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Preview and Scouting Report: Open Cup darlings, Birmingham-Pittsburgh face off in pivotal league match

Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

On Saturday night at Highmark Stadium, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Birmingham Legion FC will get back to business — league business that is — as both teams look to climb higher up the Eastern Conference standings.

The Riverhounds will have to come back down to earth from its exhilarating 1-0 U.S. Open Cup win, and all of the attention that comes with it, and now focus on picking up some important positive momentum in league play with its second and final regular season match vs one of USL Championship Eastern Conference front runners.

The two teams faced off in the season opener, which ended in a 1-1 draw at Proactive Stadium in Birmingham.  The Hounds fell behind, but were solid with its midfield play on the larger field, and broke through for a late goal that came when Arturo Odonez found Robbie Mertz breaking behind the last defender on a well-placed diagonal ball.

This match will feature two teams looking for an elusive win in league play.  The Hounds (2-2-5 – W-L-D, 11 points) last two matches on the road ended in 1-1 and 2-2 draws, at Indianapolis and Monterey Bay, respectively.  If they played 80 minute matches, the Hounds would have taken the full six points from those two matches, so Pittsburgh will be hoping that its more complete defensive performance in the Open Cup win will carry over into league play.

Legion (16 points) remain in position to get to the top of the table with a win, as they currently trail Charleston (18 points). Birmingham though, come into the match off back-to-back losses in league play where they’ve really struggled on the defensive end against The Miami FC (1-3) and the Oakland Roots (1-4) on April 30 and May 3.

The good news for both sides is they come into this match relatively healthy, with just the Hounds putting midfielder/defender Dani Rovira (out – knee) on the injury report.

To start 2023, the Riverhounds have played eight of its first 11 matches on the road in all competitions.

Now, Hounds players and coaches can keep their luggage in the closet for the time being, as the next three matches will be at home, including the upcoming U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 clash vs Columbus Crew.

First things first, the Hounds have to face a Birmingham side which last beat Pittsburgh at Protective Stadium in September 2022, but Pittsburgh got the final upper hand in last season’s series, when they stunned with late Edward Kizza goals in stoppage time of regulation and in Extra time  the Legion in the USL Championship Conference Quarterfinal classic that was decided on a penalty kick marathon shootout.

Birmingham will be looking to shut down Albert Dikwa, who comes into this match having scored three goals in the last two league matches, and now sits atop the league’s golden boot race.

More on Birmingham Legion FC 

Like the Hounds, the Legion FC played a midweek Open Cup match, but they have one few day of rest, playing on Wednesday. Still, Birmingham had a relatively easy run of it, by taking down league rival Memphis 901 FC, 3-0, at Auto Zone Park to become the first Alabama team in the history of the tournament to reach the Round of 16.

The Legion rolled out some of its big name players for the Open Cup match, including former Hound Tyler Pasher, Juan Argudelo, Prosper Kasim and notorious Hound killer Enzo Martinez.

The struggling defense is anchored by center backs Phanuel Kavita and Alex Crognale.  It was Crognale who scored the goal against the Hounds in the season opener on a header from a corner kick.

Unfortunately for the Legion FC, Kavita, who has worn the captain’s armband for much of the season, was was sent off with a second yellow card in their match last weekend against Oakland, and will have to sit this one out in Pittsburgh.

These defensive woes are a not a good sign for a team with aspirations finishing at the top of the table.  The Legion have tremendous forward depth, so much so, that they’ve been bringing two former Hounds Tyler Pasher and Neco Brett off the bench in most games.

Birmingham has fared well on the road in league play this season, earning nine out of a total 15 points in away games this season. The Legionnaires have one of the better away records in the league

Birmingham has rolled with Argudelo getting most of the starts in the top of their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, with Martinez working underneath as the attacking midfielder, with Kasim on the left side, where he’s picked up three assists thus far this season.

Match-Ups to Watch

The Hounds started the previous match at Birmingham in a 4-2-3-1, which evolved at times into 5-3-1-1 (or 5-3-2). Their primary focus on the big field in Birmingham was to keep the ball, use the width and limit Birmingham’s potentially explosive attack.

Here in Pittsburgh, it should be another tight, hard-fought contest, and most likely it could get very physical.  The two teams are among the the most foul-heavy sides, as the Hounds are second in USLC in fouls (142) and Birmingham is fourth-overall (132), while the Legion carry fifth most 26 Yellow Card bookings so far this season, while the Hounds have 20.

Where the Hounds have been immensely consistent and mostly successful this season has been in limiting opponents shot attempts and shots on frame — as they have just allowed just 19 shots on frame all season compared to Birmingham’s 49.

It will be interesting to see if Birmingham can tighten things up after giving up seven goals in the last two league matches.  They currently have surrendered the most goals in the league to this point this season and have a goal differential of minus-3 (pretty bizarre for a team in second place in the 12-team Eastern Conference table).

The Hounds held the possession edge throughout the first match (ended up with 54/48 advantage), as they stayed committed to building up play out of the back, playing through the middle and wide channels – essentially what ever Birmingham was giving them.

What was more important about this, was that once again, on this big field, the Hounds were effectively able to offset Birmingham’s efforts to punish and press by bringing Kenardo Forbes all the way back to help get many possessions restarted.

Since adding Danny Griffin last week and with the breakout performance from Marc Ybarra in the Open Cup match, plus with Junior Etou back from injury, Bob Lilley has a lot of excellent midfield options to select from in this match.  The Hounds, who have played comfortably in conceding possession in many road matches this season, should be able continue to use its midfield to its advantage vs Birmingham.

Projected Hounds Starting XI 



Match info

Riverhounds (2-2-5) vs. Birmingham Legion FC (5-4-1)
Date: Saturday, May 13
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Tickets: Ticketmaster
Odds: Hounds -105 / Draw +240 / Birmingham +240 (FanDuel)
TV: Pittsburgh’s CW
Streaming: ESPN+ (national), Pittsburgh’s CW (local)
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #PITvBHM 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).

Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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