Riverhounds seek strong start despite challenging opening matchup
If the Riverhounds are going to put the memory of 2016 behind them, the best way to do it will be a fast start.
A win to kick off the USL season won't come easy, however, as the Riverhounds host the defending champion New York Red Bulls II at 5 p.m. Saturday at Highmark Stadium.
Quickly shaking off their 6-17-7 record of a year ago would snap a slow-starting trend that has plagued the Riverhounds. The club hasn't won more than two of its first seven games since 2006, and in two of the past three seasons, the team was winless through seven games.
“I'm not sure, but we sure ought to be (ready),” said Riverhounds coach Dave Brandt, who put his team through the longest preseason of any U.S. pro team — MLS, USL or North American Soccer League.
“I put pressure on myself and the guys for a fast start. It's true that this season is a marathon, not a sprint. At the same time, you don't want to come out — if you're running a marathon — crawling. I am concerned about a slow start, but we've talked about it and put pressure on ourselves to win.”
With the full offseason, Brandt has been able to implement a system more to his liking, a 4-4-2 formation that plays more like a 4-2-2-2 and gets bodies forward on the field.
Spearheading that attack will be two veterans Brandt confirmed as starters: 2016 All-USL second teamer and 13-goal scorer Corey Hertzog and Kevin Kerr, who in 2015 posted 10 goals and nine assists.
“I'm really excited to get in there and hear the first whistle,” said Hertzog, a Penn State product. “From the first day (Brandt) came in, we knew how demanding he was, and it was good to have an offseason where he could pick the players he wanted. ... He's got 20-some players to pick from, so it will be a tough decision.”
Among some of the Riverhounds' other players to watch are Brazilian-born midfielder Victor Souto — a rookie out of Akron — and a trio of midfield loanees from MLS affiliate Columbus Crew. Marshall Hollingsworth appeared in 25 games with the Riverhounds in his first pro season last year, and 19-year-old Ben Swanson and 20-year-old Abuchi Obinwa are former U.S. Youth National Team players who have been under pro contracts since 2014.
Though national predictions place the Riverhounds outside of the playoffs, the players don't seem fazed.
“We just went into Columbus and lost 3-2 (in a Tuesday scrimmage against the Crew). ... I think confidence is high, and that's what I'm happy about,” Hertzog said.