PITTSBURGH – Seven games. No wins. No clean sheets. One well-publicized contract termination.
It has been a rocky start to the United Soccer League season for a Pittsburgh Riverhounds team that will look to end its barren run Wednesday when they host Lansdowne Bhoys F.C. in the second round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
New York-based Lansdowne toppled the USL Premier Development League’s Long Island Rough Riders in their tournament debut last week to earn a trip to Western Pennsylvania. They may lack the fitness of a professional side. They will not be lacking in determination, quality or confidence when kickoff arrives at Highmark Stadium.
“We’re going in as underdogs and we’re going to respect the Riverhounds, but we’re definitely going there with no fear,” Lansdowne’s head coach Austin Friel told The Soccer Observer.
“I’ve watched a few Riverhounds games online and I think there’s areas that we can exploit. We’re going to have to play really well to beat them, but it’s definitely not out of our reach.”
The Irish-centric club has risen through the divisions to become the top team in New York City’s storied Cosmopolitan Soccer League since their formation in 1997. They have lifted back-to-back championships in the past two seasons by defeating 3-time U.S. Open Cup winner N.Y. Pancyprian Freedoms in both title deciders.
Lansdowne are on course for a third consecutive crown having qualified for this year’s 4-team playoffs. They currently sit one point ahead of the Freedoms at the top of the CSL standings with an 11-0-3 undefeated record and two regular season games remaining.
Substantial growth on and off the field has led to a partnership with Glasgow Celtic that will see the Scottish champions send their academy coaches to the New York area to run summer camps this year. Lansdowne benefits from the backing of local business owners within the Irish diaspora concentrated in the Woodlawn area of the Bronx and neighboring Yonkers in Westchester County.
Friel, a 34-year-old native of Derry, works in a fulltime capacity running the club’s first team that trains three times per week and serving Lansdowne’s affiliated Yonkers United youth program as the director of coaching. He estimates that Lansdowne’s current operating costs exceed $100,000 per year, and there are strong ambitions among board members to join the professional ranks by 2018.
Former Irish league forward Friel will be able to call upon a number of players with professional experience for Wednesday’s game. Ciaran McGuigan was the hero in last week’s 2-1 win at Long Island with a late penalty kick. The 26-year-old defender began his career with Glenavon in his native Northern Ireland before featuring for Dundalk and Drogheda United across the Irish border.
Fellow defender Sean Kelly captained Arsenal U-18s and represented Ireland at various youth levels while 29-year-old forward Daryl Kavanaugh won the League of Ireland title with St. Patrick’s Athletic in 2013.
Team captain and midfielder Stephen Roche moved to the United States in 2011 to play alongside current Hound Karsten Smith at ex-USL side F.C. New York.
Less heralded players have also stepped up during big moments in their amateur careers. Ireland scooped its first Cosmos Copa title last year, a “World Cup” styled tournament held for the respective ethnic groups in the New York City area. Ian Sweeney netted Ireland’s late winner from the penalty spot in the final against Colombia, while Belfast native Conor Hunter provides a combative presence at center forward for club and country.
Lansdowne’s roster is not solely filled with migrant Irishmen. American left-back Jimmy Nealis helped Georgetown University to the 2012 NCAA College Cup Final before being drafted by the Houston Dynamo at the Major League Soccer SuperDraft. Long Island native Nealis has also played for the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos.
The team’s success has also allowed them to attract top talent from other ethnic teams in New York. Jamaican winger Ovan Oakley is one player that the Hounds will have to be wary of with his great speed and eye for goal. Friel also said that he tried to sign Bronx resident Romeo Parkes before the Jamaican international forward began his short spell in Pittsburgh.
“I think most of my guys could start on USL teams, so we’re not just going along to make up the numbers,” Friel said.
Many Lansdowne players work for companies owned by the club’s board members and are therefore free to take time off for the game. One notable absentee will be Glen Reid. The attacking midfielder from Falkirk, Scotland is unable to travel as he finalizes his studies at New York’s Queens College.
The team will travel Tuesday night and train at Highmark Stadium Wednesday morning. Friel is expecting about 20 to 30 Bhoys fans to make the trip.
Pittsburgh has struggled against lower level opponents in recent U.S. Open Cup campaigns. Chicago amateurs RWB Adria took the Hounds to extra time in 2014 before falling 3-2 to Jhonny Arteaga’s late goal. Ocean City Nor’easters ousted the Hounds in 2013 after former head coach Justin Evans had steered his side past Adria on penalty kicks.
Michigan Bucks knocked the Hounds out at the first hurdle with a 1-0 win at Chartiers Valley High School in 2012.
One former Lansdowne Bhoy has already tasted success at Highmark Stadium this year. Friel’s coaching predecessor Tommy McMenemy is now an assistant at the University of Michigan.
The Wolverines toppled the Hounds by 2-1 in the preseason.