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Preview & Scouting Report: Riverhounds-Switchbacks provide a mirror image match-up of stingy sides

Photo courtesy New Mexico United

With a week and a half respite between games, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC will get back into league competition looking for their second win of the season, and also hoping to remain unbeaten, when they visit Colorado Springs Switchbacks on Saturday night (8 pm ET).

The Hounds made the most of their time, getting in a full week of training after some rest after their trip to Tulsa last week.

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While the Switchbacks have been around for sometime (since 2014), it’s the first time the clubs will meet, and the first time the Hounds will play a match in the state of Colorado.

A fun fact.  The only other time Pittsburgh has played a team from Colorado, they defeated Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids, in the second round of the 2001 US Open Cup, at Bethel Park High School.

The Switchbacks were handed defeat earlier in the week in the US Open Cup Second Round, when the USL League One outfit, Northern Colorado Hailstorm, beat the second division squad, 3-1.

Much like last season when Pittsburgh visited New Mexico, this match presents a challenge of playing in high altitude.

Colorado Springs, at an elevation of 6,035 ft., is a city in Colorado at the eastern foot of the Rocky Mountains. It lies near glacier-carved Pikes Peak, a landmark in Pike National Forest with hiking trails and a cog railway leading to its 14,114-foot. summit. The city’s Garden of the Gods park features iconic red-sandstone formations and mountain views. Being in the high altitude, this is a great location for the home base of the United States Olympic training facility, which I had an opportunity to visit. (Highly recommend visiting, if you ever get a chance, to see the facility where many U.S. Olympic athletes live and train.)

The Hounds arrived earlier to get acclimated and put in a training session on Friday in the Centennial State.

“It’s going to take more than 11 guys,” Nate Dossantos, Hounds defender, remarked on this week’s edition of Sounding Off on Soccer.

The Hounds have used the extra training time this week to prepare accordingly.

“We’ve done a few drills, where getting the lungs working, opening those up. Hopefully that will help us be ready,” Pat Hogan, Hounds defender added.

The Switchbacks (2-1-1, 7 pts) were a playoff side a year ago, making it all the way to the Western Conference finals, before losing to eventual champs, San Antonio.

Making its club debut in 2014, the Switchbacks began its 10th USLC season with a solid start to their league campaign, sitting with two wins out of four.

While the sample size is still a bit small, when looking closer at this match-up, both sides have a lot of similarities.

In fact, when watching each other on tape, they’ll might as well be looking at a mirror image of themselves in many ways.

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The architect of this Switchbacks roster is none other than former Bethlehem Steel FC Head Coach and Philadelphia Union assistant, Brendan Burke, who knows a thing or two about facing the Riverhounds and Bob Lilley.  (I don’t think I need to remind die-hard Hounds fans of the 2018 playoff loss to Bethlehem Steel)

However, after guiding the Switchbacks to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, in 2021 (as he was also a finalist for USLC Coach of the Year) and another successful campaign in 2022 with a run to the Conference Final, Burke moved on to an assistant coaching gig with MLS Houston Dynamo this January.

For all intents and purposes, this team still has Burke’s fingerprints all over it, with the appointment of Stephen Hogan as the new head coach, and with one of the Hounds’ biggest nemesis’s in recent years, James Chambers, serving as an assistant coach.

Hogan spent the previous 15 years coaching alongside Burke, as a fellow or valued assistant.  Just as Kenardo Forbes has served as Bob Lilley’s chief lieutenant on the field since 2015 in the USLC, Chambers did the same for Burke when they were together with the Bethlehem Steel. After an extensive career playing in England and Ireland, Chambers, native of Dublin, Ireland, played his last four seasons in the states as a veteran presence on a team with a lot of very young, promising Philadelphia Union prospects, from 2016-2019, scoring 18 goals in 116 appearances.  It was Chambers who played the foil (brilliantly I might add, by scoring in extra time, and taunting the Steel Army after scoring in the penalty kick shootout) when Steel FC upset the Hounds in the first ever playoff match at Highmark Stadium.

Back to the similarities between the clubs.

They’re quite striking early in this season.

Each have just surrendered three goals in four matches.  The Hounds have scored five, Switchbacks four times.  The Hounds have sent 48 shots, while Colorado has 44 attempts.  They are also both in the top half of the league in attempted passes (Pittsburgh 1,619 / Colorado 1,516) and near the bottom in passing accuracy (Hounds 70% / CS 73%), which means that against well-organized units, each midfield will need to be more patient and pick their spots, as they both may look to counter against each other.

Add that both sides are also among the league leaders in fouls conceded (CSSB 3rd overall with 66 / Hounds 9th with 57), it could very well be the third straight match that Hounds find themselves in a battle of attrition, where one mistake or big play could be the difference.

After claiming a 1-0 victory against Loudoun United FC last Saturday evening as former Charleston Battery forward Romario Williams scored his first goal for the club in the 5th minute, the Switchbacks showed plenty of resolve, despite being out possessed and under pressure for most of that match.

The player most familiar with on the CSSB squad to Pittsburgh soccer fans, is none other than Devon ‘Speedy’ Williams, a former Robert Morris University standout, who is now a true veteran of the USL Championship, where he’s raised the Cup three times, once with NY Red Bulls II and twice with Louisville City FC.  The Jamaican native spent the previous two seasons with The Miami FC, but signed with Colorado Springs in the offseason.

In total, the 30-year-old has made 198 appearances in the USL Championship’s regular season and playoffs in his career, recording 14 goals and 11 assists.

This season, Speedy has started all four of Colorado’s matches in his familiar holding midfield spot. The Switchbacks have primarily used a 3-1-4-2 formation, with Williams in position to be a key orchestrator from the deep, central midfield.  In last week’s match at Loudoun United, the Jamaican international put in a typical performance, with over 80 percent passing accuracy.

The Switchbacks look to be dangerous in the counter-attack, using the Jamaican combination of the powerful Romario Williams and slashing forward Maalique Foster, previously with Sacramento Republic FC, at the top of the attack to stretch and keep defending units on their toes. (A somewhat similar pairing to what the Hounds have with Albert Dikwa and Edward Kizza).

They’ll look to catch the Hounds when they’re opened up and vulnerable in the back.

“You have to hit [Pittsburgh] on the break in terms of when they come out and that’s part of our game anyway – that’s how we got our goal against Loudoun,” Hogan said.  “In our midfield we need to be able to keep the ball moving forward while keeping possession at times to really stretch [Pittsburgh].”

Colorado Springs are also a solid defensive club, led by captain, and former Bethlehem Steel FC center back, Matt Mahoney (another carry over from Burke’s earlier coaching stint in Eastern PA), who is another USL Championship veteran, with more than 140 league appearances.

Although they didn’t create a lot of chances vs Loudoun, Colorado Springs made the most of an early opportunity, thanks to yet another Jamaican, Deshane Beckford, who set up Romario Williams beautifully with a cross from the right side, after a long ball over the top from Mahoney.

From that point, Colorado Springs defended well under a lot of pressure from Loudoun (who outshot CS 14-11, 7-3 on frame), thanks also to solid goalkeeping from Christian Herrera, who made seven of his 15 saves this season in the match.

“The game plan came full circle [against Loudoun] for the first five minutes.  The way we moved the ball, how we pressed, how we re-pressed, the pass from Matt [Mahoney] to Becky [Deshane Beckford] to Romario [Williams] was literally one or two patterns that we practiced on Friday in Loudoun,” Hogan said.

“After that [goal] we sort of went into some sort of shell and there are a lot of things that we need to make a lot cleaner.  And then to finish out the game after the [lightning] break – everyone is saying it about how you professionally finish the game out with 11 or 12 minutes of injury time is phenomenal.  That’s a new part of [the players’] mindset in terms of clean sheets – the players are really excited about that.  We just need to improve within that ball-work frame through the middle third, and if that happens consistently well I think we’ll be taking a lot of chances.”

Like the Hounds (with Mertz and Forbes this season), the Switchbacks playmaking has emanated from the width, with Beckford patrolling the right side like a demon, with a league-high three assists this season.

Here’s a look at Beckford’s ability to play a solid ball through the lines in transition in the game-winner in stoppage time for the Switchbacks vs El Paso.

The Hounds have defended better against direct play this season, and with Bob Lilley having more than a week to prepare for this match, they should devise an effective game plan to take away Colorado Springs’ strengths.

This one feels like it could be a tightly contested affair.

We shall see.

Key Match-Up: Jamaican Midfield Duel — Speedy vs Kenny 

The coaching staff know each other all too well.

Hogan said this of Bob Lilley earlier this week.

“[The Pittsburgh Riverhounds] is [Head Coach] Bob Lilley,” insisted Hogan.

“It’s the way he sets them up, the way he reads the game, and the way he reads in a game – it’s phenomenal.  He’s one of the best and that’s why he’s been doing it for so long.  The idea behind them is the structure of their defense and the structure of how they play is so in-sync that it’s actually very good to watch.  And then how fast they can hit you on the break.  When there are times to move the ball, they try and do that too.  They can be structurally sound and hit you quickly on the break and I think that’s where you’ll see them [be] the most effective throughout the year, and that’s what got [Albert] Dikwa his hat trick against Memphis.  So that sort of idea is Bob, and his in-game management is phenomenal, so we’re not going to see anything different here.”

A lot of really good Jamaican players will be on the pitch in this one, but it’s always a treat to watch Speedy Williams and Kenardo Forbes on opposite sides while they do their part to implement their team’s will and dictate terms with their tremendous vision, touch and ability to push or pull back the tempo of the match.

And both are so good at making and getting their teammates in-sync when in-game adjustments are happening, as Hogan was taking about.

With Junior Etou out due to a pretty significant arm injury, the Hounds will be moving some personnel around for the first time this season to reconfigure its deep, central midfield set-up.

Having a lot of time off between matches, and playing in the high altitude, the Hounds will very likely use heavy squad rotation in this one, but Forbes, Robbie Mertz, Marc Ybarra will likely hold down the fort in the central midfield.

The other key match-up to watch will be how the Hounds can contain Beckford, as Nate Dossantos at left back, and the center backs will have their hands full with the league’s assist leader.

Riverhounds (1-0-3) vs. Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC (2-1-1)
Date: Saturday, April 8
Time: 8 p.m.
Location: Weidner Field, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Odds: Hounds +220 / Draw +215 / Colorado Springs +116 (Bet Rivers)
TV: Pittsburgh’s CW
Streaming: ESPN+ (national), Pittsburgh’s CW (local)
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #COSvPIT and #HOUNDTAHN

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).

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Glory on the Grass

Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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