Hounds tackle toughest test to date in St. Louis


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Hounds goalkeeper Ben Lundgaard – Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

That's more like it.

After a season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the Riverhounds (2-1-2) are undefeated in their last four, bouncing back with two ties and back-to-back victories over Louisville City FC and Hartford Athletic.

Saturday, the stakes are raised, as they face their stiffest test of the young season — on paper, at least. St. Louis FC (4-1-1) marches into Highmark Stadium at 7 p.m., looking to halt the Hounds' momentum and leave Pittsburgh with their fifth win of the season.

And while the home squad stumbled out of the gates this year, their recent results are much more in line with what fans expected. Last season, the Hounds posted a 15-win, third-place finish in the USL's Eastern Conference, perking up the ears of even fringe soccer fans across the Steel City.

There's a fourth pro team in town? And they're... good?

That's exciting for many, and the hype only intensifies as the Hounds settle into their groove. Yet, there's work to be done. So much, in fact, Hounds assistant coach Dan Visser couldn't pinpoint one particular area of emphasis when I asked him about it this week at Highmark Stadium:

But don't get it twisted: The team isn't so lousy they just need to improve everywhere. Quite the contrary. Visser's response speaks to something else entirely: The Hounds are aiming for the top. The top. They had a "good" year in 2018 despite a disappointing first-round playoff exit at home.

Now, they want to be great. That's why Visser feels everything can and should improve.

Factoring heavily into that plan is Hounds goalkeeper Ben Lundgaard, who was the No. 21 overall pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft. After being selected by Columbus Crew SC, Lundgaard was sent on loan to the USL's Indy Eleven but never made an appearance due to a thumb injury.

Acquired in March by the Hounds, Lundgaard found himself immediately thrust into competition with Kyle Morton. That, Lundgaard said, is crucial for his development as he transitions into play at the professional level.

"Kyle’s a great goalkeeper," Lundgaard told me at Highmark Stadium Friday. "He definitely pushes me every day to keep that starting spot. When we were at the very beginning of preseason camp, we were fighting tooth and nail for it." 

Morton got the start in the team's Week 1 loss vs. the Rowdies and in the Week 3 tie vs. Bethlehem Steel FC, while Lundgaard was in goal for both of the team's wins and for their 2-2 tie against the Swope Park Rangers.

But it's still a little awkward, right? There's an obvious competition for the starting goalkeeper position — head coach Bob Lilley has acknowledged it on the record this season — and Lundgaard is taking the lead. But instead of viewing it as such, Lundgaard only uses it as fuel and motivation.

"It means that I can’t come in and slack off, and it means that he can’t come in and slack off. We have to get better every day, and there’s a strong friendship between us but there’s also a strong competitiveness between both of us, which is good and only healthy... 

"We’ve both been in scenarios where we’ve done it before. It’s just playing soccer our whole lives and competing our whole lives, we know how to manage it." 

Oh, and Lundgaard's loving it in Pittsburgh so far, which never hurts:

They'll need him tomorrow against St. Louis FC, a team that has posted three shutouts and has allowed just one goal each in two other contests this season. Any goal conceded could be the dagger against a team that tight defensively, something Visser was quick to acknowledge.

"I think they’re a good team. No doubt," Visser said. "We’ve been impressed just watching them on tape and some of their defensive organization. They’re going to be tough to break down for sure." 

• The Hounds haven't played St. Louis FC since 2017, when they split the season series, 1-1.

• Last week, midfielder Kevin Kerr, the team's longest-tenured player, tied the franchise's all-time assists mark (25) with Hounds Hall of Famer David Flavius. Kerr's next assist will give him sole possession of the record.

•  With their win last week against Hartford Athletic, the Hounds are now unbeaten at Highmark Stadium in nine straight regular-season matches.

•  Momentum favoring the Hounds? While St. Louis FC's 4-1-1 record is impressive, they're coming off their first loss of the season, a 3-2 defeat against Birmingham Legion FC. That match represents not only their first loss but the only time this season they've allowed more than one goal.

• Contrasting that last point, St. Louis FC is undefeated (2-0) in road games this season. Something's gotta give.

• Not looking ahead to next week just yet but... The Hounds face Nashville SC in Game 3 of their three-game homestand. Like St. Louis FC, Nashville SC is red-hot, boasting a 3-1-1 record. That's quite the challenge for the Hounds in back-to-back contests. Visser shared his thoughts with me on that after practice.

"We’re certainly aware of Nashville, no doubt," he said. "We knew this homestand was going to be Hartford, St. Louis and Nashville, and I think Hartford is a team that’s better than their record indicates, although they’ve continued to kind of struggle. But certainly, we knew St. Louis and Nashville were going to be two tough games, and we very much just kind of focused on St. Louis and we’ll look to Nashville next week. But we’re aware. We know it’s coming." 

• Tickets for the Hounds' matchup vs. St. Louis FC are available right here.

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