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Preview: USL regular season kicks off for Hounds in Birmingham

We regret to inform you that the rabbi is once again previewing matches for PSN, with a mix of jokes that won’t land, pop culture references for dorks and middle-aged men and women, and tactical prognostications that may or may not be based on things derived from the tilting of a Magic Eight Ball. (Note: that final idea was, semi-ironically, a pop culture reference for middle-aged men and women).

The Riverhounds are back for 2023, and once again the shedding of players and adding of players by Bob Lilley has led to a team that are hard to peg. You have to read the Pittsburgh soccer media predictions piece , published Friday, for a lot of reasons, but one was the sheer variety of responses to ‘how will the Riverhounds fare in 2023?’ On the high end was the optimistic Rachael Kriger, who guessed. 68 points. That would have been good enough for second in 2022 and first in 2019. The bulk of the Yinzer punditocracy guessed between 58 and 61 points. I was the most pessimistic at just 52 points – although that number would still almost certainly get the Hounds into the playoffs this year.

Pittsburgh’s core is solid. But there are a lot of unknowns, especially at the wide positions. And some of the upgrades in USL teams this year feel more impressive that the moves the Hounds made: there wasn’t a big signing out of Bob Lilley. On the contrary, the biggest moves for the Hounds were outbound, with the departures of Shane Wiedt, Alex Dixon, Danny Griffin, and Russell Ciccerone. I believe some current players are ready to step up and fill those shoes. But perhaps not all of them. We’ll see. I hope to be wrong.

The Riverhounds will start 2023 on the road, which considering March weather along the Monongahela, that is probably a good thing. Temperature tomorrow in Pittsburgh at kickoff time would have been around 36 Fahrenheit. In Birmingham it’s supposed to be a lovely 58 degrees.

Tactics and Personnel

First of all, you have to read John Krysinsky’s Hounds Notebook this week to get the full report on both the Riverhounds and Birmingham. (Sure, I’m sucking up to the boss. But also this is really good research that will make you smarter and you should read it.) There are few independent USL soccer journalists as knowledgable as John is on their town’s team, and the league overall. I’m not a betting man – I prefer putting my money into mutual funds that have steadily lost 7 percent of their value each year rather than plunking $100 down on a match only to lose all of it in one curled free kick. But if I WERE a betting man, I’d read John K’s thoughts and invest based on that. [Note: investing carries inherent risk. Sports betting is generally a great way to almost literally light money on fire. Consult your physician if swelling persists for more than four hours.]

On Birmingham, among other things, John notes this:

While the Hounds opted to get younger this season, Birmingham went to work in the off season to bolster its already strong roster with some very familiar faces — by adding notable former Hounds – Tyler Pasher and Neco Brett.

Tyler Pasher, if you had forgotten, was something of a menace in the USL Eastern Conference in 2019 and 2020. In the Covid-shortened 2020 season, Pasher started 13 games and scored 10 goals, adding 2 assists. Junior Flemmings topped him for Golden Boot by banging in 14 goals, but Pasher’s silky smooth final-third performance was good enough to earn him a job with MLS team Houston Dynamo in 2021. And a well-paid job at that – Pasher earned $157,000 in 2021 and $165,000 in 2022. That’s a lot better than pulling a few grand a month in USL and taking summer coaching gigs with the academy. For whatever reason, that wasn’t enough for Houston, and he’s back in the USL now – likely with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove after being spurned by the US first division.

Neco Brett left Birmingham in 2022 for New Mexico, and wasn’t as prolific, scoring only 7 goals. But the Jamaican is, at this point, a USL institution, having scored 70 goals in the league over seven seasons with four different teams. He’s hard to mark.

The Legion also will bring back Alex Crognale, Phanuel Kavita, Mikey Lopez, and Enzo Martinez. Martinez is a wily veteran who had an almost other-worldly resurgence in 2022; tallying 15 goals and 8 assists – close to the equal of his three previous seasons combined. They also have Juan Agudelo, a former MLS forward that even did a season in the Eredivisie with Utrecht. “Swagadelo” has 28 caps for the USMNT, but couldn’t find an MLS gig after 2021 and joined Birmingham for last season, where he was good for 7 goals and 6 assists. He can still get it done.

Their goalkeeper, Matt Van Oekal, is a guy I have made fun of in the past.

Tactically, they played a lot of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 in 2022, and in the past they have been a bit stiff and conservative. In 2022 only 7 teams in all of USL conceded fewer goals than Birmingham, and only 5 scored more. They were a formidable team last year, and indications are that they got better in the offseason. This will not be an easy first road match for the newly-constituted Hounds.

Expected Starting XI for Birmingham Legion

GK – Van Oekel; D Moses Mensah, D Crognale, D Cavita, D Gabriel Alves; M Enzo Martinez, M Mikey Lopez, M Anderson Asiedu; F Tyler Pasher, F Neco Brett, F Juan Agudelo

Match Info

Date and Time: Saturday, March 11, 7:30 pm EST

Location: Protective Stadium, Birmingham, Alabama

Streaming: ESPN+

TV: Pittsburgh’s CW, Channel 19

Live Updates:, @PittsburghRiverhounds Twitter

Image c/o Birmingham Legion FC via twitter

Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

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