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Preview and Scouting Report: Riverhounds face veteran-laden North Carolina FC for first time since 2019

Photo courtesy North Carolina FC

With more than a quarter of the season played, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, who are riding six-match unbeaten streak, are starting to show signs that even when they’re not at their best or putting in a full 90 minute performance, they’re still going to be a tough side to beat for the rest of the season as the Eastern Conference race intensifies.

The Hounds (3-3-3, 12 points) will look to extend their unbeaten streak vs North Carolina FC when they return home on Saturday. (7 pm kickoff).   PSN’s coverage team will include Pittsburgh Sports Now’s Griffin Floyd and photographer Ed Thompson.

It will be the first time these two clubs since North Carolina was last in USL Championship, in 2019 — having been separated by pandemic-induced realignment in 2020, then North Carolina’s three-year stint in USL League One from 2021-23. The all-time series between NCFC and the Riverhounds is tied at two wins a piece, with the last meeting being one that Bob Lilley and current long time Hounds Dani Rovira, Robbie Mertz and Kenardo Forbes who were with the team at the time — would probably like to forget.  In a quick turnaround match after playing a very late, rain-delayed 4th of July match in Pittsburgh a few nights earlier, the Hounds were pummeled  5-0 (!!!!) in what was the worst loss for the Hounds in the Bob Lilley era. Hounds defender Thomas Vancaeyezeele was sent off early in that match. Dre Fortune and Donovan Ewolo both bagged braces, while Robert Kristo added the fifth and final goal in that game.

The home team has won all four meetings between the two.

Once again, heading into this match, the Hounds appear a mostly healthy squad, with one player on the injury report:  first year defender Jake-Kent Loop (questionable – knee).

PSN’s Hounds’ content from the past week, including:

Closer Look at North Carolina FC

Much like the Hounds, one of the things that ails North Carolina is they’re also is looking for consistent finishing in their first year back in the Championship after three years and a 2023 title in USL League One.

Entering his fourth season as Head Coach and now added Sporting Director to his responsibilities, John Bradford is another former assistant who has done well with his opportunity after promotion.  He served as NCFC’s assistant coach for two seasons and director of the North Carolina FC Youth Academy up until his promotion to Sporting Director.

An interesting tid-bit — at age 40 in 2020 season — due to roster issues, Bradford signed his first professional contract as a player and was added to the NCFC roster.  A true product of Carolina soccer, as a Winston-Salem native, Bradford played collegiately at Furman University.

In leading NCFC to its first league title in 2023, Bradford orchestrated a worst-to-first turnaround in the team’s final season in USL League One.

Heading into their first season back in USL Championship Bradford has a roster with a lot of veterans.  You could say they’ve replaced The Miami FC as ‘that team’ with handful of players who’ve been through their share of battles at this level.  In fact, they have a few former The Miami players after that club cleaned house in the off season, and also a few more from San Diego Loyal franchise that no longer exists.

The question is — how can this group come together and gel — and compete at this higher level against the likes of teams like Charleston, Louisville, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh.  Thus far, it’s been a mixed bag, as NCFC sport a 2-4-4 record.

Where the struggle has come is in scoring goals.  The team has 10 goals in its first 10 games back in the Championship and has yet to get a result on the road in three attempts, but they are coming off their second win of the season after beating Loudoun United FC, 2-0, on Tuesday night in Cary, N.C.

Watching the match against Loudoun, NCFC were on the front foot the entire time (outshooting Loudoun 22-5) — but time after time — even after taking a 1-0 lead early in the first half — they couldn’t convert on numerous chances.  Very late in an extended stoppage time period of that match (11 minutes were added on!!), did former Hound outside back Ezra Armstrong come through to slide a shot from the left edge of box into goal to the two-goal advantage.

Believe it or not — NCFC’s top two scorers this season are a pair of former Hounds with two goals each — Louis Pérez and Armstrong — and they also have a dangerous veteran in Brazilian striker Rodrigo da Costa, who has scored against the Hounds as a member of both FC Tulsa and Memphis 901 FC.

There’s also another set of familiar faces on NCFC side on the back line.  Former Pitt standout center back Bryce Washington has anchored the middle spot on the back line.   Another veteran who’s been in his share of battles with Pittsburgh, none other than Paco Craig is there alongside Washington, wearing the captain’s armband for his new club.  The 31 year-old USL Championship veteran center back was a key piece of Louisville City’s impressive teams from 2016-2020, then moved on the past three seasons, leading a veteran group with The Miami FC.  Craig logged more than 7,800 minutes for both clubs!

Craig’s been indispensable for this club on the back line, which has been primarily a 3-man alignment (in a 3-4-3) as they were tough the other night in Cary vs Loudoun, when they allowed just one shot on target. NCFC’s defense has been the foundation for success this season, with the team allowing the least shots on target in the league with just 22 in 10 games.  Jake McGuire, who along with Craig, came over from The Miami FC, and has also played in his share of matches vs Pittsburgh over the years, has been getting the majority of starts in goal for NCFC.

The native of London, England has been known to be very dangerous when he gets forward, scoring some timely goals over the years.   On Tuesday, he was at it again, opening the scoring with a stunning volley on the half turn, redirecting a cross from Rafa Mentzingen goalward for his first goal in an NCFC shirt.

Other players to watch include Evan Conway, who moved to NCFC from now defunct San Diego Loyal where he scored 19 goals in two seasons.  His recent return from injury has added a spark to the NCFC offense. He created three chances Tuesday, matching Mentzingen for a team high.

Another well-traveled veteran, who had extended stints with DC United and Minnesota United in MLS, Collin Martin came over to NCFC from San Diego, where he spent the past four seasons.  Martin surpassed 10,000 USL Championship minutes in Tuesday’s win, with the latest 850 minutes of that milestone coming with NCFC this season.

Always a tough midfielder to contend with, Raheem Somersall will be on milestone watch this weekend as his next appearance will be his 100th in USL regular season play.

Expect some level of squad rotation and subs being used, being that NCFC played vs Loudoun on Tuesday, but will have a week’s rest after.

Here’s how they lined up on Tuesday vs Loudoun.

Projected Hounds Lineup / Matchups

The Hounds will look to pressure the back line and try to rattle Washington, Craig and former Clemson Tiger Justin Malou — or whoever else Bradford puts back there.  The Hounds will look to neutralize and limit Mentzingen and Armstrong from operating in space and look to deny and keep their touches out on the fringe.

As they typically do, the Hounds will look to come up with the best possible tactical match-ups and formation to not only punish NCFC, but also dictate terms of the match in terms of quality possession and creating more consistent chances.

There’s still no hiding from the fact that the Hounds are still lagging behind in terms of their ability to convert on chances, as they’re second to last in the league in Big Chances Missed (with 17 according to FotMob).  They’re also second to league and conference leading Charleston in touches in the box, with 232, which means they’re getting balls deep into the attacking third, but not making enough with those moments.

Last week, Lilley, somewhat surprisingly, kept his target forwards (Kazaiah Sterling and Babacar Diene) on the bench to start the match, opting to go with the efficient Edward Kizza at the top of a 4-2-3-1 formation. Sterling came through off the pine though with the equalizer at Tulsa — scoring a now team-leading third goal.

Pittsburgh could also quickly revert back to a 5-3-2 formation as well, but Lilley has been trying to keep the center midfield pairing of captain Danny Griffin and newcomer Bradley Sample intact, while letting Kenardo Forbes and Robbie Mertz push higher into more creative and playmaking roles.

Versatility has been key for the Hounds.  Junior Etou has been a prime example of a player that Lilley can’t keep out of the lineup because he brings solid two-way play as he’s an absolute terror for opposing units on the left side whether he’s an outside back in five man back line or as an attacking winger in 4-2-3-1.  Etou has remarkably drawn three penalty kick opportunities for the Hounds this season (coming in the past five matches — and the Hounds three PK chances are tied for best in league).  But, the veteran Etou can also get back, scrap and defend — and will look to battle Mentzingen in what should be great battle on that side of the pitch.  A

Another fascinating question for Pittsburgh — who gets the nod in goal?

Former Marshall Thundering Herd standout Gabe Perrotta has made the last two starts, while veteran keeper Eric Dick started every match up through the Hounds 1-0 win vs The Miami FC two weeks ago.  Lilley and goalkeepers coach Jon Busch have fostered a bit of competition between the keepers, and that can’t be a bad thing. Perrotta had quite an eventful match at Tulsa, showing his dynamic ability, by saving a penalty kick (earning USLC Save of the Week), nearly saving another but was also responsible for the second penalty.

Lilley acknowledged that changes are certainly going to keep coming as his squad is barely 10 matches into a 34-game marathon of a season — and competition is fierce for playing time.

With that in mind, here’s our projected XI for Saturday night.

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Match info

Riverhounds (3-3-3) vs. North Carolina FC (2-4-4)
Date: Saturday, May 18
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Tickets: Ticketmaster
Odds: Not available
TV: KDKA+
Streaming: ESPN+
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #PITvNC 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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Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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