It’s official, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds have hit a rough patch in their season.
A trip to Charleston will contribute to that — as well as some key injuries.
Here’s a look at three things we learned about the Riverhounds as they still have eight points — and sit in the middle of the USL’s Eastern Conference Standings.
1. BACK LINE WOES COME TO FOREFRONT
Things started off promising on Saturday night, but ended with their biggest defeat of the season, a 3-1 loss in which their banged up back line made some critical mistakes.
Even as the field was soaked and slippery after a storm blew through Chucktown about 45 minutes before kickoff, the Riverhounds came out early and looked sharp, carrying long, sustained possessions and even setting up three corner kicks in the first three minutes.
The pace early on the match was pretty frantic. You can tell that Riverhounds Head Coach Mark Steffens probably knew that getting the first goal could have been advantageous on the road.
But playing forward left a lot of space for his back line to cover.
And eventually they were exposed.
Center back Anthony Arena, nursing an injury, had to sit out on Saturday, leaving the Hounds a bit thin on the defensive side.
As Battery forward Heviel Cordoves chased a long ball played into space over the Hounds’ back line, Fejiro Okiomah chased him down to thwart a dangerous scoring chance. It was a great display of closing speed. But, moments later Okiomah had to leave early –– for the third time in the past four games.
As Okiomah was getting attention from the trainer on the sidelines, and before the Hounds could get a substitute on the field, Charleston capitalized.
Held up on the left endline, Maikel Chang sent a cross to Zach Prince who volleyed the ball past Hounds goalkeeper Ryan Thompson.
With Okiomah and Arena both out of the match, the Hounds went with the combination of Drew Russell (who came in for Okiomah) and Willie Hunt in central defense, and Tyler Pasher at left back and Matt Dallman on the right. Dallman left the game in the 58th minute, as Lebo Moloto and Max Touloute came in to boost the attack. At that point, Steffens reshuffled things to move Mike Green, who started at attacking midfield, to right back.
Maybe one play that stood out about the lack of cohesiveness and continuity — was earlier in the match when Hunt played a ball back to Ryan Thompson in goal, and it nearly went in.
With the game still at 1-0, it wasn’t until the 65th minute when things really started to unravel for Pittsburgh.
On a goal kick, Thompson played the ball short to the right side, where it appeared Green tried to play a ball too the middle to Hunt. But the pass was a little off target, and Hunt was a bit out of position to get to it in time.
And that’s all noted Riverhounds killer Dane Kelly (four goals in the past two games vs Pittsburgh) needed as he came through to take the misplayed ball, make a run to the box and easily send it past Thompson.
The Battery added a third goal for good measure on a similar cross as the first goal. This time, it was a hook up between two fresh bodied subs as Navion Boyd found an unmarked Dante Marini who had an easy one-timer.
The one common denominator of the first and third goals, was seeing a midfielder in the middle of the box coming back to help, and clearly a central defender missing his mark.
I may be wrong, but it seems to me that using the outside backs to come forward as much as the Riverhounds do, also may expose the back line a bit more — and put a lot of pressure on the center backs and holding midfielders.
It doesn’t help having both starting center backs on the sidelines. But even so, the rest of the back line need to clean up on their mistakes or it could be a long season.
2.) UNBEATEN CHARLESTON ARE TITLE CONTENDERS; HOUNDS IN NEXT GROUP
Visits to Charleston have not been very kind to the Riverhounds in the past year or so. Last year, they were shut out in both games, and were held scoreless until the 80th minute when Miro Cabrillo headed in a terrific Earls cross to make the score a respectable 3-1, and inspire the Hounds to play the rest of the match with some fight.
The Riverhounds had gone three full games (including a 0-0 tie at Highmark Stadium in 2014) without scoring against the Battery. It was clear last night that Charleston, who last won a USL title in 2012, are right in the mix as one of the favorites to take the USL Eastern Conference crown.
And its clear the Riverhounds, while doing everything they can to close the gap, are not quite there yet. They are basically in the second pack of teams, likely that will be fighting for three playoff spots, along with Harrisburg (who by the way passed them in the standings this weekend), St. Louis FC, Louisville, Charlotte Independance, NYRBII and if they get their act together — Wilmington.
It won’t get easier. The Richmond Kickers, who are also unbeaten, and a perennial USL title contender, are next up as the two teams will play a home-and-home series over the next two weekends beginning at Highmark Stadium Saturday night.
3.) IT COULD BE A LOT WORSE
Riverhounds fans need to realize a few things.
One, this is still a relatively young team.
Their core veterans (Rob Vincent, Kevin Kerr, Earls, Green, Dallman, etc.) have only been together for two or three seasons. There is still a nice influx of talented players, who have a lot to prove and are still relatively new to the tougher challenges that the USL has in store. Namely playing teams like Charleston, Richmond and Rochester who are disciplined and don’t concede goals easily.
Two, there are going to be growing pains.
Mark Steffens believes that the best is yet to come, and while that may be the case, back-to-back games with Richmond may provide for some additional growing pains. Maybe that’s exactly what they need right now. A team can really learn a lot about itself when taking some lumps against top flight teams.
Three, there is fight in this team.
Down 3-0, and having almost no chance to come back, the Riverhounds kept coming at Charleston, and played well in closing the game out. Yeah, sure you could say that Charleston pulled back, but it didn’t seem that was the case. They’ve already shown that ability to come back. Three previous times when trailing 1-0 this season (vs Rochester, at St. Louis and at NY Red Bulls II), they got the equalizer. This was the first time they didn’t.
It was the first time they had trailed by more than a goal — and it was interesting to watch how they responded. Playing from behind too much will catch up to some teams — especially on the road against a quality team.
Last year, the team really unraveled late in games. A few case examples were at Sacramento, at Arizona, the debacle vs Wilmington and the 4-0 Charleston loss. Those final 20 minutes or so of those games were tough to watch. I wanted to turn off my live feeds of those — but had to painfully watch a team with little energy. But, last night they played hard to the last whistle. If this will be their worst loss of this season, I would take it.
The Riverhounds might have to ride out this rough patch, but it’s no time to panic. With a Hall of Fame coach, and a good mix of veterans and young players, something tells me that they will be a better team in the homestretch of the season. Yes, there are some glaring deficiencies and injuries at the moment, but they are in much better shape then they were a year ago at this time.