HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — Soccer venues don’t get much grittier than 88-year-old Keyworth Stadium, tucked into a residential city block a handful of miles from downtown Detroit.
Soccer matches don’t get much grimier than what took place Saturday afternoon, as the USL Championship regular-season winners banged out a soggy 0-0 draw with playoff-hopeful Detroit City FC.
The Hounds (19-5-10, 67 points) fell short in their quest to set franchise records for wins and points in a season, but they had every reason to look forward on a gloomy day that nonetheless saw them stretch their unbeaten streak to 6-0-2.
“Obviously a win would’ve kept the momentum, and that’s what we were looking for, but I think we know what we need to improve for next week,” said veteran midfielder Robbie Mertz.
“It’s one of those games that, regardless of result, maybe we could take something from it, whether it was a loss that we really needed to reset (after) or a draw that wasn’t our best performance, up to our standard. Wasn’t good enough from us tonight, to be honest, but I think everybody recognizes that.”
With the draw, Detroit (11-15-8, 41 points) sneaked into the playoff field as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, setting up a rematch in Pittsburgh next Saturday. Le Rouge needed Miami FC to lose at Sacramento late Saturday and got its wish near the stroke of midnight Eastern time.
This was the latest in a series of matches that figured to matter more to the Hounds’ opponent. While Pittsburgh just locked up the Players Shield for regular-season supremacy last week in Tampa, Bob Lilley’s club has known it was going to make the postseason for over a month.
Regardless, the Hounds hadn’t lost since Aug. 16 and they’d allowed one or zero goals in eight of their past 10. Those streaks are still alive, even if the season finale fell a bit flat.
“Detroit was good,” Lilley said after a rather lengthy post-match team talk. “We expected them to be difficult today with the urgency they had to get a result.
“We defended in our box well. I would’ve liked to have seen us string more passes together, get more chances. We had some good ones, but not many. I thought we were outworked at times. They won a lot of loose balls. … It was a chaotic game and they’re athletic and physical. They had desperation on their side. We probably did well to come out with a draw.”
Mertz, who starred at the University of Michigan just a couple of highway jaunts from here, had the Hounds’ best chance to score, driving a 25-yard free kick off the right post midway through the second half.
“That’s sort of been the story of the year for me,” Mertz lamented in a dank Keyworth walkway, alluding to his two-goal total in 2023. “That was probably a millimeter from going in the net.”
The former Wolverine also orchestrated the Hounds’ best look before halftime, sending a corner kick onto the forehead of Joe Farrell; the defender’s charging redirect missed by inches.
Another U of M alum, midfielder Marc Ybarra, set up Danny Griffin for a first-time volley shortly after the break. Griffin struck it purely, but Detroit keeper Nathan Steinwascher stood tall for the point-blank save — the only stop of substance for either goalie on the day.
Detroit managed a handful of half-chances and the shots were tied, 7-7, but that was it as far as tangible offense for two of the most defensive-oriented squads in the USL Championship. The Hounds have allowed the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference, with Detroit ranking fourth in that category.
Both teams have been OK with counterattacking in 2023, averaging a few ticks less than 50 percent possession on the season. Furthermore, Keyworth features a fast, narrow playing surface, making conditions prime for direct soccer. Throw in the high-40s temperatures and a steady drizzle and you had a recipe for mud, metaphorically speaking.
“I think you have those two teams on that kind of field, it’s always going to be a little bit ugly,” Mertz said. “They had so much to play for, and they were pressing, so we had a hard time getting ahold of the ball in the first half. That’s something we have to be a little bit better at is putting our foot on it and dictating the tempo of the game on our terms, which we’re typically very good at.
“The second half, we grabbed the bull by the horns and (did) what we wanted in the game. I thought it was better, but we just didn’t have the goals.”
Mertz earned his 14th start out of 30 match appearances this season, but for the most part, the Hounds rolled out a lineup that aligned with what they’ve featured during this late-season run of success. The primary exception was keeper Jahmali Waite, still on international duty with Jamaica.
— 🛡️ – Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) October 14, 2023
“You can tell from the lineup we had, we were trying to keep the momentum going,” Mertz said.
In terms of keeping engaged emotionally, it helped the Hounds to be competing in front of the typically rowdy Keyworth Stadium congregation. Paced by the tireless (and profane) Northern Guard supporters’ group, no doubt Detroit City FC boasts one of the most energetic match atmospheres in American soccer.
The chant from the infamous Northern Guard supporters’ section: “Deee-troit City. Fuck you, Pittsburgh.” pic.twitter.com/2huoLhL219
— Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) (@MattGajtka) October 14, 2023
Just maybe not as loud as what the Hounds will be playing in front of in seven days.
“We knew it was going to be a good atmosphere, but not as good as Highmark next week,” Mertz said with a wry smile. “Keyworth is always great. Obviously they had so much to play for. We were up for the game. We just didn’t execute.”
As long as we’re looking ahead, there’ll be no room for lack of execution going forward. Mertz and Lilley made it clear they know the upcoming stakes, especially since they just watched their playoff foe muck up the match to such a degree.
“Playoff time, you could have that kind of game thrown at you, and you’re going to have to get ahold of the ball and implement your game,” Lilley said. “Today, we didn’t do a great job of that.”