On Saturday, the Riverhounds SC will face another top-of-the-table test when the Tampa Bay Rowdies come to Highmark Stadium for the first match between the Eastern Conference foes of 2023.
Before we start to break down the match-up, with the Hounds heading into its final third of the season (11 matches remain in the 34-game slate), and with some fresh results coming in from Friday night’s action, here’s the latest look at the USL Championship Eastern Conference standings, as the Hounds remain at the top of the group. On Friday, both Charleston and Birmingham suffered defeats against Western Conference opponents, while Louisville moved up to the 4th spot with a convincing 3-0 win vs Tulsa.
When the Riverhounds were playing really well in May and June, Head Coach Bob Lilley, with two decades of experience in these tight races, said that he wouldn’t be too concerned with the standings until there’s 10 games left in the season.
Lilley’s focus this week has been getting his team back to focus on putting together 90 minute performance on both sides of the ball. The Hounds have not been able to do that of late, giving up early goals and falling behind matches at an alarming rate, despite their tremendous comeback win last Saturday vs Memphis. This was a leading topic in this week’s edition of Hounds Notebook.
Saturday’s match vs third place Tampa Bay (11-5-5, 38 points) provides an opportunity for Pittsburgh to get back to doing what they did so well for such a long stretch, when they put together a historic unbeaten and defensive streak, allowing one goal in a nine match stretch.
Heading into the match, the Hounds have two players on the inactives/injury report as both Mike DeShields (concussion) and Illal Osumanu are listed as questionable.
Pittsburgh has struggled with the Rowdies in recent years, losing both matches last season, as 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’s Tampa win, the Hounds have dominated Tampa at Highmark, posting three wins and six draws.
More on Tampa Bay Rowdies
After struggling for a few matches after the departure of former Head Coach Neill Collins, the Rowdies found their footing with a 3-0 win vs Tulsa (is everyone beating Tulsa 3-0 of late?), last Saturday in the official Head Coaching debut of Nicky Law as Tampa’s Head Coach.
“Dominating, high tempo, and attacking. That’s how I want this team to look moving forward. Hopefully that performance gives them confidence. I know it’ll give me confidence,” Law said after the win which saw three second half goals.
Prior to the Tulsa win, the Rowdies were in choppy form, having drawn with Indy Eleven (0-0) and lost vs Birmingham (1-0) on the road.
In fact, the Rowdies started very slow this season, without a win for an entire month, before Collins whipped them into solid form to climb back into the thick of the Eastern Conference race. The Rowdies through the early parts of this season, were trying to figure out their identity.
The Rowdies have always been a strong defensive side, but with new personnel and injuries being a factor, they struggled early, giving up seven goals in its first five matches. Collins had them playing in either a 3-5-2 or 4-2-3-1 formations, with USLC veterans Forest Lasso and Aaron Guillen (21 starts) almost always in the middle of the back line, while some other familiar names, Lewis Hilton and Yann Erka plugged into the central midfield, while they’ve been going with a pretty solid rotation of forward that include Cam Jennings and J.J. Williams, who have each scored eight goals apiece.
But the addition of 22 year-old Jake LaCava, on loan again, this time from Inter Miami, has given their attack a boost, as he’s added a presence on the left wing that has stretched the shape of opponents. Last season with Tampa, LaCava scored 12 goals and notched five assists — and thus far in eight matches since his return, he’s scored two goals and picked up an assist.
With a new coach at the helm, Law, a former midfielder for the club as recent as last year, reverted to pushing his flanks up higher in the pitch last week, and in the second half, they switched out of the 3-5-2 — into more of a 3-4-3 — and their aggression paid dividends.
After getting his head on a handful of set piece opportunities in the first half, center back Lasso finally converted on a chance in the 52nd minute. Midfielder Charlie Dennis delivered the service from the corner, finding Lasso on the back post for a header back across goal to beat keeper Michael Nelson.
Tampa Bay used Lasso’s goal to carry the momentum the rest of the way. Dennis, playing one of his best matches of the season, doubled the lead himself in the 64th minute, following up on a rebound that popped up in the air after Jennings had his shot blocked.
Dennis did well to patiently wait for the ball to fall and guide a shot through the defenders and into the open net.
“You could see the energy and confidence come back into them with that first goal,” said Law. “To see them push on from there and get more was fantastic. We’re delighted with the performance and there’s plenty to build on.”
Williams sealed the victory with a booming header in the 82nd minute, just five minutes after coming off the bench as a substitute.
Midfielder Jordan Doherty placed a perfect cross on a platter from the right corner for Williams to power home with his head.
“That second half looked more like how I remember my time here as a player,” said Law.
Match-Ups To Watch
The question now is, will Law try to push the tempo and an attacking style to Pittsburgh, where the Hounds have struggled early in recent matches against teams that have been on the front foot.
The key factor that recent Hounds’ opponents have found in getting success and scoring early goals in the last three matches has come with being able to play out of the back and navigate through Pittsburgh’s mostly ineffective press.
Indy, Charleston and Memphis were each able to do this effectively, leading to six first half goals against Pittsburgh in the last three matches.
With two veteran center backs and plenty of experience in the midfield, the Rowdies will come to Highmark Stadium confident that they can break the Hounds’ press, and will look to slice and dice their way to creating chances.
The one note about the Rowdies though, is that they’ve been a fairly slow starting side of late too. In its July 22 match vs Indy, the Rowdies were on their heels for much of the first half of that match, and again last week, they needed to work through some kinks in the first half.
This match could very well be a feeling out process early. But, Pittsburgh will be desperate to finally start a match on the front foot and get the first goal so they can do what they do best, dictating terms and clogging up the channels on the defensive side.
Expect to see both coaches put all of their cards on the table, with added rest and no midweek matches behind or in front to worry about for either side.
Hounds midfielder/defender Dani Rovira spoke earlier this week that matches are going to start to take on a playoff feel, and this one should certainly be along those lines, as the season hits the final stretch and there’s more at stake.
John K’s Projected Hounds Starting XI
- Kenardo Forbes hit a pair of lofty milestones for longevity on July 22 at Charleston. The captain and all-time assists leader for both the league and the Hounds became the fourth player to appear in 250 games in the Championship, and he also crossed the 20,000 minutes played threshold.
- Forbes leads the Hounds with six assists this season, putting him one behind Charleston’s Fidel Barajas for the USL Championship lead entering the weekend.
- Danny Griffin became the 15th player in Hounds history to record 100 appearances with the club with his start July 12 at Louisville. The midfielder, who was reacquired by the Hounds on May 3 via transfer, has not missed a league match in his professional career, now in its fourth season.
- Dani Rovira, the second-longest tenured player for the Hounds in his fifth season, scored his first professional goal in the 4-2 comeback win Saturday over Memphis. With 98 appearances (and nine career assists along the way), the versatile Colombian defender played more matches for the Hounds than any other player before scoring his first goal.
- Joining Rovira with their first goal as members of the Hounds against Memphis were Joe Farrell and JC Obregón. Farrell’s goal was particularly notable for being the 1,000th goal in the Riverhounds’ 24-season history.
- First-year pro striker Tola Showunmi also scored in the win against Memphis, giving the Englishman four league goals — five in all competitions — to rank second on the team.
- Albert Dikwa is the third Hounds player to have back-to-back 10-goal seasons under Lilley, joining Neco Brett (2018-19) and Russell Cicerone (2021-22). He remains in the thick of the Golden Boot race with 10 goals, despite missing a month of action with a broken collarbone.
- In 191 matches played under Lilley in all competitions, the Hounds are 98-40-53 and have allowed just 178 goals, an average of 0.93 goals per game.
Riverhounds (11-4-8) vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies (11-5-5)
Date: Saturday, Aug. 5
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Odds: Hounds +120 / Draw +220 / Tampa Bay +210 (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: #PITvTBR and #HOUNDTAHN