Pittsburgh Riverhounds Vini Dantas (left) and Stephen Okai (right) congratulate Kevin Kerr (center) after a goal earlier this season at Highmark Stadium. (Credit: Terry O’Neil/Riverhounds.com)
SOUTH SIDE – Scoring has not been a problem for these Pittsburgh Riverhounds, who are averaging 2.5 goals over their first six games, the best mark in the 24-team USL.
Midfielders Rob Vincent (six goals, three assists) and Kevin Kerr (four goals, four assists) rank first and second on the league’s scoring list, catalyzing a diverse Pittsburgh attack that has often dazzled.
However, the Hounds’ 2-2-2 record indicates that there is still work to be done as they remain on the road to clash with the unbeaten Charleston (S.C.) Battery on Saturday night.
Most of that work is in the defensive third of the field. While the 10 goals the Hounds have conceded this season isn’t a grotesque total – their 1.67 goals-against average ranks 16th – the consensus at Highmark Stadium is that they need to be better at shutting opponents down.
“We have to tighten up defensively,” assistant coach Niko Katic said before the team departed for South Carolina. “We’re allowing too many goals. We need to get a shutout. We haven’t had one yet this season.”
The lack of a clean sheet can’t be laid at the feet of goalkeeper Ryan Thompson, who has impressed in his introduction to Pittsburgh. According to Katic, it can’t be blamed on just the defenders or midfielders, either.
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“If you want to defend successfully in today’s game, you have to have all 11 guys,” Katic said. “Defense starts with the front line of forwards.”
This isn’t to say that Katic, head coach Mark Steffens and the rest of the staff are displeased with the work of the more offensively-minded Hounds. Rather, Katic said a handful of late-game lapses that have kept the team from maximizing its early-season potential.
In particular, second-half stoppage time has been somewhat of a minefield, as Pittsburgh has allowed a pair of goals beyond the 90th minute. The first of those led to a 1-1 draw with Louisville City three weeks ago, and the second delivered a 3-2 victory to New York Red Bulls II last Sunday in Harrison, N.J.
“It’s all mental, in my personal opinion,” Katic said. “You have to work through it and be tougher mentally, because stoppage time is all about heart and (keeping) your shape. We have to learn how to close the game better, and we worked on that this week.
“We gave up two stoppage-time goals that we never should have given up. That’s four (standings) points that we lost, right there.”
Rubbing the Rock
Katic and holding midfielder Stephen Okai concurred that the wider field at Red Bull Arena caused the Hounds some defensive difficulty early in last week’s match, as their formation got too spread out.
Okai, a 25-year-old native of Ghana and three-year USL veteran, had a pointed critique for himself and his teammates when it comes to cohesiveness.
“Communication-wise, we have to do a better job of talking (to each other),” Okai said. “If we’re that quiet, it’s going to kill us. We worked on that (this week) and got better at it. I think we have to do a better job, especially in the midfield.
“When we’re on the same page, it gets us going.”
The Riverhounds may have to be a little louder than usual to be heard Saturday night, since the Battery usually attract boisterous crowds to their Blackbaud Stadium.
Katic called Charleston (4-0-2) a “very technically-sound team” headed by “blazing fast” forward Dane Kelly, a member of the 2014 USL first team and a hat-trick hero in a 4-0 victory over Pittsburgh last Aug. 30.
Okai stressed the importance of dictating terms right from the start.
“We need to set the tempo,” Okai said. “Charleston is very good at possessing the ball, especially in the midfield. If we shut down those guys, the chance of us winning is much higher.”
Adding to Saturday’s challenge: the 650-mile trek from Pittsburgh to Charleston and the “bus legs” that will accompany it. On the other hand, the Hounds earned a draw after making a similarly long drive to St. Louis last month, so a positive precedent has been set.
“It’s about mental fitness,” Katic said. “How strong are you mentally to drive down…and do everything you need to do to prepare to play a game against a very good team in front of a packed stadium?”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday. A win would likely boost the fifth-place Hounds back into the Eastern Conference’s top four, but any type of result would be welcomed.
“We’ll be happy with a point in Charleston,” Katic said. “It’s a tough place to play. We need to bring our best game. If we do that, we’ll be successful.”