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Hounds Notebook: Is showdown at Tampa most meaningful late regular season match in club history?

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds have been around since 1999.  On the pro soccer landscape in the United States, that’s actually a pretty long time.

In browsing through through the club’s history and season-by-season records, its hard to find a more meaningful regular season match than week’s upcoming showdown vs the Tampa Bay Rowdies (Saturday night, 7:30 p.m.).

Following Saturday’s 3-1 victory vs FC Tulsa in the regular season home finale, the Hounds hold a three-point lead on the Rowdies, with two matches to go, in both the Eastern Conference and USL Championship races to finish first, with the sweet rewards that come with that accomplishment which include earning Home Field advantage through the USL Cup Playoffs and winning the Players Shield, which goes to the team that finishes first overall in points in the USL Championship during the regular season.

The Hounds are training in Pittsburgh following their usual schedule, with Monday and Tuesday sessions, then optional workout day on Wednesday, then back at it Thursday and Friday, which will also include a travel day to the Sunshine State.

Here’s our (completely unofficial, unscientific) clinching scenarios based on three potential results from Saturday’s match at Tampa:

Win at Tampa Bay — Hounds would increase points total to 66 (with Tampa still on 60 points with one week to go), clinching the Eastern Conference.  They would also clinch the Players Shield, which goes to the overall regular season points leader in the USL Championship, as Sacramento (maximum 64 points) would also not be able to catch Pittsburgh.

Draw at Tampa Bay – Hounds would increase points total to 64 points, maintaining a three-point lead ahead of Tampa Bay, and have the advantage in Head-to-Head tiebreaker being that they defeated Tampa Bay, 1-0, in their previous meeting in Pittsburgh in June.  At worst, they would clinch at least a tie for top spot in USL Championship overall points

Loss at Tampa Bay – Hounds would remain at 63 points.  Tampa would jump into a tie for first place in the Eastern Conference, and in race for USLC’s overall points race.  The battle for the top spot would then come down to the last weekend, where Pittsburgh would have to travel to Detroit and Tampa to Louisville.  Also, the score in a potential loss at Tampa Bay would also factor into the tiebreak scenarios if the Hounds-Tampa ended the season tied.

Keep in mind the following:

Tiebreakers will be achieved by the following criteria, in order of importance:

  1. Head-to-Head Points Earned in Regular Season League Games*
  2. Goal Differential in Head-to-Head matches.
  3. PPG vs. in-Conference Opponents in Regular Season League Games**
  4. Total Wins in Regular Season League Games
  5. Goal Differential in Regular Season League Games
  6. Goals Scored in Regular Season League Games
  7. Points earned against top four Conference finishers (except that if the number of such Games is unequal, then points will be divided by the number Games played against the top four Conference finishers to arrive at a common basis for comparison)
  8. Number of disciplinary points (i.e., fewest disciplinary points).
  9. Lottery conducted by the League.

* If Head-to-Head is Not Applicable, Skip Directly to Tiebreaker No. 4 as Goal Differential and PPG in-Conference would not be applicable either if the teams did not compete head-to-head.

** For the USL Championship Final, Tiebreaker No. 3 is Not Applicable.  If the teams are level on head-to-head and GD, skip directly to No. 4.

Is match vs Tampa the biggest regular season match in Riverhounds’ history?  

For the record, the Riverhounds have finished first in the regular season in their respective standings just two previous times in their history.

In 2004 , the Hounds finished with 52 points in the USL Pro Soccer League, winning the three-team Atlantic Division, and eight points more than the next team in the 12-team league (Mark Steffens’ Charlotte Eagles).  After winning the Atlantic Division Finals by an aggregate total of 7-1 vs Harrisburg, they lost in the league semifinal at Utah, 1-0.  Interestingly, despite having a better record, the Hounds had to travel to Salt Lake City for the semifinal match.  Utah would win the USL Pro League Final, defeating Charlotte in a PK shootout.

The Hounds would not finish in first place again until 2019, when they clinched first in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference on the last day of the season, edging then MLS bound Nashville SC by one point (67-66), thanks to Mark Forrest header in stoppage time at Birmingham.  Phoenix won the Players Shield that season.

During the Highmark Stadium era, the only other time the season came down to the final few matches, was in 2015, when high scoring Hounds’ group needed to win on the road against Keystone Derby rival Harrisburg to get into the USL Playoffs.  The Hounds clinched both a playoff berth, and the first ever Keystone Derby Cup at Skyline Soccer Complex on City Island, with a 2-1 win.

Excerpt from ‘Miracle on the Mon’: Hounds Clinch Keystone Derby Cup (9/19/2015)

This brings us back to Saturday’s match at Al Lang Stadium.

With a three point lead, it is not necessarily a winner-take-all scenario, but a clinching the top record overall with one week to spare in the regular season would slam the door shut on any last week drama and be an enormous achievement for this organization and this team, which has been on a mission to host as many home playoff matches as possible after numerous postseason disappointments in recent years.  Another win would also tie the club’s all-time total for most wins in a regular season, with 19, which also was set in 2019.

Maybe most importantly, as veteran center back Joe Farrell stated last week, “We want to win trophies.”

For all the success this club has achieved under Bob Lilley since the veteran coach arrived in Pittsburgh in 2017, and with all due respect to the Keystone Derby Cup, they’ve yet to clinch a proper trophy.  Hardware that the Hounds strive to win each year includes the Players Shield, Eastern Conference Championship and USL Cup, plus the US Open Cup.

A win would also potentially give the Hounds a chance to use the Season Finale at Detroit as a way to manage minutes and prepare for the following week’s home playoff match.

Head Coach Bob Lilley knows that this is a match his team’s going to have to play at their best for a full 90-plus minutes.

When asked how much the first match the Hounds played vs Tampa (1-0 Pittsburgh win) in early August weighs into this week’s contest, Lilley was a bit dismissive.

“Not much,” Lilley exclaimed of what he will take from that first contest, which had a playoff feel, but neither side pushed the other as a total of 12 shots were attempted with Pittsburgh having the 8-4 advantage, as both teams put just one shot on frame.

The Hounds scored very early, with Albert Dikwa converting in the 11th minute, then Pittsburgh pulled back, but shut down the potent Rowdies attack.

There was a lot of fight on both sides in the middle of the field, but neither side was very ambitious in getting forward.

“We got the goal. They didn’t create a lot going forward,” Lilley added.  “I don’t think either team played close to their best soccer. It was a game with very few chances either way.  I expect them to be a lot more proactive attacking, and put more heat on us. We’re going to have to defend well as a team. One of the ways we’re going to have to defend, is as a team.”

With a lot to gain with three points and little to come from a draw, there’s little doubt that Tampa Bay will need to play on the front foot.

“Tonight’s performance was everything I asked from an effort and fight standpoint,” said Rowdies Head Coach Nicky Law stated after his club’s loss in Pittsburgh earlier this season.

“They fought for every ball. They won first contact, second contact I thought better than Pittsburgh tonight. The disappointing part for me and the frustrating part is just the lack of belief and real quality. We didn’t have any of that tonight.”

The 2015 win in Harrisburg may have been the most exciting regular season finish for this club, but a win at Tampa Bay on Saturday night would be the most monumental regular season win for the franchise.

Look for more to come this week, as we will be previewing the Hounds-Tampa Bay match-up, have more interviews and insights to come on the Sounding Off on Soccer podcast.  

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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