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The gates open … and the Hounds stumble in St. Pete

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Pittsburgh Riverhounds defender Jordan Dover (5) battles Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder Leo Fernandes (11) – MATT MAY PHOTOGRAPHY

The Riverhounds marked one objective in big, bold, can't-miss letters heading into the 2019 season: Keep. Winning.

The details on the field are important, sure, but the main point of emphasis was a matter of momentum. The team posted 15 wins in 2018 — their most since joining the USL in 2011 — and they took third in the Eastern Conference. The players felt it. The coaches felt it. Owner Tuffy Shallenberger felt it.

"The energy, the excitement," Shallenberger was telling me at the Hounds' 20th Anniversary Kickoff last week. "It's been a long time coming — a lotta hard work. Now we need to keep it going."

Head coach Bob Lilley said the same. Longest-tenured captain and midfielder Kevin Kerr echoed them both.

All of which makes the Hounds' 2-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Saturday night in St. Petersburg, Fla., just a little bit disappointing. The team understood the importance of a strong start to 2019 — with Kerr flatly saying the team was "desperate" to start hot — but the hype didn't translate to the pitch.

The Rowdies — who already played their first match of the season, a 1-0 victory over Memphis 901 — looked comfortable at Al Lang Stadium, striking in the 26th minute courtesy of a Shawn Barry chip-in off a misplayed corner kick by Hounds goalkeeper Kyle Morton.

It was the first goal allowed by Morton in four USL starts, but not his last. Late in the second half, in the 86th minute, Zach Steinberger blasted a one-timer from Barry past Morton to seal the deal and to send the Hounds packing with a loss on opening day.

“I think it was a pretty even game between two evenly matched teams,” Lilley said postgame. “I think it was tough to give up the goal in the first half when we had gotten ourselves into the game on the road. They get that corner and are able to convert.”

The season's long, and this is just one game, but the result couldn't have been more opposite of what everyone — from the fans to the players to the management — wanted and expected. The team came out flat, and they'll get the chance to remedy that next Saturday, when they face the Swope Park Rangers in Kansas City for game two of their four-game road stretch.

The Hounds' six chances came from six different players.

• Midfielder Mouhamed Dabo led the Hounds with three tackles, two fouls won and four fouls conceded.

• While the clubs each posted six total shots, the Rowdies led the Hounds 2-0 in takes on target.

• Midfielder Thomas Vancaeyezeele played all 90 minutes for the Hounds, registering a team-high in touches (77) and total passes (58). He also accounted for one of the Hounds' six shots.

• Last season, the Hounds did not surrender a goal until the fifth game of the season and did not lose until May 23.

• While Morton did not allow a goal in his previous three starts, he went 0-for-2 in this one, posting a goose egg for his save percentage. He did add two punches.

• Defender Caleb Richards led the Rowdies in touches with 94 and in total passes with 65.

• The Hounds' home opener will be April 13, when they face Hartford Athletic at Highmark Stadium.

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