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The Resurgence Of The Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Rob Vincent is a key cog for the Riverhounds Photo via Pittsburgh Riverhounds (Paul Wintruba)

Rob Vincent is a key cog for the Riverhounds
Photo via Pittsburgh Riverhounds (Paul Wintruba)

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds have played just seven matches this spring ? a quarter of their 28-game USL regular-season schedule ? but we already know one thing for sure. They ?re in a better position to compete for a championship than they have been in quite some time.

That isn ?t to say that the Riverhounds (2-3-2, 8 points) should be considered one of the favorites in the 12-team Eastern Conference, of which six teams make the playoffs. Although the club has shown spurts of dynamism in the opening weeks of its third season on the South Side, it has yet to put together enough all-field consistency to inspire legitimate title hopes.

When asked to assess the team ?s current level of play, last year ?s interim head coach and current assistant Niko Katic settled at ?about 60 or 70 percent. ? In other words, a work in progress.

On the other side of the coin, while two victories in seven games isn ?t extraordinary, it ?s a clear step forward for a franchise that has struggled to get out of the starting gate recently. In 2013, the debut season for Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh began 0-4-3 before recovering to make the USL playoffs. Last year, an 0-6-4 record through late May proved too difficult to overcome.

For this year ?s edition of the team ? which features a new head coach in USL Hall of Famer Mark Steffens and several personnel changes ? being only one point out of playoff position at this early stage of the season is enough to encourage.

?It ?s going pretty good, ? said first-year Riverhounds midfielder Stephen Okai, who played for Steffens previously with the Charlotte Eagles. ?We have so many talented guys. It ?s up to us to stay focused and not get too complacent, because we haven ?t done anything yet.

?We need to keep fighting and pushing as hard as we can. ?

I said previously that we know one thing for sure about the 2015 Riverhounds. Maybe make it two things, because this might be the most exciting brand of soccer played in Pittsburgh going back to the days of the indoor Spirit, who lit up the Civic Arena in the late ?70s and early ?80s.

Steffens ? ambitious system is at least partially to thank for that, as it expects every player on the field (well, maybe not the keeper) to join the attack when presented the opportunity. That uptempo approach to the sport has already produced a pair of five-goal eruptions at home this season, plus a come-from-behind draw in a hostile atmosphere in suburban St. Louis.

Entering Saturday ?s home showdown with first-place Richmond, the Riverhounds have scored at least once in every match and are averaging a league-best 2.29 goals per game. British midfielders Rob Vincent (USL-leading six goals, three assists) and Kevin Kerr (four goals, four assists) have paced the attack, although seven other players have recorded at least a point.

But while the Hounds have seemed borderline unstoppable at times, they have also struggled creating chances in some games, exemplified by a 3-1 loss at Charleston (S.C.) last weekend that dropped their road record to 0-2-1. On a team that features 15 newcomers on a 26-man roster, it ?s reasonable that cohesion comes and goes at this time of the year.

?Everyone ?s starting to get to know each other now, ? said hard-charging rookie wing back Tyler Pasher, who often steps up to boost Pittsburgh ?s ball-possession efforts. ?Just learning each other ?s styles and what they like to do on the pitch.

?I think once we get in the groove ?we ?re going to be a more dangerous team. ?

Putting the attack aside, the Riverhounds ? more pressing concern is on the other side of the field. Despite some moments of brilliance from keeper Ryan Thompson ? a double save on a late penalty kick against Louisville City on April 19 comes to mind ? the Hounds have too often allowed the opposition clean looks at the goal.

Loose coverage and some careless play in the defensive third has led to 13 goals conceded and a 1.86 goals-against average that ranks 21st in the 24-team league.

?Most of the goals that we ?ve given up are on dumb mistakes out of the back, ? said Katic, himself a former defender. ?I believe we ?ve given away 12 goals this season. I give credit to Charleston, they ?re a good team, but we gave them at least two out of three goals (last Saturday). ?

Steffens memorably said at his introductory press conference in December that he would rather win 4-2 than 2-1. That ?s an appealing mentality in a sport that is sometimes plagued by overly-cautious play, but the fact remains that the Hounds haven ?t yet been stingy enough to win 1-0 or 2-1 when they have to.

?We have to strengthen up and defend as a unit, ? Katic said. ?Good things happen to hard-working people. All we ask for from players is that they work tirelessly defensively. ?

Still, if the team continues to bulge the back of the net on a regular basis, that can only bode well for its chances to attract bigger crowds than they have been getting this season. After averaging over 2,500 in their first two years on the South Side, the Hounds have fallen short of that number in each of their four home dates this spring. Perhaps, with summer seemingly arriving early in western Pennsylvania, the combination of warmer weather and an attack-minded club will lead to fewer empty seats as the season creeps towards its midway point.

The reality might be that pro soccer will continue to be a slow burn in Pittsburgh, as it has been throughout most of the country for the past few decades. Yes, there are American soccer hotbeds like Seattle, Portland and Columbus, but for the most part, fans of ?footie ? stateside remain just as attached to their favorite European clubs as their nascent local sides, if not more so.

If you ?re looking for a more tangible measure of soccer interest, Pittsburgh ?s TV ratings for the 2014 World Cup weren ?t great, as the market ranked in the bottom third of the top 56 U.S. cities, even as it set new local viewership records for the sport.

But with the region getting younger, there is reason to believe that more worldly sports fans will eventually outnumber those who exclusively worship at the altars of the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. The Riverhounds probably don ?t have time to wait for that type of demographic shift, but they do have the look of a squad worth watching this summer.

?Whenever we win a game, the team comes together, ? Okai said after a recent training session. ?Nobody ?s selfish, and everybody keeps passing the ball. That ?s a quality we have right now.

?If we keep doing that, we ?ll get results. ?

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