It will be the 11th home opener at Highmark Stadium for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC as they will take on a very familiar opponent in recent years, The Miami FC, on Friday night.
Pittsburgh soccer fans and the Riverhounds club officials were probably hoping for better weather in the forecast, but it could also be worse, especially if the rain holds off, which it appears now it will.
The Hounds bring positive momentum into the match, following Saturday’s 3-1 win at Memphis, as Albert Dikwa had the biggest day of his pro career, with a hat trick, and earning the league’s Player of the Week honors.
Pittsburgh will be without its primary starting goalkeeper, Jahmali Waite, who has been called up to the Jamaican National Team ahead of their match on Sunday in the CONCACAF Champions League at Mexico.
Preparing for El Tri! ✊🏿
🗓: Sunday, March 26
🕕: 7:00 pm (JA/EST) 8:00 pm (ET)
🏟: Azteca Stadium
.#ReggaeBoyz #CNL #MEXJAM #JFF_Football pic.twitter.com/wkbcZjw3Rd
— Official J.F.F (@jff_football) March 22, 2023
Veteran midfielder Kenardo Forbes spoke in the preseason about the importance for this year’s club to be more consistent than they were last season during the regular season.
Last week, Memphis came into that match struggling, and Miami is also still trying to find its form, as they have posted a draw vs Tulsa in their opener and a loss to New Mexico last week.
It’s still early in the season, but they’re finding that consistency that Forbes was talking about.
Early in the season, the Hounds appear to have a clear indication of who they are, know what they want to do, even as Head Coach Bob Lilley tweaks the tactics up each week. The Hounds used the same starting lineup in the first two games, but squad depth and rotation will get put to the test, with Waite out, we’ll see either Christian Garner or Jonathan Gomes, and it will almost certainly change as they have a quick turnaround league match on Tuesday night in Tulsa.
Pittsburgh-Miami Series History
When Miami came into the USL Championship in 2020, the COVID shortened season schedule set-up prevented the two sides from meeting, as Pittsburgh played in four-team grouping with Hartford, Loudoun and NY Red Bulls II, and Miami stayed in a group with other Southern rim squads like Birmingham, Memphis and Atlanta.
The two clubs made up for lost time though in the previous two seasons, having clashed six times between the 2021 and 2022 campaigns.
Things between the two clubs hit the highest level of intensity near the close of the 2021 season, when the Hounds edged Miami in a match that had to have the final 27 minute replayed due to a controversial goal call that was overturned, then the last portion of game had to be replayed.
After struggling in the first three meetings with Miami in 2021, the Hounds have been the better team in the series since. Winning the controversial match that wrapped an intense four-game series in 2021.
In 2022, after an intense 1-1 draw at Miami early in the season, the Hounds broke open for one of its most impressive performances last season for a 4-1 win in July, with three goals coming from set pieces.
Miami Led By Trio of 30 Year-Old USL Championship Veterans
In the first season under former Welch journeyman player, Anthony Pulis, who ended up in the states playing with Orlando City SC in its USL Pro glory days, Miami finished a few points behind the Hounds, in sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Once again, Miami brings a roster filled with players in the starting lineup who have USL Championship experience along with a motely crew of journeyman, many who are making their debut with Miami this season.
They do have a couple names we’re very familiar with in Pittsburgh, including long-time nemesis, defender Paco Craig, who led Louisville City FC to a couple of USL Cup titles, and into many battles with the Hounds.
Now 30 years of age, Craig brings his leadership to the Miami back line. where he continues to be a key player in helping build possession out of the back (leads the team with 146 passes through two games, including the team’s only assist).
Fun note: PSN’s Mark Goodman always loves to point out that Paco is the son of Mikey Craig, who was the bass player for the British Pop band, Culture Club, so I have to continue that tradition.
Another known Hound killer in the past half decade has been Florian Valot, who also is 30 years of age, and much like Craig and Hounds midfielder Kenardo Forbes, has become a bit of a USL Championship institution. It’s always fun to watch Valot, who is a clever and dangerous attacking midfielder.
Goalkeeper Jake McGuire is another familiar foe. A former Philadelphia Union product, he played with its USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC in 2017 and 2018, including the infamous first-ever playoff match at Highmark Stadium, when Steel FC walked away with a win in a penalty kick shootout. Pulis though, has elected to go with Adrián Zendejas, who is on loan from MLS’ Charlotte FC, in the first two matches.
As Pulis works through having a lot of new personnel, Miami hasn’t had a great start to the season, as they’re going to be eager to get their first win of the season. Despite starting with two home matches, they are without a win in two matches at home, including a 1-1 draw vs Tulsa, then a 1-0 loss against New Mexico at home.
In the opener, it was Craig who took a touch on a clearance, setting up Valot for their lone goal of the season thus far.
It was a spectacular strike.
What a hit from @florian_valot! 🤩
The French midfielder's venomous strike from long range gives @TheMiamiFC the lead at home!#MIAvTUL pic.twitter.com/C60m7PS8Jt
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) March 11, 2023
The Hounds had defensive letdowns in each of the the first two matches — both came with instances where they failed to close down spaces after scrambling in the box. If they’re going to try to secure its first clean sheet of the season, they’ll have to do it by closing out Valot, but also keeping tabs on a number of other dangerous players, including forward Kyle Murphy, who led the club with 10 goals a season ago.
Murphy, along with Valot and Craig, provide the club’s veteran nucleus. Another USL nomad, has played with six clubs, made 185 appearances and scored 55 goals and 10 assists.
Pulis seems to have filled his roster with a number of younger players who already have a lot of experience playing at this level. Case in point, Ben Mines, was signed to the club this off season. Mines started playing with the New York Red Bulls II when he was 16, and was added to MLS rosters with both Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati. The bulk of his time though in the past two seasons when under contract with FCC, came when he went on loan to Orange County SC, where he scored three goals in 13 appearances.
In last week’s draw with New Mexico, Miami were out-possessed on their home field in what was otherwise a pretty evenly contested match (NM held an 8-7 shots edge).
Some words from Coach Anthony Pulis, @curtis_thorn, and @bmines10 after the second match of the 2023 season.
We travel to Pittsburgh next for our first away game this Friday, March 24th. We keep going. #vamosmiami pic.twitter.com/CwZTcteuVw
— Miami FC (@TheMiamiFC) March 19, 2023
Under Pulis, Miami will adjust to its opponents, as they’ve played with four in the back against New Mexico, but had three in the back with Craig in the middle against Tulsa.
The Hounds defensive shape will have to be solid and always account for Valot and Murphy, who can be dangerous from many spots. Junior Etou has been solid in two starts in the deepest central midfield spot, and will have his work cut out for him again on Friday. It will be interesting to see how the Hounds choose to pressure Miami’s experienced back line and midfield. Last year, Pittsburgh wore down Miami, and eventually it paid off on set pieces, with three goals coming that way. With Paco Craig on the field, it would be hard to imagine that happening again.
Match Notes (from Riverhounds SC):
This will be the 11th home opener at Highmark Stadium. In the previous 10 home openers on the South Side, the Hounds have a 3-5-2 record, but they were winners in the first home game last year, topping Hartford Athletic, 2-1.
Albert Dikwa was this week’s USL Championship Player of the Week after his first career hat trick in Saturday’s 3-1 win on the road against Memphis. It was the second multi-goal game with the Hounds for Dikwa, who now has 19 goals for the club, the most among active players with the team.
Robbie Mertz scored the Hounds’ goal in the season-opening 1-1 draw at Birmingham. For the Pittsburgh native, it was his 14th goal overall for his hometown club, but only the second since he returned to the Hounds in July 2022 via a transfer from Atlanta United 2.
Already this season, three players have recorded their first assist as a member of the team. Center back Arturo Ordóñez set up Mertz’s goal in the season opener, while center back Pat Hogan and forward Tola Showunmi each had an assist in the win over Memphis. For both Ordóñez and Showunmi, it was also their first assist at the professional level.
Hogan also was selected to this week’s USL Championship Team of the Week, joining Dikwa on the league’s top 11.
Hounds captain Kenardo Forbes is the longest-tenured player on the team entering his sixth season, but he remains among the league’s best after a Second Team All-USL Championship selection in 2022. Forbes has been on one of the All-League teams all five seasons in Pittsburgh, and last season, the USL Championship’s all-time assists leader had his first 10-assist regular season.
In 165 matches under Lilley in all competitions, the Hounds are 84-35-46 and have allowed just 157 goals, an average of 0.95 goals per game.
Riverhounds (1-0-1) vs. Miami FC (0-1-1)
Date: Friday, March 24
Time: 7 p.m.
Odds: Hounds +102 / Draw +260 / Miami +215 (Bet Rivers)
TV: CW Pittsburgh
Streaming: ESPN+ (national), CW Pittsburgh (local)
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #PITvMIA and #HOUNDTAHN