The USL Championship Eastern Conference-winning Riverhounds know they'll be hosting No. 10 Birmingham Legion FC, who advanced out of the playoffs' opening round with a thrilling 3-2 road win over No. 7 North Carolina Wednesday. They know it will take place Saturday at 7 p.m. and at home -- a luxury with the matchup earned by winning the conference for the first time in team history.
They also know that Kevin Kerr and Jordan Dover are the team's top tennis players -- with soccer rules, of course. That's how the Hounds spent most of their training session Tuesday morning. Two-on-two tennis matches, kicking and heading only, until the whole team was gathered to watch Joe Greenspan and Robbie Mertz lose out to the Kerr/Dover side in the finale.
After talking with Kerr a good bit about ... you know ... soccer, and the Hounds' upcoming home match, winning the league, how that team has changed, etc., I asked about his tennis win and he, of course, was pretty cheeky about it: "Easy, easy, easy."
"We're just getting our legs back under us today," coach Bob Lilley told me on the Highmark Stadium turf, almost apologetically for being at a more low key, fun training in the rain. Hey, don't apologize to me. You've done this before, and pretty successfully -- winning the USL championship in 2015 with Rochester and leading the Rhinos to the playoffs in each of his seasons there.
When Lilley took over the Hounds for the 2018 season, it was on the heels of the team learning former coach Dave Brandt would be ineligible after failing to renew his coaching license. The team's identity was up in the air after failing to qualify for the playoffs in 2016 and 2017, and Lilley brought a new identity to the Monongahela River.
That identity has become a winning one. The club nearly doubled its win total from 2017 to 2018 in Lilley's first year, finishing third in the conference after 13th in back to back years. Now they've finished first and there's plenty more work to do.
Kerr has been here for it all:
After practice, Lilley told me this team has something special. Maybe the "it" that's required for teams to do something special, evidenced by the pair of late winners on the road over the last two weeks. Without those, the Hounds don't win the conference and have a different outlook on the coming weeks.
The same can be said about the Hounds' start of the season ... It may have looked like there wasn't much being accomplished because the Hounds were dropping points, but if they hadn't at least drawn all of those games in their 4-3-7 start, they wouldn't have have ended a point ahead of the rest of the conference.
He talked on that start, and on the team's growth since then after training:
Now, the Hounds wait for kickoff. They did their job in league play and they did it without losing a match at home all season. In fact, the last home defeat came at the hands of Bethlehem Steel when Ray Lee's penalty attempt went wide and the Hounds were eliminated.
"It's been since the last playoff game since we've lost here," Kerr was telling me, looking back a long way to when this team lost in Pittsburgh. Also remembering they can lose here. "We trust ourselves wherever we have to go, but the results don't lie at home. We'll take that confidence but we're not going to forget what happened last year with Bethlehem. That's fresh in the memory of a lot of us that were here. We're not going to take anything for granted."
Lilley, of course, remembers the defeat at the hands of the in-state rival. But, he doesn't look at it in the way a well-tenured field player like Kerr might.
"It's a different team," Lilley told me when I brought up the playoff loss. "I've been in a lot of playoffs, and every year is different. I don't really think seasons even match each other. There's more turnover in our sport and our league than some other sports."
"We can hang on to stuff, but when I came here there was a history," he continued. "It doesn't really matter because I'm different, I'm going to do things different, the players are going to do things different and we're going to have different players ... I think for us, this is a new year and we need to focus on continuing to apply, collectively, the things we do very well."
Yeah, this team is different alright, just as they're different than they were after those first 14 games. They won nine of the next 11 following that, by the way. And they've done it in front of the largest average attendance they've had since moving to the Mon.
"It's incredible, you know," Kerr told me of the team's supporters. "We got met at the airport yesterday -- coming home. It's unbelievable, and it's a lot of the same faces that were here when things weren't going well."
Those faces will be there Saturday at 7 p.m. As will I alongside Dejan Kovacevic and Hunter Homistek to cover the top dogs as they search for playoff glory.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
To continue reading, log into your account: