The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC first half of the 2021 season is in the books — and lo and behold — after Saturday’s 3-1 victory against Hartford Athletic, they’re alone at the top of the USL Championship’s Atlantic Division standings.
Despite some growing pains littered with constant refrain from coaching staff, media and its die-hard fans acknowledging that this year’s edition of the Hounds would be a work in progress and a team that was not dynamic enough in the final third, they’ve slowly become a unit that has found different ways to win and produce results en route to a 9-4-3 overall record, good for 30 points after 16 games.
While the Hounds have found their groove of late, they endured some significant early hiccups.
They fell flat in the season opener at Tampa Bay, getting pummeled 3-0, as former Hound Steevan Dos Santos, who’s contract was not renewed in the off season, scored and earned a penalty kick to beat his former team
The Hounds followed up the opening night road loss by losing a late 1-0 lead on the road in Hartrford in week two, settling for a draw.
Coming back to Pittsburgh didn’t provide a recipe for success either, as they would not win at home until late June.
The Hounds dropped its home opener to nemesis Charlotte, 1-0, then were dealt a second home loss to Austin Bold in early June by the same scoreline.
After losing to the Bold FC, Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley held his players on the field for nearly one-hour to express his displeasure with their performance.
At that point in the season, the Hounds posted an unimpressive 2-3-1 overall record. While his post game huddles are often intended to pick apart tactical and technical details. Lilley’s theme in that postgame talk centered around his team’s response and lack of urgency after falling behind.
The turning point for the Hounds came when the Hounds won a pair of road matches against two notable opponents. On June 15, they scrapped their way to a 1-0 road victory at Indy Eleven in a midweek match, then later that week pulled off an impressive a 2-1 victory to return the favor and stun the front-running Rowdies to close the gap in the Atlantic Division race.
The Hounds completed July without a loss, capped by a second straight game where they put their foot down with a strong second half performance. In the past two games, Pittsburgh has broke open close games by scoring five second half goals, with three of those coming from Alex Dixon, a leading candidate for Team MVP through the first half of the season.
With three goals in the past two games – both of which have seen Pittsburgh bag three goals overall – Dixon led the way on Saturday with a key equalizer early in the second half before putting home a fine individual finish to put the hosts ahead for good with seven minutes to go.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) August 1, 2021
With the chances the side had created either side of halftime – resulting in a 17-5 advantage in shots, 14 of which came from inside the penalty area – the Hounds ran out winners to complete an undefeated month of July, a run that has the side now firmly in the title conversation.
“It’s a big win for us,” said Dixon. “We put ourselves in a hole in the first half, not finishing our chances. We came back and played well as a team in the second half. It’s a great result for us.”
This recent stretch of play has to be extra satisfying for Hounds fans, especially after the early part of the season when they struggled when falling behind in matches.
In July, the Hounds completed a stretch of five games outscoring its opponents 9-3, earning 13 of a possible 15 points. In two of the last four matches (at Charleston, vs Hartford), they were trailing in the first half and in three of the last four, they were tied at the break. Each time, the Hounds adjusted and turned up its attack in the second half to pick up a result.
As the upcoming third quarter of the season is set to include a brutal eight-game stretch between now and early September with numerous mid-week clashes, Lilley will be continuing to push his team toward playing with more consistency and urgency, while using as much squad rotation as possible.
The good news for the Hounds, is that there is still a higher ceiling that this team can reach.
What Areas Can The Hounds Improve?
For one, Pittsburgh’s scored just one goal eminating from set piece (Tommy Williamson’s free kick goal against Indy Eleven).
“That’s on us. I’ve got to do a better job. I don’t know if we’ve spent enough time on this,” LIlley acknowledged last week. “We definitely need to work on this. We continue to address this in training. But we have to be better. We’ve been pretty good in defending against set pieces, but we want to be more dangerous.”
“It’s a work in progress.”
There plenty of other areas Lilley said his club needs to improve.
“We need to get better defensively. With our decision making. We have to hold on to the ball. We’ve picked too many low percentage passes too frequently. We have a lot of work to do in this area. Don’t think the guys aren’t surprised either.”
“I am not happy with the conversion rate either. We’re working on it. Some of the (defensive) breakdowns, are not happening as frequently. It’s been nice to see the goalkeepers have come up with some big saves when we need them. We’ve seen some good performances. We’re still getting beat behind. We’ve got to tighten up. We have to be more mindful. If we’re sitting still, we’re falling behind.”
“We want to be a top-level team. We have to manage situations better. We were exposed a lot early on (in the season). We’ve grown a lot since then.”
“When there’s a 60-yard straight ball over the top, we are sometimes slow to recognize at times. We have to react quicker. There are moments where we diagnose them quickly. But we’ll continue to look at video, see what we have to clean up.”
“As difficult as August is going to be, it will be a good barometer for our group. It’s going to take everyone. Everyone is going to have to deliver. To me, this is the next step. We have to get results. If we do, it sets us up for a strong finish.”
Pittsburgh’s also been realitively healthy, but they certainly will be a better team when Jordan Dover returns after dealing with a lower leg injury for most of the first half of the season.
We’ll continue to see lots of squad rotation, especially as Lilley hinted during the upcoming busy August and early September schedule.
“We’re going to need to get contributions from everyone on our roster. We’ll need to go 18, 19 players deep as we approach this stretch of games in August,” Lilley said.
“It’s a big challenge for us. If we do well, it will set us up for success in our final stretch.”
Look later in the week when we provide our Position-by-Position Midseason Player Grades