Three games into the season, after a 1-1 draw against St. Louis FC on Saturday, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds sit in the middle of the USL Eastern Conference standings — with a 1-1-1 mark — good for four points as they sit in a logjam of four teams in the middle of the table.
It’s a long season, and Head Coach Mark Steffens alluded that last night after the match they’re still a work in progress, as he was pleased to come out with a point.
“We’re not sure of who we are yet and we’re still trying to figure it out, so this was a really big point for us on the road.”
What this Riverhounds team showed Saturday, was character, coming back from a deficit on the road.
They also boast a goalkeeper who certainly can be a force.
From a tactical point of view, they showed that they have been able to successfully use their depth and make necessary adjustments needed to regain the momentum of a match.
In St. Louis, the Hounds found themselves with their backs against the wall.
Early in the second half, trailing 1-0, and St. Louis FC, playing in their USL debut game in front of more than 5,200 fans, had been applying all kinds of pressure since midway through the first half.
Then Riverhounds goalkeeper Ryan Thompson did what he needed to do to keep his team in the game — and made a great save, on a ball that his fellow countryman, and St. Louis forward Jermie Lynch looked like was going in to give St. Louis a commanding 2-0 lead.
It was a play that started as the Riverhounds badly gave a ball away in the central midfield, and St. Louis’ Jamiel Hardware made a run into the box on the left side. Hardware took a shot that deflected off the foot of Hounds defender Anthony Arena, then came straight to Lynch, who was unmarked and had a point blank shot by the far post.
But Thompson lunged to his left to knock Lynch’s shot away — and keep the deficit to 1-0.
The Riverhounds also lost one of their starting central defenders, Fejiro Okiomah, who came out after pulling up with a leg injury earlier toward the end of the first half after getting beat on a long ball over the top. The versatile Mike Green came off the bench — and filled in admirably in the right back spot, while Willie Hunt, making his first start for the Hounds slid over to pair up with Arena in central defense.
Trying to get the equalizer, the Hounds still were not getting much going, with much of their attack stalling with unsuccessful attempts coming in form of longer passes over the top or from the width.
Still, they kept their composure.
The best sign that things started to tilt in their favor was forward Vini Dantas started to cause problems for the back line of St. Louis, drawing contact and getting fouled a few times, setting up a few set pieces. Dantas also created another nice opportunity in the 62nd minute, beating two defenders out of the corner, making a run up the endline, but his pass into the box didn’t connect.
That’s about when Riverhounds Head Coach Mark Steffens looked to his bench for a change.
He brought in Stephen Okai, who struggled and was pulled after the first half in last week’s loss to Rochester.
But on this night, Okai’s entrance, and presence in the Riverhounds central midfield, seemed to change the pace of the match. As the Hounds brought more players forward, and into their attack, they also became a little bit more patient in their approach, allowing more build up, and finally created some quality chances.
Okai was at the center of this.
In the build up to the game tying goal, he sent a dangerous, low ball toward the goal, that Dantas gathered off a deflection to bury in the back of the net.
The Riverhounds would sustain enough possession for the rest of the match, which helped limit St. Louis’ attack. Dantas continued to create more chances — especially laying off a nice pass to Tyler Pasher who had a great shot that was saved by St. Louis FC keeper Mark Pais.
The Hounds would hold on for a point on the road — and showed that they can come from behind — two weeks in a row — from 1-0 halftime deficits. They also showed they can adjust and have been able to go to their bench — giving Steffens options if/when he needs to make adjustments or dealing with injuries.
FIRST VIEWING AT PUB IN HIGHMARK STADIUM
The Riverhounds had their first road game “Watch Party” at Highmark Stadium’s Pub for the St. Louis game and it appeared to be a lively setting –as the team now provides central location for fellow Pittsburgh soccer fans to come together to watchroad games. There are some photos from the Riverhounds “Watch Party” on their Facebook page Pittsburgh Riverhounds Professional Soccer Team.
USL TRENDS – HOLDOVER FRANCHISES RISE TO TOP OF EASTERN CONFERENCE
After a tight 2-1 win in Pittsburgh, the Rochester Rhinos rolled to a 3-0 win over Montreal FC on Saturday afternoon as the two teams renewed a rivalry that dates back to the beginning of professional soccer in North America. Believe it or not, it was the 54th meeting between the two teams. It was their only third win at Montreal in 27 tries, but first in USL play. The Rhinos who sit in 2nd place in the Eastern Conference, with seven points, have played all of their games on the road.
It appears that early on, USL’s Eastern Conference standings look top heavy with the hold-over franchises. Charleston has been the class so far, 3-0 (9 pts), and right behind them include Rochester (7 pts), Richmond and Wilmington (5 pts each).
In fact, the only three points earned by MLS “second teams” in the Eastern Conference came last week, when the Red Bull 2 called up ten players from their MLS squad to play for them. The result was a 4-1 beating of Toronto FC 2. But this week, against Wilmington, the Red Bull 2, with less players from their MLS roster, were shutout 3-0.
Is this a trend? We’ll just have to wait and see. In the Western Conference though, the MLS 2 teams are faring much better — as the defending USL champs Sacramento Republic FC lost to Seattle FC 2. Portland Timbers 2 are also pretty formidable with 7 points in their first four games. Two USL holdovers, Arizona (first place — 9 pts) and OKC Energy, are also vying near the top of the Western Conference standings.
NEXT UP – LOUISVILLE FC
The Riverhounds will face another expansion team they are locked up with in the standings, as they will take on Louisville FC this coming Sunday, April 19 at Highmark Stadium at 3 p.m.
I will have more on this match-up later this week and a closer look at Louisville FC on game day.