For the entire season, the Riverhounds had stayed in front of Charlotte, and above the playoff line. But now they find themselves in an uphill climb in their final five games as they try to qualify for one of the top six spots in the United Soccer League’s Eastern Conference.
The Riverhounds have been a high scoring team — led by the terrific performances by Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr who alone have led the Pittsburgh attack to the tune of 26 goals and 14 assists. Only this week’s upcoming opponent, Louisville City FC, have scored more goals than Pittsburgh in USL. And only Louisville’s Matt Fondy, leads the Hounds Rob Vincent in total goals scored in USL’s Eastern Conference.
Throw in a strong defense that has only surrendered 26 goals, and Louisville City have developed a winning formula that includes a stifling defense and potent attack to emerge as one of the front-runners who could very well be lifting the USL Championship trophy.
The Riverhounds have shown the ability to score a lot of goals — but they’ve done so in bunches and against middle of the pack and lower teams. And taking a look even further, it’s the bigger and more physical teams who are extremely organized in the back that the Riverhounds — and many USL teams — have struggled against.
In eight games against the top four defenses in USL’s Eastern Conference — the Hounds have posted a 0-6-2 record, being outscored 14-7. In these games, Vincent has not scored a goal, and Kerr has one goal.
That’s very telling.
Those top four defensive sides are Rochester (12 GA), Louisville (26 GA), Charleston (26 GA) and Charlotte (25 GA). These four teams are all above the playoff line.
All of the games the Hounds have played against each of these sides have been close, most decided by a single goal with one exception (3-1 loss at Charleston). This includes two draws — both which they lost leads after the 85th minute.
As a Pittsburgh Steelers former Head Coach once said, there can be fine line between winning and losing — and having a successful season and a season that’s a failure.
The Hounds are walking that fine line — and it’s not going well.
The good news is they still can turn the tide. But it won’t be easy.
In their final five games, they will face three of these top four defensive units, red-hot Louisville, struggling Charleston and then league front runners, Rochester, who’ve only surrendered 12 goals all season. The other two games are against two of the weaker defensive teams in the league, Wilmington and Harrisburg, who they’ve scored a total of 17 goals in four games this season.
It appears that these top defensive teams are stifling every move of Vincent and Kerr. Limiting their shots, and taking away their ability to find each other on each side of the flank. With Danny Earls sitting out this coming week’s game vs Louisville, we might see Vincent move inside to a holding midfield role, where it will be harder for teams to mark him regularly. Vincent has found scoring opportunities from this spot — both by finding space to bury shots from distance and by making pinpoint passes. Where the Hounds have really struggled has been lacking a scoring threat at the top of the attack. Most of the players in the target forward spot have not been much of a threat against the better defensive teams. Attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto, just 22 years old, has shined and developed as the season has gone on, but his biggest struggles have been against some of the savvy, bigger defenders from teams like Louisville and Rochester who are physical and have been tightly marking him. Moloto and Kerr, undersized, but dynamic when they can keep the ball on the ground, have to be in top form creating dangerous opportunities in the attacking third for the Riverhounds to have any chance.
And even in the games where they’ve held a lead against Charlotte and Louisville, they will have to find a way to finish strong.
Bottom line is that the Riverhounds will have to figure a way to crack three of the better defensive sides — and get results in every match to stay in the playoff race.
It may be difficult, but not impossible. Maybe a little bit of desperation and increased focus will help turn the tide, and change their fortunes in these tightly contested battles.
Otherwise, they’ll be missing out on the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
Pittsburgh Soccer Report’s John Krysinsky will have a complete preview of the Riverhounds-Louisville City match on Saturday morning.