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Assertive Hounds strike early, but can’t hold lead against Miami FC

Russell Cicerone steps past a Miami defender on Saturday night. (RIVERHOUNDS SC)

Assertive Hounds strike early, but can’t hold lead against Miami FC

They were better, but still not yet over the finish line at Highmark Stadium.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC finally scored a goal at home in 2021, but Miami FC escaped the South Side with a 1-1 draw in front of 3,115 fans on Saturday night.

First-year Hounds attacker Russell Cicerone netted the lone home tally in the 10th minute, the USL Championship veteran’s team-best fourth of the year. Pittsburgh had gone its first 190 minutes of play at Highmark Stadium without a goal, including a frustrating blank slate in a 1-0 loss to Austin Bold FC last Sunday.

“I think we played with more urgency,” said Hounds head man Bob Lilley. “I think execution could be better, but I liked the energy.”

Although the performance was an unquestioned step up for a team still finding its footing, former Pittsburgh fan favorite Cristiano François knotted it up before the half, making the Hounds (2-3-2, 8 points) winless through their first three home dates for the first time in the four-year Lilley era.

Lilley and wing back Jordan Dover each participated in their 100th matches for Pittsburgh, but there would be no storybook ending for the Hounds, who remained one point behind Miami (3-3-1, 9 points) for fourth place in the eight-team Atlantic Division. The top four teams will qualify for the USL Championship playoffs.

“I liked the fight,” Lilley said. “These are the types of games where you’ll get three points if you keep putting out these performances. If we keep the standard there, we’ll start to get the results.”

The Hounds earned their sought-after home breakthrough just 10 minutes into the match, with Cicerone polishing off Alex Dixon’s cross-box feed.

“Each game we play, the chemistry is getting better and better,” said Cicerone, who was signed from now-defunct Saint Louis FC over the winter. “I think we were a little more on the front foot today than last weekend. A little more willing to play the riskier ball and try to get forward.

“At home, we need to start building those leads. We didn’t tonight and it cost us.”

Dixon did most of the work on the opening strike. In picking up his team-leading third assist, the 31-year-old galloped down the left flank and waited for the perfect opportunity to flick the ball through traffic.

“That attests to the chemistry we’re building,” Cicerone said. “(Dixon) is super-experienced in this league. He knows how to break things down. He’s an overall really clever attacking player.”

Pittsburgh continued to press as the first half moved along, but couldn’t find another shot on frame. Cicerone’s open bid for a second goal on 20 minutes was nullified by an offside whistle, nevertheless highlighting Miami’s struggles to defend the Hounds’ quick-passing attack.

However, the pacey visitors managed 60 percent possession in the opening half, a rate that ironically paid off in a bang-bang equalizer.

Pouncing on a loose ball at the midfield stripe, Ariel Martinez slotted a pass between defenders for François, who rounded sophomore keeper Danny Vitiello and finessed a shot through Preston Kilwein just two minutes before halftime.

“They had a lot of possession and we were a little bit tired,” Lilley lamented. “Didn’t deal with the first ball. Didn’t track the runner. Danny could’ve been a little higher and we could’ve cleared it off the line.

“Unfortunate that one breakdown costs us, but I liked our response.”

Each side generated a golden chance in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, but Miami’s Martinez pounded a shot over the crossbar from inside the 18, and Dixon was denied a top-shelf goal by leaping keeper Connor Sparrow.

Dixon nearly created the tiebreaker in the 87th minute, when he was bumped off an aerial pass inside the penalty area; there was no whistle from head referee Brad Jensen. A flashing header from Kilwein in the 90th minute also came close, but sailed just wide of the right post.

“We’re getting more bodies in the box,” midfielder Danny Griffin said. “With the amount of chances we created, it’s definitely clicking. It’s something we’re working on and getting better.”

Albert Dikwa got his foot clipped inside the 18 during stoppage time, but again Jensen wasn’t impressed. The home crowd, Pittsburgh’s largest since the 2019 season, howled its displeasure as the result went final.

“I thought we were creating chances and we weren’t given any favors,” Lilley said. “Obviously I’m not right next to the play, and decisions are made (by the referees).

“I liked that we kept the pedal down at the end of the game. We tried to keep the tempo high. Much better intensity, in my opinion, than the Charleston and Austin games.”

In the final accounting, possession was nearly even, but the Hounds held advantages in shots (10-4), shots on target (4-1) and crosses (14-5) in their first-ever meeting vs. Miami.

“I think throughout the game, we were the more dangerous team,” Cicerone said. “There were times the game was pretty open and they were trying to make runs behind. They’re a really strong squad with a lot of attacking pieces.”

The Hounds will next play two consecutive road matches over the span of four days, traveling to face the rested Indy Eleven (3-3-1, 10 points) on Tuesday and then getting an early chance at revenge in Tampa on Saturday. Pittsburgh lost its season opener at the first-place Rowdies several weeks back, 3-0.

“I’m a process guy,” Lilley said. “If the guys are doing the right things, I think we’re going in the right direction. The challenge gets bigger, but I’ve felt like it’s probably what we need right now. We need to see where we are.”

PITTSBURGH POSTGAME

Jordan Smith, who handled tonight’s live file, joined me from the top deck of Highmark Stadium for a quick edition of Pittsburgh Postgame on Pittsburgh Sports Live!

Pardon the mayflies swarming around us … blame the Monongahela for that:

Matt Gajtka (pronounced GITE-kah) is a columnist, analyst and reporter for Pittsburgh Soccer Now. In addition to his four-year role as play-by-play broadcaster for Riverhounds SC, he has experience covering pro and amateur sports for over a decade. Matt got his start in soccer while calling games for the Marshall University men's and women's Division I teams. He fondly remembers attending Hounds matches at Bethel Park High School, although he lapsed during the Moon and Chartiers Valley years. Like many, the construction of Highmark Stadium in 2013 rekindled his passion for the club and local soccer in general.

Pittsburgh Division I College Soccer Schedule (Spring 2021)

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