Riverhounds wing back Matt Dallman volleys a loose ball in a game earlier this season at Highmark Stadium. (Photo: Riverhounds.com/Terry O’Neill)
Seven weeks into the season, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds have plenty to be encouraged about.
Among those positive points…
– A 2-1-1 record at Highmark Stadium
– A league-leading 2.29 goals scored per game
– Stalwart goalkeeping from Jamaican newcomer Ryan Thompson
– General success in transitioning to new coach Mark Steffens’ ambitious, up-tempo style of play
However, after back-to-back losses on the road dropped the Hounds (2-3-2) into the bottom half of the 12-team Eastern Conference, there is a growing feeling of dissatisfaction.
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Even though Pittsburgh’s seven-game start is a significant improvement over the long winless streaks that have plagued the Hounds early on in recent years, that’s no consolation for a team with higher aspirations.
Last Saturday’s 3-1 loss at the Charleston (S.C.) Battery highlighted at least one major issue: falling behind early. The Riverhounds allowed a goal in the 13th minute, the third straight time they’ve conceded first; they’ve trailed 1-0 in five of their seven matches.
“We had the game plan that we wanted to come up with a clean sheet,” said Hounds attacking midfielder Rob Vincent, he of the league-leading six goals. “That obviously went to pot…and then you’re chasing the game against an undefeated team in their home (stadium).”
What made the first Charleston goal really hurt was that it followed a strong spell of ball possession for Pittsburgh, and it occurred with defender Fejiro Okiomah on the sideline receiving treatment for a strained hamstring. He would not return, but it took a few minutes to determine if a substitute was needed.
“That was very hard to take,” Hounds head coach Mark Steffens said. “Now you’re chasing the game, and that’s hard to do.
“We did some good things, though. We played well early and for the entire second half. We easily could’ve walked out of there with a win, but the 3-1 score makes it look lopsided when it wasn’t at all.”
Vincent agreed with Steffens’ diagnosis of the loss, which dropped the Hounds to 0-2-1 away from home.
“We did start well, but we dropped off just a little bit,” Vincent said. “That allowed them to get their noses in front. We’ve started slow a couple times this year and maybe got away with it, but in Charleston we started well and conceded a goal.
“We need to find an early goal. That will breed confidence.”
As the Riverhounds prepare for Saturday’s invasion by the Richmond (Va.) Kickers, who hold third place in the USL’s Eastern Conference with a 4-1-3 record, they will be seeking not only an effective start, but also a complete 90-minute performance.
According to Steffens, that’s an accomplishment that has eluded the Hounds, even during their two five-goal victories at Highmark Stadium.
“We need to keep that intensity up,” Steffens said. “We usually start off strong, then fall into this lull for 20, 30 minutes later in the first half. We’ll start with full high pressure, then we’ll fatigue a little bit, sit in and lose everything we fought for.
“It’s so hard to get back into the rhythm from there. We keep talking about that when we fatigue, we need to go into possession mode and not rush anything.”
Although Steffens lauded his team’s ability to rally back for a 1-1 draw in their first road match of the season at Saint Louis FC, his team has been better at regaining its poise on the South Side.
With three-quarters of the season remaining, there will be plenty of opportunities for the Hounds to work on their road results, but Vincent emphasized the necessity to maintain their strong pace at Highmark.
“We have to make sure we make our home our fortress,” said Vincent, a third-year Hound from Liverpool, England. “We know the road is going to be tough, but we need to make a statement now and pick up maximum points, almost, at home.”
Rubbing the Rock
For Saturday’s 7 p.m. kickoff against Richmond, the Hounds would do well to increase their shot volume. Even though they have controlled the ball more than not this season and have pumped in 16 goals, their 9.57 shots-per-match average ranks in the bottom half of the league.
That disconnect in the attacking third was evident against Charleston, as Miro Cabrilo’s header goal in the 81st minute was Pittsburgh’s first shot on target. Lebo Moloto followed with another in short order, but the Hounds ended up with just four attempts, a season low.
On the defensive side, the Riverhounds will seek their first shutout of 2015. Pittsburgh is one of three USL teams yet to blank an opponent, while Richmond is second in the 24-team league with four clean sheets.
Steffens indicated Thursday that Okiomah, who he called his fastest defender, will likely miss at least one game with a upper-leg strain. This bit of misfortune continued a troubling trend on the Hounds’ back end, which has been scrambled by relentless injuries.
“We can’t get the same back four together for two games in a row, which is really crazy,” Steffens said. “Injuries haven’t helped us, but guys have to step up and rise to the occasion.”
That next opportunity comes Saturday evening.