With a 1-1 draw at Charlotte on Saturday evening, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds completed the first of what will be a number of busy weeks ahead in a season that will include 32 regular season games, and additional U.S. Open Cup competition.
This means there will be a fair share of mid-week matches, and when speaking with team captain Kevin Kerr about this, he didn’t seem to be too fazed by the grind of the season.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the short turnaround. Sometimes people tend to over analyze it,” said Kerr.
“I tend to steer away from that mentality. If you look at the top teams in the world, every week they’re playing two-three games a week between league play and Cup games.”
After an impressive 2-1, come-from-behind win at Charleston on Saturday, April 8, the Hounds came back home hoping to build on that win.
Instead, what they produced was a bit of a whimper, despite a promising start (more on that in a bit) losing 2-1 to a St. Louis FC squad that wasn’t dominant by any means, but found the back on the net twice on goals from their featured forwards, Jose Angulo on his return to Highmark Stadium, and Christian Volesky.
The Hounds picked themselves up after the disappointing loss at home (they are 0-2-1 in three home games), and scraped their way through a mostly sluggish draw at Charlotte on Saturday again, despite another positive start.
Still, in the big picture, compared to recent seasons when slow starts haunted the franchise, the Riverhounds are sitting right in the middle of the USL’s Eastern Conference table (1-2-2, 5 points).
After an eight day stretch that included three games which the Hounds showed a lot of fight on the road, and continued disappointment at home, here are some of my takeaways.
WHAT WE LEARNED
Banjo Hot Starts
Not only did Key Banjo make his first pro start at Highmark Stadium on Wednesday, but he scored within the first five minutes of the game, thanks in part to a terrible give-away by the St. Louis keeper.
Still, the first-year pro advanced into the box and slid a nifty, well-placed shot past Deuaoa Gorrick to give Pittsburgh an early 1-0 edge.
“I wasn’t expecting that, but the high-pressure worked,” said Banjo after the game. It just came to my feet and I had to finish that because that’s early. We have to set the tone,” said Banjo after the contest.
Later in the first half, after former Hounds standout Angulo leveled the contest with a brilliant finish in the box after finding time and space (although surrounded by Hounds defenders), to put one past Keasel Broome, Banjo then provided a dangerous effort that nearly gave the Hounds the lead.
Dribbling to his right, just getting into the right side of the box, he unleashed a shot that eluded Gorrick, pinged off the left post. Gorrick quickly recovered and grabbed the ball that bounced off the post.
In the second game in four nights, making his second career start at Charlotte, Banjo again showed his deft scoring ability in the early moments.
Even earlier than his first goal.
Once again, the former Towson University and University of Maryland/Baltimore County standout made a dashing run on the right side, and again, he delivered a shot that sailed beyond Cody Mizell, Charlotte’s goalkeeper, into the left upper corner of the goal.
It was a brilliant, well-placed strike.
Banjo wasn’t able to score in his first two appearances off the bench, but has since made the most of his first two starts and coming off the bench against Charleston.
Partnering with, and learning from veterans Corey Hertzog and Kevin Kerr since early in the preseason has helped Banjo develop a lot of confidence.
“They’ve talked to me throughout the whole season. I’ve been unlucky with scoring. I get my chances, but I just happen to not finish them. I get very unlucky, but today, it was my day,” said Banjo after scoring his first goal against Saint Louis.
While Hertzog offers the Hounds a savvy, veteran forward who can roam around a bit more, make runs off the ball and find his spots for goal scoring chances, Banjo has shown confidence in creating his own chances, but also can be forward that can hold up the ball.
Banjo, a former MLS SuperDraft selection of Vancouver Whitecaps who holds duel citizenship between the United States and Nigeria, has provided the Hounds with the luxury of moving Kerr back into the midfield where he can be more of a key link between the central midfielders that Hounds Coach Dave Brandt has utilized (Victor Souto has been the most consistent player out of that group, but also has included Mike Green, Stephen Okai, Danny Earls, along with Columbus players on-loan Abuchi Obinwa and Ben Swanson).
Banjo’s insertion into the line-up in the 50th minute of the Charleston game, earlier than in the first two games when he was brought in late, had an immediate impact on the Hounds attack.
Within minutes of entering in the come-from-behind win, Banjo hooked up with Marshall Hollingsworth on a give-and-go, with a nice one-touch assist that led to the equalizer.
With Kerr in the midfield, the Hounds were able to find the game winner in the late stages, as the team captain found Hertzog in the box on a low-lining cross in stoppage time.
“You just have to be ready at any point. It’s not a matter of starting or coming in. You just always have to have an impact on the game,” added Banjo.
It appears that Banjo has earned a spot as an integral part of the Hounds attack.
SHORT LIVED LEADS
While Banjo has scored twice early in the last two games, the rest of the Hounds attack has gone mostly limp for two straight games after a lively second half effort at Charleston.
I’m not sure if getting a lead early in the game has caused them to hold back a sense of urgency or not, but they do seem to be lacking something after they go up a goal.
The Hounds have also only kept a lead for about 20 minutes total after both Banjo goals.
Even when they scored the goal at Charleston in the 91st minute, the Battery responded with what looked like a goal but were just offside on a diagonal ball played toward the far post.
Prior to the goal at the end of the Charleston game, the Hounds had never held the lead in the first 270 plus minutes of action this season.
One consistent theme after taking leads, the Hounds have found a way to give away goals. It also seems as if they drop back into a very cautious mode.
Brandt certainly wants to make sure his team is in a strong defensive shape, but they can’t be too content.
Much of this may stem from the fact that the Hounds are not a team that’s going to be effective knocking it around and being a bit more patient. Against Charlotte, they were badly out-possessed, letting the Independence have 71 percent of the possession.
It’s one thing to take a lead, then continue to frustrate an opponent by keeping the ball and possession. It’s another thing to sit back too much, and wait for more countering chances.
There was some promise though, later in the second half of the Charlotte game, when an exhausted Banjo was subbed out, replaced by the energetic Hollingsworth. With Kerr shifting to forward, the Hounds began to show some signs of extended possessions and patience with the ball particularly when entering the attacking third.
If the quick strike chances aren’t there, it might pay for the Hounds to be a little more patient.
MAKESHIFT BACK LINE PERSEVERES
It’s becoming clear that three players have provided a steady presence on the back line: center back Jamal Jack, and outside backs Rich Balchan and Taylor Washington. With injuries and suspensions, the rest of the group has been a revolving door of contributors.
Yet, somehow, the Hounds have persevered through the first five games with a unit getting by on temporary solutions.
While the Hounds surrendered a goal on Saturday at Charlotte, from a penalty drawn from goalkeeper Trey Mitchell coming out, sliding to undercut the ankles of Independence midfielder David Spies, they’ve managed to do a decent job of limiting chances against a team lacking significant threats in the top of the attack.
But a team with two potent scoring threats (i.e. like St. Louis with Angulo and Volesky) were able to burn Pittsburgh for two goals.
Brandt will be able to bolster the troops with two big “ifs” from the current roster.
If Gale Agbossoumonde can come back and to peak fitness
And, if Ryan Adeleye can ever get back on the field as he’s been nursing hamstring problems.
Filling in the other center back spot, is the big guy on loan from MLS’ Minnesota United, Joe Greenspan, who is expected to be in Pittsburgh through early/mid May. Greenspan has been a solid fill in — naturally handling his share of balls in the air. There was one sequence on Saturday which it looked like he tried some fancy footwork near the box with the ball, then tried to deliver a shot from the top of the box but it was blocked.
The Hounds also were able to bring in Lalas Abubakar — a first round MLS SuperDraft selection this year — on loan from Columbus for the Charleston game, but that was only a one-game loan, although we could possibly see Abubakar back at some point this season as he’s yet to see any action for the Crew.
Jack Thompson was used a couple games to fill in for Balchan, who got hurt in the Charleston game, on the right outside back spot. It was odd to watch Thompson make a run down the right flank in the St. Louis game, then turn to his left to send a ball in. At that point, I turned to the guys and gals in the press box and inquired: “why is Thompson (a strong left footed player), playing right back?”
Brandt must feel that Thompson was the best option at that time, and indeed, the Hounds back line has been patch work.
The rigors and length of the season will force these type of situations more often than not, so the Hounds will have to hope that this will be as scattered as it gets, and they can develop more consistency as coach Brandt can have a good idea of who he is penciling into the line-up cards on a regular basis.
ON THE HORIZON
The Hounds now get a full week of practice to prepare for another road trip to another playoff team from a year ago that doesn’t look quite on par with recent past results — Richmond Kickers.
After an opening night win over Harrisburg, the Kickers have lost three straight, including the last two at home.
The Hounds sit right on the playoff line (it’s April so in the bigger picture, standings really don’t matter — right?), in the middle of the pack of the USL’s Eastern Conference.
The Hounds now hit a stretch of games spread out over the next three weeks that are eminently winnable. Building confidence, getting a first home win and adding more points in their quest to finish in the top half of the conference are there for the taking.
NEXT THREE GAMES:
AT RICHMOND – April 22 5 p.m.
vs HARRISBURG – April 29 7 p.m.
vs TORONTO FC II – May 3 7 p.m.
Then, after 10 days off, the Hounds return to action, playing four games in 11 days in mid-May, if you include a midweek first-round U.S. Open Cup match at either Grand Rapids or Chicago FC.