PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Riverhounds have had a trying season thus far, but you can’t call them basement dwellers anymore.
By virtue of their 2-0 victory over the Rochester Rhinos on Friday night at Highmark Stadium, the Riverhounds (3-9-5, 14 points) jumped three spots in the USL Pro league standings, moving from last place in the 14-team league to a tie for 11th with Dayton.
But although climbing out of the league cellar is nice – as is moving within four points of a playoff spot with 11 matches to go – the Hounds will look at the big picture later. In the immediate aftermath on the South Side, they were wrapped up in the emotion of their second consecutive victory.
“It’s a great feeling, but we knew it was going to come, because we’ve put so much work into it,” said Hounds interim coach Niko Katic, who took over for the fired Justin Evans on May 19 with the team at 0-4-3. “It takes time to translate to the field. It’s finally paying off. Tonight it was awesome.”
The Riverhounds survived a difficult first half playing into the wind and the setting sun, then netted a pair of goals off set pieces 15 minutes apart to please a near-sellout crowd on Independence Day. Although Pittsburgh won a U.S. Open Cup match at Highmark Stadium earlier this season, this was its first USL Pro triumph in front of the Steel Army.
“Finally we’re starting to grind as a group and really work for each other,” said Hounds goalie Hunter Gilstrap. “The challenge is to keep that going. It was a better performance and thanks to the fans for coming out. They deserved the win as much as we did.”
With the win, Pittsburgh clinched the season series with Rochester (6-6-6, 24 points) for the first time ever. The Hounds downed the Rhinos 3-2 on June 7 for their first victory of the season.
The Riverhounds are now 3-3-2 since the start of June, but despite their recent success, they had to know they were in for a struggle Friday, as the Rhinos had allowed just 13 goals in 17 matches. To the Hounds’ credit, they waited out Rochester until the 51st minute, when defender Andrew Marshall headed in Danny Earls’ accurate free kick to the near post.
“(Rochester) is probably the most organized defensive team in the league…they’re very difficult to break down,” Gilstrap said. “That’s where set plays come in. We capitalized on those tonight and that was the difference. They definitely had the better of the play in the first half, but we weathered it and took advantage when we could.”
In the 66th minute, defender Alfonso Motagalvan used his side to redirect Matt Dallman’s in-swinging corner kick past Rochester keeper John McCarthy. It was typical playmaking from Dallman, who usually lines up in the midfield but helped anchor the Hounds defense from the right back position on Friday.
“What a game by Dallman,” Katic said. “We knew he could do the job in the back because he’s a pro. He was tremendous tonight like everyone else. Our defense was outstanding.”
Perhaps because of the quick turnaround from Wednesday’s 2-1 win in Dayton, the Riverhounds were backpedaling for the majority of the first half. Only a pair of well-timed blocks from central defender Motagalvan kept the Rhinos from taking an early lead.
“The first half wasn’t pretty,” said Gilstrap, who faced 10 shots and made two saves. “They missed their big chances, but you have to get lucky from time to time.”
The Hounds mustered only one shot attempt in the first half – an errant free kick from Jose Angulo – so they had much to improve upon following the intermission. They did just that, thanks in part to a more aggressive mindset on the attack.
“I think we had a little more urgency to get forward in the midfield (in the second half),” Marshall said. “We started taking more chances, getting more numbers up the field, and it worked for us.”
Despite starting the year winless in their first nine USL Pro matches, the Riverhounds will continue their climb into playoff contention next Saturday when they travel to Oklahoma City. Energy FC currently holds the eighth and final postseason position in the league.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves, but the good thing is eighth place isn’t that far out,” Marshall said. “I think that’s a realistic target for us if we put together results like this consistently.”
The Hounds return to Highmark Stadium on July 17 when the Charlotte Eagles pay a visit.