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Preview: Riverhounds face wicked challenge vs Albert Dikwa, Marc Ybarra and expansion Rhode Island FC

Photo courtesy Rhode Island FC

An inauspicious start to the 2024 campaign will find very interesting next chapter for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on Saturday when they head to New England to face the newest addition to the USL Championship, Rhode Island FC, in a match that will be played on the campus of Bryant University.

Looking across the field, they’ll find a couple of very familiar faces, as two key players from the 2022 and 2023 Riverhounds, Albert Dikwa and Marc Ybarra, will be lacing it up for the home side.

It is the first-ever meeting between the clubs and just the third home game in Rhode Island’s history.

The Hounds head into this match without any players on the team’s injury report.

It will also be a homecoming for Hounds’ captain Danny Griffin, who grew up in Connecticut, and attended Providence College .

Rhode Island FC: A Closer Look

When hiring its first Head Coach, the ownership group, turned to Khano Smith, a former player for the New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls and a past captain of the Bermuda National Team. Smith was most recently an assistant with Birmingham Legion FC, and previously had been an assistant with NWSL’s Orlando Pride, where he first forged a relationship with Albert Dikwa, when Cameroonian forward was still a teen, playing with Orlando City B.

Under Smith’s direction, RIFC were willing to open things up early in the season, drawing both their home matches thus far at their temporary home. (The team will move into a permanent stadium of its own in Pawtucket in 2025).

Dikwa, who left after four seasons in Pittsburgh via free agency in the offseason, is the primary threat at the top of the attack for RIFC.

Former Riverhounds scoring leader Albert Dikwa remains in top form with new Rhode Island FC ‘family’

In fact, the reigning league Player of the Year is the only Rhode Island player to have scored so far this season with three goals to his name; the team’s other goal to date was an own goal in the opener.

Ybarra, who emerged as a regular starter in his second season in Pittsburgh last year, has also been a regular for Rhode Island.  Ybarra played in over 65 matches across two seasons for 2023 USL Championship Players’ Shield winning Riverhounds, including appearing in all 34 league matches for the Riverhounds in 2023. The midfielder played collegiately at the University of Michigan where he is is second in all-time assists for the Wolverines.

Fellow midfielder Conor McGlynn, who went to Rhode Island in the offseason from Hartford, is suspended for the match after being sent off against Charleston last week, so Ybarra will be looked to win the battle in the center of the pitch against his former teammates.  Ybarra may have had his best performance (7.0 rating on FotMob) of the season last week in 0-0 draw vs Charleston, creating one chance, posting 84% passing accuracy, with eight passes into the final third along with five defensive actions and five recoveries.

Here’s how Rhode Island lined up last week against Charleston

USL Championship’s 2023 runner-up. It was a marked defensive improvement for the new club, which earned a point after a lopsided, 4-1 loss the previous week. For a team that gave up seven goals in its first three matches, a clean sheet against an unbeaten opponent showed that some development on the defensive side.

Keep in mind, McGlynn, brother of Philadelphia Union’s Jack McGlynn, will have to sit out this match due to last week’s red card.

Goalkeeper Jackson Lee played a major role in the defensive effort, making a career-high six saves in his second professional start.

Hounds Looking to Build Upon Improved Performance vs Tampa Bay

Following an encouraging performance last week at home against Tampa Bay, which ended in a scoreless draw, the Hounds (0-3-1, 1 point) will have their full squad to select from, as they seek their first win of the season.

The team posted its first clean sheet of the season with the trio of Luke Biasi, Pat Hogan and Illal Osumanu being utilized as a starting group for the first time, while goalkeeper Eric Dick was awarded a bench spot on the USL Championship Team of the Week for a two-save clean sheet that included a key free kick stop in the 83rd minute.

Kazaiah Sterling and Langston Blackstock joined Hogan in making their first starts of the season against Tampa Bay, and both played a role in the Hounds creating the bulk of the scoring chances in the match. Sterling on multiple occasions made runs into the box that freed space for Edward Kizza and trailing midfielders like Robbie Mertz, while Blackstock delivered five crosses and had 77 touches on the ball — both team highs — while working the right flank from the wing back position.

The Hounds have been slow starters on the road in defeats at New Mexico and Louisville, so keeping the momentum of last week going will be important with the match in Rhode Island being the first of back-to-back road games.

Lilley believes that the results will take care of themselves, as long as his squad keeps pushing forward.

“Those of us at the at the south end of the table are trying to get wins, not draws. So you know there there will be a lot at stake next week,” Lilley said after the Tampa Bay match, eyeing the road encounter at Rhode Island.

“You’re on the road, so I mean it’s not going to be easy and we’re going to have to hopefully have another strong performance. It’s a process. I mean, if we keep playing well and growing. I think the results will take care of themselves.”

John K’s Projected Hounds Lineup vs Rhode Island

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Match Details

Riverhounds (0-3-1) at Rhode Island FC (0-1-3)
Date: Saturday, April 13
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: Beirne Stadium, Smithfield, R.I.
Odds: Hounds +185 / Draw +220 / Rhode Island +135 (FanDuel)
TV: KDKA+
Streaming: ESPN+
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #RIvPIT 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

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