(Editors Note: This article was originally posted on February 3, 2021, and has since been updated)
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.
UPDATE: The Hounds will be in the Atlantic Division with eight teams (as PSN projected).
The schedule has not been released yet, but it should be coming any day now.
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 Tuesday, March 29. This will give them a five-six week preparation run-up to the season, depending if they start on May 1 or May 8.
Update: Preseason schedule was announced on March 15.
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?
The Hounds were 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, Alex 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.
Since this article was originally published, the Hounds have made additional signings, but also announced the release of DeJohn, who had an opportunity to sign with Atlanta United of Major League Soccer. Thus, by our count, the roster now includes 17 players.
Here’s our most up-to-date roster and anticipated depth chart by position for the Hounds: