USL Soccer: Can Pittsburgh Riverhounds Find Elusive Balance At Charlotte?


Riverhounds midfielder Rob Vincent (center) drives a shot against Saint Louis FC at Highmark Stadium. Danny Earls (left) looks on. (Credit: Terry O’Neill/

Can you really have it all?

That’s the eternal question that applies to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds’ current situation.

In terms of offense, there has been very little for the pro soccer club to complain about through 11 USL league matches. The Hounds (4-3-4, 16 points) have buried a league-leading 2.36 goals per game, one of just two USL squads to average more than two.

On the other hand, the Riverhounds are 22nd out of 24 USL teams in goals-against average (1.91) entering their Saturday evening match against the expansion Charlotte Independence at Winthrop University.

Head coach Mark Steffens has been an outspoken advocate of aggressive, attacking soccer since Day 1 in Pittsburgh. Is it possible for a team to excel at both ends of the pitch?

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“You can,” he said after Thursday’s training session at Highmark Stadium. “You can be balanced, but it’s not the easiest thing to do. The teams that do that are pretty unbeatable.”

The Riverhounds are still chasing that elusive balance after a 1-1 tie with Saint Louis FC on Saturday that saw them come within 10 minutes of their first league shutout. They were stung by allowing a late goal, but the prevailing mood after the game was one of frustration because they weren’t assertive enough on the offensive side of things.

Team captain Danny Earls plays a critical position in Steffens’ system. As a holding (defensive) midfielder, he is encouraged to step into the attack, while at the same time serving as a conscience when too many Hounds sprint upfield.

“You gotta get a feel for the game, whether we need to sit back and see it out, or push on and get more goals,” said Earls, an eighth-year pro with two seasons of MLS experience. “We have been doing better at that in recent games, but we have to be better.”

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    Steffens attributes part of this improvement to a corps of backs that is getting healthier by the week; with central defender Fejiro Okiomah working his way back to full fitness, only Matt Dallman (hip flexor strain) remains unavailable from that group.

    “It’s been a problem with our defenders rotating in and out and not having any continuity,” Steffens said. “It’s a matter of putting a leash on our wingbacks and make sure both don’t go (upfield). It’s an emotional game and that happens, but our captains Danny (Earls) and Anthony (Arena) have to read that and pull them back.”

    Steffens, who has nearly two decades of experience leading USL teams, concedes that his Riverhounds are not a particularly “defensive-minded group,” so recent practice time has been focused on shoring up the defending.

    The theory behind the approach? If the Hounds can reasonably limit their opponents, their offensive talent will take care of business at the other end.

    “Right now I’m not even pushing the attack,” Steffens said.

    He also wasn’t pushing any homecoming storylines, even though he spent the previous 18 seasons coaching the Charlotte Eagles, which self-relegated to the lesser Premier Development League last winter. The Independence replaced the Eagles in the USL’s Eastern Conference.

    On first glance, Charlotte (2-4-3, 9 points) appears to be less threatening than recent Riverhounds opponents, as it rides a three-game winless streak into the game. However, while the Independence haven’t been potent (1.11 goals per game), they are 2-1-1 at home.

    Earls tried to strike a tone somewhere between humility and bravado before boarding a southbound bus. His Hounds are on a six-game unbeaten run that has boosted them into USL playoff position and has also set up a U.S. Open Cup confrontation with Major League Soccer’s D.C. United on Wednesday.

    “At 4-0-2, we’re confident going into it,” Earls said. “It’s a big pitch down there, and it’s going to be a good battle for us.”

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