The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC have four games remaining over the course of the next four weeks in what has been an arduous, 32-game regular season that began back in March.
The Hounds, who have secured a playoff spot for the fifth straight season, will finish the season with one of the more interesting and unprecedented scheduling scenarios in club history, by having to face four USL Championship Western Conference clubs in the final four weeks, with three of those matches at home, where they’ve posted an 8-2-4 record.
The squad should be fairly well-rested and ready for the stretch run.
Only one player, Nathan Dossantos, will be out of the lineup selections, as Riverhounds Head Coach Bob Lilley confirmed that he had knee surgery earlier in the month, and is likely out for the season.
The Hounds had a great opportunity to make a move further up the standings when facing first-place Louisville City FC on September 10, then Birmingham, on September 14, who they’ve been battling with in the table for a playoff spot.
In those two matches, Pittsburgh had to settle for one point, after a draw vs Louisville and a 2-1 road loss to Birmingham.
Despite the results, Lilley is encouraged by what he saw from his players.
“I’m proud that after they scored, we regrouped and still tried to win it. We pushed hard at the end, and the guys worked hard. … But against a good team on their home pitch, they found a goal,” the veteran, USL Hall of Fame coach said.
“The quality of our last two games have been a lot better than a few weeks ago. I see an upswing in our play, and we have three of our last four at home, so we have to go win those.”
The benefits for the Hounds will come down the line as these matches certainly had a playoff-feel to them, and they’re even more battle-tested as a result.
It’s interesting that with four weeks to go and some teams still having up to five games remaining, in the top heavy Eastern Conference, all playoff spots have already been cliniched, leaving the seven teams including the Riverhounds left to play for postseason positioning.
The playoff format for 2022 will go as follows:
Lets take a closer look at the seven teams in the Eastern Conference, and their playoff positioning prospects.
It’s probably safe to say that front-running Louisville City FC (63 points), are in pretty good position to secure the top spot. On Friday night, they’ll face second place Memphis 901 FC (58 points). A win for LouCity, and they’ll wrap-up the top spot with three matches to go. A Memphis loss could also provide opportunity for the next tier of teams to make their move on second place. However, if Memphis pulls off the road win, they have an extra game at hand, and could make a bid for first place overall.
Teetering Tampa Bay (54 points) sit in third, having lost three of their last five matches, while the Hounds (52 points) are currently in fifth place in the standings, two points behind the Birmingham Legion FC (54 points), who won last Wednesday’s meeting to get a leg up in the race for fourth place and at least the opportunity to host one home playoff match.
Closing fast and bringing the heat are Detroit City FC (49 points) and The Miami FC (48 points).
The second through seventh place spots could go many ways. Here’s the breakdown of what the final stretch looks like for the seven clubs with point total, remaining matches and opponents.
The Hounds will be facing teams in the even more unpredictable Western Conference where no team has officially been eliminated, though this Saturday’s opponent, Orange County, the 2021 USL Cup winners, are only mathematically still in contention. Orange County’s title defense is just about over, but Milan Iloski is still the leader in the Golden Boot Race.
In addition, they could be facing a San Antonio FC side that has already clinched a number one seed, and potentially have very little to play for on October 1 when they visit Pittsburgh. The Hounds’ trip to Sacramento will provide an opportunity to take on former goalkeeper Danny Vitiello and the darlings of lower division U.S. Soccer, the Republic FC, coming off an impressive run to the US Open Cup Final. The Republic are fighting to secure a playoff spot and home field, as they’re currently in fourth place. The Hounds’ final week match-up at home vs Oakland could be against a team that is playing for its playoff lives or have been recently eliminated, as they’re currently eighth in the Western Conference.
Any slip-ups, and the Hounds could drop further down, especially with Detroit City having an extra game at hand. DCFC have to travel three times, but will play the next three matches against non-playoff teams, then face Louisville side who will likely be well-set as the number one overall seed, then finish with a showdown with Miami, who are currently just one point behind.
While Tampa is on a very poor run of form of late, they will play four of its final five at home, and the last two coming against Loudoun and NY Red Bulls.
And Birmingham did get the upper hand on Pittsburgh heading into this final stretch, but it could be said that they have the toughest quartet of games, having to go on the road to Tampa, then to face a desparate Oakland side before coming home to Western Conference front-runners San Antonio and finish with Indy Eleven.
If the Hounds take care of business at home with a minimum of seven points, and salvage a draw at Sacramento (8 of possible 12 points), that would take them up to 60 points, which will likely put them on the edge of fourth or fifth place.
It’s likely going to come down to the final week, and a lot can happen, but if you ask me, the likely landing spot for Pittsburgh will be fourth place at best and most likely landing in fifth or sixth.
Last three matches with lineups, subs and formations:
9/14/2022 at Birmingham Legion FC (4-2-3-1) — Jahmali Waite; Angelo Kelly (Dani Rovira 69’), Jelani Peters (sent off 90+1’), Arturo Ordóñez, Shane Wiedt (Marc Ybarra 80’); Danny Griffin, Kenardo Forbes; Alex Dixon (Luis Argudo 80’), Robbie Mertz, Russell Cicerone (Edward Kizza 69’); Albert Dikwa
9/10/2022 vs Louisville City FC (4-2-3-1) — Jahmali Waite; Jelani Peters, Mekeil Williams, Arturo Ordóñez, Angelo Kelly; Danny Griffin, Kenardo Forbes; Russell Cicerone (Edward Kizza 74’), Robbie Mertz (Marc Ybarra 88’), Alex Dixon (Luis Argudo 74’); Albert Dikwa
9/4/2022 vs Loudoun (4-2-3-1) – Jahmali Waite; Dani Rovira (Jelani Peters 62’), Mekeil Williams, Arturo Ordóñez, Shane Wiedt; Kenardo Forbes, Danny Griffin; Russell Cicerone (Angelo Kelly 73’), Robbie Mertz (Luis Argudo 73’), Alex Dixon (Edward Kizza 62’); Albert Dikwa (Jesse Williams 86’)
Once again, it’s Danny Griffin who has been carrying the load, and he has been joined by Kenardo Forbes and Robbie Mertz as mainstays in the central midfield in each of the last three matches. Russell Cicerone, Albert Dikwa and Alex Dixon have all started as part of the attacking group of forwards/wingers, with Dixon being subbed out each match. There wasn’t a lot of change from the Saturday’s starting eleven to Wednesday, with Angelo Kelly-Rosales getting the start in both matches as an outside back in the 4-2-3-1 and Jelani Peters and Mekeil Williams taking turns at center back. Otherwise, Arturo Ordonez is the only defender who started all three matches.
Griffin leads the team in minutes played (2,694), with Ordonez, Cicerone, Forbes and Wiedt right behind him, each with well over 2,000 minutes. With his hours combined from playing in Atlanta this season 1,792), Mertz (692) also has over 2,400 total minutes played this season.
The Hounds coaching staff relied heavily on squad rotation using five subs in each match.
The notable absence from the lineup the last three matches has been Dane Kelly, who has not played since starting and playing 59 minutes in 0-0 draw vs Charleston.
After picking up a pair of yellow cards and being sent off at Birmingham, Peters will have to sit out Saturday’s match vs Orange County.
Arturo Ordonez and Shane Wiedt (both with seven yellow cards) are one yellow card away from a one-game suspension, while Danny Griffin is sitting on five total yellow cards. The double-whammy from Peters brought his Y-C total up to five.
Dikwa’s goal at Birmingham brought his season total to 10, making him the second Hound with double-digit goals (Cicerone has 12). The duo has combined for 22 goals and nine assists this season.
Alex Dixon continues to be in a significant production drought, as it’s been nine matches since he’s had an assist (July 30 vs Tulsa) and 13 since he’s scored a goal (early July, NYRBII).
Look for match coverage from Highmark (from yours truly) as the Hounds are celebrating Hispanic Heritage Night.
John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of ‘Miracle on the Mon’ — a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).
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