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Deep playoff run would cure Riverhounds’ postseason blues

File photo courtesy Ed Thompson

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC have had their share of success on the field in the last five years under the direction of Head Coach Bob Lilley, yet when it comes to the postseason, they’ve come up short.

In fact, the club posted an article, citing the five most memorable playoff games in the franchise’s history.  Of those five, two came during the Highmark Stadium era, and only one of those was a win.

While they have qualified for the playoffs in each of the last five seasons, they don’t have too many happy postseason memories.

In 2018, they came up short, losing after playing to a 2-2 draw after 120 minutes and an extended penalty kick shootout against the Birmingham Steel FC.

That was a very exciting night for Pittsburgh soccer fans.  It was their first postseason match in Highmark Stadium history, and they showed that a soccer playoff match in Pittsburgh could pack the seats and provide a very lively atmopshere — even on a very wet, cold Fall night along the Monongahela River.

The following season, the Hounds finally got their first postseason win in more than a decade, and the first at Highmark Stadium, when they absolutely bulldozed a Birmingham side on the strength of Neco Brett’s four goals.

Brett basks in record-breaking four-goal performance

It was another packed house at Highmark, with the newly reconstructed Paul Child Stand getting every seat filled.

Unfortunately, the Hounds, who finished with the best record in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference that season, couldn’t capitalize on all the momentum even with another full house at Highmark, when they fell against an experienced and playoff-tested Louisville City club that wore them down, eventually winning, 2-1, in Extra Time.

Analysis & Player Grades: Hounds come up short against battle-tested Louisville City FC

The COVID-19 shortened season in 2020 only brought more late season disappiontments, as Pittsburgh lost a late regular season match to Hartford, which cost them a shot at hosting at least a first-round playoff.  Instead, the Hounds had to go to Louisville, where they came out attacking, but were turned back for another playoff loss against the Purple and Gold.

FINAL: Louisville City FC 2, Riverhounds SC 0

Coming back in 2021, the Hounds couldn’t overtake Tampa Bay or Louisville, in the eight-team Atlantic Division, regular season format, and had to settle for starting the playoffs on the road.

Though that team was very confident heading into the playoffs, they were ravaged by a number of positive COVID-19 cases on the club, and had to deal with the unthinkable — forfeiting a playoff match at Birmingham.   Ending the season in the most harsh way — by making the playoffs but not being able to get on to the field.

Riverhounds SC playoff game cancelled, season over, due to positive COVID-19 cases

On Sunday, they’re hoping begin the process of changing that with another shot at Birmingham.

This is a match one year in the making, as the Riverhounds have a chance to finally play the Legion FC in a playoff match again, on Sunday at Protective Stadium.

A year later, the Hounds also finished this season unable to secure a home playoff match in the first round.

They’re in this predicament primarily because they didn’t bag enough positive results against the better teams in the league.

Despite lofty expectations heading into the season, the Hounds could never pick up a signature win against any of the playoff teams ahead of them in the table, with one exception, a week one win at Memphis. Pittsburgh’s 38 goals conceded in the regular season are the most by the Hounds during Head Coach Bob Lilley’s tenure, while the club’s +12-goal differential was the lowest over that same five-season span.

And this year, they’ll have to do it all on the road.

Who knows, with a club that has a mix of veterans and hungry younger players — and a coach with a championship pedigree and successes — this could be the year they could fly under the radar and make a deep playoff run.

This could be the last, best shot for some players, including Kenardo Forbes and Alex Dixon. Dane Kelly is another veteran and the league’s all-time leading scorer, but he’s been used only sporadically late in the season, in favor of Albert Dikwa and Russell Cicerone, who have provided the Hounds with double-digit goal scoring tandem.

Robbie Mertz came back to Pittsburgh after a season and a half with Atlanta United, for one reason.  To help the Hounds reach a title.

Arturo Ordonez, who was selected by Houston Dynamo in MLS SuperDraft this January, chose not to sign with Houston’s MLS Next club, but instead opted to come to Pittsburgh because he wants to ‘play for trophies’.

The Steel Army and Pittsburgh loyal soccer fans have been starving for postseason success.  The club’s support has grown over the years, but continued playoff failures could continue to frustrate its fan base only further.

For a deeper dive on the match-up between the Hounds and a veteran-laden Birmingham squad, which will be vying for its first-ever playoff win in its short four year history, in it first-ever home playoff match, check out this week’s edition of Hounds Notebook.

Hounds Notebook: A playoff fight awaits in rubber match vs veteran-laden Birmingham

All of the USL Championship’s so-called ‘experts’ are picking the Legion to take the match at home.  And according to fivethirtyeight.com, the Hounds have a 37% chance to advance to the conference semifinal, a 5% chance to go to the conference final and are pegged at a 2% chance to make it to the USL Cup Final.

The Hounds are clearly the underdogs, and not too many people are giving them a chance.

But that’s a spot where Bob Lilley may be most dangerous.

We’ve seen him in recent years pull off some impressive road wins at Louisville, at Tampa.  But those were during the regular season.

Now, the postseason blues can be erased in a big way on Sunday, if the Hounds can do what they haven’t really done this season and pull off a postseason win on the road against a team that finished above them in the standings.

Can’t wait to see how it plays out.

 

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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