The Pittsburgh Riverhounds battled FC Cincinnati to a hard-fought scoreless draw on Wednesday night at Highmark Stadium.
With the result, however the Hounds (6-16-6, 24 points) very faint playoff hopes evaporated into the muggy Pittsburgh night, despite a solid defensive effort against FC Cincinnati (14-6-8) one of the top teams in the USL’s Eastern Conference.
“It was a quality opponent tonight, one full of attackers,” said Dave Brandt, Riverhounds Head Coach.
“Our back four played really well, did an excellent job. But we were just not able to open up, press and go forward the way I would like to. Depending on the opponent, we can get forward more — but this was a tough opponent and it was important that we clamped down defensively to stay in the game.”
FCC had the slight edge in shots taken at 10-8. Mitch Hildebrandt picked up a pair of saves for FCC while his counterpart Zach Steffen posted three in the tie.
WELL PLAYED GAME – BUT NO QUALITY CHANCES FOR HOUNDS
This might have been the best the Hounds have played this year against a quality opponent with one exception — they couldn’t create any quality shots.
In an evenly played game, the Riverhounds did well to possess the ball, but were unable to create any dangerous shots on FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt.
FC Cincinnati generated a few dangerous efforts into the box, but the Hounds back line held its own, particularly Sergio Campbell, who was marking Sean Okoli, one of the top scorers in USL with 15 goals.
In the 65th and 68th minutes, FCC put together a pair of golden chances.
On a counter attack, Andrew Wiedeman had a point blank header on goal that Hounds goalkeeper Zach Steffen had to react quickly to make a superb save.
See for yourself…
Moments later, FCC were able to poke a ball up in a crowded battle for the ball on the endline past a pair of Hounds defenders, and Casey Townsend redirected the ball toward an open goal, but hit the bar.
It seemed like FCC were daring the Hounds to shoot for distance at times.
Kevin Kerr had a pair of chances when he had space with room to shoot from just outside the box, but his shot attempts went over the bar.
Lebo Moloto was very active outplaying FCC’s midfield at times, and creating some quality balls forward, but was never a threat to score, even as it looked like he has some open spaces in front of the box.
Is Moloto lacking confidence that he had a year ago in the final third? Sure looks like it.
With Kerr coming forward more in the final 12 minutes — and Nick Thompson in for Chevaughn Walsh and Jack Thompson in for Cristian Martinez, the Hounds pressed hard in the final stages to try to keep their faint playoff chances alive by getting a late goal, setting up a pair of late corner kick opportunities.
“I am always one to protect, but we were for sure trying to get that goal in the end,” said Brandt.
“I thought we pushed them a bit. We were tired, but so were they.”
In the end, it just wasn’t enough.
CAMPBELL SHINES AGAINST OKOLI
The best battle of the night was between Campbell, a former Columbus Crew first round MLS SuperDraft pick, and Okoli, who has 15 goals this season.
While the FCC forward had a few shots — his best chances were from distance. The 6-foot-3 Campbell matched Okoli’s speed and was right there with him on each ball in the air.
“It was probably his best 90 minute performance. No lapses in concentration. No mistakes,” said Brandt, of his center back who has been a stable force in the middle for the Hounds for much of the season.
Despite being the top pick for Columbus Crew, Campbell didn’t get a lot of playing opportunities in his first season as a pro. But after signing with the Hounds in the spring, Campbell’s made the most of playing a full season.
“I know he’s a really good player, but I wasn’t really worried about it that much,” said Campbell after the game, as he deflected the credit for his effort in keeping Okoli from scoring.
“We were really focused as a team. My teammates really helped and we really did it together. It really wasn’t about me.”
Brandt feels that Campbell turned the corner in his first full season as a professional.
“Sergio made things happen. Maybe some of his struggles were early in year, lack of concentration, led to mistakes. But he’s been a very good player for us this year,” added Brandt.
If the Hounds want to build for next year, it would be a big bonus if they can hold on to Campbell.
BRANDT’S APPROACH WON’T CHANGE
The reality is that the Hounds chances of making the playoffs slipped away months ago.
The Hounds did show a lot of fight in the past month, especially in home matches, where they are now unbeaten in the last three games at Highmark Stadium.
In the end, while the Hounds competed hard against a top team, FCC’s back line was also up to the task as well to pick up an important road point, to keep them in the mix to host a home playoff game before their USL record-breaking fans.
But the Hounds still have two games left — and Brandt wants to keep working to build a winning mentality.
“I’ve been operating with the same mindset the whole time. I don’t know that situation will change anything,” said Brandt after the result knocked his team out of a chance to claim the 8th and final USL Eastern Conference playoff spot.
“We’re going to move ahead with the way we’ve been doing things. With integrity. The best way possible. I’m a big picture guy, and we need to continue to produce quality results the best possible way we can.”
When asked if he feels he’s getting closer to seeing this team start to take what he wants to see, he exuded some positive vibes.
“In some ways — absolutely. And in some ways — what you see on the field tactically, we’ve got to do what’s best for this group,” explained Brandt.
“In other ways, we’ve made a lot of progress. The mentality. The level of concentration. Who we are. Those things are important stuff and I think we’ve made progress. It’s been a good four-five weeks. In terms of coming together, see where guys are. It’s been decent.””
Having interviewed the University of Pittsburgh’s new men’s coach, Jay Vidovich a few times this season, it struck me how Brandt expressed some very similar takes on how USL players go about their business as Vidovich did to me in August.
The first year Pitt coach, who has coached Wake Forest to multiple College Cup appearances and a National Championship coached for one season with Portland Timbers organization and was the head coach of the USL team T2. In the preseason Vidovich said that he felt that many of his college players had better “professional habits” and approach and concentration to the game are better than many young players at the USL level.
Brandt echoed this sentiment on Wednesday night.
“I think challenge at the pro level is that some of these guys think ‘that’s kids stuff’ and ‘that’s college stuff’,” stated Brandt.
“I happen to believe that’s not the case. Don’t just punch a clock and come to work in athletics. I don’t care what level you are at.”
Brandt will be out there coaching with a lot of high energy and he will expect the same out of his players in the final two games.
The teams will meet again, at Highmark Stadium on Saturday, September 24 in the season finale.
First though, the Riverhounds will travel to Lehigh Valley for the third and final match of the year against their new in-state foes, Bethlehem Steel FC on Sunday — for a 4 p.m. kickoff.