Riverhounds SC’s Head Coach Bob Lilley was fearful that the current stretch of the schedule that included two midweek encounters between weekend games on consecutive weeks would be a massive challenge for his club.
Between August 11 and August 28, the Hounds will play five games in 17 days.
And no match-up is more important than Wednesday’s first-place showdown with the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The Hounds will be eager for a bounce back performance after slipping a bit, losing the last two games, first at home by a 3-2 score vs Miami FC last Wednesday, then in a tight-affair at Charlotte on Saturday evening in the Queen City.
Now, Pittsburgh faces the team they’ve been neck-and-neck with in the Atlantic Division standings for most of the season and will likely continue all the way through late October.
As the Hounds endure a busy stretch through August and early September, they’re hoping earn the top spot in the Division and be able to host a few home matches during the postseason, which begins in early November.
Judging by the results from the past week and the match-ups with both Miami and Charlotte (who they are a combined 1-3-1 against this season thus far), the Hounds will be in for an all-out battle for supremacy in what’s shaping up to be a pretty competitive Atlantic Division race at the top of the standings.
A win on Wednesday will help them get back on track. A loss will put them in unchartered territory for a Hounds team led by Bob Lilley — an unprecedented three-game losing streak and drop them three points behind Tampa Bay.
IF THE SEASON ENDED TODAY
Taking a closer look at the USL Eastern Conference (Atlantic and Central Division Standings), if the season were to end today, here’s what the playoff match-ups would look like:
- Tampa Bay (Atlantic 1st) vs Indy Eleven (Central 4th)
- Birmingham Legion (Central 2nd) vs MIami FC (Atlantic 3rd)
- Louisville (Central 1st) vs Charlotte Independence (Atlantic 4th)
- Pittsburgh (Atlantic 2nd) vs Atlanta United 2 (Central 3rd)
However, an awful lot can happen between now and late October.
Looking at the top three spots in the Atlantic, the Rowdies and Hounds are currently deadlocked at 33 points apiece, with Miami, holding wins vs both leaders, lurking right behind at 31 points.
In the Central, Louisville City is starting to separate themselves a bit, and Birmingham is also in pretty good position to finish in the top four. Not much separates the next four teams (Atlanta United 2, Indy Eleven, Tulsa and OKC).
RETURN OF DUBA
Depending on how you look at it, Hounds fans will either be welcoming (or jeering) the return of Steevan Dos Santos to Highmark Stadium on Wednesday.
Dos Santos has recovered from an injury that has kept him out of the lineup for nearly two months. Dos Santos returned to game action on Friday night in Tampa’s 1-0 win vs New York, playing
In two seasons in Pittsburgh, Dos Santos certainly brought his own, unique approach to the target forward position, scoring 14 goals in his two seasons in Pittsburgh, but maybe more importantly, the Hounds attack often built up through the final third through Dos Santos’ feet. Using his broad 6-foot-4 frame, Dos Santos has been incredibly effective at this level in holding the ball up, drawing defenders (and his share of fouls and physical play) then redistributing it to maintain and sustain possession. In addition, with 51 total goals in USL Championship career, Dos Santos also can finish effectively.
Heading into week one when the teams met for the first time Hounds head coach Bob Lilley’s response to a question posed from Pittsburgh Soccer Now provided some coach-speak and potentially, a little jab thrown at his former player, Dos Santos, who played for him in Rochester for two years as well, when they won a USL Cup Title in 2015.
“When motivated,” Lilley started when assessing his former player, Dos Santos. “He can be a handful. He’s a big, strong presence in the box that we’ll have to deal with.”
In week one, Dos Santos responded in a big way against his former team, scoring the game’s opening goal, then drawing a foul to set up another goal in Tampa’s 3-0 rout of the Hounds. Prior to getting hurt, Dos Santos scored three goals in his first four games as Rowdy (or is it Rowdie?).
Dos Santos’ injury kept him out of action in the second meeting, which the Hounds won 2-1.
With two more matches (and maybe more in the postseason?), this should be fun storyline to watch to see how Dos Santos performs against his former team.
As a target forward, known for drawing fouls, working the officials throughout each game while adding some theatrics too, the match-up between Dos Santos and the Hounds defenders should be a treat in itself.
And, I am sure that the Steel Army will have some fun jabs to throw Duba’s way too.
ROWDIES GET BACK ON TRACK
The Rowdies have struggled to score in recent games.
Despite having the bulk of possession and chances at Al Lang Stadium against NY Red Bulls II, they appeared to be headed toward another scoreless game.
But on a night when some notable attacking names returned to the lineup, with former Riverhounds forward Steevan Dos Santos making his first start since an injury early this season and Juan Tejada making his first appearance of the season, it was Jordan Adebayo-Smith who ended up making the difference with an 85th-minute winner that lifted the Rowdies to an important win that kept them in-step with the Riverhounds SC.
The goal was 20-year-old Adebayo-Smith’s second in as many games after scoring against the New York Red Bulls II in the Rowdies’ prior outing.
After some up-and-down form over the past month that saw him excluded from the gameday squad against the Charlotte Independence recently, Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins was delighted with how the young English forward had reacted.
“I think he reacted fantastically leading into New York, then he went on and started and scored,” said Collins. “Then I left him out [tonight] because I felt it was a night for something else, but he’d had another great week in training, and he responded with a goal. That’s how you go on to have a career. That’s how you go on to have a contribution for a team.
“Everyone in our team should be looking at that, thinking it’s not about the coach’s decision to not put them on or pick them. It’s about how they respond. Because he went from not getting on to starting the following week. I’m pleased for him. He’s got so much potential, we’ve just got to try and get the best out of him.”
SQUAD ROTATION OPTIONS
The Hounds used a pretty strong line-up on Saturday night, starting its three top scorers (Russell Cicerone, Alex Dixon and Tommy Williamson), with each playing a full 90 minutes. It would be hard to fathem that all three will be rested in the mid-week match vs Tampa Bay, especially with Albert Dikwa still being out with a groin injury (see full injury report below).
Could this mean we might see a start in the (near) future for Wyatt Borso?
The first Academy prospect to be signed to the first-team roster, Borso made his professional debut last Wednesday in the later stages against Charlotte, seeing seven minutes of action. The 17-year-old the first Riverhounds Academy player to appear in a competitive match and the first player born in the 2000s to play a match for the Hounds.
Lilley has also used Louis Perez (who played 70 minutes), Anthony Velarde (came on as a sub in the 71st minute) and team captain Kenardo Forbes (who played the full 90 in the last two matches), at the forward spot this season.
In addition, the last match saw LIlley start Perez and Todd Wharton in wider midfield spots in a 3-4-3, and he used Dani Rovria and Anthony Velarde as their subs.
When the Hounds last faced Tampa in June, when earning a 2-1 road victory, to serve notice to the Rowdies that the race was on for Division supremacy, they lined-up in a 4-2-3-1 against Tampa’s 3-4-3. This was one of the first times this season Pittsburgh opted to put Kenardo Forbes up higher in the formation, and it worked very well.
As far as the back line, Shane Wiedt, Mekeil Williams, who was questionable, and Preston Kilwien were in the starting lineup on Saturday, with Jalen Robinson and Ezra Armstrong brought on to keep the rotation fresh and help with the final push for an equalizer in the final 11-plus minutes.
It will be very interesting to see how the Hounds elect to go against Tampa on Wednesday considering some of their injury issues and how they’ve been running out starting lineups the past few games.
Ahead of Wednesday’s showdown vs Tampa Bay the Hounds injury report has been trimmed a bit with three players ruled out for the match. This means that Tom Judge, who was injured in his first appearance, and had to come off at Charleston, should be avaialble for selection.
- Albert Dikwa (Groin)
- Jordan Dover (Lower Leg)
- Josh Gatt (Knee)
THEY SAID IT: LOUIS PEREZ
“When I first came here, I wasn’t really used to the coaches and what they were asking for.”
“It maybe took me a month or a month-and-a-half to get used to them, my teammates and the environment. Everybody needs to be on the same page in terms of running and moving. Just getting used to the movements the coaches wanted for each position took a while.”
Here’s what the week ahead looks like for the Hounds:
- Tuesday, Aug. 17 – Practice, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Wednesday, Aug. 18 – Match #20 vs. Tampa Bay, 6 p.m.
- Thursday, Aug. 19 – Recovery Day
- Friday, Aug. 20 – Practice, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Saturday, Aug. 21 – Practice, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Sunday, Aug. 22 – Match #21 vs. Atlanta, 7 p.m.
I’ll be joined by Jordan Smith once again for coverage of tomorrow evening’s match at Highmark Stadium. Look for the match preview/gameday blog to be posted ahead of the match and our postgame coverage including interviews with players/coaches and more.
We also look forward to setting the stage for Sunday’s return to Highmark Stadium for Robbie Mertz (and also Bryce Washington’s return to Pittsburgh) — as we are hoping to preview the match and hear from the Upper St. Clair native about his return.