As a result of a hard-fought, physical and intense scoreless affair between the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and first place Louisville City FC played at Highmark Stadium on Saturday night before 4,233 fans, the home side may not have come out with a win, but they did get a temporary leg up in the standings.
With the draw, and Birmingham Legion FC’s 4-3 loss to Indy Eleven, Pittsburgh moved ahead of the Legion in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference table by a mere point, into sole possession of fourth-place.
“At this point in the season, every point counts,” Riverhounds SC midfielder Robbie Mertz said after the match.
“We want to win every match. But we need to keep doing what we did tonight, and the results will follow.”
Now, the Hounds will be turning their attention directly to Birmingham, who they defeated, 1-0, earlier this season at Highmark Stadium. Pittsburgh travels to Birmingham for a crucial, midweek clash that could decide which team may have a leg up in securing a home playoff match.
The duel with Louisville may not have been the prettiest match of the season, but both sides pushed each other hard, with players and coaches acknowledging that as the season winds down and the stakes get higher, the speed, intensity and physical nature of each match will increase.
That was certainly what happened on Saturday night in Pittsburgh.
“This is exactly what we expected,” Mertz said. “They think they were trying to slow us down. Neither team was giving an inch,” Mertz said after the match.”
“Everything was contested. First balls. Second balls. Third balls. The level of focus, of concentration was there tonight.”
While the Hounds asserted themselves well against the Eastern Conference leaders, they couldn’t create enough chances in the final third to pull off a first-ever win against Louisville at Highmark Stadium.
Possession was almost dead even (Hounds had 50.5% of the ball, while Louisville held it for 49.5% of the match), shot totals were almost the same (8-7 Pittsburgh with slight edge though both had 2 shots on frame) and each side were equally willing to bring physicality into trying to slow the other down — as the fouls count went slightly in favor of Louisville (19-17) and they picked up all five yellow cards assessed in the match.
The Hounds lined up in a 4-2-3-1, which was a sign that they wanted to make Louisville, who were coming off a midweek match, chase the match a bit more. With the trio of Mertz, captain and all-time USL Championship assist leader Kenardo Forbes and ironman Danny Griffin making up the central midfield grouping, the Hounds held their own against the best possession team in the Eastern Conference (Louisville has completed more passes than any other team in the Conference, and 4th in USLC this season).
Ironically, Louisville countered Pittsburgh’s tactics by playing more direct and more physical than we’ve seen at any point in the eight-year series history between the two clubs. Although Pittsburgh were more aggressive in trying to get forward and creating their own chances, Louisville had moments where they quickly brought a counter-attack, but the Hounds’ back line, and shape stayed resolute to deny clear-cut chances in the run of play.
“It was a very physical match with a lot of closing in space by both teams,” Riverhounds coach Bob Lilley said.
“It was a lot of direct play and guerrilla warfare in the middle of the field. It wasn’t the prettiest game, but you saw grit, effort and determination. You need that sometimes. It had a playoff-type feel, and we’re going to have play the last six games this way because of the level of competition. Nothing is going to come easy. I’m proud of the effort that they put in.”
The Hounds probably had the best chance of the match for either side in the 54th minute in a sequence that provided a nightmarish set of circumstances for even the most eloquent of soccer scribes to put into words.
It was a play that was emblematic of how fierce this battle was between the rivals and how hard it is to score in such tightly contested matches.
Hounds forward Albert Dikwa made his way into right endline side of the box, had a short cross attempt/shot that squirted through to the goal box. This resulted in an all-out scramble to the open, left side of goal where the ball bounced around as three Louisville City FC defenders attempted to clear the ball off the line.
At the same time, Mertz crashed the net, and made an effort to smash the ball into the net with a few defending bodies in his way. One of those bodies got in the way of Mertz’s close-range attempt.
— Louisville City FC (@loucityfc) September 11, 2022
“I’m frustrated that it didn’t go in, but, to be honest, I wouldn’t have done anything different,” Mertz said.
“I got the contact that I wanted. As I was coming in, I thought there was going to be a little more space between the ball and the defender, so I tried to get it off the ground and thought it would go in. He did a good job getting himself back on the right side of the goal line.”
Jahmali Waite was also solid when he had to be in goal, coming off his line, not afraid to take some body shots and making a big save late in the match for the Hounds.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) September 11, 2022
The Hounds will need it to carry over for the final five matches.
“That the type of effort we needed,” Lilley added.
“We’re going to need that against Birmingham.”