RED BULLS AT A GLANCE:
Despite dropping their final two games of the season, the Sugar Free Red Bulls hung on to keep the 4th seed in the USL’s Eastern Conference with 42 points, just one point better than Pittsburgh.
Cameroonian midfielder Marius Obekop has led New York’s offense this year with six goals and three assists. John Wolyniec‘s side enters the postseason on the back of two road defeats at F.C. Montreal and Rochester.
The Red Bulls have shown to be a very dangerous team, and are effectively utilizing the depth of their MLS team roster. The Riverhounds will be seeing a very athletic side with some dangerous scoring threats. Being that the Red Bulls MLS team is playing on Friday night in Orlando, there might be a possibility that some of the players that don’t play on Friday, could be on their roster on Saturday.
The teams met twice during the regular season with the hosts emerging victorious on both occasions. Pittsburgh had a late chance to break a 2-2 tie at Red Bull Arena on May 3 before conceding a stoppage-time winner via Anthony Wallace’s vicious 20-yard volley. Rob Vincent‘s double and a strike from Tyler Pasher earned the Hounds a 3-0 win at Highmark Stadium on July 4.
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds return to the United Soccer League playoffs Saturday evening with a trip to Harrison, New Jersey riding a five-game unbeaten streak, including a 2-1 playoff and Keystone Derby clinching victory at Harrisburg last Saturday.
The Riverhounds have made the playoffs in four the last six seasons, but have not won a postseason game since 2004 (more on that below).
First-half goals from South African playmaker Lebo Moloto and Scottish midfielder Kevin Kerr were just enough for the Hounds to stave off a late rally by the Harrisburg City Islanders in last weekend’s decisive regular season closer.
Moloto’s breakthrough in Harrisburg last weekend brought his tally to six goals during the regular season and four in the last eight games. His sparkling form has added a third attacking weapon to Steffens’ armory at a time when the goals have slowed for early season pacesetters. Vincent’s 18 goals saw him finishing the regular season as the USL’s third top scorer despite playing in midfield. Kerr also finished in the top 10 with 10 goals while finishing second in assists with nine.
Recent improvements on the Hounds’ back line were also reflected in the USL’s final goalkeeping statistics. Rookie Calle Brown ranked fourth in shutouts-per-game and goals-against-average after registering five clean sheets in his 14 appearances.
Extra time and penalty kicks will come into play if necessary with the winner traveling to the top-seeded Rochester Rhinos in the conference semifinal on Oct. 3.
“We’ve played them well both times,” said Riverhounds head coach Mark Steffens. “I think it’s a good match-up for us and we’re pretty excited to go up there and play.”
The Hounds are assured of some boisterous backing in New Jersey courtesy of an anticipated 50-plus group of Steel Army supporters making the 14-hour round trip by bus.
ROSTER UPDATE / INJURIES
Steffens should have a full roster to choose from again this weekend. There are no fresh injury concerns following the trip to Harrisburg and there are no suspensions heading into the first round of playoff games.
WHAT TO EXPECT
The most common theme of the Riverhounds season has been their inconsistency. There can be something said for a team coming off a big, emotional road win that could have a cause for a letdown.
But suddenly they have been playing with more consistency in defending, staying organized and have been results oriented since the Charlotte loss. As the playoffs will bring more tightly contested matches, the Riverhounds seem to be ready for the challenge.
The Red Bulls have talented roster, and will establish a high level of play, at a pretty frantic pace, as they did when the first times these two sides met. This should allow for an open, and entertaining brand of soccer.
In the first meeting, the Red Bulls capitalized on Riverhounds mistakes to score a few goals, then breaking a 2-2 tie in stoppage time on Wallace’s first-rate strike. As long as the Hounds stay mistake free in the back, and can get into the attack, utilizing the width of the field, maintaining possession, they should be able to match scoring opportunities and possibly wear down the Red Bulls like they did in the second meeting.
The development of Moloto in the second half of the season as a legit dangerous player on the ball, should help Vincent and Kerr to be able to continue to roam and create scoring opportunities of their own. Vini Dantas has sparkled in the past two games, and some of his combination passes with Kerr and Moloto at Harrisburg showed that he can be a quality target forward. He will be dealing with some very athletic defenders this week, so it will be another challenge for the Hounds.
PROJECTED RIVERHOUNDS STARTING XI
GK – Calle Brown, Anthony Arena, Willie Hunt, Matt Dallman, Sterling Flunder, Danny Earls, Rob Vincent, Kevin Kerr, Boris Zivanovic, Lebo Moloto and Vini Dantas
PREDICTION – 2-1 Riverhounds
RIVERHOUNDS POST SEASON HISTORY
Orlando City curtailed Pittsburgh’s previous playoff appearance with a 5-0 win at the Florida Citrus Bowl in August 2013. Orlando lifted the championship that year with a remarkable 7-4 win over Steffens’ former Charlotte Eagles side in the final.
Pittsburgh’s last postseason win came in the 2004 USL Pro Soccer League Atlantic Division Finals when the Hounds registered 4-0 and 3-1 victories over Harrisburg before falling to the Utah Blitzz at the semifinal stage.
The game will be live streamed on http://www.Riverhounds.com and Pittsburgh Soccer Report’s John Krysinsky will be on hand covering the game — for multiple media outlets including PIttsburgh Tribune-Review. You can follow John’s updates on Twitter @johnkrysinsky