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Preview: Riverhounds face revived Hartford Athletic in deceiving first vs last place match-up

Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

The Riverhounds remain in pretty good position as they prepare to face the remaining Eastern Conference side they have not faced this season: the Hartford Athletic.

In the next two weeks, they’ll see a lot of the Athletic, as they face each other Saturday night at Highmark Stadium, then 10 days later at Trinity Health Stadium in Connecticut.

This week, action between other conference rivals played out in favor of Pittsburgh (12-4-8 | W-L-D), as Louisville and Charleston ended deadlocked in a 1-1 draw, which saw each side inch one point closer to the Hounds.  Still, the Hounds are four points ahead of Charleston as both clubs have played 24 matches, while they are eight points ahead of Tampa Bay, who they defeated last Saturday, 1-0, at Highmark Stadium, and Louisville.

The Hounds’ injury list now has three players, who are all questionable: Mike DeShields (concussion), Junior Etou (foot) and Illal Osumanu (ankle).

On the flip side, bringing up the rear, is Hartford, who have just four wins this season (4-14-4 | W-L-D), but are winners of two of its last three. The last place Athletic are starting to form their identity under a new coach and could be a tougher out than expected.

On paper, it’s a first place team vs a last place side, but to Bob Lilley and the Riverhounds players are taking a proactive mindset and prepared for a tough battle with the Athletic.

This talk about a first place vs last place match-up begs the question, do the players really pay attention to the standings?

“Yeah, it’s a long season, but we look at the standings,” Arturo Ordonez admitted this week at training.

“At the same time, we take it one game at a time, and just focus on the next game. We depend on us, and if we do our best, we’ll hang on to first place.”

Hounds Rediscovered Defensive Mojo

When the Riverhounds are at their best, very few opponents this season have been able to score upon them.

Still, as they battled to get out of a defensive funk, Lilley had to look to make adjustments.

After watching his team give up a bunch of goals — eight to be exact — in three matches, he knew that a few changes had to be made.

There were some personnel and tactical adjustments made, but Lilley continues to challenge his players and their mindset — and did what he had to do to get the high press working again.

“We were a little bit more organized tonight with two (forwards) up front,” Lilley said following the Hounds’ impressive shutout of a pretty lethal Tampa Bay side.

“The forwards worked hard. Our midfield grouping is working hard, and our wing backs are working hard. We’re trying to get pressure higher up the pitch when we can. It’s not always easy. When you do that, a lot of teams will start going direct on you. Then you have to press, pick up second balls, and I thought we did a really good job with that.”

The Hounds wingbacks, Luke Biasi and Dani Rovira who started the Tampa match, were more effective in pushing higher up, not only to get forward into the attack, but in clogging the wide channels to deny Tampa’s use of teh width.  With Danny Griffin sitting back deeper, to a position where he played a lot in previous seasons in Pittsburgh, as a number six, the Hounds midfield rotation was effective in denying space.

“Some of our success against Columbus Crew (in the U.S. Open Cup) was because we didn’t let them park and make 1,000 passes in and around our penalty box. I think we get in trouble when we sit back and let the other team dictate. Anything (Tampa) wanted to do, they had to do at a quicker tempo and that led to some mistakes.”

Ordonez has been the steady rock for the Hounds defense this season, leading the squad in minutes played, as he’s started every one of the 22 league matches he’s appeared in this season, having been subbed off for one minute.

Ordonez is bullish on his team’s ability to adapt, as they did last week, because they’re always playing as one unit.

‘We are always taught to defend as a team. I think we did a great job vs Tampa,” Ordonez said after practice this week.

“It was important to get back to that, and get a clean sheet.”

Despite a barrage of hiccups for the previous three weeks, the Hounds showed last week that they remain one of the best defensive teams in the league.

Last Place Hartford Provides Important Reminder: Take No Team Lightly 

With last place Hartford coming to Highmark Stadium (next Saturday, 7 p.m. kickoff), Lilley warned that his team can’t drop their intensity as the Hounds hold a five point edge in the standings.

“You have to decide if you want to play with fire or not. All the talk will be we can’t have a let down. If you want to win the East, finish on top of standings, you can’t give points away,” Lilley explained.

“Sometimes I remind the guys how many points we gave away this year. You can’t get caught up in talk.  Our guys worked hard. There’s a maturity in our group, and tonight they showed they didn’t want to back off.”

For the second week in a row, the Hounds will be taking on a team under the direction of a new coach.

It’s been a terrible season for the Athletic, who fired Head Coach Tab Ramos last month, and replaced the former USMNT standout with a veteran coach, Omid Namazi, who was serving as Ramos’ assistant. It was a disastrous tenure under Ramos, who were 2-10-4 at the time of his firing, as the Athletic were a team in search of an identity.

Namazi — a former West Virginia Mountaineer of Iranian heritage — has an extensive journeyman soccer resume — both as a player having been with 17 different clubs! His extensive coaching background includes stops with the US Men’s U18 and U20s, the US Women’s National Team, the Iranian National Team, and the Houston Dynamo, Ramos’ former club.

And, guess what?  After losing three straight, under Mamazi, Hartford have suddenly won two of their last three matches, beating lowly Las Vegas, 2-0, then pulling off an impressive 2-1 victory against New Mexico, sandwiching an ugly 5-2 loss to the defending USL Championship Cup winners, San Antonio.

Under Namazi, the Athletic have moved away from Ramos’ wavering attempt to go between four and five defenders in the back, and they’ve looked to be more aggressive with a three center back alignment.  There have also been some roster adjustments due to various injuries.

Even with two notable players out — leading scorer Kyle Edwards (hamstring) and athletic midfielder Andre Lewis (suspension) — Hartford has plenty of attacking punch with last season’s assists leader Antoine Hoppenot, winger Prince Saydee and their longstanding captain in the midfield, Danny Barrera.

It’s on the other end of the field Hartford has struggled this season, where its 47 goals allowed is six more than any other team in the Championship.

They’ve welcomed newcomers Modesto Méndez and Daniel Bloyou, each making their debut in the win vs. New Mexico United shortly after signing only days beforehand. Méndez entered alongside Edgardo Rito as the second midseason addition to a struggling Hartford defensive line, while Bloyou was signed on a 25-day contract as a last-minute replacement for the injured Kyle Edwards and Elvis Amoh. Following Andre Lewis’ red card and subsequent suspension in Saturday’s win, his presence up front may now become even more important, while his future beyond the contracted 25 days with Hartford remains unclear.

Hartford are an interesting team, as they have some veterans Riverhounds fans may be familiar with including a former Major League Soccer and USL Championship veteran Antoine Hoppenot, who scored his 40th USL Championship goal in the win vs New Mexico, becoming only the fourth player in league history to record at least 40 goals and 40 assists.

Photo courtesy The Blazing Musket / John McGloughlin

For a great read on Hoppenot, who started his USLC career with Hounds rivals Harrisburg City Islanders, check out this piece by our friends from the Blazing Musket.  After making 69 appearances with the Philadelphia Union, from 2012-15, the former Princeton Tigers standout has settled into a near decade long trek through the Championship, playing for numerous teams and in many battles against the Hounds while playing for Harrisburg City Islanders, FC Cincinnati, Detroit City FC, Louisville City FC and now with Hartford.

Mainstays on the defensive side include two Hartford players who landed on this week’s USL Championship Team of the Week: goalkeeper Joe Rice and defender Connor McGlynn.

Now in his fourth year with Hartford, McGlynn has been among the team leaders in minutes played, appearances and starts as he typically starts in the middle of the three center back set up.  His assist in last week’s win set up a Sportscenter Top 10 goal, was his first helper of the season, to go along with two goals.

How Hartford Lined Up vs New Mexico Last Week 

John K’s Projected Riverhounds Starting XI 

Riverhounds (12-4-8) vs. Hartford Athletic (4-14-4)
Date: Saturday, Aug. 12
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Tickets: Ticketmaster
Odds: Hounds -320 / Draw +410 / Hartford +650 (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: #PITvHFD 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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