Willie Hunt scored twice in the Riverhounds’ 4-2 OT playoff loss at Red Bull Arena in September. (Photo Courtesy Liz Berie)
Pittsburgh Riverhounds (0-2-3, 3 points) vs New York Red Bulls II (3-1-2, 11 points)
Highmark Stadium – 7 p.m. Kickoff
http://www.riverhounds.com / YouTube
In a 2015 season filled with memorable games for the Riverhounds — that included Keystone Derby that produced four unforgettable clashes with Harrisburg, and a U.S. Open Cup run that saw an overtime defeat to Major League Soccer’s D.C. United before a frenzied crowd at Highmark Stadium — they also took part in a series of exciting matches with a first-year Red Bulls II side.
The teams split in the 2015 regular season, thanks to a late Andrew Jean-Baptiste goal in the 92nd minute that gave the Red Bulls a 3-2 win at home, then the Hounds returned the favor before a sell-out crowd on July 4th at Highmark Stadium to ring up a 3-0 win.
The teams met in the first round of the USL Playoffs at Red Bull Arena. The Hounds took the lead twice on the strength of Willie Hunt finishes from set pieces. The second goal put the Hounds in the lead in extra time. But the young, talented Red Bulls responded, exploding for three goals in overtime to win 4-2.
Maybe the most vivid image of that loss was the disappointment that came with the end to the Riverhounds season — and a few players sitting on the field at Red Bull Arena in distraught.
Numerous key players from that team return for another season with Red Bulls II, and they’ve started off the new season with an impressive run – a five-game unbeaten run and 418-minute shutout streak, until they lost 2-0 to Charlotte on Sunday at home.
As for the Hounds current state of affairs, they picked up a pair of draws in Louisville and Charleston last week, and are still seeking their first win of the season on Saturday at Highmark Stadium.
Hounds forward Romeo Parkes is on a four-game scoring streak. The Jamaican – who this week was named to the 40-man preliminary roster for the Copa America Centenario alongside fellow Riverhound Sergio Campbell.
Captain Kevin Kerr returned to action, playing a full match at Charleston, where he anchored the central midfield — moving away from the outside right attacking midfield spot he played in primarily in 2015 and early 2016.
MORE ON NYRBII
The Red Bulls II continue to be one of the stronger Major League Soccer franchises fielding their own team in United Soccer League (USL).
They are coming off a 2-0 loss to Charlotte Independence on Sunday afternoon at Red Bull Arena for their first loss of the season. Despite the loss, NYRBII stand in third place of the 15-team Eastern Conference with a 3-1-2 record.
Brandon Allen has been the team’s top goal scorer — with three goals including two in the opener in March against Toronto FC II. Haitian National Derrick Etienne also has a goal and two assists — as both have played in every one of the RBII’s games thus far this season.
Former Robert Morris standout, Jamaican midfielder Devon “Speedy” Williams is in his second year with the Red Bulls organization, and has played in four of the RBII’s six games this season.
The Red Bulls have split goalkeeper duties between Rafael Diaz and Ryan Meara.
In Friday night’s MLS match against Orlando City, none of the regular Red Bulls II players made the trip, so the Hounds should be expecting a strong RBII line-up on Saturday.
TACTICS & STRATEGIES
Last year the Riverhounds games against teams that preferred to play a more open style of play led to some very entertaining games.
This year, they are a little less willing to get into wide open games — and have relied on a counter attack — and mostly the goal scoring ability of Parkes.
Ironically, while the Hounds were one of the league’s highest scoring outfits and scored many goals in the run of play, they relied on set pieces to take the lead twice at Red Bull Arena in the September playoff game. However, by the beginning of the second 15-minute OT, the young Red Bulls speed — particularly on the flanks, strength in the box and relentless pressure eventually wore down the Hounds.
The Red Bulls II, when having a full complement of players who are in a second season together, have impressed this season.
Against expansion Bethlehem Steel FC, and they scored two goals in the first seven minutes with high pressure and relentless speed.
The Hounds have already struggled at times this season with lesser teams that bring a high work rate and high press (Orlando City B comes to mind). Their goalkeeper (most likely Hunter Gilstrap, who has started the first five games) and back line must be in sync and getting the ball played out from the back quickly and efficiently. Having Kevin Kerr in a holding midfield role where he started last game should help immensely with maintaining higher possession rate and with proving leadership to better connecting midfield with the back line. The center back tandem of Hunt and Campbell look to be getting better with each game.
Moving Kerr away from the spot he occupied on the right outside attacking midfield, opens up the options for Head Coach Mark Steffens to add players like Marshall Hollingsworth along with Parkes, Lebo Moloto, Corey Hertzog to the top of the attack.
Steffens knows that his team most likely can’t afford to sit back and continue to absorb pressure like they did for much of the Louisville game — and stretches against Charleston. Maybe being at home, and having a full week between games, will help the Hounds get back to being a possession team and dictate the tempo of play in their favor.
“We’re not far from catching fire. We do have the ability. It’s just getting the right guys and the chemistry we keep talking about and just getting the right guys clicking,” said Steffens.