Kovacevic: These Hounds keep raising their bar


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Neco Brett is congratulated by the Hounds after his free-kick goal Saturday night at Highmark Stadium. - CHRIS COWGER / RIVERHOUNDS SC

Neco Brett saw the space. Through the wall of defenders, over the bouncing keeper, top right corner of the goal.

He saw the goal, too. Meaning he envisioned it in advance, as all scorers in all sports tend to do.

And then ...

Yee-ouch. That's 40 yards of free-kick excellence. No bend-it-like-Beckham. All bullet.

"When I lined up, I could see the other side of the goal," Brett would tell me later. "My intention was to beat him there. Get the ball there as quick as possible. I'm going straight for it."

That came in the 16th minute, and it set the stage for the Riverhounds' biggest W of the summer, 3-0, over Indy Eleven on this Saturday night before 3,520 at Highmark Stadium. It was a match that would've pushed either side atop the USL's Eastern Conference standings, so the evening ended with Pittsburgh (16-4-10) and Nashville (17-7-7) tied with 58 points each, New York and Tampa Bay with 57 each, Indy stuck at 56.

Oh, and the Hounds have a game in hand on all of them except Indy.

Oh, and the Hounds' final four matches are all against opponents in the bottom 10 of the 18-team conference.

Oh, and it's been six freaking weeks since the Hounds gave up a goal, a franchise-record span of seven-plus matches, or 646 minutes.

Oh, and their other two goals on this night, both by Kenardo Forbes, might actually have topped Brett's in quality:

That's Forbes making a routine run up the left flank, cutting to the inside and stepping into a bar-down blast of his own in the 40th minute for a 2-0 lead.

And that's Forbes committing a crime against humanity -- or at least against Indy defender Karl Ouimette -- to move right, then transfer to his left foot to slam a shot off the far post in the 70th minute.

Ouimette, as local soccer fans will recall, was the victim of Romeo Parkes' infamous ninja kick a few years back, though I'd argue this was the greater crime.

I asked Forbes, not at all seriously, if he apologized.

After he laughed, he replied, "No, I didn't. I wanted to make a play. That's my high school move back in Jamaica. That's my go-to move. When I'm in trouble, that's what I do."

Add to all that Kyle Morton's three saves, including an acrobatic beauty in the 24th minute on a tight header, as well as big Joe Greenspan's brilliant eight-clearance count off the back line, a smooth midfield operation spurred by Kevin Kerr being dropped back and delivering 84.4 percent passing precision plus four tackles, and a 12-10 edge in shots ... and honestly, it feels like it's worth reminding that Indy, too, is one of the USL's best sides. And the Eleven came out hard.

"We're doing work," Greenspan told me. "They're very good. That's why they're up at the top of the conference along with us. We're getting it done in training, getting it done when it counts, and we've got some momentum right now."

Yeah, I forgot about the momentum: The Hounds are on a 14-2-3 run, including 5-0-2 since a bizarre outlier Aug. 17 in losing, 5-0, at North Carolina. That's the last time anyone scored against them, too.

Anyone else thinking what I'm thinking?


When a club's ... not just taking on all comers but occasionally bludgeoning them like this, it's impossible not to. The Hounds have never won a championship in the franchise's 18 years here. They've never come close. But these results, this feel -- the near-capacity crowd and the Steel Army in particularly were in full throat throughout -- sure make that seem feasible.

I ran that past the captain and elder statesman:

"We can feel the buzz," the man said. "But we have to take it one game at a time."

I like it. They're grounded.

"A big statement," the man said of this match.

"Now that we're in the race," the man said, "let's see where that will take us."

That starts with Kerr and Bob Lilley, but it courses through the whole culture. Been that way for months now. The Hounds enter matches like this with more of a business-like approach. Same goes when facing the lesser lights. There are points to be taken from the table, and so they take them.

And then they celebrate in front of more and more fans each time out:

[caption id="attachment_895441" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Kenardo Forbes celebrates with the Steel Army supporters' section. - RIVERHOUNDS SC[/caption]

I don't know where this will go. They've clinched the playoffs, and they're not far from clinching home field for the second year in a row. And yet, this feels nothing like the 2018 edition that made a cameo and burst into flames in a first-round shootout loss to Bethlehem. This feels solid. It feels complete. It feels like the deepest, most gifted roster this city's ever seen in soccer.

Heck, it feels like their best is still ahead. That's certainly the mindset of Lilley, who seemingly never takes his foot off the gas in exposing shortcomings. Even after this one, he sounded mostly sour notes, summarized by, "We can be better."

Next match is Tuesday against Loudoun United FC (7-16-16) in Leesburg, Va. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. at Segra Field.

Next championship contender among Pittsburgh teams ... we'll see.

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