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Preview: Can Riverhounds break Detroit City FC in rematch of bitter playoff loss?

With their first win in the books, the Riverhounds have been training this week in preparation to face the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season, Detroit City FC.

The clash will come Saturday night (7 p.m. kickoff) at Highmark Stadium, in the Hounds’ third home match of the season.

Detroit City FC proved to be a difficult side for the Hounds’  to break last season.

After completing a Players Shield winning regular season, Pittsburgh couldn’t solve a scrappy, disciplined (and desperate) Detroit side in back-to-back matches — first in the regular season finale that played to an ugly scoreless draw, then in the USL Championship Eastern Conference Quarterfinal match, the Hounds were stunned in a match where they couldn’t seize on their chances, and would lose 1-0.

Turning the page to this season, DCFC have raced to the top of the standings early in the season, as they’re only team remaining in the Eastern Conference without a loss or a draw in league play (5-0-0, 15 points).

“We’re at home, so we need to get the full three points,” Danny Griffin, Riverhounds midfielder and team captain, told PSN in an exclusive interview on Friday, talking about this rematch with Detroit City.

“Anything less than three points is a loss to us.  We’re going to go out and attack the game. We have a game plan. We’re confident in our group and ability to get the job done.”

Detroit is off to its flying start under a new head coach: Danny Dichio. The former Premier League striker took over for veteran boss Trevor James, who now serves as the club’s Sporting Director, and their team has shown a knack for squeaking out wins with four one-goal victories in those first five.

Tight, low-scoring matches also are par for the course when the Hounds meet Detroit; the teams have met five times (seven, counting preseason meeting) and have never combined for more than two goals in a match.

While the leader on the bench is new for the visitors, the stars on the front and back are familiar faces, with 2023 Goalkeeper of the Year finalist Nathan Steinwascher in Detroit.

“They’re similar personnel, some new faces, but they’re a team that always competes. They’re physical. They’ll make the game ugly at times. They have quality players that can pick you apart, pass well.  With a good start, they’ve grown in their confidence and belief in their group.  Yeah, 5-and-0-and-0 is good, but we’re looking forward to ending that.”

Last Saturday, Le Rouge won it’s fifth straight match to start the season in a 3-1 win over Oakland Roots SC at Keyworth Stadium, with goals from Ben Morris, Maxi Rodriguez and Victor Bezerra.

Much like Bob Lilley has done with building his roster — Trevor James has crafted a roster of  players who fit well within the system of play, organizational culture and are very much an integral part of the identity they’ve built in Detroit.  While it was a challenge for them to score goals in bunches a year ago, this season, they’ve become more dynamic on the attacking front, with 10 goals this season  which is tied for seventh in the league along with boasting second best goal conversion rate of 21%),. They’re also among the best on defense, with only four goals conceded, tied for the least amount in the league with Sacramento.

Since coming on the scene with Detroit, Rodriguez has been a key creator and go-to-guy in the attack for Le Rouge, and he’s off to a great start this season, with three goals and two assists in five appearances. He also has 10 shots and seven shots on goal.

DCFC have veteran players who’ve been part of the club through their ascension from NPSL, then NISA and now have been thriving at this level, namely, Abdoulaye Diop, who came up with Orlando City SC, center back pairing of Irishman Stephen Carroll and Devon Amoo-Mensah, who was named DCFC’s Players’ Player of the Year in 2023.

Diop works very well in the central midfield, often in a double-pivot, Rodriguez in the middle of the park.

The latter two along with Steinwascher, have helped Detroit’s defense keep the ball out of the net, causing problems for the attack as teams face Le Rouge.

Here’s How DCFC Lined Up Last Week vs Oakland Roots 

Facing the Hounds at Highmark though — despite the disparity in the team’s records and performance thus far this season –might be a step up in competition for DCFC.

While they’ve had more early season struggles, Pittsburgh has clearly played the more difficult schedule.

DCFC’s road wins have come against lowly Colorado Springs and Indy Eleven, two other clubs who have struggled early this season, and have edged out wins at home against Loudoun United, North Carolina FC then last week’s impressive output vs Oakland Roots.

The Hounds on the other hand have made two Western trips already this season, and every match, except on the road vs Rhode Island, has been against perennial playoff teams who are sitting at nor near the top of the standings with double-digit point totals.

For the first time all season, the Hounds made more drastic tactical adjustments and went with two new starters (Bradley Sample and Sean Suber) in their exhilarating 3-1 road win at defending champions Phoenix last Saturday.

Now, facing a team that will sit deep and make things difficult, Head Coach Bob Lilley and his troops are preparing for another dogfight, but, as Griffin confirmed on Friday, they will look to go on the attack.

The Hounds head into this contest with some momentum from a road win that finally saw their attack get going, with the three forwards, Edward Kizza, Kazaiah Sterling and Babacar Diene getting elusive goals and making the most of their chances.

With two more players with starts under their belts — the Hounds won’t hesitate to pull from all parts of the competitive roster when it comes to lineup selections and they’ll have a game plan that will look to break down a very tough opponent.

“Maybe the first two games, we didn’t change as much (tactically) as we’ve done in the past. I think guys know they’re going to get opportunities, and they’re going to have to step up when they get them — and I think guys have,” Griffin added.

“We are confident in our ability to change formations, change tactics and move pieces around. You know the coaching staff is going to do their homework, so there’s going to be a game plan or a little wrinkle in how we’re going to play, depending on the team.”

John K’s Projected Riverhounds Starting XI

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Match info

Riverhounds (1-3-2) vs. Detroit City FC (5-0-0)
Date: Saturday, April 27
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Tickets: Ticketmaster
Odds: Hounds +125 / Draw +240 / Detroit +180 (FanDuel)
TV: KDKA+
Streaming: ESPN+
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #PITvDET 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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