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Riverhounds starting to hit stride as playoffs near

Greg Macafee
1759700_web1_06292019-PITvBHM-ChrisCowger-8520
Submitted by Chris Cowger
Riverhounds coach Bob Lilley talks to his bench during their match on June 29 against the Birmingham Legion FC

The old saying goes, “Defense wins championships.”

And as of late, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has shown exactly why that’s the case.

Before Tuesday’s 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Loudon United FC, the Hounds had not allowed a goal in 698 minutes, which ranks as the second-longest shutout streak in USL Championship history.

It started Aug. 17 and survived for seven games as the black and gold produced a record of 5-0-2, outscored their opponents 10-0 and propelled themselves into first place in the Eastern Conference.

“We were just going in with a game plan, trying to perform and get a win,” goalkeeper Kyle Morton said. “The clean sheets just took care of themselves.”

The side’s recent display of defensive prowess is the latest sign of progress for the team that second-year coach Bob Lilley has assembled after putting together one of the more successful seasons in club history in 2018.

Last year, the Hounds produced the second-highest win total in team history, set a club-record for clean sheets with 17 and finished third in the Eastern Conference standings, which gave them an opportunity to host the first playoff game at Highmark Stadium.

That success has carried over into this season, and it looks like they’ll have the opportunity to host playoff game No. 2 in the near future.

“After Year 1 we were able to keep a good group together,” Lilley said. “I think we started slower than we wanted to this year, but the culture has been good and we have been able to add on to our group from last year.”

So far this season, Pittsburgh’s defensive play has been a major factor to its Eastern Conference-leading 17-4-10 record.

They Hounds lead the league with 15 clean sheets, have only conceded 29 goals — fourth fewest in the Championship — and their goal differential of plus-26 is the fourth-best in the Eastern Conference and the fifth-best in the league.

After a year of getting familiar with each other last season, Morton believes the team’s defensive success this year is a product of the time spent playing together over the past two seasons.

“We’re starting to hit our stride defensively, our communication has been really good and our midfield has been helping a lot more since the beginning of the year,” Morton said.

“With our back five in Joe (Greenspan), Tobi (Adewole), Tommy (Vancaeyezeele), RJ (Ryan James) and (Jordan) Dover, we’ve been playing together for almost two years now. So, we pretty much know everything about each other, and I think that’s helping out a lot.”

While the defense has been playing at a high level, the offense has been just as productive.

Pittsburgh has scored the seventh-most goals in the league with 55, is tied for first in shot conversion rate at 20 percent and while it doesn’t have an individual goal scorer in the top 10, the Hounds have gotten tallies from 11 different players. Nico Brett is tied for 14th in the league with 12 goals.

After scoring just 47 goals all last season, having that type of production from the offense is just another reason why the Hounds have taken another step forward this season. The team looks like the complete package as it prepares to head into the postseason.

“We believe you have to get all of the phases right,” Lilley said. “You can be a great defensive team, but there are going to be games when you need to score multiple goals and you have to be able to do it. I think this year we have been able to do that.”

On Saturday, the team will host its final home game of the regular season at Highmark Stadium against Atlanta United 2 before hitting the road for its final two games.

The next time the Hounds host a game, it will have playoff implications and Pittsburgh native Robbie Mertz is excited to bring that to Pittsburgh.

“Just to be able to bring an elite level of sports performance to this city, in this way, in the sport of soccer has been awesome this season,” Mertz said. “The club has been through a lot, and I am glad that we are able to put a good product on the field this year.”

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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