The Riverhounds have had a monumentally successful campaign to this point, but now face the biggest challenge remaining on their regular season schedule.
The Hounds will face a very talented Tampa Bay Rowdies squad on their home turf, as both sides seek to claim first place in the Eastern Conference and win the Players’ Shield for top overall league points, while locking up home field throughout the USL Championship Playoffs, but to do so this weekend, they will need to get a result at one of the tougher away venues in the league when they face the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Saturday at Al Lang Stadium.
“The mentality is to get there, and get the three points,” Danny Griffin, Riverhounds midfielder said this week after training.
“It’s a good team, a good opponent, but we want to get there and bring back a win so we can get home field for the playoffs.”
These are two organizations that have developed a growing rivalry in recent years, and now they have a match that really takes on more significance than any other they’ve ever played before. All-time, the series is deadlocked, 5-5-4, as one of those Riverhounds’ wins came before they were league foes, in the 2015 US Open Cup, when Rob Vincent scored the game-winner at the start of stoppage times in a USL vs NASL clash.
Both teams enter this match in good form.
The Hounds are unbeaten in their last six matches, and the Rowdies have only lost twice in their past eight matches, both of which came against fellow playoff side Memphis.
In sizing up the match, USL Championship lead national broadcast analyst Devon Kerr shared his thoughts on Sounding Off on Soccer Podcast this week, pointing out that the Hounds have been the league’s most consistent and well-coached team this season, but the Rowdies have more attacking depth, and are bringing back reigning league MVP, Leo Ferdandes, who returns from a season-long Achilles injury.
The Rowdies last loss prior to those was the first meeting of the year between the two teams, Aug. 5, when the Hounds pounced on an early turnover to set up Albert Dikwa for the game’s only goal three minutes into a 1-0 win at Highmark Stadium.
When asked how much the first match the Hounds played vs Tampa (1-0 Pittsburgh win) in early August weighs into Saturday’s contest, Riverhounds veteran Head Coach Bob 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.”
“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 Rowdies, by-and-large, have kept pace with the Hounds since that match, but entering this match, Pittsburgh is three points ahead.
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 and take the match to Pittsburgh.
With both sides in decent form and much at stake, the level of play should be much better than the first meeting, and both coaches are planning accordingly.
Lilley’s concern he’s dealing with is that despite his club’s success in the past month, they still haven’t pitched a shutout, and are leaving things to chance late matches by giving up goals when they’re holding leads.
With these leads, late in matches, the Hounds’ normally resilient defensive shape has been stretched a bit more, and was compromised a few times, with opponents making them pay.
“We’re beating ourselves in those moments,” Lilley said.
“We’re going to have to play the full 90 minutes every match going forward.”
Al Lang has been a historically tough venue for the Hounds, who are 1-4-1 there all-time, and the Rowdies have been strong but not invincible on home grass this season, where they are 11-3-2 entering their regular-season home finale this week.
For the second time this season, Dikwa will share the field with the player nearest to him in the Golden Boot race. Dikwa and his 19-goal total will be running at the opposite goal to Cal Jennings and his total of 17 for Tampa Bay, but that’s no guarantee of offensive fireworks.
The last time the top two in the scoring race met — Dikwa and San Antonio’s Tani Oluwaseyi on Aug. 26 — the match ended with the two title contenders battling to a 0-0 draw.
But Dikwa’s scoring chase and Hounds’ captain Kenardo Forbes‘ bid to win the Championship’s assists title — Forbes enters the match tied for first with 10 — are secondary concerns to the Hounds’ chance to capture the first major prize in team history.
There are many scenarios that could unfold with three potential results.
Bottom line for Pittsburgh is that a win would bring the Players’ Shield to Pittsburgh, while a draw would secure first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2019.
Even a one-goal loss would keep the Hounds in first place entering the final week, but that would open the door for either Tampa Bay or Sacramento to claim the Shield in the final week of the season.
And then there’s some real crazy scenarios that could also follow, as outlined by USL Championship’s Nicholas Murray outlined — where the Hounds and the Rowdies could split the Players’ Shield and Eastern Conference titles, if there’s a three-way tie with Sacramento Republic for the league’s total points race.
If the Hounds are able to secure the Shield on Saturday, it would be a fitting honor to claim in head coach Bob Lilley‘s 200th match leading the club. A win also would equal the most regular-season wins ever by the Hounds, matching the 19 wins of Lilley’s 2019 team that topped the East.
Lilley has made it no secret that he expects to keep his lineup and bench rotation pretty similar — and the Hounds have rolled out the same starting eleven in the last three matches, and the same field players in the past four. There will certainly be tactical adjustments — and as Kerr pointed out during the podcast — there will be many tweaks throughout the contest between Lilley and Law.
The tactical questions remain.
With its arsenal of attacking talent, as the Eastern Conference’s most potent scoring corps, with 57 goals, will the Rowdies try to solve the Hound stout defense and break its high press by looking to find openings over the top, or will they play through the middle trusting that their midfield will be able to outplay the Hounds center field grouping and lock solid rotation that includes Forbes, Danny Griffin and Marc Ybara, along with Robbie Mertz who has been rotating into matches in the second half as of late.
Fernandes, who was available, but not used last week in his return to the 18, could be a welcome addition off the bench or will Law throw him out there as as starter to a dangerous group that includes Jennings, J.J. Williams or longtime Hounds’ nemesis, 34-year old Yann Ekra be a difference maker off the bench? Unlike his predecessor, Neill Collins, who left to take the Barnsley manager post in the EFL League One, Law is more willing to try different things with formations and tactics.
The concern for Pittsburgh is that they traditionally never play that well at Al Lang Stadium, but many of those matches, for whatever reason, were played early most seasons.
John K’s Projected Pittsburgh Riverhounds Starting XI for the match…
Rowdies Starting XI last week vs Loudoun
Riverhounds (18-5-9) vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies (18-8-6)
Date: Saturday, Oct. 7
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: Al Lang Stadium, St. Petersburg, Fla.
Odds: Hounds +230 / Draw +230 / Tampa Bay +105 (FanDuel)
Streaming: ESPN+ (national), KDKA+ (local)
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #TBRvPIT and #HOUNDTAHN