After two straight losses that came at the tail end of a busy stretch of matches early in the season, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC have since righted its ship a bit, winning two straight to improve its record to 4-2-0 (12 points), with the latest coming on Saturday when they avenged one of those losses by hammering the NY Red Bulls 4-1.
Things won’t get any easier though. In the next week, the Hounds will face a gauntlet of three matches in eight days.
First up, Pittsburgh has a rematch on Saturday in Indianapolis with Indy Eleven, who are leading Group E with 16 points (second only to Tampa Bay Rowdies’ 17 points in the entire USL Championship), then they travel to Loudoun United (Loudoun, VA).
INDY REMATCH ON TAP
Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley had plenty to share about the impending rematch at Lucas Oil Stadium this Saturday in his weekly Zoom meet-up with the media.
Indy’s impressive start to the season has boasted its coach, Martin Rennie and top scorer, former Hound Tyler Pasher, to receive Coach and Player of the Month honors for July 2020, respectively.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) August 13, 2020
Lilley believes that the Hounds didn’t even face Indy’s best line-up last month at Highmark Stadium, when the two teams played a physical match that was scoreless until the 95th minute, when Pasher took matters into his own by slicing through and evading a number of Pittsburgh defenders, then unleashing a laser from more than 30 yards out for the game-winning tally.
“The game will be different. The fact that they have a lot of depth, it’s tough to pinpoint 100 percent who will be in the lineup, whether they go with (Cameron) Lindley, Carleton or Ilic. Indy did a good job on their pickups, with (Nick) Moon from League 1. First time we played them, Ayozé wasn’t in the lineup. I think they’re better with him in the lineup,” Lilley said.
“We have a lot of things to prepare for. It’s a big game. We felt we could’ve won that first game. We’ve always been able to go anywhere and get points.”
Lilley was concerned with the extra space that Indy will be operating with at home on a wider field. He said Indy played more direct in its match in Pittsburgh, when second-year pro Dani Rovira man-marked Pasher most of the match pretty effectively, limiting the striker to less than 20 touches.
“I think Indy plays differently at home. They’ll possess more. It’s a bigger field at home. That game against us they wanted to be direct and pick up second balls and get in behind us. You’re going to still be dealing with their pace, so we’ll have to have an answer for that. Sometimes when there’s a threat over the top, it stretches you. Obviously staying compact is important, or we’ll be doing a lot of chasing.”
Group F Standings and Playoff Possibilities
The good news for Pittsburgh was that the Baby Bulls, playing a very jumbled schedule, lost again last night to Loudoun United, as they remain at six points now after seven matches.
|Pos.||GROUP F team||GP||W||L||T||GD||Pts||Form|
|1||Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC||6||4||2||0||13||12||WLLWW|
|3||New York Red Bulls II||7||2||5||0||-2||6||WWLLL|
|4||Loudoun United FC||4||1||2||1||-4||4||DLLW|
|5||Philadelphia Union II||6||1||4||1||-14||4||
There’s still a ton of work left remaining for the Hounds to do in its remaining 10 matches to qualify for the playoffs for one of the two spots from Group F. In the Group, they have combined six matches against Hartford and Loudoun United left, and one remaining against the Union II and NY Red Bulls II.
“It’s too early for me. I look at it as, if we don’t get a result in that game (at Indy), we’d have three losses, and Red Bulls has four losses. And then after Loudoun we come home and face Saint Louis, and they’ll be desperate for points because, in my opinion, they play in the toughest division,” Lilley explained. “New York is still very much in it. Hartford has shown they’re much improved over last year and consistently getting results, but no one’s really separated. The wheels can come off the tracks pretty quickly if you drop a game or two.”
This coming week will feature the two remaining matches outside of its group with the trip to Indy, and a home match on Saturday, August 22, against Saint Louis FC, who’ve been holding the second spot in Group E. In fact, the Hounds probably drew one of the hardest ‘non-group’ schedules when you consider they play three of the four teams in what’s proving to be the USL Championship’s version of the ‘Group of Death’.
Just in case you were wondering more about the USL Championship’s playoff format, each group’s top two teams will advance, creating a 16-team field that will play a regionalized single-elimination bracket.
In the Eastern Conference, Group F’s top seed will take on Group E’s second seed, while Group E’s top team will take on the Group F runner-up in the first round of the single elimination playoff. This format will also apply for Groups G and H on their side of the bracket. The winners of each side of the bracket (E/F and G/H) will face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals.
If the Hounds get in, they will likely be facing a Group E team that they’ve already faced, either Indy Eleven, St. Louis FC or Louisville City FC. The defending champs, Louisville City FC though, are surprisingly in last place in that group at the moment. Sporting KC II is in third on the strength of wins vs Lou City and Indy Eleven.
The final games of the regular season are scheduled for the first weekend of October, as long as things continue to go according to plan. While they have not officially announced its playoff schedule, the following weekend, October 9-11, will most likely be the first weekend of the playoff tournament. With three rounds leading up to the Championship Final, the tournament should last through October, and potentially move into early November depending on when the Final takes place.
Stats That Stand Out: Minutes Played
Once again, it’s no surprise to see the same names at the top of the list of minutes and games played/started for the Hounds this year. Looking at this year’s Hounds squad thus far, I am looking at the depth chart in three tiers.
Here’s the first tier:
- Thomas Vancaeyezeele (six starts, 540 minutes played) * played exclusively as center back
- Ryan James (six starts, 540 minutes played) * outside left back/winger, center back and holding mid
- Skylar Thomas (six starts, 540 minutes played) * center back
- Jordan Dover (six starts, 522 minutes played) * exclusively as right outside back/winger
- Robbie Mertz (six starts, 513 minutes played) * central midfield/attacking midfielder
- Kenardo Forbes (six starts, 513 minutes played) * central midfield/attacking midfielder
- Tomas Gomez (five starts, 450 minutes played) * goalkeeper
- Ropapa Mensah (six starts, 436 minutes played) * forward
That’s about where the drop off comes. The rest of the squad is pretty scattered in terms of starts and minutes played.
Steevan Dos Santos, a veteran forward who’s appeared in five matches and scored four goals (two starts and 235 minutes), needed his first four matches to build up his match fitness after a groin injury at the outset of the season restart. If it weren’t for the injury, Dos Santos would probably have been part of the first group.
A mid-season pick-up, Ray Lee played 84 minutes in his first and only appearance at center back. Lee can also play on the outside back/winger spot. It will be interesting to see how the Hounds use him going forward. Last year in Hartford, Lee made 30 starts and was among the leaders in minutes played, and he was just as durable in his previous season in Pittsburgh.
The second tier include guys who are integral parts of the rotation, and getting starts here and there:
- Danny Griffin (six appearances, four starts, 376 minutes played) * central midfielder / attacking midfielder
- Dani Rovira (five appearances, 3 starts, 273 minutes played) * outside left back/winger, defender (marking specialist)
- Anthony Velarde (five appearances, two starts, 202 minutes played) * attacking midfielder / forward
- Lukas Fernandes (six appearances, one start, 113 minutes played) * attacking midfielder / forward
- Mark Forrest (five appearances, one start, 143 minutes played) * forward
- Dakota Barnathan (five appearances, one start, 117 minutes played) * holding midfielder / central midfielder
- Hunter Ashworth (four appearances, three starts, 253 minutes played) * center back
- Danny Vitiello (one appearance, one start, 90 minutes) * goalkeeper
The second tier guys are going to be critical heading into the busy stretches like the one coming up.
“We’ll likely have to have a little more rotation and rely on the group collectively,” Lilley said on Tuesday. “We’re not going to have a lot of prep time between games. There is an urgency to what we do because of the shortened season. It’s been discussed and the players are aware.”
I included Vitiello, who’s clearly been the back-up keeper on this list, as Lilley’s been known to use his top two keepers on a 4:1 ratio in terms of starts. With the Hounds playing three matches in eight days this coming week, its likely that Vitiello will start in either the Loudoun United or Saint Louis FC matches.
The third tier includes those players who remain on the roster, but remain injured or unavailable. The third tier may evolve into a category of players with very little playing time as the season goes on, but for now, everyone else falls into this category:
- Mark Lindstrom (injury) * Center back
- Tony Walls (not currently with the team) * position(s) TBA — defender / holding midfielder
- Xhelil Asani (most recently injury — appeared in 18 — on gameday roster three times) * position(s) TBA — outside left back / winger
- Anthony Mwembia (third-string keeper — appeared in gameday 18 twice) * goalkeeper
- Albert Dikwa (hasn’t been with the team: Visa issues) * forward
- Patrick Bunk-Andersen (hasn’t been with the team: Visa issues) * center back
Lilley said last week he wouldn’t rule out making another signing if he feels it’s the right move to help his club.
The Hounds currently don’t have any players in real danger of getting on the league’s discipline report, with just two regulars (Robbie Mertz and Skylar Thomas) who have two yellow cards apiece.
USL Championship’s Latest COVID-19 Testing Numbers
On Tuesday, United Soccer League (USL) confirmed that 1293 tests were administered to players and club staff from the 35 Championship clubs between July 27th and August 3rd with nine (9) individuals testing positive from two (2) clubs.
Those players or club staff who have tested positive will have self-isolated in line with the guidelines provided by the USL and only those who have tested negative will be permitted to enter training ground facilities. Anyone identified via contact tracing will also be quarantined and tested.
Look for more leading up to the Hounds-Indy match, as Mark Goodman will preview the Eleven. We’ll have our Live Matchday Blog going for the match, and look for Matt Gajtka hosting another edition of Pittsburgh Postgame after the match along with my latest edition of post-match takeaways/player grades. Jordan Smith will also continue to contribute to Hounds coverage. He’s working on a feature — and will also be covering his first game on site next Saturday, when the Hounds host Saint Louis.