After the Pittsburgh Riverhounds completed a stunning 6-5 come-from-behind win for the ages that saw them score three goals to overcome a two goal deficit in the final minute of regulation and stoppage time — I knew I was in for quite a walk from the press box to the field.
As I made polite eye contact with numerous familiar faces and shook a few hands – everyone was buzzing about what they just witnessed. Whether it was stadium or team employees, fans, and then eventually coaches and players who were lined up to sign autographs from a line that seemed to stretch all the way to the Gateway Clipper entrance – there was unbridled joy and amazement – with an emphasis on the latter.
People were shaking their heads – and feeling like they just had an outer body experience.
Did that just happen? How did that happen? “How do you explain that,” said one of the players.
Only an hour or so earlier, it appeared to have all of the makings of a classic letdown game for the Riverhounds.
They’ve been a team’s that’s been up and down all year. Win one, lose one, tie one, seemed to be their pattern – and exemplified by their 3-3-3 league record heading into this contest.
With the bonus of playing in Lamar Hunt Open Cup competition, they came into the game on a bit of a roll.
After beating USL regional foes Richmond, 2-1, on the road, the Riverhounds pulled off an exhilarating 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Wednesday night, on a stoppage time goal by the team’s top goal scorer, Rob Vincent. Now those were back-to-back monumental victories. The second win sent Pittsburgh advancing into the 4th Round of the Open Cup — setting up a match with Major League Soccer’s D.C. United. For the next few days that followed, much of the buzz around the team was about the D.C. United coming to Pittsburgh on June 17.
Harrisburg instead came to Highmark Stadium seeking redemption in the second Keystone Derby for a few reasons. First, they had been embarrassed by the Riverhounds on opening night of the USL season, 5-2, on a frigid late March night at Highmark Stadium. Following that humiliating defeat, they lost again, but would turn the corner on their season –reeling off a five-game league unbeaten string to improve their record to 4-2-1, one point better than Pittsburgh.
But they were derailed before coming to Pittsburgh, in the U.S. Open Cup a few nights before against the USL leading Rochester Rhinos. After they took a 1-0 lead in the 104th minute of the Open Cup match, they would concede three goals in the extra frame for the bitter 3-1 exit from the Open Cup. Like the Riverhounds, they would come into this one with heavy legs.
The City Islanders played the first half like a team intent on showing their rivals and proving to themselves they were the better side –clicking on all cylinders. They unleashed a lot of pressure — as Riverhounds coach Mark Steffens had anticipated when he spoke to me a few days before — with plenty of speed and physicality. The City Islanders were pelting Pittsburgh’s young goalkeeper Ryan Hulings with shot-after-shot. The Riverhounds defenders were having all kinds of problems with the high pressure and speed of the Harrisburg’s attackers. In all – they sent 12 shots on goal in the first half.
The Riverhounds looked lethargic and lacking energy in getting back into their defensive shape – giving up huge gaps between their midfield and back line. The first half was played at a furious pace with lots of countering chances for both sides. Miro Cabrilo had a nice header very early on straight at Harrisburg’s goalkeeper Nick Noble, and Kevin Kerr hit the post in one sequence. But once Harrisburg broke through for the first goal, in the 28th minute, the Riverhounds came apart.
What followed were subsequent defensive lapses that led to two breakaway goals by Danny DiPrima and Jose Barrel.
3-0 Harrisburg leads. Halftime. Keystone Derby through 1 ½ Legs – 5-5.
Oh, to be a fly in the wall of the Riverhounds locker room at halftime for most games this year.
Steffens has had gone to the locker room numerous time this year displeased. But, this was clearly his team’s worst half played all season.
“I had a little tantrum. Said a few words,” remarked Steffens.
“Yeah, he wasn’t happy. We heard about it,” confirmed Rob Vincent.
Numerous times this year, the Riverhounds have fought back from being down or have had strong second half surges. They were able to pull back into a tie in the first-ever USL game played at Saint Louis FC in April before a frenzied crowd. They rallied from halftime deficits to produce early second half goals to tie the Rhinos in their only meeting this year (eventually losing 2-1 to the top USL team) and almost salvaged a point against the NY Red Bulls II, responding twice after giving up a goal. Even in a 3-1 loss at Charleston, mired by defensive lapses, they regrouped and played a strong final 25 minutes, after trailing 3-0.
The seeds were planted early in the season that showed that the Riverhounds were a team capable of a monumental comeback win. A pair of second half, four-goal outbursts against Harrisburg (in their first encounter) and another against Toronto FC, proved that this is a team with explosive, goal scoring capability.
And whatever Steffens said at the half, it worked.
Sure enough, the Hounds came out in the second half charging. Just three minutes in, Rob Vincent finished off a Lebo Moloto cross to bring the match to 3-1.
3-1. Harrisburg. 48th minute. Sniffing of a possible comeback.
Steffens – a USL Hall of Fame coach – has pulled some pretty nice strings this season. His only substitution at the beginning of the second half, Amara Soumah, made an immediate impact on the game. Soumah, a speedy attacking midfielder, replaced Stephen Okai, a holding midfielder. Bringing another Riverhounds player to the top of the attack, who would play off the target forward, Miro Cabrilo, and the skillful Moloto, who was doing a lot of the creative work in the center of the field, was just what the doctor ordered for this comeback prescription.
Sure enough, Cabrilo received a ball on the left side, sent a nice short, lobbing cross toward the top of the box. Soumah went into the air to head the ball – redirecting it over Harrisburg’s goalkeeper Nick Noble. It was a brilliant goal. Soumah couldn’t have timed it any better – catching Noble coming out at just the right time.
3-2. Harrisburg. 52nd minute. Game on. The Riverhounds just scored two goals in four minutes. Fans are back into it.
Suddenly, this game seemed to be following the script of the 2005 UEFA Champions League Cup final – better known in soccer lore as the ‘Miracle at Istanbul’. If you know your soccer, then you would know that was the game where Liverpool FC, trailing 3-0 at halftime to what seemed like an invincible AC Milan team that had the likes of Kaka, Maldini, Crespo, Gattuso and Shevchenko, came out with a three-punch combination – in a matter of six minutes – to level the mighty Rossoneri – and eventually win (3-2) on penalties.
Just as the crowd at Highmark Stadium was getting hyped up for that next big goal, the Riverhounds provided another defensive miscue instead.
A ball played into the box wasn’t secured by Hulings or cleared by the Pittsburgh defense, and the City Islanders Jason Plumoff had himself a simple one yard poke into the net.
4-2. Harrisburg. 56th minute. Bubble burst? Or still plenty of time?
Steffens remarked after the game that this was a nightmare defensive performance.
For the next 20 minutes the teams would continue to trade chances, and reload with substitutes. The Riverhounds needed as many fresh bodies as they could muster.
As the game approached the 80th minute, the Hounds began to press forward more. A corner kick header by Moloto just missed its mark. A stinging Drew Russell cross from the right side set up another corner.
It looked to me like Harrisburg’s legs were getting heavy. I thought about the fact that they had played a full 120 minutes just three nights earlier.
Then, things got a bit crazy.
Russell sent another low cross right on target for Moloto, who had beaten his man to the far post area. The South African was pushed from behind, and as he fell forward he still headed the ball.
The ball appeared to cross the goal line before being pulled out by Noble.
It didn’t matter. Ref John Douglas called the foul without really paying attention to the ball actually crossing the line. Maybe he just thought – well – we don’t have goal line technology – so I’ll just award a penalty kick to the Riverhounds.
And really, what would a memorable, high scoring soccer game be without at least one dramatic penalty kick. Even Hollywood knows this, because in the penultimate soccer match played out in cinema, Sylvester Stallone gets to stop the Nazi scoring stud from beating his team of Allies in ‘Victory’ — in the fictional game’s deciding play. Although if you ask me, Pele’s bicylcle kick was the play of that match!
But I’ve digressed.
Kevin Kerr stepped up to take the kick. Noble pulled his inner Stallone, to stop him cold.
Danny Earls then did what captains – and players with great anticipation skills do – beat everyone to the rebound to put it through.
4-3. Harrisburg. 80th minute. There is hope. There is hope.
This is a Riverhounds team that might be 3-3-3 to that point in the season for a reason. This is a team that has surrendered the most goals and scored the most goals in their league this year. Up and down. Up and down. Never a dull moment.
Unfortunately to Riverhounds fans, it was time to surrender one more goal.
In the 86th minute, Garrett Pettis made a brilliant play. He had received a chip as he ran under the ball going into the left side of the box. He took one touch, chipped the ball in the air just as Hulings came flying out to take the ball away. With Hulings way out of goal, sprawling on the ground, and with Riverhounds Fejiro Okiomah right in his face, Pettis still managed to have the presence to head the ball into the goal.
5-3. Harrisburg. 86th minute. Game. Set. Match. No one comes back from two goals with only a little more than four minutes remaining. Right?
But there was sound emanating from the South end of the stadium as the Hounds kicked off from the center circle for the sixth time of the match. It was the sound of a drum beat. The Steel Army continued to pound their drums.
And the Riverhounds still had a heartbeat.
While almost all of the fans did stay around – there are a few people leaving their seats at this moment. I didn’t watch the video until two days later, and upon review, I actually saw a few people leaving. I am now wondering, if those people left the Stadium, did that father just deprive his kids of seeing something incredible because he was worried about all that Kenny Chesney traffic? Oh Kenny was playing on — the roads were still pretty clear.
The Riverhounds would only have a little time to spare.
After a few crosses and possessions into the final third, the Riverhounds were still pushing forward, but now time would be their enemy as much as their interstate rivals. A 50-50 ball goes out on the far sideline.
The clock was about ten seconds from reaching the 90th minute mark. Still 5-3.
As a ball came into the box, and came back out — it came to Earls.
It’s up to a captain to deliver hope and pick up his team at times. After all, isn’t that what captains do?
Earls volleyed a one-timer, goes top shelf – upper 90 – puts the ball in the right corner past a diving Noble.
5-4. Harrisburg. 89:58th minute.
Danny Earls goals take on more meaning than a Obama 2008 Presidential Campaign Poster.
Indeed, the Riverhounds heart still beats.
The stands are shaking. Just a tad, but still they were shaking at this moment.
The people in the stands believe. The Steel Army drums are now pounding intensely.
“I knew when Danny hit that one, we could get one more,” said Vincent.
Four minutes of stoppage time remain.
Every touch counts now.
Defender Anthony Virgara sends a ball up the line to Moloto, who somehow straddles it along his shoulder, brings it to his feet, then delivers a cross that is cleared back to the endline. Instead of going out of bounds, the ball deflects off a Harrisburg player, then Moloto and Soumah try to develop some combination passes but it’s deflected away. The Riverhounds get a throw-in on the left side line.
Virgara gets the touch, plays it forward to Soumah but his low cross attempt is cleared away. Okiomah quickly collects it – and the Hounds counter forward quickly. The ball gets to Kerr, at midfield on the right side. He’s been on target all year. This time he sends a long ball that is headed away going over the top of the box. The ball is headed away by a Harrisburg defender, but as it sails in the air, Willie Hunt goes way up to try to play it. He gets slightly undercut by the shoulder of Ekra.
Douglas awarded a free kick to the Riverhounds, just outside the box on the left side, as Ekra lay on the ground in apparent pain. How much of that was gamesmanship? I don’t know. But he sure took his time getting up.
What I do know is that Kerr and Moloto are lining up on the ball.
And the USL’s leading goal scorer is standing about five yards behind the top of the arc behind them — to their right.
He’s not moving.
As the City Islanders play a little game with the officials in setting up their wall. Rob Vincent is standing out there all alone, looks like he’s just completely focused, and looking right at the goal.
Kerr and Moloto are ready to get this thing going.
Moloto stands on the ball. Kerr is facing the goal.
Kerr is the decoy. Moloto plays a simple touch pass to the top of the arc – and Vincent does what he’s been doing all year.
Like his captain about 10 minutes earlier, sends it to the upper right corner.
Noble didn’t have a chance. Of all of the City players, Erka reacted the quickest – after he saw the ball was played to an open Vincent and probably said “oh s$%^&” and came running out of the line right towards the Liverpool, England native with a burst of speed.
But it was too late. Vincent is money from that spot.
I am telling you. The stands are really shaking now. There may have been only 2,000 or so people in the house, but they were rocking. Guess what else was shaking?
I could barely type. I’m supposed to be objective. But this was astonishing stuff. The excitement was getting to me, and everyone else in the normally laid back press box.
Vincent is greeted by all of his teammates in the far left corner for the celebration.
5-5 A few minutes gone by in stoppage time. What a comeback. What a game.
Wait – there’s more!?
Harrisburg had a free kick from just inside the midfield line, just after the 13th kickoff of the game from the center circle. It was a dangerous ball that stayed in the air for what seemed like a lifetime. And it was up the Hulings to punch it away as a Harrisburg attacker was coming right for the ball.
A dangerous throw – into the box – with bodies everywhere saw a missed header, then Ekra (again in the middle of things) tries to turn and shoot, but misses.
Here comes the Riverhounds counter. It looked like Soumah – who sends a long ball to Kerr, who is onside, and behind three light blue shirts on the right side.
Harrisburg defenders would get back, and knock Kerr’s pass into the box away to the near sideline.
5-5. Dying seconds of the match. Riverhounds throw in. Just waiting for that whistle to blow now.
Kerr throws it back to Virgara, then gets the ball right back. He takes a little bit of space toward the edge of the left side of the box.
There are about five blue shirts spaced out inside the box. Kerr passes it to the dead center of the box right to Moloto’s foot.
The five City Islanders all – in sync – take a step toward Moloto.
Moloto plays it back to Kerr for the classic one-two, give and go. Kerr does what every player should do after passing a ball, he moves to space.
Moloto gives up a shot, leaving Harrisburg’s five players in the box — all left out to dry.
Kerr seals the deal with a nice, low grounder to the right side of the goal that scoots past Noble’s extended arms.
6-5, Pittsburgh 90++++ minute “Do you believe in Miracles?” Yes!
Kerr takes off his shirt and makes his way to the corner.
Highmark Stadium, just three years young, and its much embattled primary tenants, who have survived recent bankruptcy, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, now had something to celebrate – a signature transcendent franchise moment.
It’s a comeback that will rival any you will ever see.
It’s why I’m calling it the Miracle on the Mon.
There can be thousands more games played at Highmark Stadium – and there will never be another one like that.
“MIRACLE ON THE MON” BY THE NUMBERS
- Most goals scored this season in USL match by both teams (11), and by winning team (6).
- Lebo Moloto’s three assists, most by player in USL match in 2015
- The Riverhounds outshot the City Islanders 23-18.
- In two Keystone Derby matches, the Riverhounds and City Islanders have combined for 18 goals. That’s more than a handful of teams have scored in USL this season.
- Rob Vincent’s two goals brought his league total to a league leading eight (8) for the season.
- The Riverhounds now lead the USL in goals scored (26) and goals allowed (20).
- Three (3) goals were scored from the 90th minute and after in stoppage time.