In the biggest match of the truncated 2020 season, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC expect to start de facto rookie goalkeeper Danny Vitiello for Saturday’s home showdown with Hartford Athletic.
Hounds head coach Bob Lilley announced the news during Wednesday’s press conference, as his team prepares for a match that could determine whether Pittsburgh (8-3-1, 25 points) wins Group F and starts the USL Championship playoffs at Highmark Stadium, or finishes second and is forced to the road against the Group E winner in the opening round.
“It’s always tricky when you have two guys who are capable,” Lilley said. “We have to make those decisions. To give (Vitiello) another opportunity in a big game helps his development.”
Vitiello, a 24-year-old former University of Albany star who spent last season as the third-stringer in Nashville, has posted three clean sheets in his first four pro starts, stopping 10 of 12 shots. The two most recent shutouts came in back-to-back appearances last week, Sept. 1 vs. Loudoun United and Saturday at New York Red Bulls II, earning him a spot on the league’s Team of the Week alongside teammate Robbie Mertz.
Prior to that, Vitiello had appeared the clear backup to 27-year-old veteran Tomás Gómez, who has played in 85 USL Championship matches — including eight of the first 10 this season, his first in Pittsburgh. Gómez previously played for Lilley with the Rochester Rhinos from 2016-17, when he won consecutive Golden Glove awards for the league’s best goals-against average.
But after sitting for six of the first seven matches, Vitiello made a couple of outstanding early saves in a 2-0 win at Loudoun on Aug. 19. The 6-foot-2 Long Island native followed that up with a home victory over Loudoun on Sept. 1, a decision that featured a penalty-kick save in the first half.
PK fest, 2020.
Our third spot kick in the opening 16 minutes is denied by first-year Hound Danny Vitiello!
Still 2-0, Pittsburgh. pic.twitter.com/XF9mOXOJi4
— Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) (@MattGajtka) September 1, 2020
Until last Saturday, the Hounds had followed a consistent pattern with their keeper tandem: Gómez got the weekend starts, with Vitiello spelling him in the three midweek games. Against the Baby Bulls, Lilley tabbed Vitiello for his first consecutive starts, on short rest to boot.
“He’s made some big saves,” Lilley said. “He’s getting better dealing with crosses and his kicking’s been pretty good. I think he’s grown a lot since the beginning of the year. Heading into New York (last week), we thought, ‘He’s in form right now.’ ”
Vitiello had to make only one save, but Lilley apparently feels the newcomer’s level of play merits the starting assignment in the most pivotal match of the year. The Hounds lead Hartford (6-2-1, 19 points) by six points with less than a month to go in this 16-game season, but Hartford has three matches in hand and could still turn the tables with a couple of results against Pittsburgh.
“It seems like a big moment in the season,” said Lilley, who has the Hounds in prime position for a third straight playoff berth. Pittsburgh has won three in a row and six of eight after a 2-2 start.
“With (Hartford) having three games in hand, you can do the math on that. We’re in good form. We’re at home. We want to have another sharp performance on Saturday and get the full three points and that’ll put us in good position in the division.”
On Wednesday, Lilley alluded to increased competition for starting spots in general, as this shortened regular season wears down to its final four matches. In addition to the developing goalkeeping situation, forward Albert Dikwa and defenders Patrick Bunk-Anderson and Tony Walls are recent arrivals after reporting delays for various reasons.
“It’s good to have some of these tough decisions to make,” Lilley said. “There’s massive competition within the team right now for those starting spots. These last four weeks we want to really hone in on our lineup and have a clear picture of what our lineup can do as we head into the playoffs.”