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Collected Hounds squad ready to rebound

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Hounds players battle for possession during practice in Coraopolis. – PITTSBURGH RIVERHOUNDS

First came the whistle. Then, the yelling.

Oh, man, was there some yelling.

Riverhounds Head Coach Bob Lilley unleashed on his players during practice this week in Coraopolis — and for good reason. The team returned home to get in some work after a disappointing 2-0 defeat to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in their season opener, and they needed to button up ahead of their second-straight road game, a tilt vs. the Swope Park Rangers Saturday, March 23, in Kansas City, Kan.

But the play on the field was lacking. Passes were missed. Players were slow to recognize plays developing.

Lilley had enough. After an animated, expletive-laden — uhh... pep talk — the Hounds resumed practice, and this happened (volume up):

The communication is obvious. That's the sound of a team actively working together and striving for improvements. Fresh off a 15-win season in 2018, expectations were high for the Hounds coming into 2019. A dud in the season opener did little to fuel those fires, but the team isn't panicking. In fact, the crew sees plenty of good in that week one loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

"It wasn’t all bad — there were some good things as well," Hounds Assistant Coach Dan Visser was telling me after practice. "A big point of emphasis this week was just not getting kind of stuck on one side, getting it wide and then kind of switching the point of attack. It’s been an emphasis probably all season but just kind of an added emphasis after the Tampa game." 

In saying all that, Visser was gearing up for the buzzword of the week for the Hounds. He continued:

There it was. Did you catch it at the end?

Execution.

That's all that matters to the Hounds as they move forward, not just to week two but throughout the entirety of this 2019 campaign. The team boasts experience and talent from top to bottom. The coaching staff is proven. All that's left is to actually step onto the pitch and make plays.

This point is not lost on midfielder Kevin Kerr. In the Hounds' 2-0 defeat to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Kerr did not contribute at his usual clip, and he acknowledged a lack of execution on his part as a key reason the offense could not find its rhythm in Florida.

"I felt like I was on the outskirts for long periods, as well as a few of our other offensive pieces," Kerr told me. "So we need to find ways to get the ball to them and get forward and create more chances. Like I say, every time I play I like to create a chance or two, and it was tough on Saturday." 

But just as the team emerged from Lilley's tirade with some life and an extra shot of vigor, Kerr expects the squad to do the same Saturday against the Swope Park Rangers — and beyond. As the longest-tenured player on the team, keeping the troops rallied and focused is a duty he takes to heart:

And if — or when — that win comes? It's onto the next one. There's no sense in celebrating a regular-season victory, just as there's no sense in sulking in defeat. The mission heading into this season was to surpass the bar set last year — a third-place finish in the USL's Eastern Conference and a first-round playoff exit — and that hasn't changed.

"It was one of the things that coach spoke about after the game, that last year after two games we had two points," Kerr said. "If we win on Saturday, it’s already an improvement. We’d be set with three. We’re game-to-game right now." 

If that statement sounds apathetic, know this: It's not. They're not OK with the loss, and they recognize the stakes at play. Another defeat doesn't just put them at 0-2 to start the 2019 season — it causes an entire city to wonder if 2018 was just a fluke after all.

"We’re desperate to get that first win," Kerr said on that. "The longer it takes, the more it becomes a big deal." 

The Hounds have never played the Swope Park Rangers, as this is the Kansas City-based squad's first year in the USL's Eastern Conference.

•  The last time the Hounds lost back-to-back contests to open the season was 2008.

• Like the Hounds, the Swope Park Rangers dropped their season opener on the road, a 3-1 defeat to New York Red Bulls II.

•  In the team's season opener, the Swope Park Rangers allowed 23 total shots, 15 on goal. That could be a good sign for a Hounds team in need of some offense.

• Defenseman Joe Greenspan needs a cranial X-Ray stat. He launched a header Thursday at practice that could've been given a speeding ticket on 376.

• 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.

• Visser says the team has "a little bit of a plan" to get goalie Ben Lungaard worked into action alongside current goaltender Kyle Morton but didn't elaborate upon how exactly that will happen. Lungaard was acquired by the Riverhounds on loan from MLS' Columbus Crew SC. Morton failed to stop both shots on goal in the team's season opener.

• The home opener, when it finally arrives, is April 13.

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