Before a record crowd of 4,297 at Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh Riverhounds settled for a 1-1 draw against the Charlotte Independence on Saturday in a hard-fought match with USL playoff implications.
Lebo Moloto’s first half strike in the 40th minute gave Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead, but for the second time in four games, the Riverhounds squandered a lead playing with a man advantage. Charlotte’s Ryan Finley scored the equalizer in the 86th minute, redirecting a corner kick headed toward the near post.
For the Riverhounds, it was another tough result to bear, after playing with a man-advantage for the good part of the final 50 minutes, after Charlotte’s Dominque Badje was sent off after he slapped Riverhounds midfielder Kevin Kerr in the face following Moloto’s goal.
“It’s not a good feeling. I’ll tell you that,” said Mark Steffens, Riverhounds Head Coach.
“We’re not the biggest team in the world. They are very tall. Big. Very good in the air. I figured that was the only way they would score a goal on set piece. Not happy about that. They got a little nick of it, and it went in.”
Late in the second half, after conceding numerous free kicks and corner kicks from the continuing pressure from Charlotte, the Hounds lead was negated on Finley’s header in the 86th minute, which Riverhounds goalkeeper Ryan Thompson lunged to his left to get a hand on, but couldn’t get all of it.
The goal wiped out the Riverhounds lead that they held since the 40th minute when Lebo Moloto received a pass from Stephen Okai about 23 yards from goal. Moloto chested the ball down, stepped to his right as the ball bounced up to drill a one-time shot into the upper right corner of the goal to give the Hounds the 1-0 edge.
It was Moloto’s fourth goal of the year, and his second consecutive game getting in the scoring column.
“He’s a special player. When he’s on, and he’s healthy, he helps everyone at the point of attack. He’s magical with the ball. And he can score goals — like he did today. That was a really special goal,” said Steffens.
The Riverhounds had a few decent chances to score in the second half, but couldn’t sustain enough possession.
“They went with three backs, and it was our responsibility to get behind them, and get another goal. We had a few chances go to two up, but couldn’t get it done. We didn’t play well enough in the second half to win,” added Steffens.
As the second goal eluded the Hounds, they faced a lot of high pressure throughout the second half that included long throw-ins near the goal, free kicks and corners (Charlotte had six of seven corner kicks in 2nd half) that kept Thompson busy on a night when he saw his first action for his club team in nearly three months since being away with Jamaican national team and being sidelined recently due to knee soreness.
“I was happy with my performance. I think there are things that we can build on as we make a push toward the playoffs. We have a quality team here — and I am glad to be back and part of it,” reflected Thompson.
Thompson came up big a few times, lunging forward to punch away a corner kick in the 57th minute, then sprawling to the ground and pushing a ball that deflected to the goal line from a long-throw in on the next sequence. He made a few other excellent catches on set pieces.
Moloto and Kerr hooked up a few minutes earlier on a nice combination, but Kerr’s low dangerous cross sailed just past Moloto near the far post in the 53rd minute. Moloto had another nice chance in the 67th minute when Charlotte keeper had to come way out to nullify the South African native’s chip that could have given the Hounds a 2-0 lead.
It was a physical game throughout with the teams combining for 26 fouls (Pittsburgh 16 / Charlotte 10) — and started off with a scare to the Riverhounds leading scorer, Rob Vincent.
In the 5th minute, Kerr sent a diagonal cross into the box for Vincent. As Vincent and Charlotte goalkeeper John Berner went for the ball in the air, they collided as Vincent went into Berner’s legs as the netminder lost control of the ball.
Vincent got the worst of the collision as he had to come off the field, as he appeared to be cut. Training staff bandaged him up with a big wrap around his head, and within a few minutes he was back on the field.
The Riverhounds controlled most of the possession early, but were not getting much past a big, strong Independence back line.
Charlotte countered a few times, and outside midfielder Dominque Badje was able to get a dangerous shot right at Riverhounds goalkeeper Ryan Thompson in the 12th minute.
After that, Dallman seemed to clamp down on the much taller Badje, who was trying to use his size and speed to get past the Riverhounds veteran defender.
As both teams tried to break the tie, things started to get a bit chippy — and a number of fouls were called on both teams.
The Riverhounds had the best free kick opportunity in the 35th minute, as Vincent and Kerr both lined up on the ball. Kerr went over the ball — and ran to the right of the wall as Vincent stutter stepped to the ball and tried to flick the ball over to Kerr on the right side of the wall. But Charlotte didn’t fall for it, as the pass was intercepted.
Then a few minutes later Okai made a nice play to win the ball and find Moloto for the go-ahead goal.
As Charlotte restarted play in the 40th minute on the ensuing kickoff, referee Jaroslaw Werel sent off Badje with a red card.
Badje and Kerr got into a bit of a scuffle after the goal, and Badje slapped Kerr in the face.
After the commotion ended as Charlotte protested the call, Kerr was also issued a yellow card before play restarted.
Kerr, the USL’s assists leader with nine, will now have to sit out next week’s match at Charlotte after accumulating his fifth yellow card of the season.
With the result, the Hound (9-8-5, 32 points) stay six points ahead of Charlotte (6-6-8, 26 points). The Independence remain unbeaten in their last six games (2 wins, 4 losses) — as the two teams will see each other next Saturday in their third and final encounter of the season.
“It’s going to make things harder for us. Especially when you are the one that’s leading the game, and give up a goal late, it feels like a loss. They’re going to have the momentum going back to Charlotte. It’s going to be tough for us. We are going to have to put together a better second half effort,” said Steffens.
Riverhounds Starting eleven
Ryan Thompson (G), Willie Hunt, Fejiro Okiomah, Matt Dallman, Anthony Arena, Stephen Okai (Ben Newnam 45′), Lebo Moloto (Amara Soumah 75′), Rob Vincent, Danny Earls, Kevin Kerr and Mike Green (Miro Cabrilo 81′).