ANALYSIS: Can Riverhounds Make A Playoff Run?

SERGIO
 Sergio Campbell (left) has had a solid season for the Riverhounds (Phil Didion for WCPO).

UPDATE:  There will be no edition of BREAKING DOWN THE HOUNDS this week — for a full preview of the Riverhounds-Rhinos game on Saturday, at 7 p.m. at Shalen’s Stadium, you can visit the Hounds Gameday Preview Sheet.   

When the Pittsburgh Riverhounds defeated FC Montreal last Saturday night it seemed as if a monkey had come off the back of new coach Dave Brandt – and the entire team.

Now, the question is — can the Riverhounds make a serious push to the playoffs?

Brandt earned his first win thanks to a crisp attacking effort – primarily in the first half — that included a pair of first half goals by Kevin Kerr and Corey Hertzog.  In addition, the Hounds defended well enough as a unit in the second half to hold on for their second win of the season.

Looking at the USL Standings – and seeing where they stand with 2-7-3 record, good for nine points, there is still some hope for the Hounds.

In 2014, the Hounds got off to a miserable 1-9-5 start, but they rallied the rest of the way under interim coach Niko Katic, winning eight of 11 games in July and August until running out of steam losing the final two of the season at Charleston and at home to Arizona to fall short of the playoffs by two points.

If they had grabbed one win in those final two games in 2014 the outcome could have been different.

That turnaround started with a 3-2 win at Rochester’s Shalen Stadium (goals from Brian Fekete, Rob Vincent and Jose Angulo), at place they had never won before in 19 previous meetings.   Fekete and Vincent scored on perfectly placed corner kicks from Danny Earls – and Angulo drew a penalty kick in the 83rd minute.   More on how the 2014 team compares to this year — see below under “schedule.”

The bottom line is that there’s work to do  — a lot of work, but if you are looking at the glass half full — this current team can indeed turn things around with 18 (of 30) league games remaining — if you take the following into consideration.

THEY’VE BEEN COMPETITIVE IN MOST EVERY GAME

If you’ve watched most Riverhounds games this year, you will notice that there have been very few games where they were completely outplayed and outclassed.

Five of their seven losses have been by one goal, and the other two by two goals.   They’ve yet to post a shut-out, but have only surrendered more than two goals twice.   Overall, they are a minus seven in goal differential — having surrendered 17 goals to scoring 10.  At this time last year, they had notched 25 goals.

The Louisville game at Slugger Field in late April comes to mind as a game they were outplayed, yet they somehow pulled off a 2-2 draw (and really should have won – conceding a goal in the 85th minute) – and two losses to NY Red Bulls they played well for about 70 minutes, but fell apart or had nothing left in the tank for final 20 minutes of those games.   The 3-1 loss at Richmond, Brandt’s third as coach, was clearly their worst performance of the year.

They corrected the sloppy effort in Richmond, with a sharp win at home against the worst team in USL, FC Montreal.

With four full games under his belt — and players adjusted to his coaching methods and having a greater understanding of what he wants to do tactically — Coach Brandt now has the challenge to bring out the best in his team every game.

“We need passion, we need emotion and that’s been lacking in this group though it’s one of the key things,” said Brandt, who was seen in the huddle before the start of the game getting his players pumped up.

“Obviously you need more than that. You can’t just come with passion and emotion — you need substance.”

Brandt wants to see some fight in this team — but to add substance they will have to generate and make the most of quality scoring chances — and must minimize and eliminate costly mistakes.

PERSONNEL / ROSTER 

Going into the season, it looked like depth might be one of the strengths for the Hounds. Despite fairly stable roster — with a few significant changes here and there (Romeo Parkes anyone?) — it’s been a struggle to get this team to really mesh and get clicking on the field.

If you are looking for drastic changes — I doubt we’ll see much more in terms of roster turnover for the Hounds from this point forward.

So, what you see is what you get with this group.

Lets take a closer look at what the roster looks like at this point.

Hertzog is a perfect example of a player who will be looked to maximize opportunities.  By no means will he need to be the guy to carry the scoring load, but if he’s a bit more productive, it can really boost their chances.

Hertzog is the Hounds current leader in goals scored (4), continues to be the featured center forward – and with his strong work rate — he will continue to have the chance to bag more goals.    With a terrific finish for the go-ahead goal against Montreal, could this be what he needs to breed confidence to finish on more opportunities?

We may also finally see the return of Danny Earls.

As former Riverhounds team President Richard Nightingale commented on his blog earlier this week, there may be too many lofty expectations put on the return of Earls at this point in the season.  Earls served as the Hounds team captain from 2014-15, but has not played this year after signing with the team in early June.

If anything, the return of Earls provides more midfield depth, provides a veteran player that leads by example, serves quality set pieces, and gives Brandt and the coaching staff more flexibility in terms of line-up, substitutions and tactics. In the 4-3-3 that Brandt has used in recent weeks, it will be interesting to see where the primarily left-footed Earls would be slotted.

With the exception of the Toronto FC II game, midfielder Lebo Moloto has struggled to regain his form from late 2015 when he was one of the most dangerous attacking players on the Riverhounds.  If Moloto is playing at a high level — in playmaker mode — he makes everyone around him better.

Center back Sergio Campbell, former Columbus Crew MLS SuperDraft pick, returned after serving a one-game suspension for red card.   Campbell’s return showed how he can be in solidifying the Hounds back line, as he did a nice job handling Montreal’s young attackers. You could make the argument that Campbell’s been the Hounds best player this season.

There’s still some questions about whether Willie Hunt should be alongside Campbell at center back or at outside back, where he played for the first time this year against Montreal.   Brandt paired 6-foot-3 Campbell with 6-foot-4 Karstin Smith in the middle.

He also added Marshall Hollingsworth to the other outside back starting spot. Hollingsworth returned to Pittsburgh on Saturday after making his debut in Columbus (scored a goal in Open Cup win over Tampa Bay on June 16).  Hollingworth hadn’t played with Pittsburgh since suffering a concussion on May 14 at Cincinnati.

On Saturday, both Hunt and Hollingsworth were effective in getting forward and adding numbers to the Hounds attack.    With some injuries on the Crew roster, there’s a chance that Hollingsworth may spend more time in Columbus as the season goes forward.

By all indications and following trends, Mike Green and Drew Russell will continue to be plugged into the lineup– playing big minutes in multiple positions.   Zak Boggs provides a steady veteran presence, who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and plays hard.

DuWayne EwartIsaiah Schafer, Alex Harlley, James Bissue, Nick Kolarac and Columbus Crew’s Ben Swanson have all seen limited minutes – but still appear to be options in the line-up either for spot start or as subs for the rest of the season.

The addition of brothers Nick and Jack Thompson, who hail from Brandt’s alma mater, Messiah College, providing the team with players who are familiar with Brandt’s system.

The fact that both had seen playing time in their first game they were eligible, indicates that we might be seeing more of them in the lineup.

Steven Okai, Jordan Murrell and Conor Branson, have all seen decrease in playing time, particularly since Brandt has taken over the reins.

In goal, it looks like Mauricio Vargas has become the primary starter, with Hunter Gilstrap serving as the team’s venerable back-up.

SCHEDULE

If you look at a season that is looking eerily similar to this one (at this point), in 2014 the Hounds didn’t win a game until mid-June, and their second game on July 1.   The 2016 they are a bit ahead of that (by one measly point and one win as the 2014 team was 1-7-4, while the current team is 2-7-3 after 12 games).    Part of the reason for the turnaround in 2014, was a friendly schedule – especially having a lot of home games.

With 18 games to go, the Hounds have opportunity to still salvage THIS season too.

After this week’s trip to take on the defending USL Champs Rochester Rhinos, who are in seventh place, the schedule could be fairly favorable.

They will be playing four of six games at home in July, and against most teams that are all within striking distance in the standings.   In fact, the Hounds only have three more games (Louisville – August 5 at home, and FC Cincy 9/14 and 9/24 also both at home) remaining against teams in the top four spots in the 14-team Eastern Conference standings.

Here’s a look at the schedule in the coming month:

  • Sat, June 25                       at Rochester (7th place – 18 points)
  • Mon, July 5                        City Islanders (11th place – 13 pts)
  • Sat, July 10                         at Bethlehem Steel FC (10th place – 17 pts)
  • Thur, July 14                      Richmond (6th place – 19 pts)
  • Sun, July 17                        City Islanders (11th place – 13 pts)
  • Sat, July 23                         Charlotte (5th place – 21 pts)
  • Sat, July 30                         at Wilmington (9th place – 17 pts)

By no means will they be facing any juggernauts — but also as we’ve found out — no game is easy either.

So there you have it.

If your glass is half-full — the outlook for the Riverhounds still has a faint view of the playoffs.

 

 

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