USL: Riverhounds Nudge Forward With Shutout Against Charleston

Written by Ian Thomson

PITTSBURGH – A scoreless tie with the Charleston Battery Saturday night extended the Pittsburgh Riverhounds’ winless start to the United Soccer Leagues Pro Division to five games despite the club’s pre-season preparations beginning almost a month ahead of schedule.

The Riverhounds’ mid-February trip to the warm-weather facilities of Major League Soccer affiliate Houston Dynamo was designed to help head coach Justin Evans and his players to gel earlier than before, and to avoid repeating Pittsburgh’s seven-game winless start to last season’s USL PRO campaign.

Evans’ team entered the weekend second-to-last in the standings and carrying the worst defensive record in the 14-team division. A first shutout and a dominant midfield display left the fifth-year head coach confident of an upturn since switching to a 3-1-4-2 formation in the past two games.

Pittsburgh's starting XI for the visit of Charleston Battery.
Pittsburgh’s starting XI for the visit of Charleston Battery.

“We’ve got good midfielders and we need to get our best 11 players on the field,” Evans told The Soccer Observer after Saturday’s game. “The guys are working hard, winning the ball back, keeping possession and believing in the system.”

The Riverhounds attacked into a blusterous headwind blowing downstream from the convergence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers during the first half. Matt Dallman and Houston loanee Jason Johnson created a chance on 12 minutes after excellent link-up down the right flank. Tight marking prevented striker Mike Seth from steering his effort on target.

Danny Earls arrived from the Rochester Rhinos in March to address the lack of left-footed players on Evans’ roster. The Irishman’s recent move into a three-man defense leaves a familiar weakness on the left of Pittsburgh’s midfield. Rob Vincent, Joseph Ngwenya and Kevin Kerr took turns to peel wide, and Earls supplied wicked crosses whenever the opportunity arose for him to push forward.

Pittsburgh’s new approach employs veteran midfielder Anthony Obodai as a deep-lying screen in front of the back three. The former Ajax and Ghana man provided instant and dependable cover during Earls’ forays.

Two good openings arrived for the hosts shortly after the interval. Kerr’s 25-yard blast forced Charleston goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper into a diving stop to his right. Dallman scooped a shot over from the edge of the box when forcing another save should have been a minimum requirement.

Johnson curled a low left-foot shot narrowly beyond the far post after fashioning a chance for himself on 72 minutes, and Seth volleyed weakly into Cooper’s grasp with one minute of regulation time remaining after Kerr lofted a delightful ball over the Battery’s rearguard.

Charleston's line-up for the trip to Pittsburgh's Highmark Stadium.
Charleston’s line-up for the trip to Pittsburgh’s Highmark Stadium.

Charleston also entered the game in underwhelming form with three ties and a loss from four games. Center-back pairing Taylor Mueller and Shawn Ferguson excelled as the Battery’s rigid shape and disciplined spacing largely kept the Riverhounds at arm’s length.

Pittsburgh’s on-loan Dynamo defender Anthony Arena almost capped an impeccable performance for Pittsburgh with a stoppage-time winner. His desperate shot was blocked in the 6-yard box before being scrambled away by Charleston’s frantic defense.

The absence of three major goal threats blunted Pittsburgh’s performance in the final third. Reigning USL PRO Most Valuable Player Jose Angulo missed out following the recent death of his father. Collins John served the second of a three-game suspension following his dismissal against the Wilmington Hammerheads on April 12. Jhonny Arteaga suffered a groin pull during last Thursday’s training session.

Midfielder Brian Ownby was unavailable after returning to the Houston Dynamo last week. His MLS colleague Arena has also been subjected to a recall within the opening month of the USL season.

“Everyone thinks it’s great that we’re getting all these players,” Evans said. “It’s difficult to keep the chemistry in the team right when you’ve got guys leaving and coming back.

“The bottom line is that every team in USL is dealing with that.”

Absentees left Evans with 17 players on Saturday. His substitutes’ bench consisted of five defenders or midfielders and a goalkeeper. None of them were called upon as the Riverhounds chased a late winner.

Pittsburgh has two weeks to remedy its shallow roster before USL champions Orlando City visit Highmark Stadium on May 9.

 

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