The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC was separated from burgeoning rival Louisville City FC by the league’s one-year-only COVID-19 realignment, but the pandemic couldn’t keep them apart when it counts.
After Hartford Athletic wrapped a 5-0-1 closing kick to edge the Hounds for the top spot in Group F, Pittsburgh (11-4-1, 34 points) will be forced to the road for the first round of the USL Championship, kicking off at Louisville’s Lynn Family Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Lou City (11-3-2, 35 points) roared back from a 2-3 start to this abbreviated season to finish unbeaten (9-0-2) in its final 11 games of the schedule. The formidable Boys in Purple have qualified for three consecutive USL Championship Finals, including Cup victories in 2017 and ’18.
This latest matchup between the Hounds and Louisville is doubly intriguing from a rematch perspective. Lou City broke Pittsburgh’s heart in an Eastern Conference semifinal match last year at Highmark Stadium, rallying to win 2-1 in extra time. But the Hounds got a small measure of vengeance in the anticipated Lynn Family Stadium opener this July, scoring three straight goals to run away with a 3-1 decision.
The restructuring of the USL Championship into eight small groups was justifiable to minimize travel, but it ended up matching up two of the East’s top three point-earning teams in the first round. Louisville and Hartford each picked up 35 points in 16 matches, while the Hounds were one behind at 34. Group H winner Tampa Bay had 33 to round out the top four, while Group G champ Charlotte was sixth with 28 points.
Per the rearrangement after the worldwide coronavirus breakout, the first two round of the playoffs will feature group ‘crossovers,’ with group winners facing runners-up in the first round. Sixteen of the league’s 35 teams made the postseason, which will take place in single-elimination fashion over the next four weekends.
While the Hounds might seem hard done by the playoff format — they’d have home field in the first round under the usual system — they had a chance to clinch Group F on Sept. 26 when Hartford came to town, but the visitors pulled out a 1-0 win to jump back into the driver’s seat. Hartford started 5-1-1 before the Hounds smacked them down twice in two weeks, winning both by a combined 8-0 count.
But the late home hiccup ended up costing Pittsburgh, which will appear in the postseason for the 11th time in 20 seasons of existence.
The Hounds have earned playoff berths in all three seasons under manager Bob Lilley, finishing third, first and third in the East, in that order. They have a combined record of 45-13-26 since the USL Hall of Fame coach was hired prior to 2018.
One thing the Hounds haven’t done under Lilley is play a postseason match on the road, though. They are 1-2 over the past two seasons in the playoffs, with all three taking place at Highmark Stadium. Last October, they earned their first playoff win since 2004, smoking Birmingham Legion FC 7-0 in the East quarters.
They’ll go into the playoffs on a 7-1-1 surge, capped by a last-minute 2-1 win over Philadelphia Union II on Saturday at Highmark. While that one blemish against Hartford proved important, the Hounds are still one of the league’s hottest squads at the moment.
“It might mean a few more road games in the playoffs, but we have to do the job and win games,” Lilley said last week. “We have to know we’re good enough to beat anyone. We’re able to win anywhere we play.”
Under Lilley, Pittsburgh has beaten Louisville three straight times on the road and are 4-1-1 all-time in Kentucky’s largest city, although the Hounds have never beaten the two-time league champs at home in five tries (0-2-3). In the big picture, the Hounds’ recent ascendance in the league puts them on a natural collision course with Lou City, the stubborn, skilled old guard in the East.
Look for extensive coverage of the Hounds’ postseason run right here on Pittsburgh Soccer Now!