those being Riverhounds: Dover, Mensah, Griffin, Mertz and Anthony Velarde.
The Riverhounds were called for 22 fouls, while Indy Eleven picked up 11.
Indy had the first significant movement into the final third, drawing an early foul in the 6th minute when Nick Moon was taken down by Jordan Dover.
This set up a free kick, which didn’t connect, but led to a pair of corner kicks for the visitors, their only corners of the half. With Pasher’s every step being shadowed by Rovira, Indy tried to connect passes through the middle in the first half, and the Hounds, at times were up to the task, with Mertz and Griffin buzzing around and jumping in with numerous takeaways.
Pittsburgh’s had success early in the season getting into transition and making its previous two opponents pay for its mistakes.
Indy’s mistakes were happening further up the pitch, allowing its experienced back line to be prepared for the Hounds counter attempts ignited by Mertz and Griffin.
While Indy initially was trying to work things through the middle of the field, and over the top to Pasher, Pittsburgh were trying to get forward and stretch Indy’s three center backs. Menash and Forrest were working hard, and had some positive moments to help sustain possessions.
Pittsburgh used the width, particularly the right side in the first half, where they had some space to get forward. This resulted in a some dangerous crosses into the box.
13' | CLOSE! @RopapaMensah crosses a ball to Ryan James, who just misses frame.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) July 22, 2020
By the end of the night, Pittsburgh had the decided advantage in open field crosses (17-1!!), in corners (6-3), possession (54/46), passes (+51) and slight edge in shots (9-7). Indy were tougher on duels (64-54) and shots on target (3-1).
No Goal !?
The best chance for the Hounds to score in this match came within a very short span between the 27th and 28th minutes.
First came a nice hook-up between Mertz and Mark Forrest that started with Mensah on the right side drawing defenders flicking a ball to the center edge of the penalty box for Mertz. Mertz played it to Forrest, then alertly made a run and found room to get into the box, got a nice pass back and delivered a shot that forced Indy keeper Evan Newton into making a nice diving save to his left.
This set up the most controversial sequence of the match.
On the ensuing corner, Forbes delivered a corner kick to the near post area to Thomas Vancaeyezeele, who did a masterful job in redirecting it but it caught the lower part of the crossbar. The ball banged quickly down on the goal line, then back up to hit the cross bar again, then came out for Newton to grab.
Forbes stood next to the linesman in disbelief as he waved on for play to keep going, as from his point of view, the ball never completely cleared the goal line.
Did the ball pass over the goal line?
Most Hounds fans believe it did on various social media platforms.
“The way it bounces back out leads me to believe it was in,” my colleague Matt Gajtka said.
— @SEthomp88🇺🇸⛳️🏋🏻🥅 (@SEthomp88) July 23, 2020
I thought it went In
— Christian Martin (@caliChristianD) July 23, 2020
Second replay shows the ball was in. Refs 1, Hounds 0#PITvIND
— Mon Goals (@mongoals) July 22, 2020
Unfortunately we’ll never really know this.
Even though the match was broadcast on ESPN 2, and many Hounds fans believed the second angle showed the ball crossed the line, without the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) capability, the call was left to the on-field officiating crew.
The only replay available, from my perspective, did not definitively show the ball crossing the line. In addition, almost 9 times out of 10, when the ball hits the bar, then goes down, then back up off the bar and out of the goal in an instant, it’s tough for the officials to rule that a goal. I can recall numerous times seeing the same call.
With the lopsided number of foul calls that went against the Hounds, referee Eric Tatersall continued to draw the ire of the Hounds and its fan base.
Forbes didn’t hold back his thoughts afterwards too.
“I think he got it wrong all night.”
Second half of futility
Both sides dug down even deeper in the second half, things continued to be physical, but mostly remained as a battle in the middle of the field. There were times Pasher would drop deeper into the midfield, but Rovira was still right there with him throughout. In fact, Pasher had to be completely frustrated. He only had a total of 22 touches and seven passes (lowest on his team except for Jimmy Rafanello, who entered the match in the 89th minute).
Neither side could get a shot on frame until Pasher sent a shot from distance that softly bounced toward Gomez for an easy pick up coming in the 79th minute.
“I don’t think either side played the most elegant soccer. … We didn’t quite get where we wanted to be offensively, but we weren’t far off,” LIlley said. “I’m not sure we played well enough in the second half to cement the three points.”
The substitution of Fernandes and Dos Santos did inspire a late push for Pittsburgh, but they couldn’t create any substantial scoring chances.
Between all of the yellow cards (five came in the second half) and stoppages of play due to injuries, six minutes of stoppage time was added.
Everything felt like it was going to be a nil-nil draw. I was even writing that into my game summary for the live blog.
Pasher adds his own legacy moment at Highmark Stadium
As a young player, Tyler Pasher was part of the 2015 Pittsburgh Riverhounds squad that scored a ton of goals and created some special moments that die-hard Pittsburgh soccer fans will remember fondly. While he was part of the club’s success that season, he certainly experienced his share of growing pains while shuffling in and out of Mark Steffens’ lineup.
In the franchise’s most famous and improbable win that season, and probably in the club’s history, the 6-5 ‘Miracle on the Mon’ come-from-behind victory against in-state rival Harrisburg, Pasher, playing outside left back, was benched at the half after the Hounds fell behind 3-0.
The rest we know is history.
The Hounds forged a ridiculous comeback, led by Danny Earls, Lebo Moloto, Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr, while Pasher watched the remainder of that match from the bench.
That season Pasher for the most part remained a supporting player, while it was Vincent who emerged into the league’s most dangerous threat from outside the box. In Steffens’ system, it was clear that Pasher would play as an outside back or occasionally higher up in the midfield only when Vincent and Kerr were out of the lineup, which was rare that season.
His time would come.
Fast-forward to 2020, coming into the match as the league’s most dangerous attacker, Pasher, much like his former teammates did in the Miracle on the Mon match, made something special happen in stoppage time.
With both teams on their final legs at the end of an absolute struggle, it was Pasher who came back five years later to create his own magical moment at Highmark.
— Paddy Barrett (@PaddyBarrett42) July 23, 2020
While Vincent wasn’t one to have the ability to accelerate past and around opponents the way Pasher has in becoming the USL Championship’s current most dangerous scorer, that powerful left footed blast to the upper corner of the goal, was awfully reminiscent of Vincent’s numerous long-range strikes back in his record-setting 2015 campaign.
Since the 2015 season ended, as many players from that group went separate ways, it was Pasher along with Moloto, who’ve since left Pittsburgh and forged top-notch careers in the USL Championship.
The final chapter of my new book, Miracle on the Mon, is titled ‘Legacy of a Miracle’, summarizing the lasting impact that those players, coaching staff and club officials had on the Riverhounds SC franchise’s legacy. While he played a smaller role in the team’s success that season, almost everyone involved with the team that year knew Pasher was clearly a talented player on the rise.
While it’s easy to say that the Hounds should have found a way to keep Pasher; hindsight is 2020 (no pun intended). There were numerous circumstances that denied that. Ultimately, Pasher is the player he is today because he’s grown in each new step along the way. He provides a great example for young, aspiring players to keep pushing forward.
Another more notable sports icon who also made his mark in both Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, former Steelers defensive back and Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy may have said it best.
“Sometimes it’s the journey that matters.”
After a few years with Sporting KC organization, even getting a taste of MLS action, and its USL squad, Swope Park Rangers, Indy Eleven’s coach Martin Rennie. unleashed the Canadian, putting him at the top of the attack. Now, Pasher’s become the league’s most dynamic scoring threat.
Before the match on Wednesday, Bob Lilley threw in another sports cliche when talking about Pasher: “What’s that saying? We can’t stop him, we can only hope to contain him.”
Now, every time Pasher returns to Highmark Stadium to take on his former club, he’s building on his own impressive legacy.
Tomas Gomez – 6 – he’s not going to stop that shot. I don’t know who stops that shot. Made two saves including a real nice one at the end of the first half. Was solid coming off the line especially when Indy started playing long balls in the second half.
Daniel Rovira – 6 – Imagine being Rovira at Monday’s training session. Lilley comes up to him and says: you’re man marking Pasher all game long. I want you to be so close to him you know what had for his pregame meal. Something like that probably happened, and you know what, Rovira did a fine job on Wednesday. When Pasher gets the ball, and has room to operate, he’s a tough cookie. Unfortunately, Rovira’s grade went down thanks to that last, fateful moment when Pasher broke loose.
Ryan James – 5 – spent so much time tucking back into defensive shape that he didn’t have a chance to really make his stamp on the match as much as Lilley would like to have seen.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 7 – thought this was one of Tommy V’s best performances in keeping things together in the back. Managed to nearly give the Hounds the lead on the near-goal and had four solid tackles in a physical game. Remember that time when he struggled for a few games with poorly timed tackles last year?
Skylar Thomas – 6 – thought he was solid throughout. Even led the Hounds in shots (four headers on set peices!) which is not ideal being that he’s a center back.
Jordan Dover – 5 – a lot of touches for Dover (team high 99) as the Hounds certainly tried to work the ball up the flanks. Dover also was tops with five tackles and five fouls conceded, picking up one yellow card. The right side was the preferred route for the Hounds for much of the match. Lilley expressed disappointment that Dover and Ryan James didn’t get forward enough though to have an impact, which meant the Hounds weren’t doing it collectively.
Kenardo Forbes – 6 – Even Kenny admitted it wasn’t his best performance after a strong start to the season with two ‘9 out of 10’ grades. I am wondering if Lilley was referring to Forbes (and others) when he said there was a bit too much of ‘hero ball’ being played by the Hounds when trying to break down Indy instead of stretching that three man back line. Forbes passing accuracy was uncharacteristically down (69%) while things continue to be played through him (84 touches/62 total passes).
Daniel Griffin – 4.5 – passing accuracy was down (60%), conceded three fouls, but he battled a lot out there. Lilley said this type of physicality was new to players like Griffin.
Robbie Mertz – 7 – a few times early, picked off a pass and charged forward quickly. Lilley spoke after match how he hoped maybe the central midfield could have been more patient at times. He was all over the place and also passed at team high rate of 88.2%.
Mark Forrest – 5 – brought good energy, liked how he and Mensah worked together, but they still need some time for chemistry to kick in. No shots or chances created but nice 1-2 with Mertz.
Ropapa Mensah – 6 – solid work rate, two chances created, but six fouls conceded. Nice pass over to Mertz to set up first real chance for Hounds. Could have done more to keep possession in final third.
Steevan Dos Santos (68’) – 5.5 – he’s still working his way back. I know he scored twice in mop-up time on Saturday, but he’s best served starting, and wearing down opponents in holding up the ball, drawing fouls, etc.
Lukas Fernandes (68’) – 6 – thought he did some nice things to spark the Hounds final effort to push for the game-winner
Anthony Velarde (88’) – NR – did pick up a yellow in limited action.