It was a long time ago — nearly six months to be precise – when the Pittsburgh Riverhounds faced Tulsa FC, playing in a chippy, scoreless draw with both teams having potential goals wiped away.
Unlike the early stages of the season when they first clashed, the two Eastern Conference sides will meet again at Highmark Stadium on Saturday night with a lot on the line.
The Hounds (60 points) are seeking to pick up three valuable points in the race to claim the top spot in the Conference and in claiming the club’s first-ever Players Shield, which goes to the team with the top regular-season record in the USL Championship, as they currently lead Tampa Bay (57) by three points and Charleston (56) by four.
Meanwhile, Tulsa (9-13-9, 36 points) is battling to get above the playoff line, trailing Detroit City by a point.
Here are some additional key storylines:
- Hounds are seeking to cap off the biggest home season in club history. The team already has set the club record for most overall home wins (15) and most league wins at home (12) in a single season, and a win over Tulsa would equal the USL Championship record for home wins in a season with 13. Unsurprisingly, the last two Eastern Conference champions — Louisville in 2022 and Tampa Bay in 2021 — are two of the teams with a share of that feat, and the Hounds would be more than thrilled to follow in their footsteps.
- Albert Dikwa remains tied atop the race for the league’s scoring title with 17 goals, and in Tulsa, he faces an opponent he has scored against three times in three matches, including his first career two-goal game last season in Oklahoma.
- The USL Championship’s (and obviously the Hounds’) all time assists leader, Kenardo Forbes’ nine assists this season, place him second in the Championship, one behind San Antonio’s Jorge Hernandez. Forbes had two assists last week in the Hounds’ 2-1 win vs New Mexico.
- Another thing to consider, if Tulsa can battle its way into the eight place spot, and the Hounds secure the top spot, this could potentially be a First Round playoff preview.
Sizing Up the Match-Up
In the previous meeting, the Hounds did a lot to disrupt Tulsa’s possession and ability to build-up play, especially through the middle of the field, but the tactics brought mixed results, as the Hounds didn’t quite execute the game plan probably the way Head Coach Bob Lilley had envisioned.
They created plenty of disruption, but not tons of quality scoring chances.
The Hounds conceded possession in a big way (Tulsa had the 70/30 edge with 671 passes to the Hounds’ 273), Pittsburgh still sent 22 crosses, had 18 shots (only three on frame) and won four corner kicks.
A good number of the crosses (actually 43%) connected, but the Hounds couldn’t put their chances away.
Ultimately, the Hounds came up short and couldn’t capitalize on the chances and moments they had in getting into transition, sending more than 20 crosses and 18 shots, seeing their conversion rate drop after 90-plus minutes of attrition in this important area.
Tulsa has continued to be a meddling in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference standings, following the change in the off season to a new head coach Blair Gavin. In their last five matches, they’re 2-2-1, and are coming off a 2-1 loss to Charleston last week. This has been a turnaround of sorts, as prior to their win vs one of the Western Conference front-runners, San Antonio, they had lost six in a row.
Tulsa’s kept themselves in contention thanks to some talented attacking pieces, and some payoff from its possession-based system.
Tulsa’s attack is led by talented striker Phillip Goodrum, an all-USL player a season ago with Memphis who has 10 goals this season, and playmaking winger and Marcus Epps, who leads the club with five assists, though neither featured or were in the team’s 18 in last week’s loss vs Charleston.
Early in the season, Gavin revved up the attack for the boys from the Oil Capitol of the World, but they’ve since leveled out, struggling defensively, allowing 48 goals this season, which is the fifth most goals conceded. One of the reasons for their defensive demise may be due to the loss of experienced center back Bradley Bourgeois, who had surgery and has been out since early June.
Rodrigo da Costa, who scored in last year’s match in Tulsa and has a goal and an assist this year, is another familiar threat. A fascinating player to watch is Nathan Worth, who, at age 16 is one of the youngest players signed to a USL Championship club and a player who has become more involved in FCT’s ability to build out of the back. A former Red Bulls Academy product, Worth has been part of the US Youth National Team (U15 & U16) and now has become an integral part of FC Tulsa, with 14 appearances.
In match vs Phoenix two weeks ago, Worth completed 73 of 79 passes – a 92.4 percent accuracy rate – and notched a pair of chances created. Worth’s passing accuracy rate only dipped a fraction in the final third of the field, where he completed 19 of 22 passes overall, the most of any player in the Tulsa lineup.
Nathan Worth put in a huge performance for @FCTulsa last night, holding down the central midfield with 32 passes and five defensive actions; it boosted Tulsa to a win that pushed them back into a playoff spot. You see the highlights from the teenager’s standout night here. pic.twitter.com/WYsXNAgwfK
— John Morrissey (@USLTactics) September 4, 2023
At home before what will likely be another sellout crowd on Fan Appreciation night, the Hounds will look to press and disrupt FC Tulsa.
Pittsburgh, though, has been a bit more susceptible against good possession teams this season, as in their only home loss, the Hounds were dissected apart by Indy Eleven. FC Tulsa has completed the third most passes in the Championship, and are among the most accurate passing teams (80% ranks 7th in the league).
This will be the match-up to watch — as the Hounds will look to punish FCT — while the visitors, playing for their playoff lives — will do their best to stick with what they do best, and can make things uncomfortable for Pittsburgh if they can successfully navigate the high press and win the battles in the middle of the field.
The Hounds’ central midfield grouping, which Lilley has settled on with Danny Griffin, Kenardo Forbes (remarkably second on the team in minutes played), and Marc Ybarra (only player who has appeared in all Hounds league matches this season), should be up-to-the-task against a solid possession team.
Here’s a look at FC Tulsa’s Starting Eleven vs Charleston last week, again noting that they were without Goodrum and Epps.
As mentioned in this week’s Hounds Notebook, Bob Lilley has pretty much settled into a lineup and player rotation that might see a few tweaks from match-to-match, but is pretty much what we’ll likely see the rest of the way this season.
John K’s Riverhounds SC Projected Starting XI
Riverhounds (17-5-9) vs. FC Tulsa (9-13-9)
Date: Saturday, Sept. 30
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Odds: Hounds -340 / Draw +390 / Tulsa +750 (FanDuel)
Streaming: ESPN+ (national), KDKA+ (local)
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #PITvTUL and #HOUNDTAHN