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Pittsburgh Riverhounds-Charleston Battery two decades ‘Old Guard’ rivalry heats up with top of the table clash

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds don’t have too many connections remaining from their early days when they were a fledgling start-up franchise back in 1999.

There is another remaining vestige from those A-League days still going strong.

That would be the Charleston Battery, a franchise that’s been around since 1993.  That’s longer than the Riverhounds or any other club in the top two divisions of North American pro soccer (unless you count Tampa Bay Rowdies connection to their NASL years in the 1970s and early 1980s).

On Saturday night at Highmark Stadium, the two longtime rivals will renew acquaintances in a top-of-the-table clash with lots of interesting storylines.

For one, the Hounds remarkable U.S. Open Cup run ended on Tuesday night in Cincinnati, with a substantial blow, losing its leading scorer, and the league’s Golden Boot flag bearer for the moment, Albert Dikwa, to a collarbone injury.  Dikwa has been ruled out for Saturday’s match at Highmark Stadium (7 p.m. kickoff) with the Battery.

The Hounds will look to keep its very strong run in league play going, as they strive for its fifth straight win, as they face the biggest surprise in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference this season, as the Battery (7-3-4) currently are at the top of the table with 25 points, following a Wednesday night scoreless draw against Detroit City FC.

The Hounds (6-2-5) have an opportunity to bounce back from its Open Cup loss in a big way, as they could overtake Charleston for the top spot in the Eastern Conference as they hit the midseason, Summer stretch of their campaign.

“We’ll have to take a lot confidence from that cup run,” former Charleston Battery defender and current Hound, Pat Hogan, said after practice this week.

“A lot of great stuff happened. It’s taking all the little things along the way.  Now, we have to put it all together to have a complete performance.”

Before this fascinating match-up takes center stage, this is a good time to take a trip down memory lane, as seeing these two clubs vying for position at the top of the league standings would make anyone who has followed second and third division soccer in the past 20-25 years smile.

Our Old Friends are Gone 

When thinking about how both the Riverhounds and Charleston Battery have endured and survived through the years, an underrated movie quote comes to mind.

“One-by-one, our old friends are gone.”

You may recall, that line comes from Godfather II when Hyman Roth’s associate, Johnny Ola, played by Dominic Chianese, who would later become even more known for his role as Uncle Junior on the Sopranos, was confiding to Michael Corleone,

When the current league was rebranded as the USL Championship in 2018, with ambitions to move into position to be a stable modern second-division league in U.S. Soccer’s pyramid, both Pittsburgh and Charleston’s franchises are the lone survivors from a previous era.

By 2019 all of their ‘Old Friends’ had gone away.

So, what happened to those ‘old friends’?

  • The Wilmington Hammerheads (founded in 1996) left the USL party following the 2016 season, and following one season as a fourth-division PDL (now USL’s League Two) entity, they completely disbanded having a senior team, giving way to only having a Youth Academy, which carries on the Hammerheads tradition in name only.
  • The Rochester Rhinos (also founded in 1996), last led by current Riverhounds Head Coach Bob Lilley and captain, Kenardo Forbes, last played in the league in 2017, and its rebrand and franchise reboot in 2022 as a MLS Pro entity proved to be short-lived.
  • The Harrisburg City Islanders (founded in 2004), had a nice run for more than a decade as the primary, in-state rival of the Riverhounds, but as things started to get shaky, the club rebranded for a year as Penn FC, then went on sabbatical after the 2018 season, and never came back.
  • The Richmond Kickers (founded in 1993) survived, but moved down to USL’s Third Division league, USL League One.

Timing of the demise of these clubs was very unfortunate for the loyal supporters of these clubs, who thrived on these rivalry match-ups and during that time banded together to create the Old Guard Shield competition.

Long Standing USL Supporter Groups Introduce Old Guard Shield

For what its worth, the Battery, despite its awful season in 2022, did reclaim the Old Guard Shield, thanks to a 3-0 early season defeat of Pittsburgh, then held on for 0-0 draw in August.

With all of these clubs falling by the wayside, as USL started to look to more lucrative markets, with the addition of independent franchises in Louisville, Indianapolis, Memphis, Miami, Tampa Bay along with Cincinnati and Nashville (for a few years), to fill in the Eastern Conference table.

Johnny Ola proclaimed to Michael Corleone that Hyman Roth was still around because he always could make money for his partners.

As for the Battery and the Riverhounds, when the smoke cleared, they each both proved to be the two most viable franchises that could continue on amidst the continuing shift in the professional soccer landscape in the United States which proved to costly for many of the smaller market franchises.

In Pittsburgh, we’re familiar the Riverhounds’ plight and perseverance in the past decade, fueled by the entrance of Tuffy Shallenberger as the franchise’s sole owner within a few years after the completion of Highmark Stadium, which helped saved the club after experiencing significant financial losses, then eventually building continued success on the field since the addition of Lilley, who has never had a losing season or missed the playoffs.

In order to stay afloat, Charleston has also evolved with new ownership.

In 2016, longtime majority owner Tony Bakker sold the club to B Sports Entertainment, an investment group led by local tech executives, but that group’s involvement didn’t last that long, as it was announced that B Sports Entertainment had sold the club to Rob Salvatore of HCFC, LLC with a move to Patriots Point Soccer Complex in Mount Pleasant, right on the outskirts of the City of Charleston, as part of a partnership with the College of Charleston.

The storied soccer clubs, one from the Lowcountry and the other from the Steel City, both which sport black and gold as its primary colors in its crest and kits, continue to battle on, although there was one rare exceptional season (2020), due to short regular season that separated the clubs into separate groups, when they didn’t play each other for the first time in more than 20 years.

And, after years of Charleston dominance, the Riverhounds have started to tilt the series in its favor during the Bob Lilley’s tenure (2018-present) in Pittsburgh, as the Hounds have 3-2-5 record under their current coach against Charleston..  That being said, the all-time series remains in favor of the Battery. (Charleston with the 14-9-16 edge)

Big changes came following the 2021 season, when longtime Head Coach Mike Anhauser stepped down.

Anhaeuser joined the Charleston Battery as a player in 1994, and switched into a coaching role in 1999. In 2004, he was named head coach of the club and led Charleston Battery to a U.S. Open Cup Final appearance in 2008 as well as two USL Championships in 2010 and 2012.

The Battery replaced the USL Hall of Fame Coach with a fairly recognizable name in U.S. Soccer, Connor Casey.  That proved to be a disaster, as the Battery sunk to its worst season in franchise history in 2022, spending most of the season at the very bottom of the USLC’s Eastern Conference table.

With one match remaining in the season as the club and Casey opted to part ways by mutual agreement.

While foes on the field, Lilley and Anhauser, two of the long standing coaches who have been essential parts of the history of three of the ‘Old Guard’ Shield clubs, remained close through the years.

Most recently, Lilley and the Hounds have looked to quality players who played under Anhauser, including Angelo Kelly-Rosales last season, and two more additions to the roster this season, defender Pat Hogan and midfielder, Burke Fahling.

Closer Look At Charleston Battery

On November 17, 2022, Battery announced that they hired Memphis 901 FC head coach Ben Pirmann, the 2022 USL Championship Coach of the Year.

Pirmann elevated Memphis to new heights last year, pulling off an impressive 2nd-place finish in the Eastern Conference and a spot in the conference semifinals.  Along the way, 901 FC stunned the Riverhounds, handing Pittsburgh a rare 2-0 loss on its home turf in a key match in September.

Pirmann’s rise in the coaching ranks is one that stems from paying his dues as college assistant at his alma mater, Michigan State, while also taking on the Head Coach position for Detroit City FC, as they began their rise as a NPSL club from 2013 to 2018.

The Battery’s success this season has come with Pirmann directing the club take a no-frills approach to what he likes to call an aggressive, defensive style of play, and as a team that will outwork its opponents and do all the little things.  Often times, you’ll see the Battery go with two holding midfielders in front of a back four, and they’ve used 4-2-3-1 in their most recent matches.

Sounds an awful like Bob Lilley.

With one of the top goal scorers in Augustine Williams, who is two behind Dikwa, with seven goals this season, the Battery have been opportunistic.

The Battery come into the match desperately seeking points, and like the Hounds, with some heavy legs due to a midweek match. The Battery have been held scoreless in their past two matches, including the midweek draw vs Detroit City.

That scoring drought does come with the caveat that Charleston played shorthanded for the duration of their June 2 match, losing 4-0, against Indy after a first-minute red card to defender Leland Archer.

That was the second time the Battery were ambushed in defeat, as they also took a whopping 7-0 defeat to the defending USL Champions, San Antonio, on home turn on May 11.

But they fought back to earn wins against Monterey Bay FC and Rio Grande Valley FC, showing plenty of resolve that Pirmann’s squads have been known to exhibit.

While Sierra Leonean Williams leads the club in goals, 17-year old Fidel Barajas is an exciting player to watch, and is a key playmaker for the Battery, as he’s matched Hounds Kenardo Forbes, who is twice his age, for the league lead in assists with four.  The Battery signed Barajas to a deal last September, and he made three appearances — recording a pair of assists.

Barajas is eligible to play for both Mexico and the US, and has played with both countries, but has since switched allegiances to Mexico. In February, he scored five goals and had three assists in leading El Tri’s YNT to U-17 CONCACAF Championship, including two of Mexico’s three goals in the Final win vs the U.S.

Along with Barajas, the Battery have another Mexican midfielder who is a play maker in the middle, Arturo Rodriguez, who usually is the central attacking midfielder, who also has two goals and one assist in 11 matches played.

Despite the fact that they are a minus-2 in goal differential, thanks in large part to those two terrible losses, the Battery lead the league in clean sheets, with six, as they’ve also relied on its primary goalkeeper, Trey Muse, who featured in Memphis last season while on loan from Seattle Sounders, where he was signed to a homegrown contract.

Take away the 11 goals in those two matches, the Battery have been pretty tough to score upon this season, allowing just eight goals in the other 12 matches.  Perimann brought over a few players from Memphis who have been key contributors to establishing a winning culture and instilling his system, including English midfielder Chris Allan and defender Derek Dotson, who are among the leaders in minutes and games played for the Battery.  Add in another MLS veteran, former Colorado Rapids defender, Deklan Wynne, the Battery have an experienced group that won’t be easy to defeat.

Here’s how Charleston lined-up vs Detroit on Wednesday.  It will be interesting to see how much squad rotation they’ll use, as they did send out a lot of their big guns on Wednesday.

Match-ups to Watch

With Albert Dikwa being sidelined, and Charleston having been stingy and tough to breakdown (again, if you look past those two ugly defeats), this appears to be a match where both sides will be looking to disrupt each other and press at the opportune times.

Can the Hounds continue to find ways to score in league matches without Dikwa?

The man who came through for them in most recent 1-0 wins against Loudoun United FC and Phoenix, was Arturo Ordonez.

The good news for the Hounds, who went into the Open Cup match with what Lilley described as being ‘thin up top’, is that forward Edward Kizza will be good to go against the Battery with a fresh set of legs, as he sat that match out due to a red card suspension.  Another positive was that Tola Showumni scored his first professional goal after coming on in the second half. This could be an important boost of confidence for the young forward, who will likely have to be used even more in Dikwa’s absence.  This will be the third straight league match the Hounds will go without Dikwa, as he missed the previous two wins after sustaining a hip flexor.

The Hounds did put their chips on the table in terms of its starting lineup vs Cincinnati on Tuesday, but for the most part, Lilley’s been pretty resourceful when it has come to putting together a reliable squad rotation.  Robbie Mertz did also have to come out of the match on Tuesday with an undisclosed injury, while reliable hands through the club’s recent run of success, Langston Blackstock, Mike Deshields and Burke Fahling didn’t even dress, Kenardo Forbes, Marc Ybarra and Showunmi came off the bench, so the Hounds will have plenty of healthy options.

John K’s Projected Riverhounds Starting XI 

Riverhounds (6-2-5) vs. Charleston Battery (7-3-4)
Date: Saturday, June 10
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Tickets: Ticketmaster
Odds: Hounds -160 / Draw +280 / Charleston +370 (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: #PITvCHS 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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Glory on the Grass

Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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