Midway through the second half of a scoreless USL Championship playoff match being played before more than 10,000 fans at Birmingham’s Protective Stadium, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC goalkeeper Jahmali Waite was under constant pressure.
The home side, Birmingham Legion FC, were starting to kick its attack into high gear, reaching double-digits in shot attempts and forcing Waite into making numerous saves.
One of the league’s most storied players, Enzo Martinez had just ripped a carpet-burning free kick to the left of the Riverhounds wall and only narrowly missed hitting the inside of the post area.
But Waite was there to deny it if the shot hit its mark.
Then the 23-year-old Jamaican native, who played with the Philadelphia Uniion Academy and went on to play collegiately at UConn, got up after lunging forward from protecting his goal with a huge smile on his face.
It seemed as if his smile radiated all the way back to Pittsburgh, where legions of Hounds fans were watching on the edge of their seats, as a broadening signal that combined both joy and confidence in the midst of a pressure packet moment.
It appeared that Waite was welcoming the pressure that was coming from the veteran-laden Birmingham side.
There would be a lot more game left to play, as Waite and his teammates were pushed to the brink, but they came out of it on the winning end.
Waite came into wide open goalkeeping situation with the Hounds at the start of this season with the departure of Danny Vitiello to Sacramento Republic FC and has grown impressively over his first year.
Last month his play saw him earn his first call-up to the senior Jamaica Men’s National Team, and now the youngster addded maybe his biggest performance to add to his highlight reel.
The Riverhounds found not one, but two game-tying goals late in regulation, late in the second period of extra time, then outlasted Birmingham in an epic shooutout victory.
As the match wore on, some of the Hounds key veterans gave way to the younger players to sink or swim.
Both sides featured rosters filled with a number of experienced players who have been through their share of USL Championship wars and added Major League Soccer backgrounds on their respective resumes.
Alex Dixon, at 32 years of age, and in his 12th professional season, fourth-year Hound Dani Rovira were tasked with playing on the flanks on the large field at Protective Stadium, covering a lot of ground, Shane Wiedt, who spent a few years with Loudoun United and Mekiel Williams, another former MLS starter, all eventually made way for their younger and more inexperienced teammates.
Unlike, say in 2018, 2019 or 2020, when Head Coach Bob Lilley was hesitant to use all of his substitutes in playoff matches, Lilley showed no hesitation to pull his most reliable veterans in favor of role players, many of them younger or who hadn’t played as much this season.
Thus, on came Toby Sims, Angelo Kelly-Rosales, William Eyang and Jelani Peters into the match to keep the Hounds’ legs fresh and get them to the finish line with hopes of pulling out their first playoff win since 2019 and the first road playoff win since the 2000s, before the current USL Championship league was in existance.
With one more sub left in regulation, Lilley turned to the last player he added to the roster this season, in favor of the one player who has been his mainstay and captain of the teams he’s coached going back to 2014, when former Pitt standout Edward Kizza came in for Kenardo Forbes.
With 90 seconds to go before second half stoppage time, the expectations of any impact of Kizza were likely slim.
It took less than half that time for Kizza to lift the Hounds from the brink.
According to Via Opta’s scorekeeping, Kizza scored a mere 38 seconds after being brought on to level the game for the Hounds against Birmingham Legion FC on Sunday night, and then repeated the feat with the Hounds first shot in extra time in the 116th minute.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) October 24, 2022
“We were resilient all night and battled, but we didn’t play our best. We struggled holding on to the ball. Jahmali had a good game and made some saves that kept us in it,” Lilley explained.
Just before the second equalizing goal, Lilley had one more sub option in the bag, as the USL Championship playoff rules allow for a sixth sub to come on in Extra Time.
That’s when Lilley brought in Marc Ybarra for his former Michigan Wolverine and slightly elder and more experienced to the pros teammate, Robbie Mertz.
Ybarra was there to initiate the transition opportunity that led to Kizza’s second goal.
“I’m proud of them. Everyone who came off the bench played well and did their part. Marc Ybarra, he was the last one to go in (as a substitute), and he was patient and played a good ball out to Eyang. And then Eyang, he didn’t rush it. He took something off it and played a cultured pass across to Kizza for the second goal,” LIlley said.
The match then went on to penalty kicks, which started with Waite making back-to-back saves to give the Hounds an early 2-0 edge. Waite’s saves in the opening two rounds of the shootout denied Birmingham’s Alex Crognale and Bruno Lapa.
Remarkably, Birmingham crawled back into the shootout, as Spangelberg stopped both Russell Cicerone and Eyang.
After five kicks, the teams were tied 3-3.
As the shootout ensued, the Hounds were going to be leaning on their subs and another first-year pro to make their spot kicks.
Sure enough, it was Ybarra, Kelly-Rosales, Peters along with Arturo Ordonez, who came through to keep the shootout going from the 6th through 10th rounds.
FInally, in the 10th round, with only one more round to go before the keepers would have been called up to take the kicks, Waite stopped Dupont’s effort, leaving way for Kizza to provide the storybook ending to a thrilling contest.
Having scored only once in 10 appearances and 243 regular season minutes, the second-year pro from Uganda – on loan with Pittsburgh from the New England Revolution – flipped the script on prior postseason heartbreaks for the Hounds under Lilley, converting in the 10th round of the ensuing penalty shootout to send his side through.
After falling in penalty kicks in 2018 and then extra time in 2019, the Hounds had been snake-bit in Lilley’s tenure.
It wasn’t just Kizza or Waite, who did absolutely shine, but the performance of all of the Hounds subs, who helped ensure at least one more game this postseason, as they’ll now take on Louisville City FC, on Saturday night.
“We didn’t have our best, but there’s belief in our group. To come back twice tonight showed resilience. Even in penalties, our guys had to match them after the first five, and they showed fortitude,” Llley added.
“I think it was Marc, Angelo, Arturo and Jelani — all of them had to make theirs. It was a great team win, because everyone played their part. Now, we just have to do what we can to get rested and go out to Louisville on Saturday, and hopefully play a better game.”