This is not where anyone involved with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds wants to be at this low point in what has been a very tough 2016 season, after a 2-1 loss to the Harrisburg City Islanders in the second leg of the Keystone Derby.
Not the team’s small, but loyal fan base — and the supporters group The Steel Army — who you will see rooting (chanting, singing, and pounding drums passionately) — every single game regardless of the team’s record.
Not the coaching staff, which includes a new Head Coach Dave Brandt, who brings a high-level of intensity to each and every practice, pre-game session and is up and on the sidelines every game.
Not the team’s owner Tuffy Shallenberger and management and staff– who seen and have had lots of changes and turnover — but still have to keep plugging away past the frustrations to put on a positive spin each day and for each game.
Heck, this is not fun even for the media who are following the team and may love a good story — good or bad — to see Pittsburgh’s pro soccer team hit such a low point.
But mostly the team’s players, and especially not team captain Kevin Kerr, who has experienced a full circle of successes and failures here in Pittsburgh since arriving in 2013 when Highmark Stadium opened with so much promise, and excitement.
“The biggest thing is morale and confidence,” Kerr said after the Hounds 2-1 Keystone Derby loss to Harrisburg on Sunday.
“You can’t change confidence. All you can do is keep on going. You see it out there, it’s a team that massively lacks confidence. There’s a lack of trust, there’s a lack of a lot of things. It’s going to be pretty hard to turn it around from here.”
And losing the Keystone Derby — in a season when Harrisburg is going through an equal amount of struggles is what might sting the most.
“If we want to do anything in this league, we have to beat this team,” Kerr said.
In losing to the Harrisburg City Islanders, the Riverhounds now find themselves deep down in near the bottom of USL’s Eastern Conference Standings (2-11-4, 10 points), falling seven points behind the City Islanders (5-13-3, 17 points) and will need a tw0-goal or more win at Harrisburg on August 27 to retain the Keystone Derby Cup.
So what went wrong?
Here are my takeways from Sunday (and the current state of the Riverhounds)
LOSING IS A DISEASE
That video from the Robert Redford Baseball classic “The Natural,” pretty much sums up the state of the Riverhounds right about now.
It seems as if the minute something goes wrong — things only get worse.
Case in point.
In what was a tightly contested game, with the Riverhounds getting their share of shots on goal — and crosses into the box after 25 minutes — then the following happened.
Mike Green tries to head a ball back to goalkeeper Mauricio Vargas in a tight spot to the side of the goal by the end line.
Green’s header doesn’t go right to Vargas — who has to make a lunging attempt to keep the ball from crossing the end line.
Unfortunately, as Vargas pounces on the ball, the linesman ruled that the ball crossed the line, and awarded a corner kick to Harrisburg.
Sure enough, Harrisburg takes advantage of the corner kick opportunity, as the suddenly shaken and disorganized Hounds lost focus –and did a poor job of marking on the far post area, as Dante Leverock came through to head the ball easily into the goal for the 1-0 lead.
Only moments later, the Hounds give up another goal when failing to clear a ball after Vargas made a nice save.
Harrisburg’s Jose Barril got to the rebound — and scooted past a lunging Willie Hunt — and then pushed a shot toward goal that ricocheted off Green’s leg and past Vargas for the goal.
Just like that — in five minutes — the Riverhounds were down 2-0.
“What went wrong is this group’s reaction to when something goes wrong is not conscious, it’s not mental,” Brandt said.
“It’s just a downing of spirits that leads to a lack of concentration, a lack of belief. You see us in a lot of games — for 15 minutes — not being ourselves and that’s caused a problem in a number of games. We lose control and we lose focus.”
And that’s what’s we’ve seen this year with a group as Kerr eluded to in his post-game comments — that the team is lacking trust and confidence.
Brandt, himself new to pro soccer after coaching at the College level for more than 25 years, is a self-professed ‘hands-on” coach.
Brandt feels he can help change the culture and locker room of men — some who have played many years at this level — and others pretty young and new to the professional soccer ranks.
“I think it’s a very un-USL culture, a very un-pro soccer culture, its where you’re not all buddy-buddy and friends. But it’s about absolute unity and humility. It’s not about you. You’re a part of something bigger than yourself,” said Brandt.
“The team, the league, the club. It’s about passion. Sometimes pros struggle with that. I’m asking for these guys to not be too cynical, form a strong brotherhood.”
To have unity, brotherhood and a team that plays together with passion — it can’t be forced.
Sure, players can bond through all kinds of circumstances and changes and continuing pressures– which the Hounds have endured this season — but they need to develop as players and enjoy the game.
They’re not playing for the money as they pretty much are being paid peanuts to play a game they love.
They may be playing for the experience and maybe for a chance to keep a pro soccer career going – and maybe for a few — a chance to go to a higher level.
There are not too many guys who look like they’re enjoying themselves this season.
Who knows — maybe now they will feel that the pressure is off — and Brandt will see that maybe pushing the players hard can be counter-productive (Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants comes to mind as a tough, strict coach who realized that he needed to back off on his players a bit more).
Now that the pressure is off this team (they’re essentially out of the playoff picture — and winning the Keystone Derby is a long shot) — maybe they can relax more and play a bit more with a “nothing to lose” mentality.
There’s nothing more fun to watch than a soccer team — eleven players on the pitch that are clicking on all cylinders.
That’s something we haven’t seen here in quite a while.
BRANDT CONTINUES TO TINKER
The Riverhounds came into the match with Harrisburg unable to score goals.
They went over four full games without scoring a goal. That’s 360-plus minutes.
Brandt has tried 4-4-3 — and on Thursday vs Richmond — he even went with 4-2-3-1 that worked well under previous coach Mark Steffens.
He’s said he will keep trying different things, with mostly the same personnel.
On Sunday, he went with a 4-4-2 formation, putting Zak Boggs and Corey Hertzog at the two forwards, and assembled same midfield group he’s been using in the past three games, Danny Earls, Kerr, Jack Thompson and Lebo Moloto.
The results were mostly the same.
They came out looking fairly sharp early. There were a handful of shots on and around target in the first 25 minutes.
“We hadn’t scored in three games with one up top, so I’m a big believer — I talked to the team about this — in what I call firing with bullets, not cannons,” Brandt said after the game when I asked him about going with 4-4-2.
“You fire a lot of bullets. You have to when you’re in a situation like this to see what works, and they’re all within range. When you find your target, boom, that’s when you’ve got it.”
“We don’t quite have it yet.”
After conceding two goals, they came out on the attack in the second half and finally Kerr helped end the drought in the 60th minute — after receiving a nice pass into the box from Hertzog — drilling a shot to right side of goal and bringing life back to the match — and the Keystone Derby.
There were some additional chances late. Drew Russell pinged a shot off the corner in the late stages — and in stoppage time Kerr flicked a ball over to the right side to Nick Thompson, who volleyed a pass to Corey Hertzog who headed a ball into the goal.
But despite pleading the case with the officials, the Hounds were offside.
And again, on the short end of the scoreboard.
RESULT ASIDE — THIS WAS WHAT WE WANT IN KEYSTONE DERBY
Unlike the first game played between the two teams on July 4, this game at least had plenty of action and excitement — along with some hard physical play and lots of passion on both sides of the ball.
While the result didn’t go the Hounds way — and even though it wasn’t anywhere near a sellout crowd — at least it ‘felt’ like a Keystone Derby game that we’ve seen in recent years.
The Steel Army — sitting in the East End of the stadium in the Paul Child Stand, were in top form throughout the match.
After watching the Hounds falter in the first half, I made a point to walk over to where the Army is during the match.
They were — as they always are — giving it their all. They were loud. Drums pounding. Chants going. And cheering the Hounds on to produce a comeback.
“It’s unbelievable, and it sounds stupid, but it almost makes it harder. With fans like that you just want to give them something for what they do,” said Kerr.
“You have to give back. And this is the worst night for that.”
And to add to the rivalry, a few Harrisburg fans brought a banner that hung on the river side of the field under the scoreboard that read “Drown Those River Rats”
After last year’s two remarkable come-from-behind wins, most notably “Miracle on the Mon” finish on May 29, which the Hounds came back from 3-0, 4-2, and 5-3 (in stoppage time) deficits — anything is possible when these two clubs play.
Harrisburg held on though to get the upper hand as the teams will play one more time, in the State Capital on August 27.
And yet for the Riverhounds despite this bad result — all is not lost.
There is a flickering of hope..
A win at Harrisburg by two (or more goals) will keep the Keystone Derby Cup in Pittsburgh for the second consecutive year.
It’s a tall order for a team that’s scored only one goal in the last 400 minutes.
But this is the Keystone Derby we’re talking about.
Anything is possible.