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Preview: Riverhounds face Old Guard rival Charleston

Charleston Battery's leading goal scorer, Nick Markanich (Photo courtesy Charleston Battery)

In their 25-year history there’s only one opponent the Riverhounds have continued to face since their first season, and that’s the Charleston Battery.

This is oldest active rivalry in the USL Championship as the clubs first met in a 2-0 Hounds win on July 30, 1999 at Bethel Park High School. This will be the Hounds’ 42nd competitive match against the Battery. The only two clubs the Hounds have faced more are a pair no longer in operation: Rochester Rhinos/Rochester NY FC (47 meetings) and the Harrisburg City Islanders/Penn FC (45 meetings).

The all-time series is narrowly led by the Battery with a 15W-10L-16D record, as Riverhounds have started to tilt the series in its favor during the Bob Lilley’s tenure (2018-present) as the Hounds have 4-3-5 record under their current coach against Charleston.

The 2023 brought a complete resurgence of the ‘Old Guard’ in the USL Championship as the Hounds peaked with the best regular season in the league — winning the Players Shield for most points, and Charleston finished in third place, then made an impressive run to the USL Cup Final, where they were defeated in a penalty kick shootout to Phoenix.  The teams split their series last year, with the Hounds taking an emphatic home win in July, but Charleston punched back hard, rolling past Pittsburgh, 3-0, at Patriots Point in July.

There’s plenty of interesting storylines heading into their first match of 2024, in Charleston (7:30 p.m. kickoff) as it always seems that you can toss out the records when these two sides face each other.

This showdown provides match-up that pits one of the most successful veteran coaches, Hounds’ Bob Lilley, against younger peer, 38 year-old Ben Pirmann, who took Memphis 901 FC to new heights, and now overseeing a revival in Charleston.  While Lilley won yet another league Coach of the Year honor in 2023 (receiving 61 percent of the ballot) it was Pirmann who finished second on 20 percent after leading his new club to a league-record 34-point improvement

The two clubs enter into their 24th season competing against each other further apart in the standings through the first third of the season than probably expected, as it’s the 10th place Hounds’ (3-5-4, 13 points) who have been meddling, while the Battery (8-1-4, 28 points) have carried the momentum from last season’s success.

While there’s still an entire third of the season to go, the Hounds could really use a boost with a result in the Holy City, as they’ve lost their last two matches, and are winless in their last four, mainly due to their inability to capitalize on chances in the final third.  For more depth on this, check out this week’s Riverhounds Notebook.

Riverhounds Notebook: Flumping Hounds sit in very unfamiliar spot below playoff line

After a blazing hot 8-0-3 start to the season, Charleston is winless in its last three matches, including an Open Cup loss in penalty kick shootout to MLS side Atlanta United, and last time out surprising loss at home to Western Conference basement dwelling El Paso, 2-1.

After 10 days between matches, well-rested Charleston is ready to renew acquaintances with Pittsburgh, and they know it will be a battle.

“They’re the defending Players Shield winners. Every single moment of the game is going to be a fight,” Pirmann said earlier this week. “They (Riverhounds) are one of the highest teams in terms of expected goals, meaning they create as many chances as anybody.”

Charleston Battery: A Closer Look

Pirmann’s rise in the coaching ranks is one that stems from paying his dues as college assistant at his alma mater, Michigan State, while also taking on the Head Coach position for Detroit City FC, as they began their rise as a NPSL club from 2013 to 2018.

The Battery’s success in his first year-plus in the low country emanated from Pirmann’s no-frills approach to what he likes to call an aggressive, defensive style of play, and as a team that will outwork its opponents and do all the little things.

Sounds an awful like Bob Lilley.

Often times, you’ll see the Battery go with two holding midfielders in front of a back four, and they’ve used 4-2-3-1 in most of Pirmann’s tenure.

The Battery thrive off putting opposing teams under pressure.

Their 211 shots is the most of any Championship team, and their 27 goals is second in the league behind only Louisville.

At the top of the attack it’s a combo that sounds more like a Pittsburgh-area law firm — Markanich and Myers — than two young, up-and-coming 24-and-23-year old attackers who’ve been doing most of the damage this season.

Nick Markanich leads the Championship with 12 goals after a torrid start to the season, and Matt Myers has six goals for the Battery, who also boast 10 different players with assists already this season, one of whom is former Hounds defender Nate Dossantos, who signed with the Battery as a free agent in the offseason and has started at left back in all 13 matches for the club.

Markanich was on an absolute tear like we’ve not seen in the USL Championship, scoring 12 goals in his first 12 matches, including a four goals vs Las Vegas.

In addition, the catalyst for the Battery has been their biggest off season pick-up: Aaron Malloy.  The former Memphis 901 FC playmaker has joined his former coach in Charleston, and has been making a difference, creating a league leading 34 chances.

The Battery have also been equally impressive in shutting down opponents, leading the league with seven shutouts on the year and surrendering just nine goals, anchored by a very solid center back pairing of Leland Archer and Graham Smith, who also came over from Memphis, with Pirmann.

So, it was pretty stunning, despite their impressive run of play through the first 11 league matches, to see the Battery fall to last-place El Paso and then play to a scoreless draw at Monterey Bay back on Wednesday, May 29.

Looking at their last time out at Monterey Bay, here’s how Charleston lined up.

Key Matchups and Hounds Projected XI

While both sides have a lot of similarities, the biggest difference between the Hounds and Battery this season has simply come in execution.

Both teams are among the leaders in the league in creating Big Chances — Charleston is tops with 34, while the Hounds are fourth with 28.  It’s Charleston’s who’ve used their endless waves of pressure to convert at a great clip (16% conversion rate), while the Hounds are last in conversion rate (10%) and goals (11), despite being in the middle of the pack in goals and second (!!) in touches in the box.

With Molloy creating plenty of chances and Markanich and Myers scoring goals at a very hot rate, while they’ve also posted more clean sheets than any other team this season, it’s Charleston who have been dictating terms of their matches, and suffocating their opponents with pressure.

Although personnel are different, looking at these two coaches and the style of play of each side, the team scoring the first goal in both matches last season.

Pittsburgh essentially scored right off the kickoff in last season’s match-up between the two teams at Highmark Stadium last season, and the Battery never recovered.   Charleston returned the favor in the return match, pummeling the Hounds, 3-1, in what was Pittsburgh’s first league loss in three months last July.

In their last few matches on the road, the Hounds have dug some pretty big holes.  At Tulsa, they rallied from a two-goal deficit for a 2-2 draw, but they couldn’t do the same in a frustrating 2-0 loss at Memphis.  Against the Battery, at Patriots Point, the Hounds can’t get off to another slow start, as that will likely spell doom for a club that’s already struggling to score goals.

Hounds’ midfield selection will be interesting for this match, as Lilley and his staff will certainly build around Danny Griffin in the middle, but what selections he goes with from there may vary, as he could opt to go with two holding, central mids to help navigate the ball against Charleston’s pressure, meaning that Pittsburgh may only go with one forward.

One player who was listed on the Hounds’ injury report, Luke Biasi is questionable due to a hamstring tweak.  Biasi has started every match since being inserted into the back line at the half of the Hounds’ first match at New Mexico.

With temperatures expected to be very balmy, in the high 80s at kickoff, the Hounds will have to be prepared for very uncomfortable conditions and manage the game effectively.  While they’ll want to press high and make the Charleston back line uncomfortable, but they may be selective in doing so.

If any one player knows what to expect from the Hounds, it’s Nate Dossantos, who can help navigate possession from the left side, where he’ll likely be seeing a lot of his former teammates, likely Langston Blackstock and Edward Kizza bringing the heat.

The Hounds can look at what Monterey Bay and El Paso did well to slow down the Battery — and if there’s anyone who can find ways to take away team’s strengths and frustrate opponents with ever-changing tactics, it’s Bob Lilley.

But if they can’t convert on their chances, it will be all for naught.

Here’s a best guess projection for Hounds lineup vs Charleston.

____________________________________________________________

Riverhounds (3-5-4) at Charleston Battery (8-1-4)
Date: Saturday, June 8
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: Patriots Point Soccer Complex, Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Odds: Hounds +370 / Draw +260 / Charleston -150 (FanDuel)
TV: SportsNet Pittsburgh
Streaming: ESPN+
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #CHSvPIT 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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