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Preview: Sizing up Riverhounds’ mile-high challenge in season opener at New Mexico

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds will kick off their 2024 campaign on Saturday afternoon in the Land of Enchantment, in Albuquerque, New Mexico when they take on New Mexico United at Isotopes Park.

As the case for many early season matches, especially the opener, both clubs still are learning a lot about themselves, so there may be an extra feeling out process once the ball is kicked off for the first time.

The good news for the Hounds, they’re currently not reporting any injuries, which means veteran Head Coach Bob Lilley should have access to the current full 23 player roster to prepare his 18 players on the lineup card and the starting 11.

“They’ve been working hard, I think they know the real thing is are coming,” Lilley told Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s Matthew Baldwin on Thursday.

“There’s a certain level of excitement in the group, but we’ve got to be clear-headed enough and composed enough to make good decisions. We’re not gonna go to New Mexico and win just with effort”

The Hounds bring back 11 players from last season’s Players Shield winning squad, building around that with additional group of players who were mostly signed ahead of the preseason, with four trialists earning contracts this week.

At the heart of the club will once again be, 35 year-old Kenardo Forbes, the USL Championship’s all-time leader in assists, who will likely continue to be slotted into the role as pace setter and creator.

Forbes told Pittsburgh Soccer Now on Thursday in the team’s final training before traveling to New Mexico, that he feels very good about this year’s group.

“We came into camp with like 17 signed players, so that’s always a good thing. Over the years, there’s always been like 11 trialists coming in, so we always have guys going in and out over preseason, but this year it’s been constant because we had like 17 players signed already.”

But the Hounds are a club with a strong core group of veterans who bring numerous credentials and versatility to the table, including Pittsburgh-area native Robbie Mertz, Junior Etou, Dani Rovira and Danny Griffin, who was named as team captain this preseason.

Danny Griffin named Riverhounds’ captain plus more fun facts ahead of 2024 season opener

With the club traveling on Friday, the Hounds will have 24 hours to get acclimated to the climate.  While weather is not expected to be a major factor with sunny skies and temperatures in the 50s predicted in Albuquerque — they’ll have their fitness tested by the mile-high altitude at Isotopes Park, the second-highest stadium in the league behind Colorado Springs’ Widener Field.

New Mexico Adjusting to Former MLS Player Eric Quill’s Leadership

Halfway through the 2023 campaign, New Mexico made a coaching change, bringing in Eric Quill, who made some steady improvements that saw the club earn a Western Conference playoff spot.

Still, with a full offseason to build a squad in his likeness, this season should be one with a lot of change for United.

As a coach, just like his opponent this week, Bob Lilley, Quill’s won a championship at the Third Division level, leading North Texas SC to the USL League One title in 2019.  Quill has also served as an assistant with Columbus Crew.

“There were some tough goodbyes in the off-season. There were some guys who had been here for a while and its always tough to do that,” said Quill during media day this preseason.

“We felt like we wanted to get some new blood in here and tried to bring in some players whose profiles we feel represent the values of New Mexico.”

In an offseason with a number of moves, you never know just how things will pan out as players learn to work together, but Quill is optimistic.

“I’m really pleased with how things have gone in a short amount of time. I think this group is going to be fun to watch. They’re very fast and technical. Now it’s just a matter of getting them to gel and play the way we want them to.”

For those unfamiliar with the USL Championship, it features 24 professional soccer teams divided into two conferences – Eastern and Western. Each team plays a 34-game regular season schedule, facing conference opponents twice and out-of-conference teams once. The top eight teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs, culminating in a single-elimination tournament to determine the USL champion.

You don’t have to look too far back to see the last time the Hounds faced this Western Conference foe, as the teams faced off against each other late last season, with Pittsburgh pulling out a 2-1 victory, thanks in part to a pair of Kenardo Forbes’ corner kicks that resulted in goals credited to a pair of center backs who are no longer with the club (Arturo Ordonez and Joe Farrell).

Takeaways: Forbes’ splendid corners power Riverhounds past New Mexico, 2-1, to keep firm grip on first place

New Mexico is bringing in its share of new players, including goal scorer Marco Micaletto from Columbus Crew 2 and physical midfielder Nanan Houssou from Loudoun United FC, though the latter of those will miss tomorrow’s opener through suspension.

They do have their own veteran pieces, including goalkeeper Alex Tambakis and midfielder creator Sergio Rivas.  Interestingly, the United did sign former Penn State keeper, Kris Shakes, to be Tambakis’ understudy.

This is also a club that will rely on a few 32 year-old veterans in the center of the field, with defensive midfielder, Will Seymore  and center back Kalen Ryden, who will each be instrumental in helping a young squad with many new players adjust to playing under Quill and round into form.

Ryden, a former USL Cup winner, said at the same media day event that he’s excited about returning to the ABQ and to having a leadership role with this year’s group.

“I’m extremely excited to be wearing this badge again. The team has bonded a lot here in the preseason and I can’t wait to see how things go. Eric has his identity of what he wants and the guys who are back have a clear idea of who we are and who we’re going to be this year.”

Sizing Up the Match-Up: Pittsburgh Riverhounds vs New Mexico United

In late September, following a familiar formula from success they had in 2023, the Hounds let New Mexico try to play out of the back, but both sides looked to punish each other trying to get behind the other’s back lines in a physical first 20-plus minutes, with each side conceding a half dozen fouls and set pieces.

The home side made the most of the first two corner kicks they were awarded in short order.

It was evident in the preseason, the Hounds under Bob Lilley will continue to always look to press.  On the pitch at Isotopes’ Field, Pittsburgh will likely try to use those dimensions to their advantage.

It’s very likely, with a deep and experienced midfield, Lilley will throw some different wrinkles at New Mexico, as they will try to stay on the front foot.  Former Pitt midfielder, Jackson Walti played a good share of minutes in the preseason alongside veterans in the central midfield, while Etou, Rovira and Biasi alternated at wide outside back spots.

It wouldn’t be any surprise to see Griffin, who often most comfortable deep in the Hounds’ formation, to be playing between center backs at times or even moving all the way up to the top of the midfield line, where he made an impact when he first returned to the club.

Throughout the preseason, Pittsburgh used first-year pro, 27 year-old Babacar Diene as the top striker, while former Pitt standout, and third-year Hound, Edward Kizza working along the top and underneath as a forward.

The most fascinating of Pittsburgh’s new player signings may have come this week, when the club made it official that Kazaiah Sterling was inked to a deal to play for the Hounds.  Many eyes throughout the league may be on the 25 year-old former Tottenham Hotspur product who had excelled in USL League One with South Georgia — becoming that franchise’s all-time leading goal scorer in two seasons.

Hounds add standout Tormenta forward Kazaiah Sterling

Projected Starting XI / Hounds Numerical Roster

This may be the toughest starting eleven projection of the season, but since this has been a regular feature in our match previews, here’s our best attempt at what we think that the Hounds lineup will look like on Saturday afternoon in the ABQ.

1 Eric Dick GK
2 Danny Griffin M
3 Pat Hogan D
4 Dani Rovira D
5 Sean Suber D
7 Langston Blackstock F
8 Junior Etou M
9 Emmanuel Johnson F
10 Aidan O’Toole M
11 Kenardo Forbes M
12 Gabriel Perrotta GK
13 Luke Biasi D
14 Robbie Mertz M
15 Bradley Sample M
17 Nate Dragisich M
19 Edward Kizza F
22 Jake Lent-Koop D
23 Mike DeShields D
27 Babacar Diene F
28 Illal Osumanu D
31 Jacob Randolph GK
42 Jackson Walti M 5’9”
44 Pierre Cayet D 6’0”
45 Kazaiah Sterling F

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Match Info

Riverhounds vs. New Mexico United

Date: Saturday, March 9
Time: 4 p.m.
Location: Isotopes Park, Albuquerque, N.M.
Odds: Hounds +200 / Draw +240 / New Mexico +110 (FanDuel)
TV: KDKA+
Streaming: ESPN+
Radio: SiriusXM FC, Channel 157
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #NMvPIT and #HOUNDTAHN

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).

Glory on the Grass

Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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