It's here. It's finally here.
After the longest season-opening road trip in the team's history, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds (1-1-2) return home Saturday, April 13, at 7 p.m. to take on Hartford Athletic.
They'll do so in style, coming off a 1-0 victory over the two-time defending champion Louisville City FC. The win marked the Hounds' first of the 2019 campaign, and that momentum is just as valuable as the three points that came with it. It wasn't long into my chat with head coach Bob Lilley Friday after practice at Highmark Stadium the topic surfaced:
As if any extra motivation was necessary, the Hounds' last performance at Station Square resulted in bitter defeat. The team was let down. The fans were let down. Losing in the playoffs to Bethlehem Steel FC stung after a dominant, 15-win, third-place regular season. But losing the way they did? Yeah, that hurts even more.
Now, the Hounds look to turn that negative into a positive as they look to build off the win in Louisville.
"It’s exciting every year to get back home," the team's longest-tenured player, midfielder Kevin Kerr, was telling me. "We had such a great year last year, and the last time we played here was the playoff game and there was a great buzz. So hopefully we can continue that this year.”
The opportunity is certainly there. Hartford Athletic's struggled so far this year, going 0-5 with a minus-nine goal differential. If the Hounds are going to put on a show for the locals, this is the time to do it.
Only it might not be as simple as it looks on paper, Lilley explained to me. Yes, the stats are bad. But look at the Hounds' own season as a perfect example of how fickle this game can be.
"I think all four of our games could’ve gone either way, arguably, and I just think they haven’t gotten the bounces," he said.
Solid point, but that minus-nine goal differential speaks volumes, no?
"Record-wise, they’re struggling, but I don’t think they’re an inferior team to anyone at this point," Lilley continued. "Their personnel is quite good. They have [forward Jose] Angulo, [forward Alex] Dixon — they have all-league players… They have a very talented team and I think they’ll be good when all is said and done. It’s our job not to let them off the mat and make sure we’re ready. They’re going to be anxious to try to get their first win, and we gotta be ready.”
Therein lies the stronger tie to the Hounds' own season. Just a week ago, the Hounds were searching for their first victory of the season after posting a loss and two ties. Every week, the pressure mounted, and the team felt it. That led them to come out with added fire against Louisville City FC, and the result followed.
Now, they're facing a Hartford Athletic squad which brings an even greater amount of desperation to the table, and that can present some danger if the Hounds aren't ready from the jump.
Kerr broke it down for me:
All considered, the stage is capably set. The Hounds want to redeem themselves after bowing out of the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion. They also want to keep rolling off a huge win. Meanwhile, Hartford Athletic doesn't just want to win — they need to win. It'll be a "dogfight," as Kerr put it.
And that makes for great theater under the lights at Highmark Stadium.
• Fun fact: The Riverhounds' first-ever home game at Highmark Stadium also took place on April 13. That one was six years ago, in 2013, a 2-1 loss to the Harrisburg City Islanders (now Penn FC).
• Some more history: Remember Hartford Athletic forward Angulo who Lilley mentioned above? If you do, it's because he used to play for the Hounds — and he scored the first-ever goal at Highmark Stadium in that 2013 home opener.
• In their past two home openers, the Hounds are 0-0-2, tying Penn FC in 2018 and New York Red Bulls II in 2017.
• With 24 assists, Kerr remains just one away from tying the all-time club lead of 25, held by recent Hounds Hall of Fame inductee David Flavius.
• Did you think the Hounds' four-game road stretch to open the season was rough? Hartford Athletic's got 'em beat. They come into game six of an eight-game road trip to start the season.
• Prior to kickoff, 93.7 The Fan will hold a tailgate at Highmark Stadium, where the first 500 children aged 12-and-under will get a free cup for a soft drink at the stadium. The Hounds will also offer $1 beers from 5:30 p.m. until kickoff. No, the kids can't fill their cups with it.
• The first 3,000 fans through the gates at Highmark Stadium Saturday will receive a free schedule magnet via K-Love.
• The match will stream live on ESPN+.
• Tickets are available right here.
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