By the time the smoke cleared, after most people left Highmark Stadium, and even following post match media interviews following Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s 1-0 playoff loss to Detroit City FC on Saturday night, the USL Championship’s leading goal scorer Albert Dikwa remained seated on the middle of the pitch, left pondering and absorbing the gut-wrenching disappointment from yet another early postseason exit.
On a damp, overcast evening on the Monongahela, the Hounds came up short, in a match where they ran into a scrappy, disciplined opponent that would not break.
Looking back at what Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley has referred to as his principles to be successful, or what we’ve referred to in this column as “Cornerstones of Lilleyball”, the Hounds were unable to meet their primary objectives.
Were the Hounds dynamic enough on the ball and in their attacking efforts?
No. Lilley admitted after the match, that the Hounds weren’t clinical enough in the final third, as they had enough moments and opportunities to break through, especially early in the match, but they didn’t make the most of those chances. Additionally, Pittsburgh couldn’t find magic on set pieces, as they have numerous times to pull out wins in close matches, with timely goals in the box. USL Championship’s leading goal scorer, Albert Dikwa, had a few shots during the contest, but two were blocked, another header went over the bar, and he didn’t get a shot on frame until the dying moments of stoppage time.
Did the Hounds give anything away to their opponents?
Much like Detroit, they didn’t give an inch for most of the night, but a header clearance from a corner kick didn’t bounce the way they needed it to, and Detroit capitalized.
Did the Hounds dictate terms of the match?
Not really, as it was Detroit who, as the match continued to drag on at 0-0, begin to believe more and more that they could win the match. Additionally, they couldn’t quite seize the match early and ride the momentum brought on by a record crowd and Steel Army chanting in support, as they had so many times this season.
As a result, the Hounds, who came into the postseason backed by a marketing slogan (including a cool video) using a ‘We Hunt As One’ theme , walked off the field instead haunted as one, left to ponder how could they fall short once again in the postseason.
It’s a question that the fans, the media, and everyone involved with the team, including Owner Tuffy Shallenberger and Bob Lilley, will have to contemplate during the offseason, especially after having such tremendous success all season long, setting themselves up to host every postseason match on home turf.
Sports, and soccer in particular, can be cruel.
A few bounces here and there, and suddenly things can shift.
According to FotMob.com, the Hounds had three big missed chances.
Detroit only created one significant chance the entire match, and they didn’t miss on it.
If there’s a trademark to what made the Hounds so successful in 2023, they always seemed to make the most of their big chances. On Saturday, Detroit FC’s veteran coach, Trevor James, potentially coaching in his final game (announced he’ll be moving over to full time General Manager duties next season) devised a game plan to limit Pittsburgh’s ability to play through the ground, and bottle up their short passes through the middle, while they looked to punish and pound Pittsburgh’s attempts through the air.
In some respect, it was as if DCFC flipped the script, by allowing the Hounds to control possession (they ended up with 58/42 possession edge), while DCFC were willing to absorb pressure and bank on the odds that the Hounds low passing accuracy rates would suffice. Sure enough, despite having more of the ball, the Hounds’ midfield and wingers were inconsistent in connecting passes, often with DCFC defenders and midfielders jumping in to disrupt passes and a taking fouls.
As Lilley stated after the match, Detroit ‘mucked it up’ and as a result, there were lots of collisions, lots of stoppage in play. It’s one thing to have the passing edge in a free-flowing, open-ended match. But that wasn’t the case in this playoff match. This kept Pittsburgh from getting into any kind of rhythm or even after restarts, to be able to create clear-cut dangerous moments.
Even in moments where Pittsburgh pass attempts were disrupted, Detroit were effective in matching one of the Hounds’ strengths all season — winning second balls and 50/50 encounters.
“We played them here, and lost 2-0, and didn’t have many chances,” Detroit City FC’s Dominic Gasso said.
“But when they came home (to play DCFC at Keyworth Stadium in the regular season finale), we knew we had to pick up the tempo to pick up second balls. Win the battles, and flick it on when we can.”
The first half was filled with moments where the Hounds came close, but couldn’t make the last pass connect on multiple occasions or they simply didn’t have the supporting numbers on runs into the box.
“We had a lot of good possessions in the first half, where we were in. But every cross got cut out, because we only hit the first ball into (Albert) Dikwa,” Lilley explained.
“To me, we needed other guys in the box. We needed to mix up our service. We weren’t clinical enough when we did get into good areas. We had a lot of balls in spaces where they were vulnerable, and we weren’t clinical enough in those moments. I think there were more chances for us to have.”
The Riverhounds have scored an early goal — before the 25th minute or earlier — in nearly half their matches this season. Detroit City FC are one of the better defensive sides in the USL Championship. Through the first 45 minutes, neither side conceded much, with five total shots taken, and Pittsburgh holding a 4-1 edge.
Lilley added that he felt that his players rushed in the moments they had in the box. Of the Hounds 13 shot attempts, 11 of them came inside the 18, meaning those numbers gave credence to Lilley’s assertation that despite Detroit’s solid defending, they were still getting into good areas.
“We rushed in some of those moments. We forced things. We just weren’t calm enough unfortunately,” the veteran coach pointed out.
With Pittsburgh’s inability to create more chances, Detroit would gain more momentum.
“The first 15 minutes were key for us,” Gasso said after the match in a meet up with the (all Pittsburgh) media in the Highmark Stadium suites.
“We talked about that in the dressing room. The fans were the fans. We knew they were going to be behind them. We had to start the first 15 (minutes) well, because if they scored in the first 15, the game could have gotten out of hand, and we could have ended up losing pretty bad.”
After the break, things got especially chippy.
In the 47th minute, players came together when Maxi Rodriguez put a challenge into Hounds goalkeeper Jahmali Waite in possession of the ball.
Rodriguez and Dikwa were carded in the ensuing melee, but things quickly settled down.
It really wasn’t pretty either way — and the match approached the 75th minute, neither side still had a shot on frame.
The match remained scoreless that late into the match, in a knockout, one-and-done tournament, meant that it was becoming very likely that one play could make the difference.
Sure enough, that one play came from the most unlikely of heroes.
For the second straight year, the Hounds’ postseason fate was sealed by a young player and former USL Academy product.
Gasso, a 20 year-old midfielder, who was signed to his first pro contract in the middle of the season after being with the squad as part of the Academy contract, made the most of his one chance, sending a ball through a crowded box, catching Hounds Jahmali Waite slightly off guard, for the match’s lone goal.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) October 22, 2023
“It was headed, and cleared out, and it came right to me,” Gasso said.
“As soon as it dropped to me, I hit it. I heard the ball, and I knew it was going to be a goal.”
It was Gasso’s first ever career goal.
“There’s no better way to get my first goal, than this,” Gasso added.
If Gasso could hear the ball in the midst and tension of that moment when facing the Paul Child Stand, he certainly could hear his teammates joy when mobbing him during the celebration, which left Highmark Stadium crowd in stunned silence.
“Anyone sitting in the stands at the 60th minute, (figured) it maybe (would come down to) one goal at that point,” Lilley said.
It was one of the Hounds’ most reliable players in the box, Danny Griffin, who bent down, then headed the initial ball away from danger, but it went to Gasso’s foot.
“We cleared the ball, but the player, hit great strike. It’s a young player, gets it on goal, and it goes through a lot of bodies.”
The Hounds had a little more than 10 minute to find the equalizer.
The pressure came, with more intent starting with more clear-cut service opportunities from the width.
On the night, Pittsburgh attempted 25 crosses, with five accurate attempts, as four of those came when pushing for the tying goal.
In stoppage time, the Black and Gold had two golden chances.
Steinwascher made the game’s most important play when Joe Farrell chipped a ball into the box and Dikwa rose to head it near the penalty spot. The Detroit goalie made a full-extension save to his left, pushing the ball out for a corner kick.
— Detroit City FC (@DetroitCityFC) October 22, 2023
The Hounds got one final chance on a cross from Tola Showunmi, and JC Obrégon rose in traffic to win the header, but his shot lofted just over the bar.
“I liked that we kept scratching and clawing,” Lilley said.
“To get two or three looks on the back end. Steinwascher, he is a capable keeper and made the one that (Albert) Dikwa put on frame.”
The Hounds ran out of time, and Detroit City FC exited Highmark Stadium with an upset win.
“Defensively, they’re probably the best team I’ve ever played. I respect them a lot. They’re very difficult to play against. Very dangerous when their strikers get on the ball,” Gasso said.
“We grew into the game, and we believed we could win.”
Lilley never questioned his players’ effort and willingness to fight to the last whistle while he also felt they came into the match prepared.
“We knew it would be tough game and we had the right intentions. It’s just hard. I think of the first half, and really limiting them. Thinking about how many times we got on the break, and normally we would execute. This year, we’ve been able to put that kind of pressure on, in those moments and been able to break teams, and Detroit hung in there.”
More on the Aftermath of Hounds Playoff Elimination
Lilley said that many players from this year’s roster should be back next year, but in this business, especially in the second division of pro soccer in the U.S., with limited contracts there are no guarantees.
“It’s a great group. We’ll hope to bring most of this group back, for sure. As many as we can. It’s guys that we can re-sign, and guys that we can pick up their (second year contract) options.
Thoughts running through the mind of players and coaching staff moments after such a devastating loss are often different, but Lilley stepped up to the mic, before the media and summed everything up about as eloquently as possible, as he often does, sharing everything with blatant honesty and candor, while expressing his emotion, empathy for his players who put in the work on the field and for the fans and all those with the organization who felt numb after the result.
On the field, this team’s success and accolades hit many new high water marks.
While they don’t need to be listed here, but for sake of this exercise, here are the primary accomplishments that showed that the 2023 campaign was a remarkable one for one of the remaining longstanding franchises in the U.S. soccer landscape.
- Attendance records were shattered in 2023, culminating with another huge crowd that packed Highmark Stadium for the playoff match, with 6,123 fans in attendance
- Won the USL Championship’s Players Shield for most points in the league in an arduous, 34-match season that included heavy East-West travel for every team in the league.
- Made an unprecedented, deepest run in club history in U.S. Open Cup, beating two MLS teams for first time in same tournament,
- Boasted the league’s top scoring tandem with Albert Dikwa and Kenardo Forbes, finishing at the top goal scorer, and co-assists leader, respectively.
- Defense was among the best — if not the best in the league — posting a league high 15 shutouts.
And yet, they failed to come through in the postseason yet again. Since Lilley took over, the Hounds are now 2-5 in postseason matches, losing two of those matches in penalty kick shootouts, another in Extra Time and another by forfeit due to COVID-19 positive cases.
Even if you look at their most exciting triumph in the postseason, they were seconds away from leaving Birmingham last year with a disappointing 1-0 loss.
It’s fair to say that October and early November has been a cruel time for the Riverhounds, who are haunted and still can’t seem to exorcise their postseason demons.
When asked about what his team’s greatest accomplishment this past season was — Lilley said it was winning the USL Championship regular season, stating that’s the hardest thing to do in the sport.
“It was a lot of people dialed in, month-after-month, day-after-day. When you’re in it. Everyone’s plugging away,” Lilley said, as he pounded his hand. “And your achieving those levels. You’re setting standards. Those standards we’ve set — take us to another place, and hopefully we’ll continue to do that. On the field, off the field. In the community. That’s really important for us to be successful long term.”
Pittsburgh Soccer Now will have more in the coming weeks, as the offseason begins now.
Among the players who will have contracts expire include Dikwa, Arturo Ordonez and Waite.
All three will likely have a chance to entertain potentially more lucrative offers than what the Hounds can match.
In all likelihood, a number of Riverhounds players and Coach Lilley will be earning honors from the league — as media completed its voting before the first whistle.