There’s been a lot of positives this season for the Riverhounds SC, as they’ve raced out to the top of the Eastern Conference table.
The Hounds have especially found comfort at Highmark Stadium, where they’ve posted an impressive 10-1-3 record in 14 league matches (plus another two wins in Open Cup) with a goal differential of plus-15 (24 goals for, nine against).
On the road though, it’s been a different story altogether.
Pittsburgh has won three times in 12 road matches in league play (plus 1-1 record in Open Cup on the road vs MLS clubs), with a goal differential of minus-2.
With five of the final eight matches remaining on the road, including two more this week as they go to Hartford (Wednesday) and then face the defending USLC Cup winners San Antonio (Saturday) the Riverhounds need to get their act together in matches away from Highmark Stadium if they want to finish the season at the top of the table and reward the fan base which has supported them with an impressive run of sellout matches by earning home postseason matches.
Despite being the best team in the USLC at home (33 points), the Hounds are 13th on the road (14 points), they certainly can boost confidence and reach a higher ceiling as a legitimate USL Championship title contender if they can start to bag points from the next five road matches, especially the next two.
“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.
Following the San Antonio match on Saturday, the Hounds will go on an extended break, with 28 matches under their belt, while other teams in the Eastern Conference will have opportunities to move past them in the standings.
“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. Hopefully their best soccer is still in front of them.”
Video Review: Hounds effort is there but the attack floundered vs Orange County SC
In last week’s loss against Orange County, the Hounds played the hottest team in the league on even terms, but were susceptible on one dangerous counter attack, as Milan Iloski’s goal was the difference.
The Hounds, coming out in a 3-5-2 formation, were on the front foot with more shots and possession against a team that has not only been very disciplined defensively but is really making the most of their chances during an impressive five match win streak, and winning nine of the last 11 matches.
If anything, Pittsburgh’s high press was causing difficulty for OCSC’s backline for much of the first half. It looked as if the Hounds were implementing their will in the match, but OCSC averted those dangerous moments. In the few instances when Orange County broke the Hounds’ lines, they played long and direct, to catch the Hounds slightly off guard, creating one dangerous chance that forced a Jahmali Waite save (from a deflection), then Iloski’s clever strike broke the scoreless affair, and was enough to lift the home side to a key victory.
Pittsburgh will have to bring the same effort in all road matches in terms of matching intensity (16 interceptions and 14 clearances), but they’ll need to bring more elements to the attack in the final third.
Orange County’s central defense continued to deny Pittsburgh any clear cut opportunities, as even when Marc Ybarra fed Albert Dikwa nicely in the 22nd minute, the step-for-step defending pushed Dikwa’s chance to come from a more difficult angle and easier save for Shutler. In fact, Shutler’s other two saves were pretty routine too.
The Hounds, using the combination of Dikwa and Tola Showunmi at the top of the attack, with Kenardo Forbes freelancing into high points, they brought their share of pressure (22 crosses), but only took five of its 12 shots from inside the box, with three of those shots on target and another three that were blocked. Pittsburgh used both Marc Ybarra and Danny Griffin in the central midfield rotation, with both circling back deeper in support and holding roles, while the wingers.
Even fresh legs and some tactical adjustments (moving out a defender and bringing on an extra attacker) in the second half couldn’t shift the match enough in Pittsburgh’s favor. Lilley used all five subs alotted [Robbie Mertz (45), JC Obregon and Edward Kizza (62), Trevor Zwetsloot and Luke Biasi (81′)] they couldn’t solve OCSC. The Hounds didn’t create enough corner kick chances (only four), and were a little sloppy and inefficient in the final third.
“We weren’t that dangerous,” Hounds captain, Forbes, said in hindsight.
“We created a few chances, but we weren’t good enough.”
In a match between two of the best sides in the league, who combined to win seven straight heading into the contest, the well-rested home team got the job done in a fairly even and tight affair.
Hartford Coming Off an ‘Embarrassing Performance’
In what head coach Omid Namazi called an “embarrassing” performance, the Hartford coach told The Bent Musket that his team lacked energy from the start and struggled to threaten the Miami goal throughout the night, failing to take advantage of a sold-out Trinity Health Stadium crowd in a 3-0 defeat.
Now, the Hounds will look to beat the Athletic for the second time in 10 days. On August 12, the Hounds defeated Hartford, 2-0, in a match that was delayed for three hours.
Head Coach Bob Lilley has said repeatedly that despite their success this season, his team has not reached its potential.
Lilley will never make excuses, but his club did play Orange County on short rest, while the hosts were off for 10 days, so that may have contributed to how that match played out. Now, the Hounds will have a week between matches, while Hartford is also eager for some redemption, as they have now lost two straight following a rough outing on Saturday.
If the Hounds have championship aspirations, this is the kind of match they need to win, and quite frankly, they can really cement their place atop the Eastern Conference standings with a minimum of four points this week.
Ahead of last Saturday’s match, we provided a Scouting Report/Preview of Hartford.
The Hounds will likely be looking at using another dose of heavy squad rotation, but as previously noted, they will have plenty of time to rest after this two-game road swing.
“The coaching staff manage that — and do a good job,” Kenardo Forbes added.
“The guys know they have to be ready. We’ve done a good job with that much of the season. We need to create more chances, be clinical. Get the right players making runs. We’ll see how we pick that up vs Hartford.”
Their next match won’t be until September 9, at home vs Loudoun United FC.