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Preview and Scouting Report: In bid for another ‘Cupset’ Riverhounds look to disrupt MLS possession leading Columbus Crew

Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC finally have their chance to host a Major League Soccer team at Highmark Stadium on Wednesday night, as the Columbus Crew provide a massive challenge when the clubs meet in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament’s Round of 16 match.

The Hounds have a few things going for them.

They have been in excellent form of late, winning three straight matches in all competitions (including Saturday’s impressive 4-1 win against winless Las Vegas at Highmark), they’re unbeaten in the last five and brimming with confidence in knowing they can beat a MLS side, fresh off their ‘Cupset’ of New England two weeks ago in Foxborough.

In addition, while as of late Tuesday night, some tickets remained available, they are going fast, and another sellout crowd and potential overflow crowd of more than 6,000 fans are expected to pack Highmark Stadium as the organization is encouraging Pittsburgh fans to wear white — as the Hounds unveil their Summer Gold kits for this match.  The last time Pittsburgh hosted a MLS side, in 2015 against DC United, Highmark Stadium was also packed to capacity, with an electric atmosphere.

The Crew are coming off a loss in a rivalry league ‘Hell Is Real’ Derby tilt against FC Cincinnati, 3-2, where they gave up a couple of early goals, but fought back, but ended up coming up short.

Another advantage that the Hounds may have is they’re a bit healthier and they’ve had more time between matches lately.  The Crew on playing its fourth match in the past two weeks, while Pittsburgh has just played its two last matches at home, a week apart.

Both Head Coaches in this match, Pittsburgh’s Bob Lilley and Columbus’ Wilfried Nancy, have been using a lot of squad rotation of late.  Pittsburgh appears to be the healthier squad, as only Dani Rovira (knee) has landed on the team’s injury report in the past couple of matches.  As of Friday, the Crew’s injury report included five names: Milos Degenek (ankle), Luis Diaz (back), Kevin Molino (knee), Eloy Room (knee), Will Sands (knee) and Josh Williams (ankle).

In his meet-up with the media on Monday, Wilfried indicated that Molino and Williams are still not ready to return to play.

On Tuesday, Pittsburgh Soccer Now also connected with Crew beat writer Bailey Johnson, of the Columbus Dispatch, to preview the match and get a closer look at the Crew on the Sounding Off on Soccer Podcast.

Sounding Off on Soccer: Previewing Riverhounds-Columbus Crew Open Cup clash with Columbus Dispatch’s Bailey Johnson

More on Columbus Crew 

In Nancy’s possession-based system, the Crew look keep the ball, and play through the middle of the field, owning a league best 58.7 percent possession rate through its first 14 matches.

“Columbus is going to pick you apart,” Lilley said over the weekend.

“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.”

It’s likely that we may not see some of the bigger name players and the most dangerous players for Columbus coming off the intense battle on Saturday vs FC Cincy. These names include Argentinian-born attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan (who represents Armenia internationally), rising homegrown product and USMNT midfielder Aiden Morris and another USMNT veteran, Darlington Nagbe, and high-priced (came to Columbus for club-record fee $10 million) Columbian forward Cucho Hernandez, who previously played for Watford, but was also loaned to a trio of Spanish clubs during his time in Europe (2017-21).

Much like the Hounds, the Crew last played Saturday, and will next play on Sunday, so they’ll look to provide some squad rotation as they have in their first two Open Cup wins.  Columbus has pushed numerous younger players into big minutes in MLS action, and they’re also down to three healthy center backs, so its likely they’ll go to their starting back line from Saturday night to return to the pitch against the Hounds.

The Crew’s biggest headaches this year have come with its backline.  Nancy prefers to play a three-CB system, but they’ve been reduced in numbers and inconsistent.

When pressed earlier this week by Columbus reporters about changing tactics, Nancy responded with an adamant “No”.   He’s a coach who has a system and believes in it (and I wonder why Lilley spoke glowingly of Nancy the other night).  Ironically, both coaches have won the Canadian version of the US Open Cup, with Montreal Impact.  Lilley captured the Voyageurs Cup in 2003 with Montreal.

Degenek played in nine games but suffered a debilitating Achilles injury, while Williams is yet to step on the field while dealing with an ankle injury suffered in the preseason.

Against Cincy on Saturday, the Crew’s backline consisted of its three primary healthy players including second-year pro Phillip Quinton, FC Cincinnati and Colorado Rapids castoff Gustavo Vallencilla (asked PSN’s Mark Goodman about Vallencilla — and our Soccer Rabbi who covers and follows the Rapids said: “He made terrible decisions and he couldn’t pass. But he has size and speed) and Steven Moreira, a more natural right back.

Other than calling up additional Crew 2 reserve players, it’s likely that Nancy will go with this trio against Pittsburgh — or it’s very possible they could go with a four-man grouping with just two CBs, but that’s not the way the former French defender who has made his way into the MLS coaching ranks through Montreal Impact system likes to play.

Despite using using more players who have played less in league play this year, the Crew own victories against USL Championship sides, Indy Eleven and Loudoun United FC in the third and fourth rounds of the Open Cup, by doing what they do best, keeping the ball.

And yet, in the two Open Cup matches, they’ve produced two very different wins.

Against Indy, despite completely controlling possession and sharing the load of chances, they were only able to convert on a late second half goals, while in the case of the last Open Cup match at Loudoun, they won big making their opponent pay for costly mistakes.

The one constant where the Crew have found success in Open Cup matches using many of its second line guys, has come on the width, as 23 year-old Canadian winger Mohamed Farsi scored in both matches.

At Loudoun, the Crew went with a 3-5-2 formation, although Nancy is much like Lilley, in that he’ll adjust tactically and Columbus can be very fluid in terms of how they’ll line-up, as they’ve used 3-4-2-1 (or 3-4-3) a lot in MLS matches.

On the road in Northern Virginia, in the backdrop of playing before a lively second-division crowd, the Crew stayed the course, playing sharply through the middle, they found ways to get the ball out wide to take advantage of mismatches, using wingers Yaw Yeboah and Farsi bring constant pressure from the start of the match.

The Ghanaian winger, Yeboah made the most of his first moment, hitting a well-hit half volley for the 1-0 lead, Moments later, Loudoun were reduced to 10 men after Gaoussou Samake took down wing back Mohamed Farsi got behind the back line, just outside the 18-yard box.

Among the midfielders the Hounds can expect to face include Sean Zawadzki, who hit a one-time shot from distance after a poor clearance to give Columbus a 2-0 lead at Loudoun, and Isaiah Parente who also scored twice in that match.

The Crew often switch between using Christian Ramirez and Cucho Hernandez at go-to central strikers, and in previous Open Cup matches, Ramirez started against Loudoun, while Hernandez got the start vs Indy.  It was Hernandez who also played much of the Cincy match, so with Ramirez coming off the bench on Saturday, it’s likely we’ll see one or both of them rotated in this match.

In goal, it’s pretty much a given that the 37 year-old Evan Bush, who spoke to the media earlier this week about this match, will get the start. The Crew have gone with its youngster, 22 year-old Patrick Shulte this season in league play (10 starts), while Eloy Room, who has started three matches, is another injury casualty for Columbus.  Shulte conceded the deciding goal against Cincinnati by making a mistake. Bush has started the two previous Open Cup matches for Columbus and it appears they’ll ride the veteran keeper though their Open Cup quest.

Match-ups to Watch 

Bob Lilley would love to see his team get out on the front foot, and put pressure on Columbus’ backline, which has been dealing with depth issues.

“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,” Lilley stated.  

“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.”

The Hounds are likely to keep things compact through the middle, as they’ve consistently done this year, and they did in their previous Open Cup loss a few years back against Columbus, who were also a possession heavy side.  Pittsburgh will likely use a three-man center back pairing, with some combination of Arturo Ordonez, veteran Joe Farrell, Nate Dossantos and Pat Hogan working in those spots, but use two players who probably didn’t start on Saturday, Luke Biasi and possibly DZ Harmon could get starts on the wings to match the pace and skill which Columbus wide players have brought in their Open Cup success thus far.

Pittsburgh’s midfield attacking trio that include Robbie Mertz (who didn’t start on Saturday), Kenardo Forbes and Danny Griffin will also need to play at the top of their game in connecting passes and creating opportunities.  Center forward and USL Championship’s current leader in the Golden Boot race, Albert Dikwa, has logged a lot of minutes this year, started in every league match this season, and with the Hounds nursing a nice lead on Saturday night, Lilley pulled Forbes, Dikwa and Griffin, so it’s pretty clear that all three will likely start this match.

There’s also no doubt that Hounds goalkeeper and Jamaican international Jahmali Waite will likely be under duress at times, and will have to be on top of his game.  In the previous Open Cup match vs New England, the Hounds limited the Revs to just two shots on frame in the entire match.  This has been Pittsburgh’s calling card much of this season — as we call it one of the trademarks of ‘Lilleyball’ the Hounds will dictate terms against every opponent, limiting shot opportunities with a pressing style that likes to disrupt play through middle.  Against a top-division opponent like the Crew, it’s likely that the Hounds and Waite will be tested early and throughout the match.  Waite has been somewhat inconsistent this season, mainly in his decision making in coming off the line, but he also showed in last year’s Open Cup match at Cincy and in the USL Championship playoffs, he can come up with big saves in big moments.  

Columbus Crew’s Starting XI vs Loudoun United (US Open Cup – Fourth Round) 

Projected Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC Starting XI 


Riverhounds vs. Columbus Crew
Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16

Date: Wednesday, May 24
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Tickets: Ticketmaster
Odds: Hounds +220 / Draw +250 / Columbus +105 (FanDuel)
TV: Pittsburgh’s CW
Streaming: CBS Sports Golazo (national), Pittsburgh’s CW (local)
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #PITvCLB, #HOUNDTAHN and #USOC2023

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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Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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