In what has been a season of big showdowns and matches for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, as they’ve played in three US Open Cup matches vs Major League Soccer clubs, then have already had a top-of-the-table showdown with the Charleston Battery and playoff rematches vs Birmingham and Louisville, there’s yet another juicy match-up that awaits on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.
Sacramento Republic FC rolls into Pittsburgh for the first time in its decade-plus history, as they’ll face the Hounds in what will be a battle of first-place sides, and would we dare say it — what some are saying could be a preview of a potential league final.
Of course, there’s a long way to go to get to that point, but the Hounds and Republic are both two clubs trying to get back to earning a full three points as they’re both coming off draws last weekend.
There’s some history between the clubs, as they met at the end of the 2022 regular season, Pittsburgh had to make the cross-country trip in the second-to-last match of the campaign. With little at stake, being that playoff seeding would only shuffle slightly, they played conservatively in a 1-1 draw.
All time, Republic FC has recorded a win and draw apiece. The prior matchup came in Sacramento’s inaugural 2014 season – a 5-0 win that saw Rodrigo Lopez and Thomas Stewart each net braces for the Republic, who woud win the USL Championship crown that season, defeating Harrisburg in the final, 2-0.
Saturday will also mark the return to Highmark Stadium for three notable former Riverhounds players, goalkeeper Danny Vitiello, forward Russell Cicerone and defender Shane Wiedt.
Led by Head Coach Mark Briggs, Sacramento have many other outstanding players besides the three former Hounds, as Pittsburgh’s veteran Head Coach, Bob Lilley pointed out when asked about this match-up following last Saturday’s match.
The Hounds will be contending with a squad that has only lost twice in 17 league matches (9-2-6 W-L-D), boasting a league leading goal differential of plus-19, having surrendered the least number of goals this season (11).
“They’re a good, experienced team. They had a nice (US) Open Cup run last year, and have pretty much been on top of the Western Conference all season. So, they’ll be a handful,” Lilley told PSN’s Dominic Campbell after Friday’s training session at Highmark Stadium.
On Friday, Campbell reported it’s unlikely that Hounds defender Nate Dossantos will return to the lineup anytime soon as he’s nursing a leg injury, while both Robbie Mertz and Albert Dikwa have been working their way back in training, but remained in non-contact mode, and are listed as questionable for the match vs Sacramento.
In its last four matches, Sacramento has just one win though, but it’s an impressive one, defeating last season’s defending USL Cup champs, San Antonio, 3-1, in a much anticipated match. The Republic tied San Diego and RGV FC (each 1-1) and lost to Monterey Bay (1-0) in this recent run in June.
Vitiello, Wiedt, and Cicerone were all key contributors for the Hounds in the past three years. Cicerone led the team in goals scored the previous two seasons (31 goals and 14 assists in 67 appearances), while Wiedt was a durable center back in 2021 and 2022.
Vitiello seized the starting goalkeeper position in Pittsburgh in 2020 and 2021, before moving on to Sacramento in 2022, where he was an essential part of a team that went on a monumental Open Cup run to the Final.
Each return to Highmark in good form.
Lilley even chuckled when acknowledging in his interview with Campbell, that Sacramento “obviously did their homework.” Pointing out that they got Cicerone and Wiedt to go West, after signing Vitiello the year before.
“They’re close, and I expect to see them in the starting lineup,” Lilley added.
“They have some familiarity with us, and we have some with them. There’s a lot of different guys on both teams, but we played them last year in Sacramento. There’s two really good teams. We’ll see who can get out of here with the three points.”
Cicerone remains among the league leaders in scoring with nine goals, while Vitiello leads the Golden Glove race so far this season with 0.60 goals against average.
While the 27-year-old keeper isn’t the league-leader in shutouts anymore – Oakland Roots SC’s Paul Blanchette and Louisville City FC’s Oliver Semmle have seven apiece – Vitiello’s best case for the award might be his underlying numbers, where per Opta he has allowed only nine goals on a 15.01 Expected Goals Against mark.
Thanks to his talent in finishing and his relentless work rate, Cicerone’s impact on Sacramento Republic FC’s fortunes in the final third keeps him at the front of the pack for MVP as he edged his former teammate Albert Dikwa for League’s May Player of the Month award.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) May 26, 2023
However, it’s been four weeks since Dikwa went out with his injury, and Cicerone has scored a goal, with Phoenix’s Manuel Arteaga taking the lead in the Golden Boot race, with 10 goals.
Lilley pointed out, Sacramento are a very deep and talented club, as the Hounds will have a lot more than the three former Hounds to contend with — as this will really be a match between the league’s two best defensive clubs and two teams that make opponents pay for mistakes.
And they’ve overcome the loss of longtime star attacking midfielder Rodrigo ‘RoRo’ Lopez, who sustained an injury in April, and had to have knee surgery.
Often times, they’ll line up in a 3-4-2-1 as they did in their impressive 3-1 win vs San Antonio, but they’ll mix it up, like they did last week when they went with a 3-4-3. Either way, they typically line up with three center backs, but when their attack is peaking, they use an assortment of midfielders and attackers who are always moving with overlapping runs, playing a free-flowing style when getting forward.
As we know Cicerone well here in Pittsburgh, that’s a style of play that suits his strengths, as he helped elevate the Hounds attack when he was in Pittsburgh, always getting on the end of balls played designed to get behind opponents.
Here’s how Sac lined up vs San Antonio…
In its last match, a 1-1 draw vs Rio Grande Valley Toros, Sacramento were a bit shorthanded due to some injuries.
The club showed its depth with several contributors out. Young academy forward Zeke Padilla made his first team debut, providing a late jolt. A couple of other role players, Panzani Sousa, English center back Johnny Fenwick, and others put in stellar shifts to help the club secure a point.
The busy bee for the Republic will be winger Jack Gurr, a 27 year-old English right back who leads the USL Championship, with 118 crosses, and is tops on the club, along with Cicerone, with three assists this season. Look for him to be among the personnel that are always looking to make those underlapping runs and when he gets into the box, the Hounds have to be careful, as he’s already drawn three penalties this season.
Even with the absence of RoRo Lopez, the Republic have a strong central midfield that doesn’t give an inch. Sitting on eight yellow cards, central midfielder Arnold López is a guy who’s not afraid to mix-it up for the Republic, but paired up with another USLC veteran, Luis Fernandes (5 goals), who’s the more dangerous of the attacking midfielders, the Hounds cannot get cute when trying to possess the ball through the center of the park, as they’ll both make them pay for mistakes,
Match-Ups to Watch
From Pittsburgh’s standpoint, Lilley wasn’t pleased with some of the decision making on the ball, in the last few games. The Hounds worked on that this week in training. Against a quality opponent like Sacramento, they’re going to have to be able to hold on to the ball longer, and make better decisions.
But the question is, what will give, when the two staunchest defending units in the league face each other (Sac allows 0.6 goals per game, the Hounds 0.7 goals per game).
Sacramento’s attack is among the tops in the league, scoring 30 goals on 215 shots, which is good for an 18% conversion rate (by comparison, the Hounds have scored 22 goals at a 17% conversion rate, on the second lowest number of shots taken across the league -154).
Looking further at the ‘Tale of the Tape’ in this match, don’t expect this to be a free-flowing match going back and forth, as both teams also are not afraid to challenge and challenge hard on 50-50 balls, as each are among the league’s leaders in fouls conceded (Pittsburgh’s second overall with 274, while Sacramento is 7th with 243), while both teams are middle-to-lower in the pack in terms of possession and passing accuracy.
With each side needing to be sharp in their chances through the final third, which ever midfield can take control of the match, and control tempo could help tilt the favor of the match. The battle between Lopez and Danny Griffin will be fun to watch, as well as throw in Kenardo Forbes and the potential addition of the Hounds’ latest signing, Juan Carlos Obregon, and it will be interesting to see how each side looks to find space and room to create chances.
For the record, Obregon will be wearing number 29.
John K’s Riverhounds SC Projected Lineup…
Look for more from Highmark Stadium on Saturday night, as Dom Campbell will be anchoring PSN’s coverage of this clash between two of the best teams in the USL Championship.
Riverhounds (8-2-7) vs. Sacramento Republic FC (9-2-6)
Date: Saturday, July 8
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Odds: Hounds +105 / Draw +230 / Sacramento +240 (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: #PITvSAC and #HOUNDTAHN