The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC pulled off an epic playoff win on Sunday night in Birmingham, in a match that went to penalty kicks, in large part because they persevered and withstood numerous challenges, never stopped battling back.
And, it did also help that they had a few breaks go their way.
For much of the past five seasons, when it came to the postseason, the Hounds rarely caught many breaks.
This was well outlined in my piece leading up to Sunday’s playoff match.
Heading into this match at Louisville on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. at Lynn Family Stadium), the Hounds will once again have the odds stacked up against them.
And this is a position they’re not as familar with in the Bob Lilley era. More often than not, since 2018, the Hounds headed into playoff matches as the favorites, when hosting Bethlehelm Steel FC in 2018, hosting Birmingham and then Louisville City in 2019. Even as they were a lower seed in 2020, there was an expectation that the Hounds were on level terms with Lou City, after all, they defeated the Purple and Gold at Lynn Family Stadium a few months prior.
This year, the Hounds have entered the playoffs as clear underdogs.
All of the USL Championship’s so-called ‘experts’ picked against them in the first round. According to fivethirtyeight.com, entering the playoffs, the Hounds had a 37% chance to advance to the conference semifinal, a 5% chance to go to the conference final and were pegged at a 2% chance to make it to the USL Cup Final.
Louisville City FC finished the season as the Eastern Conference’s top team and they are an organization that has proven themselves time, and time again, in the postseason. They have reached three USL Cup Finals and won twice.
After clinching the Eastern Conference’s top seed with a club-record 72 points (22-6-6) during the regular season, LouCity earned a first-round bye and the right to host the Eastern Conference playoff matches. The boys in purple went 13-2-2 with a +24 goal differential at home during the regular season and could bring the USL Championship Final to the 502 if they keep winning — and if a team other than San Antonio FC claims the Western Conference title.
Once again, the road to the USL Cup Final in the Eastern Conference goes through Louisville, Kentucky.
The Hounds are very well aware of this.
In the only two postseason matches between the two clubs, the Riverhounds lost an early lead, then wilted late at home before a record crowd at Highmark Stadium in November 2019, to eventually lose the Purple and Gold, 2-1 in Extra Time.
A year later, even after having success in the season opener by spoiling Lou City’s grand opening match at Lynn Family Stadium with a 3-1 win that July, the Hounds came up short, and were outplayed in the return match in the playoffs, as Louisville City handed them a 2-0 defeat.
This season, Pittsburgh’s trip to the Derby City didn’t go too well either. The Hounds fell, 2-0, in a match they were outplayed from start to finish, and to add salt to the wound, Dane Kelly was sent off in that match with a red card.
In September, though, Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley knew that his team needed to begin to buckle down, and better manage tight contests against the better teams in the league.
They started to move in the right direction in the rematch with Louisville City in September at Highmark Stadium, as the teams played to a scoreless draw.
Lilley started that post-match press conference after that result saying that it was a match that had ‘a playoff-feel’.
The Hounds would lose two more matches in the final stretch, including the Birmingham regular season loss which was the main reason why they had to open the playoffs on the road, and a 1-0 defeat against the league’s top outfit, San Antonio.
Yet, they remained confident.
“As a team, we weren’t getting the results we wanted, but our form was very good,” Edward Kizza said after training this week. “We knew going to Birmingham, if we played our game. Simplified everything, we would come out victorious.”
KIzza reflects on his magical night in Birmingham
Brought to the Riverhounds SC organization past the halfway point of the season, Edward Kizza knew he was already joining a squad with established scorers and proven attacking players.
He knew he would have a chance to help provide depth and he could be a spark for the team.
Entering the match in the 89th minute, Kizza was ready to step in and see what he could do to turn the tables of the match.
“When I came in, I said, what can I do to make an impact, to help the team,” Kizza said.
“I was going to work as hard as I can. Get myself in a good position, and give myself at least a chance. And, my teammates were able to get me the ball, and I was able to put it in the back of the net.”
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) October 27, 2022
Following his three goal performance, Kizza and his teammates did have some time to relish the moment, but have quickly refocused on the next task at hand, beating Louisville City FC.
“We’re going to take that confidence, that momentum into Louisville,” Kizza added.
Hounds depth has been playoff-tested; are they ready for next challenge?
The former University of Pittsburgh standout, who is from Uganda, has experienced his share of ups and downs in his short professional soccer career prior to coming back to Pittsburgh, but his eye-popping performance on Sunday, scoring both of the Hounds equalizing goals late in regulation and in overtime, then converting the clinching penalty kick, helped keep the club’s season alive, provided a promising sign that he and many of the younger, players on this squad can be counted on, and can have an impact.
Lilley turned to Toby SIms, Angelo Kelly-Rosales, Jelani Peters, William Eyang and Kizza to provide the energy to get them to the finish line. In the overtime period, LIlley also used his extra substitution, bringing on Marc Ybarra.
In fact, if you look at the previous two times the Hounds played Louisville City in the postseason, Lilley was hesitant to go to his bench and didn’t use all of his subs.
In the 2019 loss at Highmark Stadium to LouCity, the Hounds were on the front foot early, but the tables of the match turned in the second half, thanks in large part to the depth of the visitors.
Louisville’s then coach John Hackworth sensed that the Hounds were getting weary and brought in his high energy man, Brian Ownby, as his first sub in the 60th minute. Not only would the Hounds have to continue to try to disrupt Louisville’s possession game, but they had to deal with another pacey threat who started the stretch the Hounds shape.
The Hounds were simply doing too much chasing and started of run out of gas.
“We didn’t execute the game plan,” Forbes said. “We didn’t keep the ball enough. That’s on us as players. That’s on me as the midfielder to get us possession and I didn’t do that today.”
That was a disappointing night for the Hounds midfield in those key battles, as they failed to set the tempo of the match. Then a rookie, Mertz was the only midfielder who won the majority of his duels.
Hard to believe, but Hounds only used two subs that night (Steevan Dos Santos and Mark Forrest), in a match that went to extra time.
In the 2020 playoff match, once again, the Hounds couldn’t match the experience, proper energy levels and composure on the ball that Louisville carried into that rematch, despite an aggressive tactical approach. That intent to push hard for the first goal, and for immediately trying to get the equalizer put the Hounds in precarious shape and exposed in defending in transition against a very dangerous Louisville side.
Goalkeeper Danny Vitiello made numerous saves to keep the Hounds in that match, ironically, much like Jahmali Waite did last week in Birmingham.
The Hounds only used three of five potential subs in that match too. For the record, they were Patrick Bunk-Anderson, Anthony Velarde and Ropapa Mensah.
The difference last week?
The Hounds brought more fresher and confident legs into the match who helped withstand the pressure, but also continued to keep enough of the ball, did enough to counter and create dangerous chances when they were awarded the chance. By the end of the 2020 loss to LouCity, the Hounds were at a 40/60 disadvantage in possession.
With the midfield of Robbie Mertz, Kenardo Forbes and Danny Griffin, the Hounds will have a chance to keep the possession battle even vs Louisville.
In fact, in the last match at Highmark Stadium, a 0-0 tie, Louisville played more direct against the Hounds than we’ve ever seen them do. That contest may not have been the prettiest match of the season, but both sides pushed each other hard, as the the speed, intensity and physical nature resembled a playoff match.
“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.”
If the Hounds can do this, they’ll have a good chance to stand on equal footing against the Eastern Conference’s top team.
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.
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,” Lilley said.
LouCity’s Head Coach Danny Cruz this week called Pittsburgh a “really, really difficult team to prepare for” because of Lilley’s propensity for throwing different formations at opponents over the course of a match.
“We’ll make sure that, as the game starts, we’re getting a good read on what their shape looks like,” Cruz said, “and then from there, it’s about executing.”
Additionally, LouCity defender Amadou Dia said his first playoff game as a member of LouCity is shaping up to be “a chess match” between Cruz and Lilley. It helps, Dia said, that he and his teammates have gotten better at switching formations on the fly during their regular-season stretch run — and that the game is being held in Louisville.
Pittsburgh lined-up in a 4-2-3-1, in the previous match, the same formation they started off against Birmingham last week.
Lilley has a tendency tweak things for every opponent, but did point out once again this week, much like he did ahead of the Birmingham match, that the teams know each other awfully well, and it will come down to execution.
The biggest question for the Hounds might be… do they have enough left in the tank to play on five days of rest after an epic, 120 minute road match?
With a deeper bench and a better possession squad, they’ll have a fighting chance.
Louisville’s lingering injury question marks
While Louisville City has always seem to have the edge in this series in terms of depth, that will be put to the test on Saturday.
Former Riverhounds keeper Kyle Morton has been the primary man in net for Louisville this season, but his status for the game in question due to an injury.
Morton, who played for the Houston Dynamo in the MLS before joining Louisville, earned the league’s coveted Gold Glove award after holding opponents to 0.74 goals per game and posting 13 shutouts in 28 regular-season appearances.
The West Chester, Pennsylvania, native never conceded more than two goals during games he was defending the net, keeping his team within striking distance more often than not until the final whistle.
“We’re hopeful for Kyle to be able to play in a playoff game,” LouCity’s Head Coach Danny Cruz said to the Louisville Courier this week “because he’s earned that with his performances this year.”
Longtime winger Brian Ownby is also questionable, according to Cruz, as he continues to recover from a leg injury. Midfielders Niall McCabe and Jorge Gonzalez, meanwhile, have been ruled out for the remainder of the season due to foot and knee injuries, respectively.
“The one thing I know about this group is, when someone’s number is called, they’ve stepped up this year,” Cruz said. “That’s why we finished where we did. I have full faith in everybody in that locker room and full faith in the team that I put out on Saturday is going to give us the best chance to win the game.”
Look for more coverage of this match with our match day blog and more on Saturday.