There was a buzz along the river Saturday in Pittsburgh, but it certainly wasn't coming from PNC Park's waterfront facility. That buzz has been gone, and long before the Pirates' current road trip took them west.
This buzz came on the Monongahela, not because there was nothing happening on the Allegheny, but because the Riverhounds are on a hot streak that makes them one of the most appealing attractions on the three rivers.
Going 8-1-1 in their last 10 games with a 28-7 combined score, the Riverhounds aren't just the hottest team in the city, they're among the hottest teams in the USL with ground to make up.
The latest win, a 3-2effort against Swope Park, didn't quite live up to some of the more dominant wins in the streak, including last week's 4-0 win over Memphis, and it took a pretty special pair of solo efforts from Robbie Mertz and Anthony Velarde linking up on a counter to earn the decisive goal.
Yeah, the Hounds scored three to impress the packed house, and it was a pretty goal, but it wasn't enough for coach Bob Lilley.
"It's a great goal, but I don't think we're ever in that position if we play better as a group collectively in the first half," Lilley told me after the win. "I think we can lose sight of the big picture. We won, great goal," he continued.
"Well, some of the guys that maybe scored or had assists weren't at their best tonight. The reality is, we needed to handle that game a lot more responsibly than we did ... the 11 starters tonight weren't responsible in the early stages."
I had asked Lilley about the goal because one of the defensive lapses, one that allowed Swope Park to draw even in the first half on a Gedion Zelalem penalty conversion, lasted until the halftime whistle signaled its reprieve. It was especially concerning, considering the start the Hounds had with Christian Volesky opening the scoring on a well-placed free kick to his forehead.
When the Hounds returned to the field, offering better form and some prolonged possession, they were able to take the lead on a poke from Neco Brett and then secure it with Verlarde's finish after Mertz's service.
The buildup between the two was a thing of beauty and, as mentioned previously, built on the backs of two really impressive solo efforts. Mertz danced and cut through defenders into the midfield until he spotted Velarde near the edge of the penalty area, dropped a curling cross right into Velarde's feet.
From there, the eventual goal scorer played niftily through his own feet, cutting back against CamdenRiley with a precise touch on the outside of his boot, and then finding the space to let loose and finish the Hounds' third of the night.
"I put myself in a good position," Velarde told me after the game as I nodded in return. "I took a good touch ... sometimes things just go your way. That's my ability. I'm able to just go at people, take small touches, get away from people and finish the ball when I can."
That's exactly what he did.
The image I got during Velarde's cut into space is what leads the gallery up top, by the way. Riley was playing with a yellow at the time and nearly caught Velarde on his move.
Speaking on yellow cards, Joe Greenspan was subbed out by Lilley in the 63rd minute of action for Thomas Vancaeyezeele. The meaning was two-fold. First, Lilley's squad has games Wednesday and Saturday, both on the road against quality opponents in New York and North Carolina. He needs legs to stay as fresh as possible.
For that same reason, Velarde was subbed to bring on Noah Franke, and Kenardo Forbes was used sparingly as a late substitute.
The second reason for Greenspan's departure? Greenspan's accumulated four yellow cards and a fifth would have seen him suspended for the Red Bulls II matchup. He was also riding a four game clean streak, meaning a fifth in a row reduced his yellow count by one. So pulling him in the second half earned him some fresher legs and made sure he'd be available for Wednesday.
Lilley told me after the match that he needed to have his full set of central defenders available, not knowing how he'd need to line up against the better attacking Red Bulls II side.
The Hounds sit in sixth in the Eastern Conference following the win, nine points out from the leading Red Bulls II, and with two games at hand. That game takes place Wednesday at 7 p..m. in Montclair, N.J.