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USL Championship Atlantic Division Preview: Familiarity breeds contempt

Photo courtesy USL Championship/Tampa Bay Rowdies

USL Championship Atlantic Division Preview: Familiarity breeds contempt

The road through the USL Championship will take a few different turns in 2021 for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and 30 other clubs.

The Riverhounds have been placed in the eight-team Atlantic Division where they’ll get reacquainted with some old friends and familiar foes.  Clubs finishing in the top four spots in each Division will advance to the USL Cup Playoffs to be played in November.

The four divisions in the Championship are aligned across the country producing the Atlantic, Central, Mountain and Pacific Divisions. The Atlantic and Central Division will make up the Eastern Conference, while the Mountain and Pacific Divisions will make up the Western Conference.

After speculation and various ideas that were discussed in the off season, this appears to be the most logical place for a Pittsburgh team to be located, with all of the teams in the division landing in the Eastern Time zone. Each team will also venture out of each division, playing four games against random opponents from throughout the Championship.  (The Hounds will host Austin Bold and Atlantic United 2, and travel to Indy Eleven and San Antonio FC).

The biggest drawback of this schedule for the Hounds, takes two teams (Louisville and Indy Eleven) off their regular schedule (they will face Indy once and do not face Lou City).  You could make the argument that Louisville and Indy have evolved into most competitive and rivaled league opponents in recent seasons for the Hounds. In addition, both are within relatively short bus trips to/from Pittsburgh.

“It’s not everything you could wish for, but I do feel grateful that we’ll be playing 32 games.” Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley said, putting an optimistic spin on the competition that lies ahead in 2021.

“We have more different opponents than last year. We’ll go with it this year.”

Click here for the full Riverhounds 2021 schedule.

‘Our job is to get into the top four’ 

The Hounds will be joined by defending Eastern Conference Title-holder Tampa Bay Rowdies, Miami FC, Charleston Battery, Charlotte Independence, Hartford Athletic, Loudoun United FC and the New York Red Bulls II.

Lilley believes from top-to-bottom, this division will present a lot of challenges.

“We’ll try to be competitive. I do think our side of the bracket is pretty tough.  It doesn’t have Louisville and Indy, but still, Tampa and Charleston are very tough.  In fact, I thought Charleston was a little stronger than Tampa last year,” Lilley exclaimed.

“Charlotte is adding some pieces and had a really good season last year. Miami is the sleeping giant. Their personnel, and the money they’re putting in (to the club), they could be very dangerous.”

A year ago, the Hounds came up short, finishing second in a four-team group that included Hartford, NY Red Bulls II and Loudoun, primarily due to a pair of out-of-group  losses to Indy Eleven and a late season hiccup against Hartford, even after dominating the Athletic in its previous two matches.

One of the fun things about seeing the Hounds play each team in its division four times to cover 28 of their 32 regular season matches is that familiarity will likely breed contempt.  They already have some history of intense battles with some of these clubs. Now, they’ll enter a whole new chapter of excitement in facing a season long grind against a concentrated group of opponents who they’re going to get to know very well.

The series with Charleston (33 meetings since 1999) has been significant through the years, while having Hartford, NY Red Bulls, Charlotte, Tampa Bay, and to a lesser extent, Loudoun back as ongoing competitors will position Pittsburgh into some fascinating challenges and encounters.  Throw in relative newcomers Miami FC, and you have an additional wild card to the group.

Add in a bunch of former Hounds that will be in this division, and there’s a lot of potential, fun storylines for us to follow this coming season.

(Among those former Hounds on Atlantic Division teams include:  Christiano Francois (Miami FC), Steevan Dos Santos (Tampa Bay Rowdies), Hugh Roberts (Charlotte Independence, plus Robbie Mertz is playing with Atlanta United 2, who are scheduled to visit Pittsburgh in August) 

The last time the Riverhounds played a team four times in the same season was FC Cincinnati in 2018 (one of those matches was an Open Cup loss).

Prior to that, the last time Pittsburgh played a team four times in the regular season, you have to go back to the legendary Keystone Derby Cup series with Harrisburg City Islanders in 2015.

How tightly contested and intense was that series?  Well, it was a big part of my book, ‘Miracle on the Mon’ as the two sides battled through four memorable games, including the Hounds’ 6-5 come-from-behind win on May 30, 2015.

Miracle on the Mon (excerpt): The Keystone Derby

“We would play them four times. That’s a lot. You want to make sure you come out on top,” former Riverhounds midfielder Rob Vincent said of that series vs Harrisburg that year. “The Steel Army always came out for those games. We could sense they always wanted to win a bit more and we fed off that.”

“And things got feistier on both sides.”

For now, the Hounds will take a practical approach when facing this Atlantic Division slate.

“Our job is to try and get into that top four,” Lilley added.

Look for more previewing the Hounds in the coming week as their season kicks off on May 8 when they visit the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a terrific opening test for both sides.

First, here’s a closer look at each club in the ‘Atlantic Eight’ and how they’ve stacked up against the Hounds over the years:

Tampa Bay Rowdies 

Head Coach:  Neill Collins

Home Field:  Al Lang Stadium

The All-Time Series (Riverhounds SC record):  2-2-3

Most Memorable Moment:   “Every time Robbie gets the ball in attacking half — I say — shoot Robbie, shoot,” said Mark Steffens, the happy Riverhounds head coach after the Hounds defeated Tampa Bay in a USL-vs-NASL showdown in 2015 at Highmark Stadium in the Third Round of the U.S. Open Cup.

Riverhounds advance in U.S. Open Cup; Will face D.C. United in fourth round

The Rowdies return a strong core to a group that won the Eastern Conference side of the USL Cup Playoffs, and were set to host the USL Cup Final before the match’s cancellation due to COVID-19.

Everyone will now be gunning to take down the Rowdies, as they should be the odds on favorites to finish at the top-of-the-table in the Atlantic Division and could repeat as the staunchest and most difficult team to score against.

While the Hounds are rebuilding its back line, the Rowdies defensive corps remain intact, with USL Championship’s Defender of the Year, Forrest Lasso, along with Aaron Guillen and Jordan Scarlett.  Also returning will be goalkeeper Evan Louro.

Key pieces to the Rowdies attack will include captain Sebastian Guenzatti along with Leo Fernandes is set for his fifth season at the club.

As the Hounds decided to not re-sign 31 year-old top man from Cape Verde, Steevan Dos Santos, he has moved on to Tampa Bay where remains a strong, physical presence at the top of the attack.

The Rowdies also added a few more pieces to an already solid roster in former Atlanta United FC midfielder Laurence Wyke, and 2019 League One Defender of the Year Conner Antley,

Charleston Battery  

Head Coach:   Mike Anhaeuser

Home Field:  Patriots Point Stadium (Image Courtesy Charleston Battery — see below)

The All-Time Series (Riverhounds SC record):  7-13-13

(Old Guard Shield Rivalry: Charleston captured in 2017 when five original USL teams — including Rochester, Richmond and Harrisburg — competed through the season; Hounds won the Shield in 2018 & 2019)

Most Memorable Moment:  Wins against Charleston on the road were so rare, so when Kevin Kerr and Corey Hertzog combined in the 90th minute to pull out a road win in 2017 with a late game-winner, it was a feat worth celebrating for Riverhounds’ fans.

What We Learned: For the Hounds, a big win to build upon

You have to think that with a new stadium, the Battery will be extra motivated this season to provide its fans with a special season.

Along with the Riverhounds, the Battery are the lone other ‘Old Guard’ USL club remaining, and as seen above, they’ll be able to renew the series to play for the ‘Old Guard Shield‘ created by the supporters groups of both teams.

Thus, one of the best things about the Atlantic Division set-up in 2021 will be that the old rivals will have plenty of time to get caught up.

This also means that Bob Lilley and Mike Anhaeuser get to match wits a bunch more times after not meeting in 2020.

There might be no-one more associated with one club in North American soccer than Anhaeuser is with the Battery. A former player who joined the club in its second season in 1994 before injury curtailed his career, Anhaeuser remained with Charleston first as an assistant coach before taking over the Head Coaching role in 2004. The Coach with the most regular-season wins in the Championship’s history, Anhaueser always finds a way to get the best out of his team.

As Lilley alluded, the Battery will be a tough out, as they were a step-for-step contender to the Rowdies in 2020, losing 1-0 in the Eastern Conference semifinal in a match that could have gone either way.

The focal point of the Battery’s attack remains Zeiko Lewis (13 goals over the past two seasons) and under Anhaeuser’s guidance, they’ll remain a tough defensive unit, particularly with defender Leland Archer and goalkeeper Joe Kuzminsky returning.

Charlotte Independence

Head Coach:  Mike Jeffries

Home Field:  American Legion Memorial Stadium (see below video courtesy Charlotte Independence)

The All-Time Series (Riverhounds SC record):  0-6-5 

Most Memorable Moment:  The Hounds have never beaten Charlotte.  I repeat, the Hounds have never beaten Charlotte since its inception in the 2015 season, so here we must turn to one of those five draws.

This was one where they needed a late goal to stay in contention for a top-four spot in the standings in 2018, securing a first-ever home playoff match.  It was Ben Zemanski who delivered the game tying goal.

The Independence, also playing in a new stadium this year, have not been around a long time, but they’ve been a real nuisance for the Hounds during the past six-plus years.

PSN’s Mark Goodman also pinpointed and picked apart the club’s distracting once majority owner, Dan DiMicco, and his questionable behavior, which was called out by the Independence’s most loyal supporters, in a two-part article, The Owner That Strangled His Own Club (Pt 1 and Pt 2).

Coincidentally, not too long after those articles were published, the USL issued a statement as reported here by The Athletic’s Jeff Reuter, that DiMicco’s ownership stake was in the process of being sold.

“The United Soccer League announced today that the Charlotte Independence are in the process of selling several ownership stakes in the team, including that of majority owner Dan DiMicco,” said the USL’s statement. “The day-to-day management of the club – of which Mr. DiMicco and others are not directly involved – will continue to be overseen by President and Managing Partner Jim McPhilliamy.  As such, the Club remains fully committed to all players, staff and community members as we move forward with the 2021 season and beyond.”

There still remains a lot of uncertainty about what will happen with this club beyond this coming season, but now, it’s time for the Independence to turn the page for this season. They’ll be able to do that with two constants who have been club mainstays leading the way: head coach Mike Jeffries and primary play maker, Enzo Martinez, a two-time, All-USL First team midfielder.  Despite a fair amount of success and playoff appearances under Jeffries’ leadership and Martinez’s spectacular play, the one thing that Charlotte hasn’t been able to do during this time is win a postseason match.

Also a pair of familiar faces have become leaders on this team the past few years: Brandon Miller (who played keeper under Lilley in Rochester) and Hugh Roberts, a former All-USL First Team defender, who spent one memorable season in Pittsburgh (in 2018).

While the Independence did boast the USL Championship’s all-time leading scorer, Dane Kelly a year ago, they’ll have to make do without him this season.

Among the additions include Irvin Parra, most recently of San Diego Loyal SC, and in defense Colombian defender Kevin Riascos could make a great partner for Roberts.

Charlotte have been one of the toughest nuts for the Hounds to crack for the past six years, it appears that 2021 will be no exception as they’ll be hungry to finish ahead of Pittsburgh.

NY Red Bulls II 

Head Coach:  John Wolyniec

Home Field:  Red Bull Arena / Montclair State University

The All-Time Series (Riverhounds SC record):  4-6-1 

Most Memorable Moment:  All things considered, the Hounds have played some of its more significant and memorable matches in the past six years against the Baby Bulls. Despite the notorious fame of the Romeo Parkes’ kicking Karl Ouimette in the back game, we’ll chalk-up the Hounds 4-2 playoff loss at Red Bulls Arena as the most memorable moment in this series.

Riverhounds Falter To Red Bulls II In Extra Time

For the first time since competing in the USL Championship, the Red Bulls II missed playoffs in 2020.

To be fair, the Baby Bulls were already at a disadvantage for much of the season, as they were dealing with COVID-19 roster shortages and supporting the senior team more than ever, plus they lost midfield anchor Kyle Zajec to an early season-ending injury.

Those close to the RB organization believe they’ll be better and more fluidly-built in 2021.

While the Red Bulls may not have as many reserve players out of college (like former Robert Morris product Devon ‘Speedy’ Williams was for them) or part of the senior team rotation this year, they are building a younger from top-to-bottom squad.

It’s very likely that the RBII will feature two of the youngest players in the club’s history in 2006-born Bento Estrela and 2005-born Curtis Ofori.

“We value winning because at the end of the day, on my priority list of producing players is producing winners,” Red Bulls II manager John Wolyniec told OnceAMetro.com.

“That’s way up there. Now that doesn’t mean you have to do everything to win at all costs and all that stuff we have room within that idea. We might see some younger players so maybe that does challenge us, in a sense and maybe we’re not you know first place in June and July but we are going to value that piece. Again, not so much because we need to win trophies, but because the idea of winning trophies is important, motivation for a player that’s trying to make the first team.”

Hartford Athletic 

Head Coach: Harry Watling

Home Field:  Dillon Field 

The All-Time Series (Riverhounds SC record):  4-1-0 

Most Memorable Moment:  It was a night of bold statements. The first meeting between the two sides in 2020 had some build-up, as the Hounds and Hartford were battling for the top spot in the Group F standings. This match also provided players from both clubs to unify by taking a stand against racism in the 7th minute of the match.  By the end of the night, Pittsburgh, playing without its leader, Kenardo Forbes, who was injured in the early moments, dominated the Athletic to seize the top spot in the group at that point in the season.

Takeways/Grades: On night of bold statements in Hartford, Riverhounds SC affirm top spot

“It just shows two teams coming together in solidarity and just showing that we support what’s going on across the country right now,” Dixon said.

Dixon, now with the Hounds, told the Hartford Journal-Inquirer that stopping at 7:00 was chosen to symbolize the seven times Jacob Blake was shot, and resuming at 8:46 represented the 8:46 an officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck when Floyd was killed on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minn.

“There’s things that are bigger than soccer and all sports across the world, and we just wanted to shed a little light on that and do our part.”

The Hounds flat-out owned Hartford through the first four matches in series history.  It’s that fifth match that turned the tables of the Hounds 2020 campaign and adds a whole lot of intrigue as these two clubs will meet four more times this season.

Unlike the previous teams, Hartford will have to fill its managerial duties with a newcomer for the third time in its three seasons as Radhi Jaidi has returned to England, to be replaced by former Chelsea and West Ham Academy Head Coach Harry Watling

The Athletic will have a good part of its core back, including playmaker Danny Barrera.

There are some interesting new arrivals including former Reno 1868 FC defender Thomas Janjigian, forwards Sebastian Elney and Bradford Jamieson IV, and Puerto Rico international Nicolas Cardona.

In addition to losing its coaches, the Athletic have to replace Ever Guzman – who led Hartford in goals a season ago – and Alex Dixon (who has since signed with Pittsburgh) and midfielder Mads Jorgensen.

It feels as if they’re almost starting over again.  In this Division, that might be tough thing to do.

Miami FC

Head Coach:  Paul Dalglish

Home Field:  Riccardo Silva Stadium

The All-Time Series (Riverhounds SC record):  0-0 

Bob Lilley calls them a ‘Sleeping Giant’.

There are plenty of familiar faces to Riverhounds and Pittsburgh soccer fans who’ve taken their talents to South Beach.

Some are among the biggest thorns in the Hounds side in recent years, including former Robert Morris, Red Bulls II and Louisville City midfielder Devon ‘Speedy’ Williams (the Robert Horry of the USL Championship, as he owns three Championship rings) and Louisville City defender Paco Craig.

They’ve also added former Italy international Luca Antonelli, a transfer of Bolu Akinyode from Birmingham Legion FC were among the new arrivals at Riccardo Silva Stadium this winter.

Head Coach Paul Dalglish will look to mold the new pieces into a cohesive unit.

Another familiar face to Hounds fans, Christiano Francois, returns for his first year with Miami FC after spending 2020 in Reno. Recently, The Cheetah played for his home country, Haiti.

Loudoun United FC 

Head Coach:  Ryan Martin

Home Field:  Segra Field

The All-Time Series (Riverhounds SC record):  5-0 

Most Memorable Moment: Showing some resolve on the road, the Riverhounds stormed back from its first deficit in seven matches, with two quick goals midway through the second half to surge past Loudoun for a 2-1 win that kept them on track toward capturing the USL Championship Eastern Conference top of the table finish in the 2019 regular season.

FINAL: Riverhounds SC 2, Loudoun United FC 1

One thing the Riverhounds dealt with when playing Loudoun United three times a season ago, was they had to manage through early portions of matches that were played at a breakneck pace.

Still, the Hounds found ways to grind out a pair of road wins, then also win a wacky match in Pittsburgh where the first three shots on goal came from penalty kick opportunities.

The one player who stood out for the United, especially when those games vs Pittsburgh were open-ended, was a 19-year old, Niger U-20 National Team member Kairou Amoustapha. The dangerous forward notched three goals, one assist. eight shots on goal and 16 key passes for United in nine appearances

Unfortunately, nothing seemed to go right for Loudoun United FC in the 2020 season, as they called their season after 13 games due to COVID-19 issues.

One of the returning players we’ll be keeping our eyes on for Loudoun is Robby Dambrot, a former Pitt and Akron defender (and son of current Duquesne men’s basketball coach, Keith Dambrot).

The United brought in former Sacramento Republic FC midfielder Drew Skundrich, who made 42 appearances in the center of midfield over the past two seasons, to be a dependable, veteran leader. Another new addition is Wahab Ackwei, who spent the past two seasons in USL League One with the Richmond Kickers. Both players have logged close to 5,000 minutes of action in their careers.

Still, head coach Ryan Martin will be working with a pretty young core though from the DC United system, so they’ll definitely have to be patient with the process of bringing this team along.

We’ve seen patience pay off for some MLS second teams in the USL Championship, but it may take longer than a season for Loudoun to become a team that will threaten to reach the top of the table.

Click here for the Riverhounds 2021 schedule.

Riverhounds SC Schedule (2021)

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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