BREAKING DOWN THE HOUNDS: Defending Champs Provide Stingy First Test

Rochester-Champions_large
Rochester Rhinos won the USL Championship in 2015 — and will start its title defense in Pittsburgh on Saturday (Photo courtesy USLsoccer.com)  

Pittsburgh Riverhounds (0-0-0) vs Rochester Rhinos (0-0-0) 

Highmark Stadium – Saturday, April 2 – 7 p.m.

Live Feed – http://www.Riverhounds.com

Follow all game updates – with Soccer Reports John Krysinsky on Twitter.

All fans coming to the game will receive a Riverhounds 2016 Season Commemorative Scarf

WHAT’S AT STAKE

As the other teams in the USL’s Eastern Conference began season play last weekend, this will be the season opener for both teams.

The Rhinos will be looking to defend its league title after a bit of a tumultuous off-season in which they had changed ownership, but not before USL had to step in to force the issue — freezing the team’s operations for a short while.

The Riverhounds came so close to beating the Rhinos in each of their three games last year.  The first game in April was a 1-1 game in the second half, when Rochester took advantage of a play when Rob Vincent was knocked over, and the Hounds stopped playing waiting for a whistle, but converted a game winning goal.   In the return match at Rochester in a torrential rainstorm and awful field conditions that saw standing puddles everywhere, the Hounds were edged on a controversial penalty kick late in the 2nd half.  In the team’s final encounter in the last week of the regular season, Lebo Moloto’s deadly strike from distance gave the Hounds an early lead, but they held on for an important 1-1 tie that kept their playoff hopes alive.

Both teams have some key returning players — and will also feature some new faces — so Saturday’s opener will likely be a test for both to see if Lilly’s defensive-minded Rhinos can take advantage of Steffens’ possession based team not quite being ready and cohesive enough yet.

Last year, the Hounds came out of the gates strong in the first game against Harrisburg, winning 5-2 thanks to a hat trick from Kerr and Vincent adding two goals.

For a complete look at the Riverhounds — you can read my Riverhounds 3-part Season Preview here on Pittsburgh Soccer Report.

ABOUT THE RHINOS 

Yes — much like the Riverhounds, the defending USL Champion Rhinos will feature a a lot of new players.

But they are a team very much built using a formula veteran coach Bob Lilley believes in — defending, scoring opportunistic goals on counters and mistakes and they play a well-organized system with physical players who stymie opponents from developing any kind of attack or rhythm.

Lilly rode that formula to one of the greatest seasons in North American professional soccer history last year, losing just a single match en route to winning the USL Championship, the franchise’s first since 2001.

The Rhinos were a remarkable 20-1-10, the best season of Lilley’s 14-year USL Hall-of-Fame career.

They won the title in dramatic fashion.

Rookie forward Asani Samuels came off the bench to tie the match in the final minutes against the L.A. Galaxy II, then nodded home another leaping header off a corner kick in the 112th minute to win it, 2-1

They lose USL Goalkeeper of the Year Brandon Miller, along with outside backs Pat McMahon (FC Cincinnati) and Onua Obasi (Ottawa/NASL) and All-USL center back Grant Van DeCasteele decided to retire.

Versatile Julian Ringhof (Orange County), forward Colin Rolfe (Real Monarchs) and midfielders Jonny Mendoza (Orlando City) and Alex Dixon (Jacksonville) were other players who likely got pay raises from bigger clubs.

Team MVP Tony Walls, another All-USL pick, is expected back and the Rhinos’ forward line is stacked with Samuels, and last year’s two top scorers Steevan Dos Santos and Christian Volesky (eight goals each). Rhinos Offensive Player of the Year, midfielder Kenardo Forbes (three goals/five assists), and hard-working Mike Garzi, Marcos Ugarte and versatile Sean Totsch also are back.

Defensively the guy to watch is very tall center back Vassilis Apostolopoulos who returns an second-year pro Adam Grinwis replaces Miller.

Look for rookie Ryan James, a third-round pick in MLS of Sporting KC, to make an immediate impact in the midfield, which also features newcomers Sean Reilly and Jordan Becker.

Defensively, 6-foot-2 Joe Farrell (LaSalle) and Dominic Samuel (Southern New Hampshire), a Division II All-American, should contribute.

For a complete breakdown of both teams, including rosters, statistics and other information to get you ready for the opener, the Riverhounds communications team have done a fabulous job this year of preparing a neatly packaged game day preview:

RIVERHOUNDS GAME DAY PREVIEW LINK

 

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