This is one of those games where the narrative is much larger than the matchup.
That’s because, for the first time since the end of the 2019 season, Pittsburgh Riverhounds supporters will be at Highmark Stadium to cheer for the boys.
I’m getting goosebumps just writing it.
Having spoken to players and coaches over the past year, I’ve heard them say over and over again, “It’s just not the same without the fans.” The veteran Hounds players like Dani Rovira and Anthony Velarde and Danny Vitiello will all feel the emotion of seeing Steel Army in the Paul Child Stand, losing their minds. They’ll feel it when they first pop out of the locker room and warmup to applause – because in 2020 they emerged to literal silence. I know, I was there a few times. You saw the players jog out of the tunnel and look up with blank faces – faces that said ‘I knew it was gonna be weird. But this… this is weird.’ Just the simple relief of not having to trot out into an empty Highmark Stadium eight times this year, as they did in 2020, must feel good.
Add to that the surge of energy the team will feel from the electric, albeit reduced capacity, Hounds crowd, and we’re in for quite the show tonight kids.
Charlotte Independence- the Broad Strokes
Again, most of what’s up with Charlotte is *drama* and *narrative*. This game is more soap opera than football match.
Charlotte spent 2020 in a full blown club meltdown, as their racist, antisemitic, transphobic owner alienated both the players and the supporters with a series of unhinged twitter rants. You can read all about it here and here. Well, that guy, Dan DiMicco, is out. DiMicco sold his majority stake back to now-club president Jim McPhillamy. It seems to have calmed the waters a little. But Charlotte were already one of the smaller, less-stable, poorly attended clubs in the USL. Supporters will probably be back, but this club sapped all momentum with their stupidity in 2020, and regaining that will be hard. Add to that the fact that this is very likely the club’s final year in existence, due to the impending MLS expansion of Charlotte FC (wow what a dull name), and the Independence are up against it.
The other funky piece of ‘narrative’ – the Hounds have never beaten Charlotte, neither home nor away. “The Hounds are 0-6-5 all-time against Charlotte, marking the most meetings without a win vs. any opponent in club history,” says the Riverhounds press release. I imagine Bob Lilley will probably mention that tonight. It’s a weird quirk for the Hounds – Charlotte’s never really been ‘good’ in their 7 seasons in existence, never finishing higher than 5th in the Eastern Conference. Somehow, they’ve just got our number, Hounds fans.
Tactics and Personnel
Charlotte, coached by Mike Jeffries this year, played a 4-2-3-1 that was tight defensively against Charleston Battery last week. They don’t get stretched out or pulled apart easily and keep their shape well. They look particularly prepared to transition into defending in the event that they lose the ball – meaning they’d rather be cautious then be caught in a bad position in transition. That might be an anecdotal observation, though, since the Independence took a lead early and built off of it to get a 3-0 win. Teams often look well-organized and cautious when they lead.
They retain a few veterans from past campaigns – familiar faces like Enzo Martinez and Hugh Roberts and Joel Johnson – but amongst those names only Roberts has appeared in the first two matches. The 30 year old Martinez, formerly the club’s talisman and an MLS player in 2017, has declined significantly, getting just 2 goals and 1 assist in 2020.
The exciting players to watch this year are 20-year-old attacking mid Marcelo Palomino and striker Irwin Parra. Palomino is on loan from Houston Dynamo, and is a three-time academy player of the year for the orange and black. The 27-year-old Parra is an experienced USL striker. You’d be forgiven for not knowing Parra’s name, since he’s spent his entire USL career on the left coast, playing for Sounders 2, Orange County, Las Vegas Lights, and San Diego Loyal. He’s racked up 30 goals and 19 assists with these five teams though, including this one from last week:
Parra header for Charlotte against Charleston. pic.twitter.com/Sh3408myzV
— Soccer Rabbi (@soccer_rabbi) May 22, 2021
The Independence also have Orlando City academy product Jordan Bender on loan, as well as former Chicago Fire midfielder Brandt Bronico. I rate Bronico quite highly – he does a little of everything well as a mid – and he’s a paradigmatic ‘quad A’ kind of guy, who might likely bounce back into MLS and back to USL again; although he’s already 27 years-old.
Lastly in the category of ‘hey I know that guy!’ for Hounds fans is Austin Pack, who was the Riverhounds backup GK in 2019. He backs up starting netminder Tyler Miller, a Charlotte native, who was also the starting keeper for Bob Lilley’s Rochester Rhinos from 2012-2015. Bob and Tyler won the USL Championship Trophy in 2015, if you recall, so expect a hug after the match between the two.
Oh yeah, and they also added 30 year old all-time USL leading scorer Dane Kelly this past week. Kelly had been in Israel with Bnei Sakhnin, the only team in Israel’s top division from an Arab-Israeli town. Sakhnin barely staved off relegation this year, finishing a single point above the drop. Kelly has 88 goals in USL, but has just *4 minutes* playing time in MLS, for DC United back in 2018, making him the league’s real-life version of Crash Davis.
Despite the fact that this team has been in a bad way off the field for a few years (and still is, really), on the field they seem to a competent and capable. The Hounds may be feeding off of a tremendous amount of energy, but this Charlotte team is completely capable of escaping from the three-rivers adjacent area with a point, or perhaps even three.
Charlotte’s Lineup Last Week
Date: Saturday, May 22
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA
Television: 22 The Point
Live Statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live Updates: Pittsburgh Soccer Now; Twitter at @RiverhoundsSC and #PITvCLT
Featured Image c/o Charlotte Independence via twitter