Hounds

Mertz, the Hometown Hound, boots N.C., 1-0

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Riverhounds win, 1-0, in a lightning-delayed match Saturday night along the Monongahela River. This episode in the fight against Mother Nature featured visiting North Carolina FC.

Surely these guys are getting used to playing with lightning over the city, yeah?

I expected an answer, but ... hey ... I'm all about sharing some laughs to ignore the oppressive heat and humidity. These guys just won, let them smile for a bit.

Robbie Mertz is on the left there, Thomas Vancaeyezeele on the right. Both had strong games in the win to keep the Riverhounds undefeated at home, but it was Mertz's finish on a tremendous solo performance put on by Neco Brett that stole the show.

Brett sought a ball down the right side of the pitch, fended off defender Victor Igbekoyi who has three inches but loses a handful of pounds on the Hounds forward, turned back as he settled the ball, found Mertz who saw the space open, laid the ball into said space and Mertz found the netting. Easy, right? Have a look:

I could see in Mertz's eyes in my photos that he knew he was the option for Neco. On a night of soccer played in stifling heat and humidity, Brett fending off the defender and corralling the ball to lay off was a better effort than nearly anything else on the evening.

This tight shot of the mismatched battle should prove that:

[caption id="attachment_859147" align="aligncenter" width="1500"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Neco won that battle, settled and let Mertz win the game on the scoresheet.

When we talked after the game, though, Mertz said he'd have to look back at the film to see how it unfolded ... He very clearly saw it develop before it did when it played out right in front of me, but the adrenaline from his leaping celebration facing his home skyline probably pushed it out of memory. But, more on that really awesome moment after you hear it from the scorer himself:

"One of our own," is what Steel Army sings when Mertz comes on, is having himself a game or does something pretty special. Well, "one of our own" is all I could think of after Mertz finished that goal -- literally moments after coming back on after being injured on a hard tackle, by the way.

When Mertz finished into the bottom right of the net, the Upper St. Clair kid ran toward the lone corner flag facing his home city, leaped high -- shedding any thought of actual injury -- while uppercutting through the dense, wet air and screamed in celebration. Again, have a look:

[caption id="attachment_859141" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Robbie Mertz launches into an uppercut of a celebration. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Where an image like that normally sits at the top of an article here at DKPittsburghSports.com, this one just didn't have the power it does as a square when cropped to work as a featured image. So, I hid it up there and wanted a place to show it at full width where it could really be seen.

There it is. Honestly, a favorite Hounds image I've ever taken, a favorite I've taken across all sports this season and one I think carries some extra weight because he's, well, "one of our own" in Pittsburgh.

"The kid from Pittsburgh, huh?" Vancaeyezeele would playfully punctuate Mertz telling me about his celebration ... after shooting some pretty hilarious side-eye while waiting for his chance:

Bob Lilley acknowledged Mertz's quality after the game, acknowledged the strength required of Brett to set him up (in an otherwise average game from his forward), and acknowledged that he didn't believe one would be enough.

He set his team up to take risks in the first half, often going with three forwards and pushing a fourth into attacking runs, but the finish wasn't there.

"Disappointed that we were so wasteful," Lilley would tell me after the match. "I mean, we were getting so many balls in good positions, and we're not hitting the target, you know? Robbie Mertz had a great goal, but he had another chance where he should hit the frame. Kevin Kerr's got a header that needs to be headed down. We get a penalty kick and Ken ..."

Lilley didn't finish his thought on Kenardo Forbes penalty attempt you'll see more of in a minute. He stopped himself to rant briefly on just how many chances the Hounds could have and ... likely ... should have converted in the first half.

Regardless, a single goal got the job done to swing the points in a positive direction. Had Lilley's squad lost, they'd have dropped to 11 back from North Carolina. Instead, they gained three points on their opponent to climb to a five point deficit from them. Ultimately, an important six point swing in a crowded field behind the leading Tampa Bay Rowdies.

The lightning delay didn't come until there was a mere eight minutes left in regulation time, forcing the teams into their locker rooms on a night with high cramp risk. This time, and with weather robbing the Hounds of a win already this season, Lilley thought the lightning delay was an advantage for his team as they tried to hold the lead.

“It served us well tonight," Lilley said after the match. "I don’t know if we get to the end line without a break. We weren’t organized, they were playing through us pretty easily for a good portion of the second half. They brought their subs on and they played us up top. I knew they would when I saw the starting lineup, but obviously, it helped to get into the locker room and communicate clear instructions.”

Sure, having to break in heat like that is a concern, but getting the extra chalkboard time when a team has figured you out is surely an advantage to the guys with the goal.

The challenge really came when Forbes earned a penalty in the 88th minute, stepped up, hit it and had it saved by Alex Tambakis. Of course, a momentum-swinging moment like that has the potential to alter a game's outcome. Oddly enough, I had a gut feeling to sit on the keeper for that one:

[caption id="attachment_859146" align="aligncenter" width="640"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Again, it didn't matter. Would the Hounds have liked a second? Sure, but another clean sheet got the win. As Lilley would say after the game, "It's a completed job for tonight in terms of the result."

The Hounds now travel to Hartford for a Saturday clash with the city's Athletic before coming home for a pair.

MATT SUNDAY GALLERY

[caption id="attachment_859162" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Riverhounds vs. North Carolina FC, Highmark Stadium, July 20, 2019 - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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