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Defense keys Riverhounds' recent success

| Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013, 7:48 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Wilmington Hammerheads' forward Mickael Oliveira Barroso (center) tries to stay steady during a tackle by the Pittsburgh Riverhounds midfielder Rob Vincent (on ground) during a game on Sunday, July 21, 2013 at Highmark Stadium in the South Side. The Riverhounds came away winning the game 2-0.

A trip to Florida means vacation for most people, but the Sunshine State brought the year's best work out of the Riverhounds- defense.

The Riverhounds have allowed just two goals in their past five USL Pro games, including wins at Tampa Bay and Orlando last weekend, and the strong defensive play has lifted the team into a three-way tie for sixth place and the final three playoff spots.

The Hounds (9-6-7) allowed two goals in four of their first five matches during a winless April. But no league opponent has scored twice against the Hounds since the team's last loss, a 2-1 setback against Los Angeles on July 6.

“A lot of it has been confidence, really,” defender Mike Green said. “We knew we were a good team defensively, but we had to piece things together and stay focused for 95 minutes. A lot of people would say 90 minutes, but injury time was when we were giving up a lot of those goals. Now we're closing games out.”

Defender and team captain Rich Costanzo was this week's USL Pro Player of the Week after being on the team of the week one week prior, and Green was on this week's team of the week. Though fellow starting defenders Sterling Flunder and Andrew Marshall haven't garnered individual honors recently, the success of the unit is largely because of the cohesiveness of the back four.

Like an offensive line in football, a defensive grouping in soccer takes time to mesh. By playing every minute of the past six matches together, the Hounds' quartet is showing their familiarity with each other.

“We don't have to say as much now,” Green said. “In the beginning, there were all sorts of questions with who we're playing next to and how they play. Now it's almost nonverbal. We just know.”

“It's been a process, and we knew it was going to be with as many new players as we had,” Hounds coach Justin Evans said. “We knew as a team that we had the right players. It just took us a little while to jell, but now the guys are seeing the fruits of their labor.”

The defense also has been performing well against tough opponents. Two of the team's recent shutouts came against Orlando, which leads USL Pro with 51 goals in 23 games, and the third came on the road against the reserve team of MLS's Toronto FC.

With two games this weekend — Friday at Rochester and Sunday at home against Tampa Bay — the defense can help keep the current win streak going and, more importantly, clinch a playoff spot with two more wins.

“Hopefully, we can keep this momentum going,” Green said. “Since that two-game losing streak (to start July), we've turned it around. We used those losses as learning points, and we want to keep things going well this weekend.”

Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mgrubba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Grubba_Trib.

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