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Hounds Notebook: ‘All-in’ for Highmark Stadium ‘White Out’ plus look at recent history with Columbus Crew as both friend and foe

Current Manchester City FC/Middlesbourgh goalkeeper Zach Steffen played nine matches with the Hounds in 2017 on load from Columbus. File photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

With a massive midweek Open Cup clash at Highmark Stadium coming on Wednesday, Hounds Notebook is already filled to the brim with content early this week.

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC are looking to build upon its three-match winning streak in all competitions to pull off its biggest win yet this season when they take on Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, in a much anticipated match where they’ll finally get to host an MLS squad at Highmark Stadium.

Over the weekend, the Hounds revealed a ‘Summer Gold’ kit, that they’ll wear for the first time this season against the Crew.

The Hounds are asking fans to wear white on Wednesday as they look to pack Highmark Stadium, which has seen three straight home sellout matches.

Confidence is high ahead of tough match-up vs Crew 

The Hounds have plenty of reason to feel confident.  They extended its unbeaten string to five games and won its third straight thanks in large part to Edward Kizza’s two-goal performance on Saturday night in defeating Las Vegas, 4-1.

Head Coach Bob Lilley said that the team can now fully focus on the Open Cup match, as they were all about taking care of league business first, and did so in impression fashion by dismantling a struggling Las Vegas.

The Hounds’ carry lots of confidence, especially as they enter the match with Columbus knowing that they notched their first-ever road win, 1-0, in the Open Cup against a MLS squad, the New England Revolution, on May 9 to advance to the Round of 16 in the Open Cup.

The squad will train Monday and Tuesday ahead of the match.

The team only has one player, Dani Rovira (knee), who was out of the Las Vegas match, but even Rovira was back training with the squad last week.  Lilley expects to continue to use squad rotation, and has a pretty good idea who he will want in the starting lineup and the 18 for Wednesday.

The Hounds starting eleven against Las Vegas hinted that Lilley is already in heavy squad rotation mode for the week, which will include three games in eight days, as the Hounds will travel to Loudoun on Sunday following Wednesday’s match.

Saturday’s starters included Jahmali Waite; Langston Blackstock, Nate Dossantos, Arturo Ordóñez, Pat Hogan, Burke Fahling; Junior Etou, Kenardo Forbes, Danny Griffin, Edward Kizza and Albert Dikwa, with Etou, Forbes, Danny Griffin (Yes — that’s right — Griffin was subbed out) and Dikwa coming out of the match between the 62nd and 72nd minutes.  The subs included Tola Showunmi, Robbie Mertz and Trevor Zwetsloot.

“We got through this game, saving some legs,” Lilley added on Saturday.  “Changing some guys, who didn’t even play, who will feature in the next game, and will have the energy. So, right now, we’re all in on Wednesday.”

There were some players who have been part of the squad rotation in recent weeks, who didn’t even play, namely Luke Biasi, DZ Harmon and Joe Farrell, who may get the call on Wednesday night.

Lilley said that it will be a much different game than playing New England, as Columbus, with lots of quality in the midfield and among the most skilled players in MLS, they Crew will try to play through the middle, and be a possession-based team.  Look for more on this match to come later in the week from Pittsburgh Soccer Now.

“They have lots of players that can hurt you,” Lilley said on Saturday night.

“Columbus is going to pick you apart. They’re going to make you run over here, then pop-up, and it’s over here. We have to be committed to getting in their face when we can. Pressing when we can. Doing more work than we’ve done all year, and that’s where the crowd can help us being at home.”

Lilley, who has been coaching in Open Cup matches going back to 1997, when he took the Hershey Wildcats into battle with DC United, knows how important it will be for his squad to take the match to the Crew on Wednesday.

“The challenge for us is going to be that we can’t sit back and chase all game and not think they don’t have the quality to break us down,” Lilley said.

“We’re going to have to disrupt, which means a lot of work. We’re going to have to be willing to press, go forward and make them defend, because if they dictate the entire game on our field, we will not have a chance after 90 minutes.

“We’re going to have to work hard just like we did in New England and be brave to win balls and press higher up the pitch. We’ll need the crowd to spur us on and give us energy. I believe that’s our best chance. Having 6,000 people in here giving us that emotion and energy to go out there and compete.”

In the meantime, we’ll use this edition of Hounds Notebook to take a look back at the Hounds Cup history and how the organization has crossed paths numerous times with the Columbus Crew in recent years.

Hounds History vs MLS Clubs in the Open Cup

This match-up with Columbus will be the second time in club history the Hounds will host an MLS opponent at Highmark Stadium, and the fourth time overall, as they also hosted Colorado Rapids (a 2-0 win) and Chicago Fire (a 3-2 Extra Time loss), both in 2001 at Bethel Park High School. 

Overall, in eight matches vs MLS opponents, the Hounds have posted a 2-6 record.  The Hounds’ wins vs MLS foes came vs Colorado Rapids (2-0) on June 27, 2001, at Bethel Park Stadium and the win earlier this month vs New England Revolution, 1-0, on May 9, 2023, at Gillette Stadium.  Three of their losses came in matches that went to Extra Time (3-2 loss vs Chicago in 2001, 3-1 loss vs DC United in 2015 and 2-1 loss at FC Cincinnati in 2022)

The only other time they faced an MLS side at Highmark, was in 2015 when they hosted DC United. That high scoring Riverhounds’ group, led by Rob Vincent, Kevin Kerr and Lebo Moloto, battled DC to extra time, only to fall 3-1, by surrendering two late set piece goals.  

Many Pittsburgh soccer fans remember that night, with an overflow crowd, almost entirely decked out in Gold, cheering the Hounds on every touch of the ball.

Riverhounds took on DC United in June 2015 at Highmark Stadium, losing 3-1 in Extra Time. (Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC)

“I’ve been involved with Open Cup games for what, 17, 18 years, this is what it looks like almost every time,” said Ben Olsen, D.C. United Head Coach, on that night.

“Their energy. Their quality. Their commitment. They gave us a heck of a fight tonight,”

Olsen’s team had to fight off a pesky Hounds team — and was fortunate that his team was able to convert on set pieces in key moments.

Friend & Foe: Hounds History with Columbus Crew 

It really is an interesting history between the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Columbus Crew.

In the early seasons of the Highmark Stadium era, the Hounds developed affiliation partnerships with two MLS clubs for two different periods. Coincidentally (or not), they also happened to be the only losing seasons in the club experienced since moving into its new stadium on the banks of the Monongahela River.

First, in 2014, they partnered with the Houston Dynamo for one season.  In that season, numerous Houston players were loaned to Pittsburgh, with defender Anthony Arena and goalkeeper Michael Lisch getting most of the playing time in the Steel City, while future USL Championship standouts, Brian Ownby and Jason Johnson saw time with the Hounds.

That season was a lost cause for the Hounds, who couldn’t build off the magic from a successful year one in Highmark Stadium, in 2013, as they would fire Head Coach Justin Evans in May, as they would start the first 11 matches of the season without a win. Despite a valiant late season push, the 2014 Riverhounds finished below the playoff line.

In 2015, the Hounds decided not to partner with Houston, but soon after the Dayton Dutch Lions dropped out of the league, the Columbus Crew were without a USL partner.

So, at the time, in a deal that seemed to make a lot of sense for both sides, especially in light of the fact that Pittsburgh and Columbus are close geographically, the Hounds struck into another affiliation partnership.

Shortly after the announcement, Gregg Berhalter jumped on a call with a few of us in the Pittsburgh media to talk about the partnership.

“It’s much more convenient, even for our guys,” said Berhalter. “Pittsburgh is close and that helps, but that’s not what it was all about.”

Berhalter added, it was a lot more about aligning the organizations than about geography.

“They are an ambitious organization that is headed in the right direction.  We want Pittsburgh to have success,” Berhalter stated.

“From our end, we want to be able to provide young players with playing opportunities, but also to give guys a chance to get into match fitness and to come back from injuries.”

Despite this partnership, the 2016 season turned out to be a bad one for the Hounds — as they fired another coach (Mark Steffens) after a super sluggish start once again, and finished the season in 13th place in the 14 team USL Eastern Conference.

Players loaned to Pittsburgh that season from Columbus included Marshall Hollingsworth, Ben Swanson, Christian Martinez, Rodrigo Saravia, and most memorably, Zach Steffen.

Swanson and Hollingsworth came first, in the preseason, then the others followed through the season.

Midway through the 2016 campaign, Steffen joined the Hounds after being a discovery signing for the Crew after a short stint in Germany with SC Freiburg.  Steffen would make a total of nine appearances for the Hounds for the remainder of that season, before ascending to become the top keeper for the Crew from 2017-19 until he was transferred to Manchester City FC in the English Premier League.  Although he had started 29 matches for the USMNT, he didn’t make the cut for the 2022 World Cup squad. Still contracted to Man City, Steffen, a native of Coatesville, PA, completed this past season on loan to Middlesbrough in the Championship.

In the first full season under Dave Brandt, who took over for Mark Steffens, the Riverhounds showed more promise in 2017, but dealt with a lot of injuries and players coming in and out of Pittsburgh.

Brandt relied on a heavy rotation of players coming on loan from Columbus, and elsewhere that season (that’s the season Joe Greenspan came on loan from Minnesota FC).

Once again, Hollingsworth was the most featured Crew player for the Hounds, as he would end up making 45 appearances in Pittsburgh in his two seasons.   Also returning to Pittsburgh from Columbus in 2017 were Swanson (just three games before a season/career ending injury) and Christian Martinez, while Lalas Abubakar, Connor Maloney and Maduabuchi “Abuchi” Obinwa also make spot appearances in Pittsburgh.

It was during this time, the Riverhounds Development Academy also began to work more and more closely with the Crew Academy.   However, this has always been a bit of a fluid relationship, but there were times when the clubs did partner for various reasons.  I wrote about this in 2017, as the Crew began providing aspiring players in the Pittsburgh region with a pathway to a MLS Development Academy.

What does Crew-Hounds Academy alliance mean for #PghSoccer?

Though, after 2017, there were numerous other Hounds Academy players who did also move on to other MLS club academies, including Philadelphia Union and DC United’s organizations.

At the pro level, once Bob Lilley took over the reins in Pittsburgh in 2018, the affiliation between Pittsburgh and Columbus ended.

However, Lilley would turn to Columbus as a club the Hounds would look to scrimmage in the preseason every so often.  Most recently, in the 2020, 2022 and 2023 preseasons, Pittsburgh traveled to Columbus.

The two clubs have played once before in the Open Cup, in 2019, when the Hounds, with just 16 healthy players on its roster, ventured to battle the Crew, coming up short in a 1-0 loss in the Open Cup’s Fourth Round, as David Accam scored the only goal of that match.

PSN’s Matt Gajtka covered that match.

‘Gutsy’ Hounds run out of steam in Open Cup loss at Columbus

Despite holding the Crew to three shots on frame in 90 minutes — the Hounds were unable to string together three consecutive Open Cup victories for the first time in their 20-year history.

“I think we limited their chances,” Lilley said that night.

“We knew they’d have more of the ball. I actually liked the amount of times we got out clean in the first half, but I think if we passed it a little better, there were more clean chances we could’ve carved out.

“I think we worked together well. We covered for each other well. We put up a ton of resistance and had the ambition to try to break out.”

Although the Hounds didn’t create many chances that night, Kenardo Forbes was staring at a golden chance in the 83rd minute to hit the equalizer.

Forbes accepted a square ball from Robbie Mertz and struck his shot cleanly from the edge of the Columbus Crew SC penalty area.The ball blew past the outstretched glove of Crew keeper John Kempin.

And then it sailed over the crossbar.

That was the only shot attempt of the second half for the Hounds that night, who gradually fell off the pace after a promising first half.

“I think we executed the game plan well for the most part,” Forbes said.

“Unfortunately I hit it over the (bar). Just one of those days.”

Now, the Hounds-Crew will add another chapter in this history on Wednesday, and for Pittsburgh soccer fans and the Riverhounds, it may be one of the biggest matches in club history.

Lilley took his team to face Columbus at the start of the preseason in early February in what already seems ages ago.  There was no scored shared from the match by either club.

But the veteran coach knows that his group will be ready for the challenge.

“We played them in the preseason. We know how good they are, but hardly any of our guys played, it was mostly our trialists.  Most of them were there, and they know it, and know it will be a different challenge. They’re ready to put their best foot forward.”

PSN’s Open Cup Match Coverage 

Look for much more to come, as we look ahead of the Riverhounds-Crew clash.  Not only will we have on-site coverage, but we’ll also be previewing this match and sharing more on Tuesday and Wednesday prior to the match.

Fun Hounds’ Open Cup Factoids

  • In the Highmark Stadium era (since 2013), the Hounds have posted an 12-8 overall record in the Open Cup. (this includes its 2nd round forfeit win vs Rochester NY FC).
  • All-time, the Hounds are 17-17 overall in the Open Cup.
  • The club the Hounds have faced the most in Open Cup?  None other than former Old Guard Shield rival Rochester (losses in 2000, 2008, 2009, 2010).  The forfeit win in 2023 technically was its first ever against Rochester in the competition.
  • Other clubs the Hounds have faced more than once in the Open Cup
    • Chicago Fire (2001 & 2014)
    • DC United (2003 & 2015)
    • Michigan Bucks (2006 & 2012)
    • RWB Adria (2013 & 2014)
    • FC Cincinnati (2018 & 2022)
    • Maryland Bobcats (2022 & 2023)
  • In seven matches vs MLS opponents, the Hounds have posted a 2-6 record
    • The Hounds’ wins vs MLS foes came vs Colorado Rapids (2-0) on June 27, 2001, at Bethel Park Stadium and vs New England Revolution, 1-0, on May 9, 2023, at Gillette Stadium.
    • Three of their losses came in matches that went to Extra Time (3-2 loss vs Chicago in 2001, 3-1 loss vs DC United in 2015 and 2-1 loss at FC Cincinnati in 2022)
  • Against lower division teams, the Hounds have mixed success with an overall record of 10-7
    • After losing to Fourth Division Chicago FC United in 2017 and amateurs’ Landsdowne Bhoys in 2016, the Hounds have rebounded in the Bob Lilley era with wins against the Erie Commodores (2018) and Dayton Dutch Lions (2019), Maryland Bobcats (2022 and 2023).
    • In the Bob Lilley era, the Hounds are 7-3 in the Open Cup, with losses coming to FC Cincinnati (in 3rd Round in 2018 and 3rd Round in 2022) and Columbus Crew (in 4th Round in 2019). Wins have come versus Erie, Dayton, Indy Eleven (2019), Maryland Bobcats (2022 & 2023), Rochester (2023) and New England (2023).

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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