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Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Moment to Shine: A monumental win from the Riverhounds

Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

In what will go down as one of the most monumental moments in club history, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, a second division club that has never won a trophy, took down Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer, 1-0 to advance to the round of eight in the 2023 US Open Cup.

The largest crowd in Hounds history were all decked out in white, and the fans shouted from whistle to whistle to exhort the boys to victory. Those 6,107 fans all went home immensely happy.

“The fans played a big part,” said Head Coach Bob Lilley. “We were tiring in the second half … and the fans pulled us through.”

“It wasn’t pretty at the end, but there was energy in the building and the guys had something to hold onto.”

Goalkeeper Jahmali Waite added, “Oh playing in front of a crowd like that … it was awesome. Even coming into the stadium for warmups. The energy was there. It’s good for us. We can feed off the energy.”

The match unfolded at a slow pace for Columbus early on. The slow ball movement and willfull, careful possession seemed like a cagey and clever way to take the Hounds out of the game. Upon later reflection, one might conclude that a lack of urgency and energy condemned Columbus Crew. In hindsight what might have been thought of as a deliberate attempt to take the crowd out of the game and control the tempo of play might otherwise be deemed to be Columbus coming out flat early on. Despite dominating the possession the ball and dictating terms, this ultimately would not prove to be a successful tactic for the visitors.

Additionally, the Riverhounds were well prepared for the Columbus Crew to play possession soccer. “We knew they were a possession team,” Hounds midfielder Robbie Mertz told Pittsburgh Soccer Now. “We weren’t under any illusion that we’d be an exception to that.”

In the early frame, Pittsburgh saw some shot opportunities from DZ Harmon, Albert Dikwa, and Tola Showunmi. Through just the first 20 minutes, Pitsburgh demonstrated that they were not at all intimidated by their MLS opponents. But the breakthrough goal was a piece of poetry that will forever live enshrined in the memories of Riverhound fans.

In the 22nd minute, Arturo Ordoñez made a critical tackle near the midfield circle. In one of those perfect soccer moments, the ball caromed perfectly to Robbie Mertz, who turned and lifted his head to see Albert Dikwa accelerating through the center of the defense and past his marker. Mertz hit the pass to Dikwa; later in the press conference he would say he was worried that it might have been a moment late and offsides. No worries. As the flag stayed down, Dikwa took a touch, raced forward, put the laces of his right boot on the ball will a low and subtly curling shot to the keeper’s left. Columbus GK Evan Bush never had a chance, and the Riverhounds would be staked to a 1-0 lead with still 68 minutes of soccer yet to play.

Rather than attempt to white-knuckle their way through the rest of the match in true ‘Lilleyball’ style, Pittsburgh refused to bunker in defensively. In fact, in the second half, Coach Bob Lilley said “we were even trying to look for that second goal.” Pittsburgh would record 9 total shots for the match; 2 of which were tabbed by Opta as Big Changes. On the opposition side, Columbus had a total of 7 shots, of which zero were counted as Big Chances.

From the Hounds goal onward, Columbus continue to possess the ball as they attempted to work the ball from side to side, forcing the Riverhounds to close down the space. Pittsburgh would not yield an inch though, as Lilley’s disciplined team diligently maintained their shape. The Hounds formation was a fairly tight and consistent 5-3-2 when the team was defending. In attack, the Hounds went into a 3-3-1-2-1; Albert Dikwa playing deeper as a second striker/attacking mid, with Robbie Mertz on his right and Danny Griffin at his left, but central, not wide.

Tola Showunmi was posted up as the Hounds big-body target striker threat. Lilley remarked “I think those Columbus centerbacks are going to be dreaming of Tola. Nightmares.” While he was fantastic at occupying the opposition defenders and forcing his opponents to defend him on set pieces, Showunmi will also be remembered on the night for what could have been. In the 74th minute he received a pass directly in front of goal and only 8 yards out, but the center forward skied his chance over the bar.

On the night, the Riverhounds were quicker to so-called second balls and fifty-fiftys, more aggressive in duels, and more energetic. Their passes were more reliable. Sometimes it just seemed like the right ball ball fell in the right place at the right time. Among the Hounds spitfires were Danny Griffin, Marc Dos Santos, Robbie Mertz, and Marc Ybarra, who were just winning all the balls when it was needed.

Nate Dos Santos was everywhere he needed to be along the backline. The central defender played on the night like a hybrid defensive midfielder and fullback, but located centrally. The Canadian native and Orlando City draftee spent the night on a tear; chasing down balls like an angry Rottweiler.

Credit was also given by Lilley to Jahmali Waite, the team’s goalkeeper, and to the defense as a whole. “We have 3 shutouts in US Open Cup play and 2 shutouts in USL (league) play. Every time I see that, I’m happy.” Waite credits his good performance to remaining focused through out the match. “That’s a part of the job as a goalkeeper – you’ve got to be focused and switched on all the time. You have to see your players seeing their players. You’ve got to communicate to the guys. It’s something you work on in practice.

Some will ultimately criticize Crew Head Coach Wilfred Nancy for the choice to rotate his squad. Nancy chose to start players usually found on Columbus’ reserve squad. He called up three MLS Next players for the match, and started one: right midfielder Thomas Roberts. More significantly, Nancy left his three best players, Cucho Hernandez, Darlington Nagbe, and Lucas Zelarayán, back in Columbus and unavailable for the match.

Coach Lilley noted that Columbus were not starting those aforementioned top three players to the team in the pre-game talk with his players, and he thought it meant that, on the night, the more talented team on the field would be his. “Listen. If you play well, against this lineup, you have a better than 50 percent chance of winning.”

In this reporters opinion, I thought Columbus was being a little conservative with their lineup for starters, but in hindsight, one might argue that their choices looked both overly optimistic and also quite risky. Columbus, a talented MLS team, both wanted to focus on league play and let their less-experienced guys get some run. That was achieved, but at a steep price – the end of the Crew’s time in the US Open Cup.

Meanwhile after yet a second Riverhounds upset of an MLS team, Pittsburgh’s dream run in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup continues.





Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

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