CINCINNATI — In the end, a third MLS scalp was just a hill too steep for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds to scale.
It wasn’t going to happen on Tuesday night, not when the opponent was FC Cincinnati, which hadn’t lost all season at TQL Stadium. Not when the Riverhounds lost Albert Dikwa to a shoulder injury 13 minutes into the match, sapping them of their best offensive weapon. And not when FCC sub Alvaro Barreal pulled out a moment of brilliance to slam the door on the Hounds’ hopes.
Barreal struck a gorgeous volley off a corner from Luciano Acosta in the 71st minute, giving FC Cincinnati a two-goal edge and choking off any chance the Hounds had to get back into the match. Although Pittsburgh kept pushing until the end and earned a goal from Tola Showunmi in stoppage time, it wasn’t enough, as the Hounds exited the U.S. Open Cup with a 3-1 loss to FC Cincinnati on Tuesday night.
“We did what we came here to do; we played positive soccer and had a lot more of the ball than we did against Columbus,” Riverhounds coach Bob Lilley said.
“I thought we defended well and limited their chances, but obviously, they’re a very strong team. They haven’t lost year at home and haven’t drawn all year at home, and not many teams have been 0-0 against them after nearly 60 minutes either.
“In some ways, we maybe grew a little bit. I think they played a stronger team against us this year, whereas last year, we kind of wore down in the second half.”
This time, the Hounds kept pushing to the final whistle, even as the adversity mounted on the pitch. Pittsburgh started the first half attacking well, earning a corner minutes into the match. But after Dikwa went down, the Hounds didn’t have the finisher they needed to really put pressure on the Orange and Blue. Pittsburgh’s attacks kept coming, but without Dikwa to threaten the goal, the Hounds couldn’t generate shots to put keeper Alec Kann under pressure and create more set pieces.
The other bit of adversity came in the 56th minute, when FC Cincinnati caught the Hounds on the break on a pass from Luciano Acosta to Brandon Vazquez. Replays showed Vazquez appearing offside, but after a lengthy discussion, his shot past Jahmali Waite was declared good, putting Pittsburgh on the back foot.
“That was tough to give up the goal like that,” Daniel Griffin said. “We started defending a little more after that, and I’m proud overall of the effort and willingness to go for it and fight for the group. That’s a good opponent we faced (Tuesday).”
Even with that mounting adversity, the Hounds were right in the match until their old friend Barreal victimized them for the second year in a row. Last year, Barreal had the two goals in extra time that sent Pittsburgh home, and this time, he choked off the Hounds’ lifeline by smashing a volley off of Griffin and into the net, a strike that Lilley termed a “wonder goal”.
“They had two guys in the box, and when he hit that one over, it did deflect off my back,” Griffin said. “But it was a strike from him, and there was nothing Jahmali could do about that. It’s tough to give up two set piece goals, but that’s the way the ball bounces.”
The Orange and Blue added a third goal on a corner that Santiago Arias headed in during stoppage time, but even then, Pittsburgh never stopped fighting. Before the smoke had even cleared the Bailey to celebrate Arias’ goal, the Hounds were on the attack, this time getting Showunmi free and opening his account with Cincinnati’s back line out of position.
On the scoreboard, it was just a blip, but it symbolized much more from Pittsburgh’s perspective. This was the mark of a team that wasn’t going to stop fighting, even as it knew it was beaten. More importantly, the Hounds showed their heart against the best side they’re going to see all year.
“That’s something our team will always do,” Showunmi said. “We’re going to keep fighting to the end and give our all.
“We were able to compete very well. We were able to stay close against a good side that’s on top of the Eastern Conference in MLS; we gave them a really good challenge.”