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What we know about USL Championship and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 2021 season

Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

What we know about USL Championship and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 2021 season

It’s been a longer than usual off season, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and the USL Championship, the second division league in the United States soccer pyramid, as they make preparations for the 2021 season which has been pushed back to a tentative starting date sometime between April 24 and May 15.

Based on some of the information released by USL Championship and from what we’ve attained from various sources, here are some answers to some of the most pressing questions relating to this coming season.

When will the 2021 season kickoff?  

The USL Championship has formally announced tentative time frame for starting somewhere between April 24 and May 15.  It’s most likely they’re targeting a starting point either the weekend of May 1 or May 8.   Some teams may be negotiating to start a little bit later so they can be ready, while others are more eager to get started as early as possible.

How many games will there be in the USL Championship regular season? 

The USL Championship announced a 32-game regular season that will last 27 weeks.

This will take the season through the end of October, with the playoffs planned for November.  If you do the math, that also means the Hounds and all USL Championship clubs will be forced into playing two games per week at least five times in 2021.

In light of losing some clubs (including Saint Louis FC, MLS 2 teams like Philadelphia Union II and Portland Timbers 2) how will the 31-team USL Championship be aligned and what will the schedule look like this season?

(Note: the shortened 2020 season featured eight groups of four teams in round-robin play which led into Eastern and Western Conference playoffs?)   

The USL Championship is going to have four divisions in 2021.

It has not been officially announced what those divisions will look like, but with Philadelphia Union 2 dropping out of USL Championship — the Northeast grouping of teams has become a bit lighter (leaving only Hartford, NY Red Bulls II and Loudoun United with the Hounds).  This year, the set-up will include either eight or seven team divisions. In total, if you look at last year’s Eastern and Western Conferences in the USL Championship, of the 31 teams in this year’s field, 16 of them were Western Conference teams in 2020 and 14 were in the Eastern Conference plus the addition of the Oakland (CA) Roots, which will obviously be placed in a  Western based division.

What this will mean the Riverhounds may find themselves in a tough spot in terms of which division they’re placed this year.  I can’t see any scenario where they’ll be aligned with the Midwestern sector (where Indy, Louisville, Memphis, Birmingham, etc. might be grouped, even though Louisville and Indy in particular are fairly easy and short drives from Pittsburgh).  I would look for the Hounds to be playing against all the East coast teams, which might create more travel scenarios than in 2020.

Thus, it may be more of an ‘ACC’ schedule for the Hounds in 2021.

And if we’re going to delve that far into schedule scenarios, with a 32-game schedule, it’s most likely the Hounds will play each team in its division four times. If they’re in a division with eight teams, that would make up 28 of the 32 games.  This would leave four ‘out-of-conference’ games to play against teams out of their division.

When will the Riverhounds SC and most teams start preseason?  Will there be preseason scrimmages?  

The Hounds are planning to start its preseason on Monday, March 28.  This will give them a five-six week preparation run-up to the season, depending if they start on May 1 or May 8.

They are currently working on a preseason schedule that will include scrimmages, most likely against other pro clubs being that the college soccer season will be taking place in March and April.

Will there be fans at games this season?  

As of now, that’s still pretty much up in the air what things will look like in May, but things will likely start this season the way they ended in September at Highmark Stadium.  The Riverhounds will follow PA’s current guidelines that are in place.

As many know, those numbers are still very limited (as the Penguins, Steelers and Pitt to name a few) have been playing before few if any fans.  With this in mind, the Hounds, and many teams are probably trying to negotiate with USL Championship for more home games on the back end of the season in hopes that more fans will be able to come to games as 2021 moves forward.

In light of this week’s announcement that a trimmed down version of the US Open Cup will be held in 2021, will the Hounds be participating in that tournament this year?  

The Hounds have been preparing with the notion that they’re going to participate in the Open Cup, which was cancelled in 2020.

However, Tuesday’s announcement from US Soccer about the 2021 edition being trimmed down also cited that the USL Championship will be allocated just eight spots from 24 teams which are eligible from the entire league.  We will be waiting for further clarification on which of the eight teams from the USL Championship will be selected.

According to Sports Illustrated, which broke the story on Monday, this remains a bit fluid.

“That will be worked out in the coming weeks,” U.S. Open Cup commissioner Paul Marstaller told Sports Illustrated.

“There are a number of possibilities, and U.S. Soccer will be working with each of the participating leagues to sort out what the best path possible is in each circumstance.”

The federation’s Open Cup committee will have the final say on who gets in. Among the possibilities are using 2020 league results, a blind draw or some combination thereof.

“Everything is on the table,” Marstaller said.

The Hounds were one of 16 teams which qualified for the USL Championship playoffs last season, but they weren’t one of the eight group winners nor did they finish in the final four teams in their conference playoff tournament.  However, only four USL clubs in 2020 finished the regular season with more points than the Hounds (34), who finished second to Hartford (35 pts).

What does the Riverhounds roster look like at this point? 

As of early this week, with one additional signing today of Alex DeJohn, a former MLS player who also spent extensive time playing to top-division clubs in Sweden, Finland and Norway, the Hounds roster is officially up to 11 players.

The Hounds are aiming to be somewhere in the ballpark of having 18 players signed as they head into camp.  With a lot more time to work with this off season, Head Coach Bob Lilley and assistant Dan Visser with the support and backing from ownership have taken a more aggressive yet methodical approach in building the roster. They spent extensive time in November and December combing the market and looking at many players.

The signings of Russell Cicerone, Alex Dixon, DeJohn and Preston Kilwien in addition to seven returning players has shown that the Hounds are looking to build a strong, veteran roster with plenty of experience.  With college soccer season extending through the Spring, along with numerous college players who were drafted by MLS who also returned to their college teams, we may see less college players being signed to USL rosters than usual.

In Lilley’s words, the Hounds “turned over a lot of rocks” and looked a lot of players.  More signings will be coming in the next few weeks.  Odds are they’re going to be more veterans and battle-tested players.

With the extended off season, the Hounds are essentially still almost a month and half away from the start of preseason and they have 11 players signed to their roster, with more coming down the pike. To put it in perspective, in most years, when they’ve started their season in early-to-mid March, the Hounds from 2018 – 2020 went into preseason camp in early February with roughly 14 players signed. From that point of view, they’re ahead of schedule.

 

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).

Pittsburgh Division I College Soccer Schedule (Spring 2021)

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