That song was in my head for last season's entirety. It's not because Steel Army sings it for their favorite striker, Neco Brett, because they don't. It's because I just simply love The Beatles' 'Hey Jude' as a soccer anthem and it popped into my head the first time I photographed him.
Brett walked away with a hat trick against Ottawa Fury that day. It would be the first of his professional career after being a standout at Robert Morris, but it certainly wouldn't end up as his last. Since then, he's only gone on to halve his way to the top of the Riverhounds' all-time goal list.
Fast forward through the majority of two seasons scoring those 30-plus goals and into Saturday's playoff showdown with Birmingham Legion FC. Steel Army didn't sing the song for Brett that lives in my head, but they did sing for him and flood the shore of the Mon with smoke for him over 90-minutes and four goals scored.
Yes, FOUR goals scored by Brett in the Hounds' 7-0 rout of Birmingham. And, honestly, it was never that close. "Rout" isn't a good enough word. I'm not sure there's one in my lexicon that fits, really.
From a photographer who sees the action coming at him, but also who has covered the team regularly -- talking to Bob Lilley quite a bit over the course of this season -- this felt like the culmination of everything Lilley has wanted the team to become. That feels dangerous, considering it was still only a quarterfinal win.
It started to feel like it was all coming together on Brett's first goal. The Hounds weren't on their heels like they were in the penalty kicks-deciding loss to Bethlehem Steel a year ago. They had the lead twice in that game, but it never felt a controlling effort. These Hounds were putting their opponents on their heels, and Brett's first strike and celebration set that tone -- and the pace for the rest of the game, honestly:
That first goal sent Highmark Stadium into a frenzy I've never experienced. I was there for the team's first game on the Mon. I was there for the first win, and I took a photo of the team's now goalkeeper coach, Hunter Gilstrap, celebrating with Steel Army that's still my favorite I've ever taken regarding the Hounds.
I wasn't at that Open Cup game against DC United, so I can't compare to it, but I'm going to go ahead and imagine that winning this definitively is at least close to what that was like -- or, would have been like with a win that night.
Brett's next goal would come when I was seeking shelter from the rain to send a photo from his first, but I wouldn't have to wait long to see him close out his hat trick from the spot. He earned that right by beating Birmingham keeper Matt Van Oekel and having his feet pulled out from beneath him:
No amount of protesting can change the outcome of that moment, or this game. Like clockwork, Brett stepped up, struck the ball and it was 4-0 Hounds, Brett finishing 75 percent of those scores.
The poise to finish the hat trick from the spot, and in the rain ... You could say Brett was ...... locked in. No, Brett would actually say that after the win:
"When I got in the locker room, I realized that everyone was locked in," Brett told reporters after the match. "Whenever I get in the locker room and the guys are like that, normally we bring our A game. I was looking forward to a game like this. Not this many goals, but a good game."
Yeah Neco, you were locked in, bud. Clearly.
Brett went on to earn a second penalty as you'll see below. You can get away with some shirt pulls, but that's a bit aggressive and one that had Birmingham defender Zachary Herivaux sent home early for.
Not just Brett, but Steevan Dos Santos as well, got that kind of separation in behind the Birmingham line. That was something I asked Robbie Mertz about after the match.
"The biggest thing for them is that they work so hard on both sides of the ball, and it creates a lot for us going forward," Mertz told me. "The work they do defensively enables us to get forward, but the biggest thing with them, coach demands a lot of movement, a lot of good runs, and I think you saw that with Neco when he got in a few times tonight."
Neco got in there, drew the penalty, drew the red card but didn't take the kick.
No, this time it was Mertz. The Pittsburgh kid. An academy player who went on to star at Michigan and end up back home as a pro.
I asked Mertz about taking the kick. I didn't know who handed the ball from Brett to Mertz and decided he'd be the guy to take it. I asked after the match, mainly to find out if it was Brett, captain Kenardo Forbes or ...?
Mertz told me he got the signal from coach to take the kick. He told me they were for Neco all night, but he'd gotten the signal to take this one.
I chose the photo I did there, Mertz lifted into the air by his strike instead of hitting the ball, because I loved him off the ground displaying what he must have been feeling. Pittsburgh kid returns home to score in a magical, rainy playoff match? Yeah, sign me up for that story.
Back to Brett, though, because his night wasn't over after setting up Mertz. No, he had one more left in the tank.
As clinically as the other three, Brett pocketed his fourth. That one set the record. Brett, with his four goals, made himself the Hounds' leading playoff scorer and tied a Hounds record for most goals in a match. No photo down here, though. That photo kicks this story off up top and is followed by the rest of the best photos from the Hounds' win.
One more of Neco to share before I go, though. This one is of him talking to Van Oekel after the match and shaking his hand. I couldn't help but think, "Man, I can't imagine shaking the hand of someone who was responsible for four of seven scored on me tonight."
I'll see you guys and gals in the comments, and I'll see you back at Highmark Stadium on Saturday at 7 p.m.