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Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Preview and Scouting Report: In battle of two sides still trying to find their way, winless Riverhounds face defending champs Phoenix Rising FC

Still looking for their first win of the season, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds take their second trip this season to the Southwest to face the USL Championship’s reigning Cup winners, Phoenix Rising FC, in a late-night tilt Saturday, at Phoenix Rising Stadium.

The primary storyline for the Hounds (0-3-2, 2 points) heading into this match is that five matches into the season, they remain without a win and have scored just one goal.

On the positive side, the Hounds have been in good form defensively, having pitched back-to-back shutouts in the past two matches, at home vs high scoring Tampa Bay and on the road, in shutting down Albert Dikwa and Rhode Island FC, last week.

On Friday, in the latest PSN analysis piece, I took a deeper dive into the Hounds’ inability to score and capitalize on their ‘Big Chances’ thus far this season.

Analysis: Struggling Riverhounds failing to convert on ‘big chances’ early in season

Head Coach Bob Lilley spoke a bit about this road trip after the team’s 0-0 result vs Tampa Bay.

“You know, we’ve got to retool now, hopefully build on this for next week because going to Phoenix is going to be cross country again,” Lilley said of their upcoming opposition.

“A talented team that has very good players and you know generally has a really strong home record. You know, they’re off to a bit of a slow start, a bit of a hangover from winning it. So, you know, the pressure is on them and right now we need wins. You know, they tied last night against Tulsa. 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. 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.”

Another ominous distinction for the Hounds of late is their poor record in Mountain and Pacific time zone matches.

Since the start of 2022, when the USL Championship began playing a 34-match regular season schedule with Eastern and Western Conference teams playing each other on a regular basis, the Riverhounds have yet to win a match on the road in Mountain and Western time zones.

That’s right — since the start of the 2022 season, Pittsburgh has traveled to Las Vegas, Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico (twice now), Sacramento, Colorado Springs, El Paso, Monterey Bay, Oakland, Orange County — and throwing in San Antonio for good measure.

In these 10 matches, Pittsburgh is 0-5-5.

The Hounds will have to find a way to pick up points on the road, starting Saturday in Phoenix.

Phoenix Rising: Closer Look

Despite being two of the perennial contenders in the Eastern and Western Conference, the Hounds and Phoenix have only met once the past decade.  Prior to that, the teams played a home-and-home series in 2014, which accounted for the Hounds’ only previous trip to Arizona.

Last season, the Rising came to Pittsburgh as an up-and-down team that were playing below expectations.  The Hounds, on a hot streak that was instrumental in winning the Players Shield for most points in the league for the season, would find a way to get its sixth straight win against an inconsistent, yet talented side, thanks to an Arturo Ordonez header, for the 1-0 win.

Pittsburgh finished the regular season strong in 2023, but fell in the first round of the USL Championship playoffs.

The Rising got hot in the playoffs, winning all four matches on the road, including defeating Eastern Conference Champions, Charleston, in a memorable match that went to a penalty kick shootout.

This season, Phoenix return a pretty strong roster — but as Pittsburgh soccer fans have learned — even having significant success at this level and a solid returning core doesn’t automatically mean they’ll jump right back into form that won them a title.

The first major change came when Head Coach Juan Guerra departed for an assistant coach job in Major League Soccer, with Houston.  Guerra had Danny Stone on his Rising staff last season, so Stone was a logical choice to be named head coach.  Through six matches, much like the Hounds this season, are the hunted.

Apart from the one outlier, a wild 3-3 draw with Tulsa, Phoenix’s other five matches have all been low-scoring, tight affairs. Each finishing with a 1-0 score — two wins and three losses — as the team is finding its footing with their new coach.

However, after losing three of its first four matches, the Rising appear to be in better form, on the attacking side, scoring three goals in a 3-3 draw with FC Tulsa two weeks ago, and then carrying that over into a 1-0 win vs a struggling Colorado Springs Switchbacks squad last week.  In that match, the Rising completely dominated the match, outshooting Colorado Springs, 21-4 (8-1 on target), owning the possession battle, but Stenberg broke through for Rising in the 71st minute after a corner kick was hammered back into the box by Zambrano. The loose ball fell to Swedish midfielder John Stenberg, who hammered a shot into the top corner of the goal from close range to give Phoenix the 1-0 win.

The core group from the USL Cup winning side who have returned include forwards Dariusz Formella and Erickson Gallardo, with Formella as the top returning goal scorer from last season (12). Six midfielders, including Stenberg, Panos Armenakas, who was acquired midseason from Loudoun United, and his five goals from last year are also back. Rocco Rios Novo returns to mind the net at goalkeeper after shining in last postseason. Stone signed and inherited a number of players the Hounds are familiar with from the Eastern Conference, including Rios Novo (Atlanta United 2), play making Armenekas (Loudoun United). versatile defender/midfielder Laurence Wyke (Tampa Bay Rowdies, Atlanta),  and defender Edgardo Rito (New York Red Bulls II, Hartford Athletic), to name a few.

A player that the Hounds may want to keep an eye out for will be former Colorado Rapids’ and LA Galaxy forward, Remi Cabral, a 24-year-old Frenchman who has started the past two matches, leads the Rising with two goals this season, both coming in the wild, 3-3 draw vs Tulsa.

How the Rising Lined Up vs Colorado Springs Last Week

Projected Riverhounds Lineup vs Phoenix

Don’t expect too many changes to personnel in the course of the next three league matches, especially as they still are not reporting any injuries.

Head Coach Bob Lilley may switch things up again at the target forward spot, as it appears that Babacar Diene (started first three matches) and Kazaiah Sterling (started last two), have yet to break through in terms of scoring goals.

With the US Open Cup mid-week match now slated for either May 7 vs FC Tulsa, Lilley and his coaching staff may be looking forward to geting more players some much needed extended playing time when dealing with three matches in a seven day stretch — when that comes.

All of the Hounds’ field players on the roster have made at least one appearance this season, but only 13 have made starts.

The defensive core appears stabilized for the time being, as they’re coming off a pair of shutouts, so that group should remain intact, along with goalkeeper Eric Dick, who has been solid this season.

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Match Details

Riverhounds (0-3-2) at Phoenix Rising FC (2-3-1)
Date: Saturday, April 20
Time: 10:30 p.m.
Location: Phoenix Rising Soccer Stadium, Phoenix, Ariz.
Odds: Hounds +300 / Draw +240 / Phoenix -115
TV: SportsNet Pittsburgh
Streaming: ESPN+
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #PHXvPIT 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).

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