PITTSBURGH — When is a win not a win? Well …
Taking advantage of a season-long 10 days off between matches, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC scored early and clung to the lead all night in a 1-0 defeat of Loudoun United FC on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.
Russell Cicerone’s seventh-minute marker held up to give the Hounds (7-4-3, 24 points) their fifth win in eight games. Danny Vitiello stopped three shots for his third clean sheet in 11 appearances, boosting Pittsburgh to 5-1-2 since a home loss to Austin on June 6.
This result, combined with Tampa Bay’s loss to Miami, forged a two-way tie between the Hounds and the Rowdies atop the USL Championship’s Atlantic Division as we near the midway point of the regular season.
Not that any of that mattered to head coach Bob Lilley, who questioned his team’s decision-making and focus to assembled reporters.
“The three points were hollow for me.” Lilley said in a postgame press conference dripping with disappointment, shortly after lecturing his players on the field for about a half an hour.
“We had more of the dangerous moments, but overall we were poor on the night. It’s frustrating because we started the game brightly, then we can’t string five passes together. We didn’t possess the ball; we didn’t try to possess.”
🗣 “We had more of the dangerous moments, but we were poor on the night. … It’s just not good enough.”
— Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) (@MattGajtka) July 18, 2021
The Hounds outshot (12-8) and outcrossed (19-10) Loudoun, but the visitors enjoyed 60 percent of the ball and out-passed Pittsburgh by nearly 200 touches, even while dropping to 2-10-0.
A crowd of 3,483 watched the Hounds win for the third time in six home matches, but once again they had to sweat it out. Of their seven victories, only one has been by multiple goals.
“We haven’t been consistently at our top level all year,” Lilley continued. “Some of those wins we could’ve played better and we’ve dropped points in others. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing result-wise if you’re not getting better. You’ll pay for it later. That’s what’s frustrating.
“Even our best performances have been nail-biters.”
Last-place Loudoun had been responsible for the Hounds’ lone loss in their previous seven matches, although that setback in Virginia came near the end of Pittsburgh’s 10-games-in-40-days stretch.
On this night, the Hounds were well-rested. They looked it early, at least.
Todd Wharton gathered a switch-of-play ball from Kenardo Forbes and grounded a pass to Alex Dixon in the right side of the Loudoun box. Dixon’s low cross found the sliding boot of Albert Dikwa, but his deflection bounced into the open side of the goal off Cicerone’s jaw.
🚨✏️ Official scoring change
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) July 17, 2021
“That’s what we’re trying to do: Make runs into the box and get the ball into dangerous areas and good things will happen,” Cicerone said. “That was one decent moment in the game.”
Cicerone and Dixon nearly connected on a second goal near the end of the half, with the former crossing from the right flank for Dixon’s one-touch shot. It caromed off the base of the left post, keeping Loudoun in it despite registering just one shot attempt before the break.
Pittsburgh resumed hammering crosses through the box early in the second half, but no one was able to convert. Dikwa attempted a bicycle kick on one, then Preston Kilwein kneed a service wide of the left post moments later, keeping the score 1-0 after an hour.
“I thought we came with more intent to connect a few passes,” Lilley said. “We had some good moments but it’s not enough with the final ball or run. We just jam everything and force it instead of finding the right option. It’s not good enough.”
It took 63 minutes for Loudoun to get a shot on target, and even that one from sub Darluis Paz was from distance and no trouble for Hounds keeper Danny Vitiello. On 70 minutes, Paz struck again, this time from inside the area after a strong cutback, but Vitiello palmed it away.
In the face of its poor record, Loudoun came into the match one of the top possession teams in the USL Championship. That trend continued in the second half with the help of liberal substitutions from coach Ryan Martin, plus a westerly wind that stiffened near dusk.
Mostly, though, Loudoun benefited from the Hounds’ general impatience with the ball at their feet. The home side completed just 70 percent of its passes and just 60 percent in Loudoun’s half of the pitch.
“We’ve been training really hard the past week,” Cicerone said. “I think all the guys were motivated. I don’t know why we didn’t put out the performance we wanted to. It’s about putting in the work every day. If our intensity in training is high, it’s going to be high in the game. If we put in strong habits and guys come to compete, we’re going to be successful.”
🗣 “If we put in strong habits and guys come to compete, we’re going to be successful.”@RiverhoundsSC attacker @R_Cicerone7 talked about trying to improve after tonight’s so-so performance, his season to date and the goal that won the game.@pghsoccernow @SteelArmy @mongoals pic.twitter.com/ZNsKMWVLvL
— Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) (@MattGajtka) July 18, 2021
Fortunately for the Hounds, they got a boost from their subs, especially Tommy Williamson and Louis Pérez, both of whom entered in the 75th minute. Williamson’s first two possessions were dangerous forays into the box, and Pérez set up Dixon for a smash that Loudoun keeper Jermaine Fordah leapt to punch over the bar.
Loudoun earned a couple of set pieces in stoppage time, but didn’t generate anything hazardous from either. It still wasn’t a consolation for Lilley and the coaching staff, which will prepare the Hounds for a Friday visit to New York Red Bulls II next.
“I could sugarcoat this, but if we play this way next week, we’re going to get hammered by four or five goals,” Lilley said. “We’re not close to the mark, game in and game out.
“Overall for me, we’ve underperformed. Our record is decent. We’re decent in the table. We should be coming of age right now. We think it should just magically happen. We made that game a coin flip tonight and I’m not OK with it.”
Hounds fans might recall that the 2019 squad, one that went on to win the Eastern Conference regular-season title, started 2-2-7 before surging through the second half.
This year’s team is in much better position in the standings, but how it’s gotten there means the bench boss isn’t feeling that first-place fever.
“That standard’s not good enough for this group of players or the Pittsburgh Riverhounds organization,” Lilley said. “We’re not going to sweep it under the rug. We’re going to fix it.”
Jordan Smith joined me on the club balcony at Highmark Stadium to share our thoughts on the match and where the Hounds stand, in more ways than one: