After a 2-0 loss in their season opener to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the Hounds posted two goals on the Swope Park Rangers, good enough to earn a point and to escape Kansas City with the tie. It was an obvious improvement from the team's opening-day effort, a point noted by Hounds coach Bob Lilley this week in Coraopolis.
"We just generated more chances, we were more aggressive," Lilley was telling me after the team wrapped up its final practice before their matchup Saturday against Bethlehem Steel FC in Chester, Pa. "It was nice to finally get our noses in front."
Yet, for a team coming off a 15-win, third-place season, ties are not on the menu. Just as they improved from a loss to a tie between weeks one and two, the Hounds are currently obsessed with making the next jump into the win column this week.
"It’s important for us to start putting three in the table where teams are seeing, ‘All right, Pittsburgh’s sorted out. They’re getting wins,’ " Lilley said.
You gotta love that. The importance of winning is obvious, but Lilley notes it's not just about the three points — it's about letting the rest of the league know a new player has entered the game. So when will the Hounds plug in their controller and join the party?
"I think that starts this weekend," Lilley continued. "We need to just go down there and get the three points.”
The good news is this: The players notice the improvements. There's no sense of panic and no element of pressure — yet — in their eyes. Even rookie defender Caleb Smith, who logged his first professional minutes last week, knows it's only a matter of time before the Hounds rack up three:
The better news is this: Winning Saturday not only earns the Hounds three points but also grants them the sweet, sweet satisfaction of revenge. Bethlehem Steel FC bounced the Hounds from last year's playoffs in front of an overflow crowd at Highmark Stadium, ending their season just as it was getting really fun. And while Lilley is the consummate professional and refused to flatly admit this component will play a part, he couldn't help himself in acknowledging the extra motivation involved.
"Obviously, winning on the road against someone that knocked you out of the playoffs last year may be a little bit more satisfying when all is said and done," he said.
Hey, that's as good as it was going to get from him, and that's fine with me. The stakes don't need embellished. It's pretty clear-cut: The Hounds need to start winning. Every week that passes with a "0" in the win column is another week for the pressure to build, another week for fans to wonder if last season's success was a fluke. The team's longest-tenured player, midfielder Kevin Kerr, said it best last week.
"The longer it takes, the more it becomes a big deal," Kerr said.
Factoring heavily into the team's winning formula is goalkeeper Ben Lundgaard, who the Hounds acquired on loan from MLS' Columbus Crew SC ahead of the 2019 season. Lundgaard, who had a standout career at Virginia Tech before being drafted 21st overall in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft, made his first professional start last week against the Swope Park Rangers, and he impressed.
"It was his first pro start, [and] I thought he was sharp, alert," Lilley said. "He was talking. He looked ready for the moment, and that was nice to see."
It was nice to see — unless you're Kyle Morton, the team's starting keeper heading into the season. He started the team's opener and failed to stop either of the chances generated by the Tampa Bay Rowdies. With Lundgaard making three clutch stops against Swope Park, there's a competition brewing in goal for the Hounds. And that's not speculation. That's a fact. I gave Lilley the out — listen for it — and he shrugged it off anyway:
How exactly Morton and Lundgaard will split time remains to be seen, but that instantly becomes a storyline to watch this season — beginning this Saturday in the much-anticipated rematch against Bethlehem Steel FC.
• Saturday's matchup marks the Hounds' first trip to Talen Energy Stadium, home of MLS' Philadelphia Union and Bethlehem Steel FC.
• The Hounds defeated Bethlehem Steel FC 2-1 during the regular season last year before falling to them in the playoffs on penalty kicks.
• Bethlehem Steel FC enters the contest with a 1-2-0 record, losing their last two, each by a score of 1-0.
• The Hounds haven't put up a shutout this season, a mark they led the league in last season with a staggering 17 shutouts in 34 contests.
• This Hounds squad is slowly taking shape with some new blood. In addition to Lundgaard and Smith making their debuts, midfielder Anthony Velarde scored his first professional goal, a penalty-kick equalizer that knotted the game at 2 and saved the tie for the Hounds.
• Also on the "new blood" front, the Hounds signed midfielder Robbie Mertz, defender Prosper Figbe and forward Mark Forrest to one-year contracts with a club option for the 2020 season. They're all eligible to play immediately, however they will likely take some time to acclimate before seeing game action. Forrest won't join the Hounds until May, as he's finishing course work at Lehigh University.
• Saturday will mark Lilley's 40th game as the Hounds' coach. Thus far, he's posted a 16-8-15 record with a +18 goal differential.
• The home opener, when it finally arrives, is April 13.
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