It took a while for Robbie Mertz to make his way to the Riverhounds SC locker room after Saturday’s gritty 0-0 draw at Detroit City FC, a result that set up an Eastern Conference quarterfinal rematch between the clubs this upcoming weekend.
You’ll have to excuse Mertz, considering his local connections as a former University of Michigan standout. Turns out more than a few folks swung by Keyworth Stadium to watch him do his thing in person again, and Mertz was happy to say hello to every last one of them before hitting the showers.
He was also happy (I think) to linger for a moment under the ancient concrete grandstand to chat with this reporter about where the Hounds stand entering their sixth straight playoff adventure.
Of course, where they stand literally is atop the USL Championship table, winners of a regular-season league title for the first time in 24 years of team history. But life as a favorite in pro sports can be treacherous — just watch the MLB postseason for evidence of that! — and that is especially true for single-elimination tournaments.
As it turns out, all the Hounds could do over the past month was try to keep their standards high as they awaited the playoffs. Their 6-0-2 run over the past several weeks speaks well to that effort, as does their 16-8 goal differential over that span.
“It’s been really good,” Mertz said. “I think we’ve figured out some things tactically, with the formation we’re playing and where the (opponents’) pressure is coming from. Everyone’s been really disciplined.”
Mertz singled out the team’s performance at Tampa Bay two weeks ago, the 2-0 victory that clinched the Players’ Shield, as particularly airtight. Considering that was the final tangible thing the Hounds could play for before this week, that bodes well for how they’ll react when the lights get really bright.
So does the team’s form over the past two months.
“There were teams that had a lot more to play for (than us) the last seven or eight games,” coach Bob Lilley reminded me after the Detroit draw. “We knew we were going to get in. We did a good job of handling them. Teams that were up for the fight and wanting to get in, they couldn’t beat us because our standards stayed high.”
Mertz’s role in all of this is interesting.
Saturday marked his first start in six matches and just his third in the Hounds’ past 12 outings. The 26-year-old still amassed 30 appearances this season and appears to be his usual, dynamic self, but the Hounds have gone with fellow Wolverines alum Marc Ybarra alongside veterans Danny Griffin and Kenardo Forbes in the starting central midfield as of late.
There’s also the fact that Mertz is the hometown hero out of Upper St. Clair who returned to the club last summer after a two-season stint with Atlanta United 2. Although he’s struggled to finish this year, scoring just twice, he has an extensive track record at this level, with 18 goals and 22 assists in 134 USL Championship appearances. Mertz also frequently wore the captain’s armband with Atlanta.
He acknowledged the potential for tension in our chat, but quickly reiterated his desire to be a team player.
“It’s a little bit different for me,” Mertz said. “The role I’m in at the moment is, you know, a product of the team we have. The way we’re setting up to play, I’m sort of the odd man out.
“As far as where my game is at, I’m actually really, really happy with it. From the perspective of helping the team, that’s what I’ve been 100 percent dedicated to.”
Mertz went on to laud this year’s team chemistry, which he believes to be the best he’s ever seen. The 2023 Hounds tied the 2019 team (Mertz’s first Pittsburgh season) with 19 victories, and finished second in franchise history in points with 67, one shy of the ’19 squad.
“This is a group that’s very special in the locker room, one that I don’t know I’ve ever been around, including college,” Mertz said. “It’s a really close-knit group of guys and that’s something that’s extremely special on that side of things.
Speaking of 2019, that was the last time the Hounds enjoyed a home playoff game. They played two that year, you’ll recall, smoking Birmingham Legion, 7-0, in the East quarters before falling in extra time to Louisville City FC in the East semis.
Since then, the Hounds have gone 0-1-2 in the postseason, all on the road. They split a pair of shootout results last year and fell at Louisville after the shortened 2020 season. (Their 2021 playoff game was forfeited due to COVID-19 infections.)
It’s anybody’s guess how the Hounds’ recent form will translate to Saturday against a physical Detroit squad, but for Lilley, they’ve done all they can up to this point. Most notable among those accomplishments: The league has to come through Highmark Stadium as long as the Hounds are still howling this autumn.
“I just know we’re nine wins, a loss and two draws in our last 12, so our form’s been good,” said the Hounds’ sixth-year bench boss. “Disappointing to get a tie (at Detroit), but it’s on the road and a tough place to play. Our job is to have a good week of training and be ready next week to play a good game in front of our home crowd. Make sure we’re ready to play that game.”
Mertz hinted that his recent substitute role “might not be indicative” of how he’ll be deployed in the playoffs, but he’s one Hound who certainly can appreciate the opportunity in front of this year’s club.
“We’re not going to throw that away lightly,” he said. “We want to take advantage of it and take it all the way if we can.”