When the Pittsburgh Riverhounds went winless in their first 10 USL Pro league matches this season, it was understood that a championship run had become the longest of longshots.
Still, it’s undeniable that the Hounds (7-11-5, 29 points) have done terrific work in keeping soccer on the front burner in Pittsburgh, going 6-2 since the start of July to creep within one point of the eighth and final playoff spot with five matches to play.
Taking it further back, the Riverhounds are 7-6-3 under interim head coach Niko Katic, who took over for the sacked Justin Evans in late May. The transformation wasn’t immediate – Pittsburgh didn’t get win No. 1 until three matches into the Katic regime – but it’s fairly obvious the Hounds have been more cohesive and organized since the opening two months.
“We have a little more confidence with every game,” Katic said after the Hounds’ 1-0 win over visiting Orange County last Friday at Highmark Stadium. “Everyone’s buying in. They’re working hard in training and in the games.”
But focus and work ethic alone can’t fully explain Pittsburgh’s pushback. One area that’s looked particularly sharp lately is the back line, helping the Hounds limit opponents to 11 goals over their past eight matches. Five of those goals against came in one game, a July 27 loss at Sacramento.
“We have a little more continuity now that the whole back line has been together (for several games),” said central defender Anthony Arena, on loan from the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer. “At the beginning of the year it was more (the case) of guys coming in and out. Obviously getting a bunch of games together has helped a lot.”
Arena said that following Friday’s win, but unfortunately that continuity will take a hit as fellow defender Andrew Marshall was diagnosed with a torn ACL suffered against Orange County. Nevertheless, having outside backs Sterling Flunder and Matt Dallman alongside goalkeeper Michael Lisch will at least allow the successful defensive framework to be maintained somewhat.
“I’ve played with Lisch since freshman year of college (at Wake Forest), so I’m comfortable with him back there and he’s comfortable with me in front of him,” Arena said. “I think everyone is starting to come together, and it’s the right time since we’re making a push.”
Lisch, also property of the Dynamo, is the reigning USL Pro goalie of the week after authoring a four-save shutout against Orange County. The third-round pick in this year’s MLS Superdraft has three clean sheets with the Riverhounds in 14 appearances, by far the most among the club’s three keepers.
While Lisch had to be a bit acrobatic to preserve the victory Saturday, he’s also shown a knack for organizing his teammates for opposing crosses and corner kicks. Lisch’s cool head is part of the reason he’s won the No. 1 goalkeeping job during the most important time of the year.
“The minute I got here, I felt like I was part of it, you know?” said Lisch, who was loaned to Pittsburgh in early April. “It doesn’t matter what team you’re from, you have to involve yourself like you’re 100 percent a part of that team. I just want to do everything I can to try to make the playoffs.”
As is the case with Lisch, Arena has also endeared himself to the Hounds with his assertive brand of mobility, giving the back line a reliable performer. Arena (11 games played) and explosive Dynamo forward Jason Johnson (nine) have both become key assets for Pittsburgh in the first year of its affiliate partnership with Houston.
“We love having the Houston guys here,” Katic said. “It’s working great for us. These guys are tremendous assets for our team and let’s hope they stay here for the rest of the season.”
It’s easy to feel wanted when you’re playing well, but Arena insisted that the fellowship with his teammates has been unconditional since the springtime.
“From the first day, these guys made us – (Johnson), Lisch, (Brian) Ownby when he was here – feel very welcome,” Arena said. “It’s a bit tough going back and forth, because it’s always good getting called back to Houston. But being here for a month or more at a time, it’s better for the team I think.”
Pittsburgh travels to Arizona on Saturday, seeking a third consecutive victory. There’s no guarantee the Riverhounds can rally for a playoff berth, but the Houston hopefuls have helped spark an encouraging late-season revival.