PITTSBURGH – Arizona United washed away the lingering United Soccer Leagues Pro Division playoff hopes of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saturday with a 2-1 win on a drizzly night at Highmark Stadium.
Chinese striker Long Tan scored in each half for the visitors to overhaul Miro Cabrilo’s early goal for the Hounds. Pittsburgh needed three points to stay in contention and results elsewhere to fall favorably. Last day wins for the Harrisburg City Islanders and Rochester Rhinos instead left the Riverhounds in 11th place, five points and three places removed from the post-season.
Pittsburgh entered the final weekend having scooped 24 points from the previous dozen games – a haul that only the Sacramento Republic surpassed. That kept the Hounds in the race despite an abysmal start to the campaign that yielded eight points from the first 15 games.
“We made USLPRO 2014 very exciting to the last minute,” Pittsburgh’s interim head coach Niko Katic told reporters after Saturday’s loss. “We’ve got to come back stronger than ever next season.”
The strains of a turbulent year were evident by the dearth of options on Pittsburgh’s bench for this do-or-die encounter. Katic was left with three outfield players to call upon if his team needed a late surge.
Loanees from the Houston Dynamo had been recalled by the Major League Soccer franchise with the exception of defender Anthony Arena. Andrew Marshall, Greg Blum and Mike Seth had suffered season-ending injuries. Former Fulham striker Collins John had been released from his contract midway through the season. Veteran forward Joseph Ngwenya had opted to return to college, and Jhonny Arteaga was unavailable for family reasons.
Residents of the Steel City are well versed in navigating Pittsburgh’s three rivers. This was a bridge too far for the Hounds to cross.
The evening started brightly for the hosts. Cabrilo found space in Arizona’s penalty box on six minutes to power a header into Evan Newton’s right corner from Danny Earls’ corner kick. That goal combined with an early lead for the Charlotte Eagles against Harrisburg nudged Pittsburgh into a virtual playoff spot.
Highmark Stadium’s announcer gleefully shared this development with the 2,718 fans in attendance. Any pangs of euphoria experienced by the Steel Army were short lived as Arizona leveled on 12 minutes.
F.C. Dallas loanee Jonathan Top stole the ball from Mike Green in midfield before finding Tan at the edge of Pittsburgh’s 18-yard box. The former Vancouver Whitecaps and Orlando City forward spun away from Sterling Flunder before side-footing a weak shot that found too much of a gap inside Hunter Gilstrap’s near post.
Pittsburgh’s play became ragged as the half progressed. Gone was the zip that had forced Arizona onto the back foot in the opening minutes. Instead, the visitors grew in confidence with Kadeem Dacres and Sam Garza posing problems for the Riverhounds’ defense.
Reigning USL MVP Jose Angulo had two chances to steady Pittsburgh’s nerves. He was flagged offside when bundling a rebound into Arizona’s net after Newton parried Flunder’s initial drive. Kevin Kerr slid a ball across the box to Angulo closer to half-time after a loose Scott Morrison header presented the chance. Newton beat the Colombian-born forward’s shot to safety.
Developments in Charlotte did little to ignite the Pittsburgh crowd. Harrisburg had bounced back to lead 2-1 at half-time with the Eagles down to 10 men. A win was essential for the hosts to force Rochester into securing the point needed to avoid being eliminated by the Hounds on a head-to-head tiebreaker.
Gilstrap atoned for his earlier slackness on 50 minutes with a fine double-save to deny Jalen Robinson and Tan before Katic tried to pep up his offense with Seth C’deBaca replacing goalscorer Cabrilo.
Pittsburgh’s biggest chance to retake the lead arrived on 69 minutes when Matt Dallman’s hustling eventually allowed him to dig out a cross from the right wing. English midfielder Rob Vincent ghosted into space seven yards out to steer a header at Newton with the corners gaping. The game’s defining moment had slipped away.
Tan punished the Riverhounds on 75 minutes with the game-winner that finally ended Pittsburgh’s gallant fight. Top again provided the pass from the left side that released Tan toward Gilstrap’s goal to clip a delightful finish over the onrushing goalkeeper.
The game should have been placed beyond doubt one minute later when Tan intercepted Vincent’s blind pass back to race clear. The Chinese striker took a heavy touch when rounding Gilstrap before throwing himself to the ground, earning him a yellow card for diving rather than a hat-trick.
United substitute Jonathan Okafor missed another glaring opportunity to extend Arizona’s lead when he fired Tan’s low cross into the side net with the goal at his mercy.
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