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Hounds Notebook: Open Cup success, sellout crowd and Diwka’s goal scoring pace making it another momentous May

Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

With added attention that has come their way mainly due to its U.S. Open Cup run, the Riverhounds SC have spend this week with one focus: preparing for a match-up with the Las Vegas Lights, another Western Conference opponent in the first half of the Hounds 2023 league season schedule.

The meeting vs the flickering, winless Lights, is the Hounds (3-2-5, 14 points) fifth against a Western Conference side this season.  Kickoff is slated for Saturday at 7 p.m. at Highmark Stadium.

When asked about his club’s impending home Open Cup match-up vs the Columbus Crew, Riverhounds veteran Head Coach Bob Lilley made it clear where he focus lies this week.

“We have an important league match at home,” Lilley said in his post match press conference on Saturday night after the Hounds victory vs Birmingham.

“I am not the type of coach that does too much advance scouting. I know enough, and have a pretty good idea about Columbus, that we’ll focus on that right after the game (vs Las Vegas) is over on Saturday. Right now, we have to focus on Las Vegas, to get another three points at home.  It’s an important match for us.”

This week has provided the squad with its first full week of training, without any midweek travel leading into a home match for the first time since mid-April for the Hounds, who are coming off an impressive second half showing last Saturday, when they defeated the Birmingham Legion FC, 2-1. 

“We found the energy this week,” Lilley explained after training on Tuesday.

“It’s a few extra nights in our own beds.”

The Hounds clearly have momentum on their side, coming off two consecutive wins in all competitions last week, and positive play in many area in recent weeks.

“This week is important, because we go into three games.  First (Las) Vegas, then Columbus, then we have to travel to Loudoun (United FC).  Usually Tuesdays are pretty long, but I beat the clock today. I tried not to overwork them.  We want to keep healthy and motivated moving forward.”

Close to Full Strength

Lilley noted that three players have been back training with the club.

Dani Rovira, the Hounds’ fifth year veteran midfielder/winger/defender, was back to training fully with the squad after being left out of training and the lineup for the past three weeks.

Also back in the fold is Junior Etou, who made appearances in the last two matches, coming off the bench.  Etou started the first four matches for Pittsburgh, as holding midfielder, before going down with an arm injury.

Joe Farrell, who was not in the 18 against Birmingham, as he was injured in the Open Cup match at New England, when he had to come out of that match in the 56th minute, was also back training with the team this week at Montour Junction.

With three matches over an eight day period, Lilley anticipates plenty of squad rotation.

“Some players, if they start against Vegas, then play against Columbus, we’re looking at maybe taking them out in the 60th minute rather than playing 90 minutes,” Lilley said.

“So, as a staff, we’ll look at tentative lineups for all three games.  Knowing who can handle three starts. Who can handle two, and some who will start one. Some of the guys stepped up big in New England last week. We’ve got to kind of plan for that, and hopefully plans go well.”

Another Momentous May  

The month of May has always provided some of the highest and lowest moments in recent history of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds’ franchise, especially during the Highmark Stadium era.

In 2014, when the club was struggling to pick up a win — and had to make the tough call to sack its head coach at the time, Justin Evans, a local soccer icon, who had been one of the original Riverhounds, who signed with the club in its inaugural season in 1999.

The 2015 season is well documented in my book, Miracle on the Mon, as the Hounds experienced a magical Open Cup win vs the Tampa Bay Rowdies, thanks to a stoppage time Rob Vincent strike.  That win gave the Hounds an opportunity to host a MLS side, at Highmark Stadium for the first time in club history when they would host DC United that June.

Then, three nights later the high scoring Hounds of that season pulled off one of the greatest come-from-behind victories in the history of North American soccer, defeating rivals Harrisburg, 6-5.  Vincent’s goal scoring tear culminated that May, put him in the league lead.

A year later, everything turned sour, and things really exploded when Hounds forward Romeo Parkes had his contract terminated following an ugly incident that went viral, where he kicked NY Red Bulls II defender Karl Ouimette from behind.  In the weeks that followed, the Hounds were defeated at home in the Open Cup by an amateur club, the Landsdowne Bhoys, then USL Hall of Fame coach Mark Steffens was fired following the team’s poor start.

Thus far, this May has provided for some exciting moments too.

The club’s leading scorer, Albert Dikwa has scored five goals in three matches, including two in a wild back-and-forth affair at Monterey Bay that ended in a 2-2 draw when the Cameroonian forward and former Hound, Alex Dixon, exchanged goals in a match that saw the league’s Golden Boot lead change hands a few times.

The club also announced the return of Danny Griffin via transfer from Huntsville FC, bringing back a player who had logged the most minutes, played in the most matches than any other player on the club from 2020-22, and in 2022, broke the club record for minutes played and appearances.

Then, the Hounds pulled off its most remarkable win in Open Cup history, by going on the road to defeat the New England Revolution, 1-0.  The reward for this win was even sweeter a few days later when, after eight years, the Hounds will be hosting a MLS club once again in the Round of 16 of the Open Cup, when the Columbus Crew comes to town on Wednesday, May 24.

If that wasn’t enough, they defeated Eastern Conference rival Birmingham, 2-1, at Highmark Stadium before a sellout crowd last Saturday evening.

With the announced capacity crowd of 5,126 fans in attendance at Highmark Stadium, it was the second consecutive sellout crowd for the Hounds — on a Saturday night in May.  For whatever odd reason, this has typically been a tough time of year for the Hounds to pack the stands to capacity.

Not right now.

Attendance Numbers are on the Rise 

That’s right.

While it’s still early, the Hounds are ahead of pace and are on track to a potential record-breaking attendance year in the Highmark Stadium era.

In three league matches (not including the Open Cup win vs Maryland Bobcats which had a little more than 2,000 people in attendance), the Hounds are averaging paid attendance of 4,365 per game.  According to SoccerStadiumDigest, the Hounds are currently 15th out of the 24 team USL Championship.

Looking through the years, the Hounds have seen incremental growth in attendance numbers, but have never averaged over 4,000 fans a season during the USL Pro era (since 2011) and the Highmark Stadium era (since 2013).

2022 3,934
2021 2,806
2020 COVID-19
2019 3,729
2018 2,401
2017 2,686
2016 2,494
2015 2,630
2014 2,679
2013 3,079

The challenge for owner Tuffy Shallenberger, Team President Jeff Garner, who handles the business side of the organization and the marketing/ticket sales group for the club, will be sustaining this pace.

Just like on the field, the season is a marathon, and not a sprint.  When the Hounds opened the 2019 season with the expanded Paul Child Stand in the East End of the Stadium, moving the facility’s seating capacity from little under 4,000 to over 5,000, with the ability to fit 6,000 standing room crowd, they had a sellout crowd in it home opener against Hartford, but would finish the season with 3,729 average, which, to that point was the highest in the Highmark era.

Of course, COVID-19 pandemic and the attendance restrictions that came with it, saw the numbers drop to zero for 2020, then a slight bounce-back in 2021, when they were still operating with restrictions.

In their first full season back after COVID-19 restrictions, in 2022, they got back on track in its incremental growth, getting very close to 4,000, with an average of 3,934 fans.

The 2023 home schedule is just getting going for Hounds.

They’re currently on a three-match homestand, then will take to the road to Loudoun (Virginia), then will be back again for five of its following six matches at home through June and early July.

That means they’re currently on a stretch where they’re playing eight of 10 matches at Highmark Stadium.

What was BDK TIFO all about?  

At the start of the Birmingham match on Saturday, the Steel Army revealed a new TIFO.

Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s Ed Thompson caught the images of the display that included a likeness of Hounds forward Edward Kizza with the acronym ‘BDK’ spelled out below.  It was Kizza who had a memorable playoff game last year, coming off the bench to score in stoppage time to equalize, then again in Extra Time, before ending a long penalty kick shootout.

The ‘BDK’ acronym from what was explained to me, stands for Birmingham Destroying Kizza.


Flickering Las Vega$ Lights 

On the opposite side, the Hounds opponents this Saturday, Las Vegas Lights, are in last place in the Western Conference and as the only club in the USL Championship without a win this season.

They’ve been a tougher out for opponents in the last five matches, posting a 0-2-3 record, giving up five goals in this stretch.

Head coach Isidro Sanchez, who returned to Vegas in the offseason after serving as the franchise’s first head coach back in 2018, is searching for both offensive and defensive consistency in his homecoming season.

One of the big offseason pickups for the Lights, was the addition of Erick “Cubo” Torres, a former Mexican international, who also played in Liga MX and Major League Soccer.  Thus far, in nine appearances, Cubo has just one goal.

The Lights FC ranks 19th out of 24 clubs with eight goals scored while conceding 13 goals, the fifth-most in the league. 25 new faces appear on the club’s roster that were not part of the squad last season as the club looks to rebuild following the severance of its affiliation with MLS’ Los Angeles FC in the offseason.

Ironically, and for whatever it’s worth, this is the second consecutive season the Hounds will face Las Vegas ahead of an Open Cup match vs a Major League Soccer side.  Last year, a lifeless Hounds attack couldn’t get any momentum going, as they dropped a road match at Las Vegas, 1-0.    Danny Trejo (yeah the same name as the actor), scored the lone goal in the match. Have no fear Hounds fans, Trejo has moved on, as he’s with Phoenix Rising this season.

After getting off to a 4-0-1 start in 2022, that turned out to be the Hounds’ first loss of the season.

Look for a more extensive preview and scouting report on the Lights to come later in the week here on Pittsburgh Soccer Now.


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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