Pittsburgh Riverhounds (10-9-7, 37 points) vs Rochester Rhinos (15-1-9, 54 points)
ROCHESTER AT A GLANCE
Rochester ran away with this year’s regular season crown due largely to its stout back line limiting opponents to 12 goals.
How remarkable is that? The next best team in defense, the Charleston Battery, has conceded 27 goals.
Bob Lilley’s team has registered 16 shutouts in 25 league games with goalkeeper Brandon Miller being responsible for a dozen of them. Cape Verdean forward Stevaan Dos Santos leads the Rhinos offense with eight goals in his first season in American soccer.
Two previous clashes between the teams this season ended in narrow defeats for the Hounds. Alex Dixon volleyed home a second-half winner in the Rhinos’ 2-1 victory in Pittsburgh on April 4.
Rochester’s Tony Walls netted a late penalty kick on June 27 to score the only goal in the return contest at Sahlen’s Stadium played in a torrential rain storm.
The Riverhounds enter Wednesday’s contest against the USL’s regular season champion on a 3-game undefeated run.
With a win and a tie in their final two games, the Hounds will clinch a spot in the USL Playoffs. They can still secure anywhere from a 4th to 6th place spot inside the playoff line, however, a loss in either of the next two games will severely hamper their chances.
Vini Dantas returned from two months on the sidelines to net last week’s equalizer in Wilmington and bring the Hounds’ tally for the season to 50 goals. It is the first time that the team has reached the half-century mark since the 2003 season. Only Louisville City (54) and the Colorado Springs Switchbacks (53) have found the net more often than the Hounds this year.
INJURY / ROSTER UPDATES
Head coach Mark Steffens has a near complete roster to choose from. Defender Sterling Flunder is the only player guaranteed to miss out through suspension after being sent off in Saturday’s 1-1 tie at the Wilmington Hammerheads.
Ben Newnam and Stephen Okai struggled through Saturday’s first half in North Carolina before being substituted at the interval. Newnam is edging closer to full fitness after straining a calf against the Charleston Battery on Sept. 5. Okai was playing his first game for a month after recovering from a lower left leg injury. Both players are expected to line up against Rochester.
Jamaican national team goalkeeper Ryan Thompson and central defender Fejiro Okiomah both returned to full training Monday after missing time due to respective knee and Achilles tendon problems.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Rochester have not played in 10 days, and I would imagine that Lilley wants to make sure the USL’s regular season champs stay sharp and focused.
The Riverhounds played really well in moments of the second half of the team’s first game way back in April. They also played the Rhinos pretty even in the rain-soaked match in July at Rochester that was decided by a penalty kick for what was a disputed foul in the box.
There is little room for error for Pittsburgh as they must put the foot on the gas — and try to unlock a team that has only surrendered 12 goals all season. The good news is that the Hounds appear to be at full strength. Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr are most effective in the midfield — either on the wings or if necessary in central. They will be key to the attack, and Lebo Moloto, who struggled in his games against Rochester this year, will be important component as well. The Hounds started Kerr at forward on Saturday against Wilmington, but don’t expect that again. Matt Dallman’s been playing well, so it will be interesting to see how Steffens lines up his first eleven.
If he chooses to go with Dallman on the flank, then either Kerr or Vincent may start in the central midfield. However, with Sterling Flunder out of the lineup, Dallman might start at outside back, along Ben Newnam, Willie Hunt and Anthony Arena anchoring the back four. Fejiro Okiomah is another option for Steffens, but he’s been out of the lineup due to injuries.
The options Steffens has at forward will be intriguing too. Vini Dantas came off the bench — and did well at forward to score the equalizing goal on Saturday, but also his size, ability to hold up the ball against bigger defenders, may well put him in the starting target forward spot on Wednesday.
Rochester may be giving some guys the night off, but I still expect to see a very strong line-up and a team intent on finishing the season strong and making sure they surrender as few goals as possible.
WEDNESDAY SCOREBOARD WATCHING
While the Hounds control their own destiny, they can get some help. Wednesday all three USL games will be played by the three teams vying for the last playoff spots in the USL’s Eastern Conference. It will be Richmond’s (38 pts) last game of the season, while Harrisburg (36 pts) will try to keep up with a road encounter at FC Montreal with the early tilt — a 4 p.m. kick. So the Hounds will know prior to playing if Harrisburg pushes ahead of them or not.
Harrisburg at Montreal 4 p.m.
Toronto FC II at Richmond 7 p.m.
PROJECTED HOUNDS STARTING XI
Calle Brown (GK), Willie Hunt, Anthony Arena, Ben Newnam, Matt Dallman, Danny Earls, Stephen Okai, Rob Vincent, Kevin Kerr, Lebo Moloto, Vini Dantas.
Referee: Guido Gonzales Jr.
Assistant Referees: Lucas Feathers, Justin Frear
Fourth Official: Nathaniel Buck
Fans coming to the game are encourage to wear black, as the Steel Army will be in all black as well as the Hounds wearing their black kits.
Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto will be in attendance along with local singer and songwriter Hannah Jenkins. The first 2,500 fans to arrive will also receive a free insulated cooler courtesy of Highmark.
Mayor Peduto will be present for the announcement of a new partnership between Citiparks Pittsburgh BIG League Sports, the Keep On Playing Foundation and the Riverhounds that entails the club’s professional coaches and players running clinics and training youth coaches in the city. Keep On Playing will donate soccer balls and other equipment for young kids.
Murrysville native Hannah Jenkins will play an acoustic set in the sports bar before and after the game and during the halftime interval.
Fans unable to attend Wednesday’s game will be able to follow the action live on Riverhounds.com.
The Hounds end the regular season Saturday at the Harrisburg City Islanders when the inaugural Keystone Derby Cup will also be up for grabs. Riverhounds.com will have live coverage from the Skyline Sports Complex also.