Following a long, cross-country trek, once again, the Riverhounds will be back at Highmark Stadium for another stretch of home matches starting with a Saturday night showdown against the San Diego Loyal.
The Hounds will look to keep its impressive eight match unbeaten streak in league play going, as they have not lost a match since a 2-0 loss at one of the top Western Conference sides, El Paso. Additionally, the Hounds have not allowed a goal in more than four games, for a total of 392 minutes.
Head Coach Bob Lilley has spoken many times about the importance of making Highmark Stadium a fortress and defending home turf, and the Hounds will be intent once again to deny a strong, Western Conference opponent any significant scoring chances.
The Hounds will be without some key players once again.
Golden Boot race leader Albert Dikwa remains out of the lineup (still not certain of timetable to return) with collarbone injury, while Robbie Mertz, who’s played just 11 minutes in the past three matches, has been listed as questionable as he’s been dealing with a lingering foot injury.
Goalkeeper Jahmali Waite is also going to continue to be out, as he’s with Jamaica at the Gold Cup.
Still, the Hounds have continued to keep its cohesiveness no matter who they roll out there.
“I think we’ve had a lot of success because of the flexibility as a group,” Hounds defender Nate Dossantos said this week at training from Highmark Stadium.
“We’ve had a lot of games in the last six weeks, and had a lot of guys step up and get big minutes. I think that’s especially important, in a long season, to have guys that can contribute, at different points. It’s been collective.”
Dossantos also cited that the flexibility in the group is synonymous with its coach, as Lilley has arguably done his best job in his five seasons in Pittsburgh in melding one of the youngest clubs in the USL Championship.
Without Waite, the Hounds picked up Luis Zumudio ahead of last week’s match at Oakland (a scoreless draw).
Zumudio faced the fire starting a lot of matches for Loudoun United last season, and in his debut with Pittsburgh, the Mexican-American DC United third string keeper came up with three saves — two of those were diving stops — and was in command in the goal area all match long.
This will be the first-ever meeting between the clubs, as the Loyal represent the Final USL Championship Frontier — so to speak — for the Hounds as the last of the current USL Championship clubs they have not faced.
With that unfamiliarity comes some uncertainty in the matchup.
Apart from a few players, such as one-time Indy midfielder Nick Moon, most of the Loyal roster and first-year San Diego coach Nate Miller have not faced the Hounds or a Bob Lilley-coached team.
The Hounds are right in a deep stretch of matches where they keep playing against opponents who are good in keeping the ball.
For the season, San Diego has held 55 percent of the possession in their matches (on third best in league 82 percent passing accuracy and 6,278 total passes), and they have a pair of potent goal scorers in former USL League One Golden Boot winner Ronaldo Damus and in-form Evan Conway, each of whom have five goals this season. The Loyal also has been battle tested the past three weeks, recording three straight draws in games against defending champ San Antonio, then-West-leading Sacramento, and a second time against San Antonio.
San Diego will mix up tactical formations between a 3-5-2 and 3-4-2-1 depending on match-ups. They’re dangerous in the attack, scoring 24 goals — 5th best in the league and just like the Hounds they up there among the league leaders in conversion rate (both clubs are at 17 percent).
While the Hounds have been lock solid defensively (allowing second least goals in the league — 11), San Diego has conceded 21 times.
Damus has been huge for the Loyal over the past three weeks. Facing two elite teams, Damus rose to the occasion as he knows what it takes to play against the best. Damus won the USL Championship in 2021 with Orange County, SC, and now is with SD to try and do the same thing. He has scored three goals in the last two matches and earned himself a Player of the Week honor the last time he faced SA.
Another player in good form for the Loyal is Alejandro Guido, who was named to the USL Championship Team of the Week for another strong outing last Saturday in 2-2 draw vs San Antonio.
The veteran midfielder has continued to be an integral part of SD Loyal’s roster on and off the field. Guido brings vast experience after being part of Major League Soccer’s LAFC, LIGA MX side Club Tijuana and the United States Youth National Teams. He’s been with San Diego since 2020, and has been an impact player immediately and has since totaled 79 USL Championship appearances, playing 5,599 minutes.
Guido nearly scored his second goal of the season during the San Antonio match when he smacked a shot off the crossbar in the second half. He was also an integral part of the club’s attack and defensive recovery strategy.
Guido had four shots and three chances created overall while winning three of four tackles and seven of 11 duels in an impressive all-around display.
The Hounds have done a good job this season in neutralizing top scoring threats (Christian Volesky and Alex Dixon aside) will certainly try and not allow Damus to be a factor again, but that could benefit the Loyal. Evan Conway has just as many goals on the season and could easily find the back of the net.
The Hounds, second in the league in total fouls, will likely look to slow down the Loyal by swarming the ball and limiting passing channels, especially through the middle with a midfield that has featured players like Junior Etou, Danny Griffin, Marc Ybarra who have been exception this season in rotating and in recovery. The key will be, can they get out and make the most of their transition opportunities. Pittsburgh has thrived in tight, lowing scoring matches during its impressive streaks when they score early, then clamp down on its opponents for the rest of the match.
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PSN Match Coverage
Dominic Campbell and Jordan Smith will anchor PSN’s live coverage from Highmark Stadium.
Riverhounds (7-2-6) vs. San Diego Loyal (6-4-5)
Date: Saturday, June 24
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Odds: Hounds -125 / Draw +250 / San Diego +300 (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: #PITvSD and #HOUNDTAHN