HARRISBURG, PA – The Pittsburgh Riverhounds hung on to defeat the Harrisburg City Islanders 2-1 to earn a spot in the USL playoffs, and capture the Keystone Derby Cup at Skyline Sports Complex on Saturday.
The Riverhounds scored two first half goals only seconds apart in the 34th minute by Lebo Moloto and Kevin Kerr, and relied on a strong defensive effort to hold off a late surge from Harrisburg.
“It’s what we worked for all year long. We knew it would come down to the wire, And we were up to the task. It’s a great feeling,” said Kerr.
With the win, the Riverhounds (11-9-8, 41 points) finish in fifth place in the USL’s Eastern Conference, setting up a first-round match at New York Red Bulls II next Saturday.
It was a fast-paced start to the game, as both teams exchanged shots and scoring chances. Vini Dantas and Kevin Kerr had shots stopped by City Islanders goalkeeper Nick Noble.
Harrisburg countered early with a dangerous through ball that found Antoine Hoppenot in stride. Riverhounds goalie Calle Brown came off the line and had to extend himself to prevent Hoppenot’s shot from going in.
The Riverhounds settled down and began to establish possession, while keeping a quick pace while remaining on the attack for much of the first half.
Then, before you could blink, the Riverhounds struck not once, but twice in a matter of seconds of the 34th minute.
After a few shots were deflected around the box, Lebo Moloto lined up a one-time shot that sailed past Noble to give the Hounds the 1-0 lead.
Seconds later the Hounds countered quickly after a City Islanders giveaway, Dantas found Kerr in space on the right side. Kerr delivered a blast just inside the near post to beat Noble, and just like that Pittsburgh was leading 2-0.
“We thought, you know what, we are away, and we have to make a statement. We came into this game with the confidence that we can get one in the first half. I didn’t expect two, but we’ll take it,” said Mark Steffens, Riverhounds Head Coach.
“It was 2-0 at the half, we knew that they would be desperate, and starting coming at us. When that started happening, we started dropping guys back. And we defended well as a team.”
Harrisburg brought a barrage of crosses — and shots at Hounds goalkeeper Calle Brown for much of the second half.
The City Islanders’ persistence paid off eventually in the 74th minute, as they cut the lead in half when Antoine Hoppenot redirected a low cross past Brown.
Suddenly, the Riverhounds were on their heels, trying to avoid another City Islanders comeback.
“That was in the back of our minds. That’s when I thought, man, the last 10-15 minutes were going to be the longest of the season,” said Kerr.
Steffens and his staff were prepared. They began numerous substitutions — bringing on Mike Green, Drew Russell, Miro Cabrilo and Fejiro Okiomah to help hold off the Harrisburg pressure.
As the game reached stoppage time, with the Hounds clinging on to the one-goal lead, Harrisburg’s Garritt Pettis tried to catch Pittsburgh off guard after a foul called near the box. Instead of lining up a free kick, he played a quick restart, took a run to the left side of goal, and sent a shot past Brown that just missed the inside of the right post.
Seconds later, City Islanders defender Ken Tribbett unleashed a shot from the right side that again sailed past Brown, but missed the goal by inches to the left.
As the final whistle blew — the Riverhounds players rejoiced and celebrated with the fans that made the trip from Pittsburgh, many of them part of the Steel Army that came by a chartered bus.
“Fantastic. To have our fans here, it really gave our guys that little extra energy,” said Steffens.
The Riverhounds were presented with the Keystone Derby Cup on the field at the conclusion of the game, and then brought the Cup to the stands to give to the Steel Army supporters who will bring the trophy back to Pittsburgh.
With the win, the Riverhounds completed the season unbeaten in their last six games (2-0-4), conceding just five goals. They took the Keystone Derby by winning three of four memorable games.
“I was so pleased with our defensive performance. We’ve gone from being one of the worst teams in the league defending — to in the final third of the season being one of the best,” added Steffens.
The fourth edition of this year’s Keystone Derby between the intrastate rivals that has been filled with high-scoring games and remarkable comebacks by each team, the Hounds defense stood tall in a series that saw a total of 28 goals.
“It was really hard to know what to expect. We won 6-5 at our place, 5-2 in the first game. They had us 4-3 here. But, at this point in season. The way we’ve been playing, I thought it would be a little low scoring.” said Steffens.
Steffens, who’s won two USL titles and coached in seven Championship games feel that his team is playing well enough to make a strong playoff run.
“A lot of teams don’t like to play that last team to get in, because you have everything to gain, and nothing to lose,” said Steffens.
“We’ll be an underdog. And that’s fine. We’ve played well against New York this year, so I like our chances.”
RIVERHOUNDS STARTING XI
Calle Brown (GK), Anthony Arena, Willie Hunt, Matt Dallman, Sterling Flunder, Boris Zivanovic (Drew Russell), Rob Vincent, Danny Earls, Kevin Kerr, Lebo Moloto (Miro Cabrilo, Fejiro Okiomah) and Vini Dantas (Mike Green).
Arena picked up a yellow card in the 44th minute when he slipped and also took down Jason Plumoff.