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Preview and Scouting Report: Up-and-down Rising look to break Hounds hot streak

Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

The Riverhounds are looking to keep its impressive run of play going on Saturday when they face the Phoenix Rising FC at Highmark Stadium.

Pittsburgh is in the midst of an eight match unbeaten run in all competitions, stretching back to its Third Round US Open Cup win vs Maryland Bobcats in April, and in their last five matches in league play, they’re also without a loss, winning the last three, including Sunday’s 1-0 victory at Loudoun United FC.

Heading into this match, the Rising are sporting a 4-4-3 record (good for 16 points and seventh place in the Western Conference standings). They’ve been a team that has literally been up-and-down for a good part of the past month, but all season really as they’ve dealt with numerous injuries and inconsistent play.

“The group is motivated,” Rising Head Coach Juan Guerra said recently.

“They’re a bit thin at the moment because of some injuries but it’s good to see some guys stepping up.”

This will not be the first time this club will be playing the Hounds at Highmark Stadium, but it will be the first time they come to Pittsburgh as the Phoenix Rising FC. On Saturday, Phoenix returns to Highmark Stadium almost a decade later after its last appearance.

In fact, the last match of the Riverhounds’ underachieving 2014 campaign ended with a whimper on September 6, as they would lose to Arizona United SC, 2-1, when first half goals from Tan Long and Jonathan Top erased a Miro Cabrilo 6th minute tally.  That was the first year of existence for the organization which would later become Phoenix Rising FC.

Both clubs would finish below the playoff line that season, in a 14-team league that took the top eight teams for its postseason tournament.

As for Saturday’s match-up, the Hounds also have the benefit of a nearly clean injury report, as Dani Rovira has been upgraded from out to questionable with his knee injury, freeing up the entire roster for selection both Saturday and in Tuesday’s looming U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal in Cincinnati.

More on Phoenx Rising FC 

If anyone knows the Rising on the Riverhounds , it’s defender Joey Farrell, who spent five seasons with the club, where he accomplished quite a lot.

“I have tremendous memories out there. I went when I was 23 years old until I was 28.  So, I grew up a lot.  A lot of memories.  I played alongside Dideir Drogba.  I won two Western Conference titles. I had the opportunity to play in two finals.  I have tremendous memories playing out there,” Farrell, who has 19 clearances and blocked three shots in 10 league appearances this season, said this week after training.”

“It’s just another game.  Obviously there’s a lot of passion, memories going through my mind, but its another opportunity to get three points in the league.”

A club that set the standard in the Western Conference during Farrell’s early time in the desert metropolis (finishing 1st, 2nd, 1st in 2018-20), the Rising FC have fallen to earth a bit in the past couple seasons, to 10th and missing the playoffs last year, and currently in 7th through a mediocre 2023 campaign to this point.

The team has a strong Venezuelan feel to it when you consider that’s Guerra’s home country, and the squad’s leading goal scorer and playmaker is Venezuela’s Manuel Arteaga, with five goals and three assists and its most reliable central midfielder, Renzo Jose Zambrano is also Venezuelan.

In true to its topsy-turvy form, they fell at home last week to Las Vegas.

Yes — that’s the same Las Vegas side that the Hounds completely dismantled in Pittsburgh a week earlier by a 4-1 scoreline.

The Rising will look to rebound after falling 1- 0 in that match, as they were unable to make the most of its chances, despite 16 shots and hitting the crossbar once. Despite recording 69% possession and a 16-10 shots advantage, they were undone by a defensive lapse of concentration after a throw-in.

A team that likes to connect and play short passing game through the middle and go wide when opportunities are there, among the shining players from a talented midfield includes Carlos Harvey, who was named to Panama’s preliminary roster for the Concacaf Gold Cup on Thursday.

“They’re great in possession. Similar to Columbus.  They’ll play in their own six-yard box if they have to. I learned a lot about Juan’s style and the way he likes to play. I am hoping to share that so we’re prepared.  At the end of the day, they’re just another opponent.  Bob watches more video than anyone.  So, he’s just about ready for anyone.  I’ll give the guys a little energy boost with my talk to today, but it’s another opportunity to get three points.”

In addition, on Thursday, the Rising, looking for more creativity in the final third, turned to the Hounds’ most recent opponents, Loudoun United FC, to acquire a player who has the potential to fit that bill: Panos Armenakas.

Of course, if you read Sunday’s match preview, I shared more on the Australian native.  Being new to this squad, it would probably be very unlikely that he gets the start right away, but you never know.

For what it’s worth, Armenakas has been a bit of a mixed bag this year, with just one goal and one assist, and was dangerous in delivering one chance — a dangerous ball to Tommy Williamson against the Hounds last week.

Another somewhat familiar name to Hounds fans on this Phoenix squad is Danny Trejo, who scored against Pittsburgh when he was featuring as a forward with Las Vegas last season.  In the off season, he was one of the Rising’s key acquisitions.  To this point, Trejo has scored four goals.

Phoenix goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo has faced a lot of pressure this season, as he’s currently third in the Championship in saves, with 39.

Rising’s Starting XI vs Las Vegas 

Match-ups to Watch 

The Rising, playing mostly mistake free soccer and dictating terms, did post back-to-back wins against Orange County and Hartford. Guerra says they need to develop consistency in their performance.

Between Trejo, Arteaga and Harvey, the Rising have some talented scorers and playmakers.  Add Renzo Jose Zambrano,

Against a very compact block against Las Vegas, the Rising really struggled to connect passes and create many clear-cut, dangerous scoring chances.

“So far this season we have been able to sustain pressure in the opponent’s half. Now we’re looking to do that while being dynamic and adding aggressive runs, playing balls in-behind the back line. The team has responded well. The group keeps growing. They are strong mentally. I’m looking forward to seeing them bounce back,” Guerra said.

And the Hounds have become among the league’s best — if not the best — at limiting its opponents chances.

In this week’s Hounds Notebook, we cited that one of Pittsburgh’s strengths has been its depth.  Heading into this match, Lilley will have a good idea of how he wants to use his squad rotation heading into two matches in four days, with the impending trip to Cincinnati looming as they also look to keep their magical Open Cup run going.

Much like they have against strong possession teams of late, expect Pittsburgh to be willing to concede some possession, but look to cause havoc at the top of the formation by pestering Phoenix’s back line, and pounce on mistakes when they have their opportunities.

With a well-rested Albert Dikwa and Tola Showunmi available to chase and pressure the ball, along with a healthy rotation of wingers and midfielders, where Lilley has been able to keep legs fresh by starting 18 different field players over the course of their unbeaten May, the Hounds should be able to bring its high press and make Phoenix feel uncomfortable before what should be another great crowd at Highmark Stadium.

Looking at this match, the Hounds will look to ensure that quality wins out over quality, as Phoenix has been much better in possession than Pittsburgh (tops in league at 84% passing accuracy on 5,204 passes while the Hounds are near the bottom at 73% on 4,765 passes), the teams have almost the same number of shots produced and the Hounds conversion rate is slightly better (17%-15%).

John K’s Projected Riverhounds Starting XI 


Match info

Riverhounds (5-2-5) vs. Phoenix Rising FC (4-3-4)
Date: Saturday, June 3
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Tickets: Ticketmaster
Odds: Hounds -160 / Draw +290 / Phoenix +350 (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: #PITvPHX 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).

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