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Hounds Notebook: Do results really matter in the final weeks of regular season?

Photo courtesy Mark Goodman

With less than two weeks to go in the regular season, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC are looking to right their ship in time for the playoffs

They’ve known for a while now, thanks to being in a top-heavy Eastern Conference, they’ll be entering the postseason for the fifth time in Bob Lilley’s five seasons at the helm in Pittsburgh.

The latest loss, 1-0, at home on a late goal to the league’s leader San Antonio FC provided a mixed bag of takeaways as the Hounds currently site in sixth place with a record of 15-8-9 (W-L-D).

On one hand, as PSN’s Mark Goodman recapped and Lilley spoke about extensively in his post-match comments, the Hounds showed plenty of resilience to slow down a dangerous San Antonio attack, but again, were not able to generate enough chances despite controlling possession and tempo of the match for long stretches.

Hounds lose 1-0 to league-best San Antonio

It seems as if that’s been the theme with this team in the last four matches, all against quality opponents.  Play tightly contested, ‘playoff-feel’ matches, where they possess well, with the midfield in control, but they are lacking in the final moments in the last third, partly because they’re not taking too many risks bringing numbers forward.

It seems as if they are defending well enough to the tune of allowing only four goals in the last four matches.  On the other hand, they’ve only scored twice in the last four.

Heading into September, the Hounds were sitting in fourth place. To secure a home playoff spot for the first round of the playoffs, and stay in fourth place, they needed to round up at least two or three wins.  Since that time, in five matches, they’ve earned one win (at Loudoun United on Labor Day eve, followed by two draws and two losses).  While there’s a remote possibility they can climb back to fourth (and in the wildest of scenarios — third) with some help (Birmingham and Detroit will have to lose their remaining matches, and the Hounds would have to pick-up at least four points in its final two). In all likelihood, the Hounds are likely going to start the playoffs, the weekend of October 20-22, on the road, as their recent winless streak of four matches has dropped them down in the standings to 6th place.

So, now the question looms.  Do results really matter in these final weeks?

If you talk to Lilley after the last few matches, while he was disappointed the Hounds have been without a win since early September, he also has walked away feeling good about how his team is looking against top-level teams.

First things first though, the squad will put in a full week of training at Highmark Stadium. They’ll be departing for Northern California on Saturday morning in advance of their first clash with the Sacramento Republic FC since 2014 (Sunday, 5 p.m. EST).  The Republic, who were the darlings of U.S. Soccer with their remarkable run to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final, have also cliched a Playoff spot.  Like the Hounds, the Republic, are not in great form either, mired in a three-match losing streak.

If the Hounds can pick-up a result in Cali, even a point, they’ll jump into a tie with Detroit City FC, who will be idle over the weekend.

Cutting to the Chase: Latest in Eastern Conference playoff race

The mid-week results from Wednesday evening’s action saw Louisville City FC clinch the first overall spot with a 2-1 win vs Detroit City FC. This result also kept DCFC from moving up to fourth place to challenge for a home playoff spot.

Heading into the weekend’s slate, everyone except Louisville and DCFC will be in action.

The Hounds will be the last ones on the docket, playing later on Sunday, so by the time they take the field in Sacramento, they’ll know where they stand.  In fact, they could begin the match in 7th place, if Miami FC can pick up a win in their trip to Vegas on Saturday night.

  1. Louisville City FC (69 points) – 1 match remaining. HFD (10/15)
  2.  Memphis (62 pts) – 2 matches remaining..   NY (10/9), @TUL (10/15)
  3.  Tampa (58 pts) –  3 matches remaining. LDN (10/8), ELP (10/12), NY (10/15)
  4.  Birmingham (55 pts) – 2 matches remaining.  SA (10/9), INDY (10/12)
  5. Detroit City FC (54 pts) – 1 matches remaining.  MIA (10/15)
  6. Pittsburgh (53 pts) – 2 matches remaining.   @SAC (10/9), OAK (10/15)
  7. Miami FC (52 pts) –  2 matches remaining.  @LV (10/8), @DET (10/15)

Here are the scenarios for the Hounds:

BEST CASE: Win both matches, finish w/ 59 points – they’ll be in very good shape for fourth place, unless Birmingham wins both of its matches. If Birmingham goes win-draw (4 points) and end up in a tie with Pittsburgh, the Hounds take the tie-breaker.

NOBLE EFFORT:  Win & Draw, finish w/ 57 points – they will need a lot of help to move up to fourth in this scenario.  Birmingham would have to tie both of its matches and they’ll need for Miami to lose or tie at Vegas and hope that Miami and Detroit City play to a draw or Detroit wins that match (Hounds also hold the tie-breaker vs DCFC)

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR: Win & Loss, finish w/ 56 points – here the Hounds are in a similar, but bit more dire situation to claim fourth place, as they’ll need Birmingham to lose and draw at minimum, while Detroit/Miami play to draw and Miami must lose at Vegas.

WET THE BED:  Draw & Draw (55 points); Draw & Loss (54); Loss & Loss (53) –  all of these scenarios will land the Hounds in sixth or seventh place, and likely on the road at Memphis or Tampa in the first round of the playoffs.  If they finish with two losses, they’ll end the season on a six-game winless streak and three-game losing streak.

Squad Trends

How much stock did Bob Lilley take in trying to control the middle and lock down the defensive third in the San Antonio match?  Well, they started four true center backs along the back line (Jelani Peters, Shane Wiedt, Mekeil Williams and Arturo Ordonez) in a 4-2-3-1, with Danny Griffin, Kenardo Forbes as holding mids, with Robbie Mertz along the attacking midfield line with Alex Dixon and Russell Cicerone.  Albert Dikwa was the lone top striker.

This meant taking outside backs out of the equation in the attack, putting most of the pressure on Dixon, Mertz and Cicerone to do most of the work in trying to work to get behind one of the best defensive units in USL Championship, without additional numbers and ability to really stretch the San Antonio defense enough.

Last three matches with lineups, subs and formations:

10/1/2022 vs San Antonio (4-2-3-1) — Jahmali Waite; Jelani Peters, Mekeil Williams, Arturo Ordóñez, Shane Wiedt (Dani Rovira 88’); Danny Griffin, Kenardo Forbes; Russell Cicerone (Edward Kizza 79’), Robbie Mertz (Angelo Kelly 79’), Alex Dixon (Luis Argudo 88’); Albert Dikwa

9/24/2022 vs Orange County (5-4-1) — Jahmali Waite; Dani Rovira (Angelo Kelly 80’), Mekeil Williams, Arturo Ordóñez, Shane Wiedt, Alex Dixon (Mark Ybarra 80’); Robbie Mertz (Luis Argudo 90’), Danny Griffin, Russell Cicerone (Toby Sims 80’, Dane Kelly 90’), Kenardo Forbes; Albert Dikwa

9/14/2022 at Birmingham Legion FC (4-2-3-1) – Jahmali Waite; Angelo Kelly (Dani Rovira 69′), Jelani Peters (sent off 90+1′), Arturo Ordóñez, Shane Wiedt (Marc Ybarra 80′); Danny Griffin, Kenardo Forbes; Alex Dixon (Luis Argudo 80′), Robbie Mertz, Russell Cicerone (Edward Kizza 69′); Albert Dikwa

Dikwa’s goal vs Orange County brought his season total to 11, making him the second Hound with double-digit goals (Cicerone has 12).  The duo has combined for 22 goals and nine assists this season.

Alex Dixon continues to be in a significant production drought, as it’s been 12 matches since he’s had an assist (July 30 vs Tulsa) and 16 since he’s scored a goal (early July, NYRBII), but he came awfully close to scoring in the San Antonio match, with an excellent reaction save denying a second half effort.

Griffin leads the team in minutes played (2,875), and should eclipse the 3,000 minutes mark if he plays most of the next two matches.

 

Ordonez, Cicerone, Forbes and Wiedt right behind him, each with well over 2,000 minutes. With his hours combined from playing in Atlanta this season, Robbie Mertz also has over 2,600 total minutes played this season.

The Hounds continue to use Dane Kelly sparingly, who came on in the 89th minute in the Orange County draw, and last played any extensive time getting 59 minutes in a start during 0-0 draw vs Charleston.

With the season nearing the end, it appears taht Arturo Ordonez will be sitting out the match in Sacramento for yellow card accumulation (he picked up number eight vs San Antonio), while Shane Wiedt and Danny Griffin are sitting on seven total yellow cards.

Scouting the Republic

Only once have Sacramento and Pittsburgh matched up in the past – a July contest at Heart Health Park in 2014. Sacramento emerged victorious 5-0, with two scores coming from Rodrigo Lopez.

That was the same day that the Manchester City – AC Milan match was played in Pittsburgh, at (then) Heinz Field before more than 35,000 fans.  I remember racing home after covering that match to watch the Hounds play a late Sunday night match vs Sacramento. Crazy how I can remember that kind of stuff.

Of course, the Republic have been the darlings of USL Championship and US Soccer this season, when they made a remarkable run to the US Open Cup Final, where they lost to MLS’ Orlando City SC.

As mentioned above, the Republic are not in great form, coming into this match on a three-game losing streak.  So, with that in mind, and holding on to the fourth place spot at the moment, they’ll be playing with some desperation to get back on track.

Leading Sacramento between the pipes has been former Hounds keeper Danny Vitiello, who was instrumental in leading them to the Cup final, making some big saves in their Open Cup semifinal win during a penalty kick shootout.

Former Hounds keeper Danny Vitiello shines as Sacramento Republic FC advance to Open Cup final

This season, the two clubs have put in very similar score lines. Pittsburgh has conceded 36 scores to Sacramento’s 33, and netted 46 to Sacramento’s 43. Inter conference play hasn’t been as kind to the Pennsylvania side this season as it has to Sacramento, with the incoming visitors posting a 1-3-2 record against out of conference opponents compared to the Quails 5-2-0 mark.

Sacramento will be battling for playoff positioning, as they’re currently holding the fourth spot in the wild and crazy Western Conference.

Yes — it’s crazy out west.

Like the Hounds, other results could dictate what’s at stake for the Republic in this match-up by 5 p.m. EST Sunday, if New Mexico (also playing on Sunday) wins, they could put some pressure on Sacramento for fourth place.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see neither team in this match trying to take too many chances.

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

Riverhounds MF Danny Griffin

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