The Riverhounds are back, and expectations are high as the franchise’s 20th season opens tonight, 7:30 p.m., in St. Petersburg, Fla., against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Well, higher than last year’s high. Put it that way.
After going 15-5-14 and placing third in the USL’s Eastern Conference in 2018, the team looked poised to make a deep playoff run — but that never materialized. Instead, the Hounds were bounced from the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion, dropping a long, tense penalty shootout before a capacity crowd at Highmark Stadium to cross-state rival Bethlehem Steel FC.
Despite that disappointment, the Hounds got a taste of winning — and winning consistently. The 15 wins were their most since joining USL in 2011, and now the team wants more.
“I think we all realize if we want to achieve anything, it’s going to take a huge amount of work day in and day out,” midfielder and most-tenured captain Kevin Kerr was telling me this week. “That mentality from last year has carried through the preseason. We’re desperate to get off to a great start.”
The sentiment was echoed strongly by Bob Lilley.
“Last year was a great season for us,” the coach said. “I enjoyed the group we had. Obviously, we were disappointed in how it ended… Hopefully, it’s a reminder to all of us how special it is to win consistently.”
Racking up those consistent wins won’t be easy out the gates. The Hounds face four consecutive opponents away from home — including a much-anticipated rematch against Bethlehem FC on March 30. This run marks the longest opening-season road stretch in the organization’s history.
Does that bother Lilley?
Nah. Not really. He told me after practice in Coraopolis this week his squad is just as confident in their abilities on the road as they are at home:
Still, the players recognize they laid the foundation for something special in 2018, and now it’s their responsibility to keep the snowball rolling downhill. This road stretch can either take fans’ interest to a new level or it can cause them to tune out before the season really takes shape.
“Last year was a massive year for the club,” Kerr told me. “There was probably more growth last year than any other year that I’ve been here… Now, it comes with a little bit of pressure.”
• The Hounds played to a draw in both matchups vs. Tampa Bay last season, 2-2 and 1-1. The first of those, the match in St. Pete, was among their most electric of the summer.
• Four Hounds this season — Kerr, midfielder Kenardo Forbes and the two new forwards, Christian Volesky and forward Steevan Dos Santos, have at least 100 games played at the USL level.
• Dos Santos is listed at 6-4, 208, and he looked every bit of it on the practice field. The dude is a tank.
• With his next assist, Kerr will tie David Flavius for the most in Hounds history. Flavius was recently inducted into the Hounds Hall of Fame, so getting assist No. 25 would be monumental for Kerr.
• Can the streak continue? Goalkeeper Kyle Morton enters 2019 having never allowed a goal in his three starts with the Hounds.
• The Hounds are returning 50 percent of their full roster from 2018, 10 of the total 20, but that also includes eight of the projected 11 starters.
• The home opener, when it finally arrives, is April 13.