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Preview: Riverhounds face rejuvenated and red-hot Memphis 901 FC led by Brazilian connection

Photo courtesy Memphis 901 FC

The Riverhounds hit the road once again, as they travel to Memphis to take on a team that has been a regular Eastern Conference opponent since 2018, but have since switched over to the USL Championship’s Western Conference for this season.

Since the teams began playing against each other in 2018, the Hounds have dominated the series, including a 3-0-0 record in Memphis, with an impressive goal difference of 7-1.  Last season, Pittsburgh came away with a pair of victories vs Memphis, including a 3-0 road win and 4-2 home triumph.

The teams will face each other on Saturday night (8:30 p.m. ET), each sitting on 13 points and meddling at the edge of the playoff line in their respective conferences.

The Hounds put in a pretty standard week of training, and will head to Tennessee on Friday as a team without a loss in their last seven league matches, with the last two results ending in disappointing draws.

The squad’s injury report remains the same, with first-year defender Jake Lent-Koop remaining questionable (knee) — otherwise Head Coach Bob Lilley and his staff will have a pretty healthy squad for lineup selections at Memphis.

A Closer Look at Memphis 901 FC

A year ago, Memphis underwent a bit of a transformation as a club, with Stephen Glass taking over as Head Coach.

Overall, it was an up-and-down regular season, but 901 FC did end up finishing in fourth place in the Eastern Conference behind the Riverhounds, Tampa Bay and Charleston. Despite earning a home playoff match, 901 FC were defeated in the first round of the playoffs in a penalty kick shootout to Louisville City FC.

A former Premier League (Newcastle United) and Scottish Premier League player and native of Scotland who also was head coach of Atlanta United 2, Glass maintains a veteran-laden roster.

Memphis is built with full intent to go all in to win now, with a handful of experienced USL Championship players (average age 27.3) — including three players older than 30, but also one homegrown signing, winger/forward Nighte Pickering, who is in his third season with the club at just 19 years of age.

Much like the Hounds, Memphis had a very rough start to the 2024 season.  After a season opening win against the Las Vegas Lights, the Beale Street Boys dropped five straight league games, four by just one goal and the other a 2-0 loss at Orange County.

It took a win in the Open Cup, against Miami United to stop the bleeding for Glass’ club. From that point, in mid-April, they have not lost a league match.

Memphis has proven to be one of the hottest teams in the USL Championship with the capability to score on any team in the league at will. With 12 goals in the last five matches, the Beale Street Boys are the third highest scoring club in that time span.

“What they’ve been through this month just in terms of the travel, I think it’s been some of the toughest travel in the league, but the boys don’t complain,” said 901 FC Head Coach Stephen Glass.

“They crack on. We train and prepare and they’re ready to win a game.”

Memphis is coming off a 2-1 win vs El Paso that included a late-game winner from Bruno Lapa beating former Hounds’ keeper Jahmali Waite.

Memphis’ most impressive feat during this streak came in back-to-back wins vs two perennial playoff teams: Birmingham Legion FC and Tampa Bay Rowdies, beating those two sides by a combined 7-1 margin.

It’s a Brazilian connection of Marlon Santos and Lapa, who have fueled a rejuvenated Memphis attack.

Marlon, some USL die-hards may recall, had stints with FC Tulsa and Birmingham from 2020-2022, posting 26 goals and nine assists. In 2023, Marlon featured for Isreali side Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona, but is back in the Championship, where he’s on an impressive run of play.

Lapa also got his start in the Championship in Birmingham, where he scored 17 goals from 2020-22, and has been with Memphis the past two seasons.

Going into the season, Memphis were also counting on former Hound and Robert Morris University standout Neco Brett to be a part of the equation, but after four games (two starts), one of the USL Championship’s all-time leading goal scorers suffered a season-ending injury.

During the five game unbeaten streak for Memphis in league play, Lapa and Marlon have combined for eight of the team’s 11 goals. Marlon also has racked up five assists.

In beating Birmingham, Lapa shined, scoring twice, and Lucas Turci added an early goal.

901 FC followed up the win at Birmingham with an even more resounding 4-1 win against a 10-man, Tampa Bay Rowdies, as it was Santos who scored twice.

Memphis looks to push the tempo and will bring a high pressing formula, especially early in matches, often coming out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, as Lapa sits in the central attacking midfield spot, while Marlon is a constant threat at the top of the attack.

Memphis is also a team that likes to pepper the opposing goal, as their 144 shot attempts (including blocked shots) is fifth in the Championship, and they have averaged 19 shots attempted over their last three matches.

This may not be the prettiest of matches — being played on a baseball field no less — as there could be a lot of direct play and both sides will try to force the other into making mistakes — as the Hounds are dead last in passing accuracy (73%) and Memphis (76%) are not much better.

With Pittsburgh conceding just four goals in the past seven league matches, this should make for an enticing battle of wills — between two teams that will be looking to exploit each other on the counter and with quick scoring opportunities.

Memphis’ backline is anchored by another Brazilian, Lucas Turci and former Seattle Sounders product, Abdoulaye Cissoko, while they also featured one of the league’s oldest players, and longtime Houston Dynamo/RGV Toros keeper Tyler Deric, in goal.

At outside back, Memphis brought in even more experience and another Hounds nemesis, 34 year-old Oscar Jimenez, a two-time USL Cup winner with Louisville City FC, who has started six matches this season on the right side.

How Memphis Lined Up vs El Paso Last Week

Riverhounds Lineup Projections

The Hounds reverted back to 5-3-2 formation in a 1-1 draw against North Carolina last week, with a starting lineup of most of the usual suspects — going back to two forwards (Kazaiah Sterling and Edward Kizza), with the core three-man central midfield that included Danny Griffin deeper, while Kenardo Forbes and Robbie Mertz were more adventurous.  This set-up left out Bradley Sample, who had started the previous four league matches in what seemed to be a positive pairing with Griffin.

The back line has been pretty much the same during the unbeaten streak, and wingers/outside backs Junior Etou and Langston Blackstock, have been among the team’s most productive play making threats.  Etou and Blackstock have combined for three assists.  It was Blackstock who set up Kizza’s third goal of the season last week. Etou has been a nuisance for opponents most of the season on the left wing.

The Hounds appear to be going with who they feel is the hot hand in goal — as Eric Dick started the first seven matches of the season, but Gabe Perrotta, has been between the sticks for the last three.

Head Coach Bob Lilley was not pleased with his club’s lack of endurance and inability to stay in control against North Carolina, where they were clearly on the front foot for the first 30 minutes.

Riverhounds Notebook: Lilley not keen on his squad taking shortcuts and lack of endurance

What’s ailing the Hounds is a continuing inability to finish in the final third, where they’re getting the ball into position (third in league in touches in the opponents box), but they’re not capitalizing when they have moments (second in league in missed ‘Big Chances’).

Who knows, the Hounds may be able to sustain some goal-scoring rhythm in a place where they’ve had previous success.

Here’s my projected Hounds’ lineup for this match-up in the City of Blues…

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Riverhounds (3-3-4) at Memphis 901 FC (4-5-1)
Date: Saturday, May 25
Time: 8:30 p.m.
Location: AutoZone Park, Memphis, Tenn.
Odds: Hounds +160 / Draw +260 / Memphis +130
TV: SportsNet Pittsburgh
Streaming: ESPN+
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #MEMvPIT 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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