Column | It’s time for the ‘Hounds to become the city’s champion

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Hayden Schiff | Wikimedia Commons

The Riverhounds, a soccer club that plays on the bank of the Monongahela, are Pittsburgh’s fourth professional sports team. Hayden Schiff | Wikimedia Commons

By Alexander Ganias, Staff Writer

The City of Bridges, the Steel City, the 412, the ‘Burgh. Many nicknames have attached themselves to Pittsburgh, each one telling a story about the great City in western Pennsylvania. However, one nickname stands heads and shoulders above the rest — The City of Champions.

Pittsburgh has four professional sports teams, and they’ve won their fair share of championships. The Penguins have five Stanley Cups, winning three in the last 12 years. The Steelers have won six Super Bowls, tied for most in the league with New England, and they still regularly contend for the playoffs. Even the Pirates, as one of the original National League teams, have five World Series rings and four more appearances.

That leaves the Riverhounds — a soccer club that plays on the bank of the Monongahela. From the now-defunct A-League all the way to the current United Soccer League Championship, the ‘Hounds have survived and given Pittsburgh a taste of professional soccer since 1999.

Survived, but not thrived. The only professional team in Pittsburgh without a championship, the ‘Hounds have never even gotten past the semifinals in any playoffs, including 2004 and 2019, when they finished as one of the top two teams in the league. 

The Riverhounds recently lost in the first round of the USL Playoffs to Louisville City FC in 2020. In a unique playoff format brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the USL split its 35 teams into eight groups. Pittsburgh had the third best record in the Eastern Conference, but the best record happened to belong to another team in their group, the Hartford Athletic. The two lined up to play on the road, in Kentucky, resulting in Pittsburgh’s early exit.

The Riverhounds still have the best chance to bring a championship to Pittsburgh in the near future. The Penguins appear on the decline — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin aren’t getting any younger. The Steelers also have a great opportunity, but with the Chiefs and the Titans in their conference, it may be a bit more challenging. And the Pirates… the less said about them, the better.

It’s not by default either, as the ‘Hounds are one of the best defensive teams in the USL. They allowed only 12 goals in 16 matches played, tied for the least goals conceded this season. Their goalkeepers, Danny Vitiello and Tomás Gómez, put up eight total shutouts this season, tied with El Paso Locomotive for the second most in the league. Vitiello even won the 2020 Golden Glove as the USL’s best goalie.

They also boast a top-notch offense. Pittsburgh scored 39 goals this season, third best in the league behind Reno 1868 FC (49) and Phoenix Rising FC (46). But there are two key differences — The Riverhounds only took 184 shots, way less than both Reno (302) and Phoenix (324). Also, no player for Pittsburgh had more than 10 goals. They spread the ball around nicely, with 13 different players scoring goals this season. Forward Ropapa Mensah had the most goals with six, while midfielder Kenardo Forbes led the team with eight assists. Forbes, along with Reno’s Christiano François, had the second most assists in the league.

It’s clear that Pittsburgh brings an offense comparable to other top-tier offenses like Reno and Phoenix, while also having a near-lockdown defense on par with teams like Louisville. Head coach Bill Lilley knew that this year’s playoff loss, as painful as it was in the moment, didn’t take away from the team’s bright long-term future.

Short term, it’s brutal to lose the game. But when I look at the big picture, we’ve grown a lot as a group.” Lilley said.

And that’s only for the USL season. The Riverhounds have steadily improved in another competition — The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. 

The oldest soccer competition in the nation did not host a tournament this year due to the ongoing pandemic, but Pittsburgh has qualified every year since 2005, making it as far as the fourth round in 2014, 2015 and 2019. Since Major League Soccer played its inaugural season in 1996, only one non-MLS team has won the cup, the Rochester Raging Rhinos in 1999.

With the number of MLS teams that compete in the Open Cup every year, it’s very hard for a lower division team to win it all. But that could change very soon — in the aforementioned 2019 tournament, Saint Louis FC was the lone USL squad to reach the quarterfinals. It’s certainly possible for a team like Phoenix, Reno or Pittsburgh to go further in the tournament in the future.

Pittsburgh sports are in a bit of a weird place right now. The Pirates and Penguins may not win titles for some time, and while the Steelers are surefire playoff contenders, it might be a while before they can win a Super Bowl with their stiff competition. But the Riverhounds are on the rise. The 2020 season showed that the team has the ability to matchup against the USL’s best. 

The 2021 season looks to return to the normal structure, where the ‘Hounds can apply their offensive and defensive capabilities in a longer season. Players like Mensah, Forbes and Robbie Mertz will have to perform at higher levels against tougher competition throughout the league. The defense also has to handle pressure from efficient offenses like Reno or even Hartford.

Next season will be one to keep an eye on. The Riverhounds can and will compete at the highest level possible. And whether it’s a USL Title or the Open Cup, it’s very fair to assume that the next Pittsburgh championship will reside on the Monongahela. Come on Pittsburgh Boys, let’s go make some noise!

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