The local soccer club made the playoffs, and they kept it interesting right to the end. I would not have expected anything else from the 2015 Pittsburgh Riverhounds. I’ve been telling you all season long: this team is never, ever boring. So many points have been won and lost in the dying moments of matches that you could forgive Riverhounds fans (myself included) for feeling “less than confident” in the waning moments of the regular season finale last Saturday night. In a win-or-go-home match away to Keystone Derby rival Harrisburg, the Hounds opened up a 2-0 first half lead thanks to goals from Lebo Moloto and Kevin Kerr, scored 65 seconds apart. In the second half, Harrisburg cut the lead to one in the 77th minute. The panic came suddenly. The panic was real, and it was well-founded. Riverhounds supporters had seen this movie before.
Part of me hoped that the Islanders would equalize quickly. After all, Harrisburg would have thought a draw was enough to get them into the USL playoffs. If they sat back and defended to preserve the tie, maybe Rob Vincent, Kevin Kerr, or Danny Earls could find the time and space to unleash another highlight-reel match winner. That seemed a lot more likely than the Hounds holding off a 15 minute offensive assault.
But hold on, they did. Calle Brown confidently claimed crosses in his 6, defenders stuck a foot in at the right moment, and Harrisburg City missed a few (a bunch of) golden opportunities that they will replay in their own minds all winter long. Final score of 2-1, Steel Army rocking (strong away support from the Hounds’ supporters group), playoff-bound. The Riverhounds finished the regular season in the 5th spot in the USL Eastern Conference standings, level on points with Richmond, but owning the head-to-head tiebreaker on the 6th-seeded Kickers. Charlotte and Harrisburg were sent packing.
So let’s look ahead. The USL playoffs are set up similarly to the NFL’s. Six teams from each conference get in. The top 2 teams in each conference get a bye, and the 3 and 4 seeds host the 6 and 5 seeds (respectively), in the opening round. This year, Rochester and Louisville get the weekend off, Charleston hosts Richmond, and the Hounds travel to New York to take on Red Bulls II. Unlike the NFL playoffs, there is no re-seeding after the first round. The winner of the Hounds and Red Bulls match will travel to Rochester (the #1 seed). As tough as it looks on paper, this isn’t a terrible route for the Riverhounds.
First up is (are?) New York Red Bulls II, the USL team of the MLS franchise. The Hounds have played NYRB2 tough in two previous matchups this season, but they’re a tricky opponent to scout. They have used 37 (!!) players over the course of the regular season. The parent club plays on Friday night, and they’ve aleady clinched an MLS playoff spot, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see some unused first-team players get some run on Saturday night. The Hounds and NYRB2 split the regular season series, but Pittsburgh will travel with confidence. In New York in May, the Red Bulls stole 3 points on a 94th minute winner (one of many matches that induced the Harrisburg panic). The final score was 3-2; a harsh result. On the 4th of July, the Riverhounds exacted revenge, dominating NYRB2 at Highmark Stadium in a 3-0 victory. In two matches against New York, midfielder Rob Vincent scored 4 of his team-leading 18 goals. I’ll go out on a limb and say he’s the man to watch on Saturday. Call it a hunch.
If the Hounds escape New York, it’s on to Rochester (which, I suppose, is still in New York…..but you know what I mean…). The Rhinos are a force. They’ve only lost one match all year, and their defensive record is the best in the league, by a laughable margin. But here’s the upside…..Rochester should want no part of Pittsburgh. In 3 matches this season, the Hounds drew the Rhinos once, and lost under controversial circumstances twice. The Rhinos proved themselves as the class of the league in the regular season, but I guarantee you, Pittsburgh is THE team they want to avoid in the playoffs.
If seeds hold on the other side of the bracket, that leaves a trip to Louisville for the conference finals. On August 29th, the Hounds won in their only visit to Louisville. That environment won’t phase them.
Am I getting ahead of myself? Absolutely. Uber-guilty. After all, the Riverhounds have been maddeningly inconsistent. At times, they have been the most dynamic offensive force in the league. In the next minute, they make mental mistakes that lead to goals in the other direction. They’ve dropped points on the last kick of the game on at least two occasions, and they have crawled back from certain defeat to secure glorious wins in jaw-dropping fashion. It’s tough to make predictions about this team. However, for a team that will not get to host a playoff game, it’s hard to ask for a more favorable path. The talent is there. The squad is healthy. Head coach Mark Steffens has shown which core 14 or 15 players he trusts the most, and that group matches up well against any team in the Eastern Conference. A long playoff run is not out of the question. It all starts Saturday evening against New York Red Bulls 2, in the first match of an opening-round double-header. Stream the match live, starting at 5:00 Saturday, on riverhounds.com .