After two straight weekends at the start of this season of being on the road, the Riverhounds SC and many soccer fans in Pittsburgh are genuinely excited about returning home for a match at Highmark Stadium.
The clear consensus that the best part of the ninth home opener for the Hounds at Highmark Stadium is that there will actually be fans in attendance after playing the entire 2020 campaign’s brief home schedule with almost zero fan presence.
In this week’s Zoom Conference Call for the media, Head Coach Bob Lilley fielded numerous questions revolving around the excitement building up to the home opener.
“We’re grateful that we’re able to let people back in the stands. Our intention is to reward the fans that have stuck behind us. There were even some hearty souls that traveled at times. It’s been a difficult period,” Lilley said on Tuesday. “We still have our protocols to follow. The ability to bring joy, to celebrate, to have get people back around team is important to us as a team. Important to our fans and the community as well.”
The Hounds head into this year’s home opener with a slight sense of urgency to earn their first win of the season after a loss at Tampa and a disappointing draw at Hartford. They’ll have to do it against a club that they’ve never beaten in 12 previous matches dating back to 2015, the Charlotte Independence. We’ll have more on the match-up leading up to the game this week on Pittsburgh Soccer Now.
The club has been on its typical full-week leading up to Saturday match routine, training both Monday and Tuesday before a day off on Wednesday, then additional sessions on Thursday and Friday.
The team will also be without its captain and leader on the field for the most part of the past four seasons and USL Championship’s all-time assist leader, Kenardo Forbes. The Jamaican midfielder was sent off late in the second half of Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Hartford, and will be serving a one-game suspension.
For this week’s notebook, lets take a look back at the first eight home openers and also review the highlights from Lilley’s press conference on Tuesday.
Home Openers at Highmark
Going back to the first-ever home match played against Harrisburg in April 2013, there’s always been an unbridled amount of optimism and buzz on opening night at Highmark among Pittsburgh’s soccer fans and within the club.
The results of the home openers, though, haven’t always been great for the Hounds, which, even in some of their best seasons during this era, have been hampered by some slow starts.
Here’s how the Riverhounds SC have fared during this time, posting a 2-4-2 overall record in its home openers.
- 2013: Loss to Harrisburg City Islanders 1-2
- 2014: Loss to Wilmington 3-4
- 2015: Win vs Harrisburg, 5-2
- 2016: Loss to Rochester, 0-1
- 2017: Draw vs NY Red Bulls II, 3-3
- 2018: Draw vs Penn FC (formerly Harrisburg City Islanders), 0-0
- 2019: Win vs Hartford Athletic, 3-1
- 2020: Loss vs Indy Eleven, 0-1
In an interesting note, the last two goals surrendered by the Hounds in the past three home openers have come from former Riverhounds players, Tyler Pasher and Jose Angulo.
Who’s next? Our old friend, Hugh Roberts, is the only former Hounds on Charlotte’s roster.
Last year, in a match played before no fans, Pasher broke a deadlocked, scoreless match in stoppage time with a brilliant strike from beyond 25 yards.
The year before, Jose Angulo provided the lone goal for expansion Hartford Athletic, as the Hounds rolled to a 3-1 win on that night. Another Highmark Stadium ‘original’ — Kevin Kerr set up Steevan Dos Santos with an assist in the 14th minute, then scored in the 74th minute to break a 1-1 deadlock.
As of Wednesday, there are still a limited number of seats available for the game.
We have a 𝙡𝙞𝙢𝙞𝙩𝙚𝙙 amount of tickets on sale for Saturday's game!
Come join us as we return to Highmark Stadium for the first time in 2021! #UNLEASH
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) May 19, 2021
Highlights From Bob Lilley’s Weekly Meet Up with Media
Assessing his team’s performance through the first two games:
“We were better in Hartford, then in Tampa. In second half, we sat back too much. Happy with our execution when we had the ball. They had very few clean looks. Second half, we were deeper. Gave a lot of crosses and balls in the box. We defended well, but if you’re defending that deep for that long there’s a chance you’re going to give up a goal at some point. I would have liked to seen us more proactive in the second half. From what we learned from (week 1 loss at) Tampa, there was definitely progress in finding our outlets. Finding guys higher up the pitch. Switching the ball. Connecting the dots. All of those things were much better. We were really able to control the tempo, be the more dangerous team and get a lead. I don’t think Hartford is as strong as Tampa. We still want to work on those things and get better.”
“Hopefully, what we did in Hartford, we can continue to build on. When we play teams like Charlotte and most teams in this league, we’re going to have to be consistent through the 90 minutes. We haven’t been able to do that, yet. In order to win games, we have to be solid throughout the game.”
On tactics against Hartford
“We’ve always been pretty adaptable and flexible with our tactics. We were looking to get an advantage against Hartford in terms of our shape, where we had our numbers and how we wanted to play out. I think it was pretty effective and we worked on it through the week. Every team plays different. When we play Charlotte, how they line up will be a little bit different. We obviously look at video and build a game plan off that. I think the guys did a good job executing in the first half. The second half, it was too conservative. In the first half, we won a lot of balls higher up the pitch, but in the second half, we were so deep that, when we did win the ball, we were not in areas to get forward and create chances. We played a little bit to protect a 1-0 lead as opposed to staying positive and trying to tack on a second goal.”
“I think there were more goals in it for us. I think it was kind of disappointing to let those three points get away at the tail end of the game.”
“We’re hoping for more improvement this week. To have the fans. To be at home. For the home opener, it’s a big opportunity for us to get our first win and climb up the standings a little bit.”
Advantages of playing at home
“One of the advantages is the fans. We’d love to have as many as possible, but there are restrictions. Watching games with fans, it looks like they’ve come back in a strong manner. There’s still an energy that was missing. Hopefully, we can draw on that.”
“The fact that we train on our field, on our surface, where we’re used to playing, is an advantage. You don’t have some of the travel issues. You always see that home field advantage, but it gets greater the more you fill up the stadium.”
“Last year, it seemed as if most of the stadium’s were empty. It seemed almost as if it were practice game. In the games at Tampa and Hartford, our players got used to playing with people in the crowd.”
“It’s up to us to find ways to keep them excited. Create chances. Hopefully be dynamic in our play and get a result.”
“One of the reasons why we’ve been able to keep fans, is because the results have been successful. We’re hopeful to get on the right foot with our home schedule. We’re trying to win all games, home and away, but the home games are the ones you need to take care of.”
Managing through COVID-19 restrictions
“Sometimes in sports and in life, you deal with the hand that you’re dealt. It’s not something you want to go through again. Again, grateful that we’re able to let people back in the stands. Our intention is to reward the fans that have stuck behind us. There were even some hearty souls that traveled at times. It’s been a difficult period. One that the players have found a way to grind and be accountable. I was proud of how our guys handled it last year. We’re still in the shadows of it this year. It’s getting better. We still have our protocols to follow. The ability to bring joy, to celebrate, to have get people back around team is important to us as a team. Important to our fans and the community as well.”
There’s a vibe that with our academy. Our players get involved with academy kids. In off time, I worked with them too. We’re trying to build a culture here. (Team Owner) Tuffy’s (Shallenberger) been able to bring a lot of people here. As we win, there’s more interest from community side. As business we continue to grow. We know we have a lot of work to do. We’ve had playoff games when stands have been packed. We’d love to find way to push deeper in playoffs. It’s one of those things, you’re on the cusp. You know when you’re pushing in right direction to push the rock higher up the hill. That’s what we’re working to do, to get higher. See this venue filled. Playing at our best level up. That’s what it’s all about. Not only exciting for our players, for the fans too. It takes a lot of work, time, but we’re making progress in those areas. It’s every brick to add to the foundation. Even through COVID, we’re pushing this foward. Lot of credit to Tuffy. Lot of people working behind the scenes with the organization.”
“Excited for season. For a full season moving forward. But even more excited to put wins in win column.”
On Missing Kenardo Forbes, and his on field leadership
“He did miss some time last year with an injury, but he hasn’t missed a lot for me. Always a challenge. He helps control tempo for us. Lot of experience. His levels a re good for us. Often times are very good. But we have a good squad. We’re going to have to tweak some things. There’s other ways we can to circulate the ball. It will mean multiple guys will ahve to step u. We have some capable players. Hope is that our MF players take on bit more responsibility. It will cover void of not having Kenardo Forbes in the lineup.
Looking at challenge of facing Charlotte
“They’re good. They played Tampa week before us, and lost 3-0 too. I thought first half was pretty even. In some ways they played Tampa a little better than we did. I think Tampa was a little stronger against us. I know they looked good against Charleston. I think Charleston is going to be good. Fact they went in there and won 3-0, they’re going to be coming in here flying. We struggled the first week. I think we had better week of training before Hartford. We’re coming home now. It helps as well. Now we’re in game three now, so game fitness will help too.”
“It’s going to be a tough game. We expected tough one at Hartford. They’re good on ball. Pretty good in possession. They have multiple players that can create chances, score goals. They’re pretty good on defensive end. Hugh Roberts played here for us (in 2018), Brandon Miller, goalkeeper, played for me (in Rochester) are very good. I think they’re a solid team, in playoff position along with us. There are six-seven teams right there. I expect them to be one of those challengers. An average performance isn’t going to get you three points very often. A team like Charlotte, you need a good performance.”
“We have a few guys that have a few tweaks but should have all players available for the weekend except Kenardo (Forbes — out serving one game suspension after last week’s red card).
Up Next: Charlotte Independence (early look)
Early in the season, it’s been a season for firsts surrounding the Charlotte Independence.
The Independence have never beaten Southern Derby rival Charleston in the Holy City. That changed this past weekend Within the opening five minutes of Friday night’s clash the Independence flipped the script.
A brilliant free kick by Jake Areman that caromed off the crossbar to allow Marcelo Palomino to nod home the opening goal, and a second shortly after by Irvin Parra paved the way for Charlotte’s 3-0 victory and a serious boost of confidence in their second game of the season. The Independence looked the more threatening throughout, winning the individual battles around the field on what ended up as a landmark night for the club against its biggest rival.
“We played very well. The early goal was a huge confidence boost for us,” said Independence Head Coach Mike Jeffries. “Defensively, I thought we did a really good job keeping our shape, and on a tough field we had stretches where we moved the ball very well. The second goal was very good from us in terms of the build-up, it set a good tone and put us on the way to a good result.”
Now, it’s the Hounds who can hope to flip the script, as they’ve never — since the Independence have come into the league in 2015 — won a match vs Charlotte.
With a sense of urgency following an 0-1-1 start to the season, the Hounds will be eager to get a leg up on the Independence in their season series and get back into the mix in the Atlantic Division standings.