On Saturday night in Colorado Springs, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC were expecting a tight contest against a Switchbacks club that is similar to them in many ways.
For a good part of the first half, and into the opening stages of the second half, the contest saw both sides take few chances, each minimizing the other’s attacking options. In fact, at the half, neither could get a shot on frame, with both having three shot attempts.
It was pretty much what we expected.
Then things took a turn for Pittsburgh shortly after the second half began, when midfielder Robbie Mertz was booked for a straight red card, following a studs up challenge.
The Switchbacks would eventually capitalize, although they had a few solid chances they fumbled. However, Romario Williams’ finish in the 79th minute proved to be the difference in a 1-0 victory.
The Hounds were willing to concede possession, and were looking to counter-attack, but overall, they lacked firepower to steal an early lead on the road, despite some personnel changes to the starting lineups.
The final salt to the wound in the Hounds’ first loss of the season was the second yellow card and sending off of durable and dependable center back, Arturo Ordonez, who has played every minute for the Hounds this season.
Barring an appeal overturn (unlikely), the Hounds will host RGV Toros FC on Saturday without Ordonez and Mertz.
It’s still early in the season, but Pittsburgh has some adversity to deal with now. They’ll be without two of its best players and their attack has not been dynamic enough.
This will merit a positive response this coming week, or they could be starting to dig a hole they don’t want to try to climb out.
Hounds Formation, Tactics, Personnel
Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley made a few changes to the lineup, which included the first-ever start for Trevor Zwetsloot at holding midfielder, Luke Biasi was penciled in for his second straight entry into the first 11 at right outside back and Tony Lopez drew the assignment as the central attacking midfielder, between Mertz and Marc Ybarra.
As the match evolved, Pittsburgh morphed into a 5-4-1, and then dropped a midfielder when Mertz went out.
Looking for a boost in the second half, in the 63rd minute, Lilley brought on Tola Showunmi for Lopez, , who was mostly ineffective and unable to create much, with just 12 passes and one shot that was blocked. Rovira replaced Dossantos
Joe Farrell and Illal Osumanu, making his debut with Pittsburgh, came on in the 78th minute for Ybarra and Hogan.
Langston Blackstock was the final sub for the Hounds, as he came on for Zwetsloot in the 85th minute.
Lacking Attacking Answers
The addition of Lopez to the starting attacking midfield line provided some promise, especially as Lopez has probably been the Hounds most dynamic player thus far in creating chances when taking a few extra touches and creating something out of nothing.
From the start, the Switchbacks did an excellent job of getting back into defensive shape when the Hounds won the ball back in the middle and looked to counter quickly. Many of the balls played to Hounds topman, Albert Dikwa, were played back to the midfield, as the Switchbacks were denying any chances for Dikwa to get any clear path into the box for chances.
Instead of creatively working from side to side, and being more patient, the Hounds were mired in a back-and-forth battle in the middle of the field, and attempted their fair share of cross attempts that went for naught (18 total on the night — with 16.7% accuracy rate).
In my match preview, the battle between Kenardo Forbes and COS’s Devon ‘Speedy’ Williams was what I anticipated would be the most fascinating match-up of the contest. Each were content to sit in the deeper middle, looking to facilitate, as somewhat expected. Colorado were more effective in keeping the ball, building through short passes, making the Hounds chase the match, as Williams was on top of his game, with 93% passing accuracy.
Forbes wasn’t too far off his game either, but the only problem was he had half the amount of touches (34 passes total), and needed to be on the ball more for the Hounds to dictate their will a bit more.
Pittsburgh’s best chance of the first half came in the waning moments, when Mertz fed Ybarra with a terrific pass inside the left side of the box. Ybarra’s shot though was blocked by his own teammate — Lopez — as that play summarized how things were going for the Hounds.
By the end of the match, Forbes was more active in taking chances, sending six crosses, with one connecting and creating one chance.
Here’s a closer look at the average positions on the night for the starters on both sides. Clearly, the Switchbacks were able to open up a bit more and use the wider channels, while the Hounds stayed very compact in its defensive shape, partially due to having to play a down a man for most of the second half.
Unable to break down the well-organized Switchbacks, the Hounds tried their share of quick, long passes. In fact, despite attempting nearly half the number of passes (588-276) as Colorado Springs, Pittsburgh attempted more long passes in the match (77-65).
Once the Hounds were playing down, they continued to take some chances.
Showunmi had the Hounds’ lone shot on frame from the top of the box, forcing the only save of the night for Christian Herrera.
With just one shot on frame, and that one coming after they were playing down, the Hounds simply didn’t do enough to make the home side uncomfortable and put them on their heels.
This was the second consecutive match the Hounds failed to score, and with just five goals in five matches, they’ll need to find a way to generate more scoring punch and be more dangerous for longer stretches of each match.
Hard Challenges to Bear
As Biasi played a ball to Mertz in the early stages of the second half, Mertz took a heavy touch on the ball, and it got away from him a bit. In his mad dash to win the ball back, he slid pretty hard into Jairo Henriquez.
The replay showed a few angles, all with the ball between Henriquez’s legs as Mertz came in hard with his boot up, and making contact with the Colorado Springs’ forward’s shin.
In this instance, referee Ricardo Fierro, positioned at midfield, had a pretty clear line of sight to the challenge, and immediately made the call. Quite frankly, it’s hard to disagree with the call. I know that Hounds fans wearing their emotions on their sleeves are going to contest the call, but even Mertz, once he got up, knew he was in trouble.
For the Upper St. Clair native, it was his first Red Card as a professional.
The Hounds showed plenty of resiliency following the red card, and probably played some of its most inspired soccer for stretches between the 47th and 70th minutes of the match.
Making matters worse, in the very last moments of the match, Ordonez was booked for his second yellow card, for what looked like a highly elevated leg and boot up in a challenge.
This will put the Hounds in a tough spot next week, as two of its most reliable starters will be in the stands for the match.
Stretched Out and Pushed to the Brink, Hounds Eventually Concede
On the road, and playing in high altitude, despite using a full rotation of subs, the Hounds were stretched to the limits. Switchbacks coach Stephen Hogan talked about hitting the Hounds on the break going into the match, but now the Hounds were putting more numbers behind the ball, but were getting weary chasing a match in which Colorado Springs held 67 percent of the possession.
The Switchbacks should have put the Hounds away with two goals in the 70th and 75th minutes, but each time, Pittsburgh survived.
The first came when COS’s Patrick Seagrist got in with the ball at his feet thanks to a nice ball in from Deshane Beckford. The midfielder’s attempt from close range was blocked by his own teammate!
Then came a penalty kick opportunity when Maalique Foster had some room inside the box with the ball, but his shirt was slightly tugged by Hounds defender, Pat Hogan. It was clear enough for Fierro to make the call, and award a penalty kick.
Again, the match stayed level thanks to Foster’s absurd attempt to fool Waite, first by taking forever to shoot the ball after his first step forward. Then, the Jamaican forward in his first season with the Switchbacks after playing with Sacramento the previous two years, tried a soft poke to the middle of goal, where Waite easily secured the ball.
The Hounds were living dangerously, and still hanging on.
Eventually, the Switchbacks would get it right in the 79th minute, when a build-up that led to Seagrist sending a low, turf-burning cross for the middle of the box that connected with Romario Williams for the game-winner.
It took precise passing and a perfect ball in to thread the needle that finally broke the Hounds’ back.
.@Pattyseags with the cross, @iam_pavyrgwvii with the finish! 👊@SwitchbacksFC has finally broken through!#COSvPIT pic.twitter.com/qpHYxxXNFf
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) April 9, 2023
Pittsburgh continued to make an attempt to get the equalizer.
The Hounds pushed numbers forward to try and get a late tying goal, earning a free kick and two corners in second-half stoppage time.
But it was not to be — and the Hounds left the Rockies with its first loss of the season.
Hounds Player Grades (#PITvMIA)
Jahmali Waite – 6 – lets face it, that PK save was fairly easy save, as Foster handed it to Waite on a platter. The goal was a result of terrific build-up and Waite was a little slow to react but would have been an amazing save. Made one other save.
Pat Hogan – 6 – another solid showing. Won 3 of 4 duels and had team high five clearances.
Arturo Ordonez – 4 – two fouls conceded, and they cost him yellow cards/red card. Overall, solid in the back as usual (won 6 of 10 duels including 3 of 4 in the air).
Nate Dossantos – 5 – active both ways. Won 4 of 10 duels. Created a couple chances. Had four tackles.
Dani Rovira (63′) – N/R – clearly a part of the outside back rotation, this time as a sub, coming on for Dossantos.
Joe Farrell (79′) – N/R – veteran continues to see most of his time off bench as a sub. Will likely have to start in place of Ordonez next week.
Luke Biasi – 7.5 – pretty good individual performance for Biasi. Made his second straight start at right back and had a solid night for a back line that nearly held on for the clean sheet. Biasi won 8 of 12 duels, led the team with three interceptions and three fouls won, and he completed 20 of 22 passes for a 90.9 percent clip — best among the starting 11.
Tony Lopez – 4 – won two fouls but lost three of four duels. Thought we’d get more from him as he got another start.
Robbie Mertz – 4 – wasn’t going great for Mertz leading up to the Red Card, but he was putting in the work. Had 4 of 8 duels won, but only 12 passes and two unsuccessful crosses.
Kenardo Forbes – 6 – was a pretty solid overall performance. Won 3 of 4 duels. Created a few chances. Played the full 90+ in high altitude.
Marc Ybarra – 5.5 – won five of seven duels. Passing accuracy continues to get better with each game (81%). Had a potential shot on frame blocked by own teammate. Seems to be more comfortable but can he take next step to help with creating chances and adding to Hounds attack?
Trevor Zwetsloot – 5 – won 4 of 8 duels. Had three tackles, three interceptions but conceded four fouls and had a yellow card in his first start.
Albert Dikwa – 5 – always working, but not creating much in the box. Not all his fault, as service and team’s ability to break down a tough opponent has been substandard. Won 4 of 9 duels, including winning three fouls.
Tola Showunmi (63′) – 5 – won 3 of 6 duels. Had only shot on frame. Conceded two fouls.
Langston Blackstock (85′) – N/R – only has made a few appearances this season. Will be looked at to make an impact, but didn’t really have a chance in this one.
The Hounds (1-1-3, six points) will face RGV Toros FC in its only league match in April at Highmark Stadium, on Saturday, April 16.