With 11 matches to go, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (11-8-4 | W-D-L) are determined to hold on to first place in the Eastern Conference Standings, but it won’t get any easier and they definitely can’t afford to keep falling behind early in matches.
The Hounds face another team who has been chasing them at the top of the table — Tampa Bay Rowdies — on Saturday at Highmark Stadium.
The team went about its business this week with a more than typical training routine with a lead up to Saturday’s match vs Tampa.
In addition, August will bring a change of pace for the Hounds as they’ve spent much of the past two months playing at home, they’ll have two more home matches (vs Tampa and the following Saturday vs Hartford), then they’ll play the next three on the road, where they carry a rather pedestrian 3-5-3 record with a minus-1 goal differential. As part of the next road swing, they’ll once again be going to the West Coast, to face Orange County, then to Hartford and San Antonio, with two of those matches being midweek encounters.
Despite still sitting in the top spot, Head Coach Bob Lilley knows that his club is in a precarious spot, with Tampa, Charleston and other clubs breathing down their necks.
With a second half scoring surge on Saturday, Lilley and his players believe that they’ve exercised some of the demons that were haunting them.
“Every team struggles for a few games, and I think we snapped out of it.”
“The response was great. It was fun to see. The crowd certainly was a big factor tonight for the guys to keep after it.”
Now, the Hounds will face one of the teams that they have not fared well against in recent years and a club that has tons of experience and USL Championship pedigree who are a threat to the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Last year, Tampa Bay dominated the two-game series with an 8-3 aggregate advantage, including a 3-1 in at Al Lang Stadium, then a 5-2 win in Pittsburgh last year, which was their first victory in ten trips to Highmark. Prior to last year, the Rowdies hand come away with three losses and six draws in Pittsburgh. This year, Pittsburgh has only been on the losing end of a result at home once.
Prior to last year, the Hounds have fared well vs Tampa at home, posting three wins and six draws.
In one interesting storyline, the Rowdies have appointed a new head coach following the departure of Neill Collins to English Club Bernley, as Nicky Law is the new coach. Law, who previously played with the Rowdies last season as a midfielder, took a role in the offseason as a player/assistant coach for Huntsville City FC of MLS Next Pro.
That’s right, that’s the same club that Riverhounds’ MF Danny Griffin played for before coming back to Pittsburgh in May.
And now, both will be back at Highmark Stadium on Saturday night.
Looking to Halt Run of Slow Starts
The primary concern for Bob Lilley and his squad has to be the team’s continued slow starts.
In the last three matches, the Riverhounds have trailed by two goals before the half.
Sure, last week they finally showed they can respond to a deficit, fighting back for an impressive come-from-behind win, as they defeated Memphis, 4-2, with four unanswered goals scored after the 40th minute.
Entering this recent three-match stretch, the Hounds surrendered just 12 goals in its first 18 matches.
In the past three matches, they’ve surrendered eight goals, with six of those coming in the first half.
We have to start games better,” Lilley exclaimed last week during that tough stretch.
Against top-of-the-table opponents like Tampa, the Hounds cannot afford to start off on the wrong foot.
The Rowdies dominated its last match, defeating playoff hopefuls Tulsa, 3-0, with an impressive second half performance at home, where they are 7-2-2 this season. The Rowdies are just 4-3-3 on the road this season, and haven’t scored a goal away from home in its last three matches.
The good news for the Hounds is that they did reverse a terrible trend, and won for only the second time this season after trailing in a match with last week’s comeback.
Prior to last week, in the matches in all competitions (including the Open Cup) where they’ve surrendered the first goal, they recorded five losses (Colorado, El Paso, Charleston, Indy and FC Cincy in Open Cup) and one comeback win (vs San Diego), with the other two equalizers coming way back in two of the first three matches of the season, when they scored goals after the 80th minute to level in 1-1 draws with Birmingham and Miami.
Still, they can’t afford to keep falling behind in every match.
Rovira Scores Goal For First Time in Five Seasons in Pittsburgh
It’s hard to believe, that for a player who has made an impact in many ways, has been utilized in various roles, that Dani Rovira had not scored a goal for the Riverhounds until Saturday. The native of Bogata, Columbia, who played collegiately at University of Vermont, has been looking for his first goal for five years and got it in grand style two minutes after halftime to tie it.
Kenardo Forbes gave him a strong cross from the left side and Rovira hit a pure strike that went in off the bottom of the crossbar. It was Forbes’ 50th assist as a member of the Hounds.
“It’s definitely a special moment for me and my family,” Rovira said. “They’re in Colombia and I’m sure they are celebrating. All I want to do every time I step out there is help the team win whether it’s with an assist or a tackle. Tonight it was with a goal.”
For Rovira, it came at a great time, as the Hounds came out of the locker room at halftime looking to equalize the match with Memphis following Joe Farrell’s historic goal that made it 2-1.
Sure enough, Rovira got just enough of his shot attempt under the bar.
“I am glad that it was a moment that we really needed the goal,” Rovira added.
“I felt like it gave the team a push.”
From a small role in his first year, Rovira has grown to be one of the most versatile pieces to head coach Bob Lilley’s team, logging appearances primarily at either outside back position but also as a holding midfielder and an outside midfielder.
“Dani brings versatility, energy and a solid work ethic to our group. Every year with us, he has grown and become increasingly valuable in the big moments and in the locker room,” Lilley said.
Last season was Rovira’s best statistically with a career-high five assists — but he was still without a goal. He appeared in all but three USL Championship matches. That came on the heels of setting career marks for starts (20) and minutes played (1,788) during the 2021 season.
However, Lilley saw something in Rovira that made him believe that he could become an even bigger contributor and remain an asset in Pittsburgh for the long haul, becoming the evolutionary utility guy, much like Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Ryan James were for the Hounds in 2018-2020.
“He knows our system, which helps him a lot,” Lilley explained. “He’s more confident on the ball. He’s versatile but he’s sharp. He’s good technically. He’s good at (applying) pressure. He’s good at getting out of pressure. He can play with his left, he can play with his right, or on either side of the field. In the midfield too.”
Did we leave anything out Bob?
“In the back too,” Lilley added.
This season, Rovira’s made 15 appearances, with 10 starts, as he was hobbled at midseason with a knee injury that kept him out for more than a month, before making his return in a start vs Columbus Crew in the Hounds enthralling Open Cup win at Highmark Stadium.
Rowdies are Ready to Rumble
“At any point of the year going to Pittsburgh is tough,” Rowdies new Head Coach Nicky Law said this week.
The Rowdies kept pace with the Hounds in the standing last Saturday, with a win for the former midfielder for the club in his head coaching debut, snapping a two-match scoreless skid and getting the club back in the win column.
“I know firsthand the standard that has been set at this club, and I am so excited to have the opportunity to build upon that for the remainder of the season,” Law said.
“I’m grateful for the chance I’ve been given here by our ownership. My primary goal is to provide guidance and direction to this extremely talented group of players. We have all the tools to get where we want to be come the end of the year.”
Heading into the match at Highmark Stadium, Law knows that his team will have their hands full, but they also have nothing to lose.
“Saturday’s match is as tough as it gets really, but it’s one that we’re all really looking forward to as a team and as a staff. It’s a really good challenge with two teams close together in the table. We know what a win could do for us and I’m sure they know what a win could do for them as well so there’s a lot to look forward to.”
Saturday is the first of two regular-season clashes between the Rowdies and Pittsburgh.
Looking closer at the standings, the Rowdies can really get a leg up on the Hounds with a positive result on their end, as they hold an extra came at hand.
Business trip to Pittsburgh this weekend 💼
— Tampa Bay Rowdies (@TampaBayRowdies) August 4, 2023
One familiar face in the series of matches between Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay in recent years has been Forest Lasso, a three-time All-USL Championship defender.
But for this match, Lasso will not be available.
Fresh off his first goal of the year and a USL Championship Team of the Week selection, Lasso will serve a one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation after picking up his eighth yellow card of the season against F Tulsa. One of the best defenders in the league in the past five-plus years, Lasso’s 98 clearances ranks third best in the league this season.
In addition, the Rowdies will be without three key players, Lewis Hilton, Zach Herivaux, Sebastian Dalgaard, due to injury.
“Every game we play is going to be tough,” said Rowdies defender Conner Antley.
“Saturday is definitely a game we look at and think Pittsburgh are sitting in a spot we want to be in right now, which is top of the table, so 3 points would be a big deal.”
Look for a more detailed Preview and Scouting Report of the Rowdies to come from Pittsburgh Soccer Now on Saturday morning.