The road to a soccer championship, it would appear, runs right along some train tracks by the Mon.
Hey, no need to mince words here: The Riverhounds, the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed, did exactly what's now expected when they took to a soaked pitch Saturday night at Highmark Stadium and absolutely annihilated Birmingham Legion FC, 7-0. Neco Brett fired up four goals, three of those part of a five-goal first-half barrage, the home side's possession wound up at 62.5 percent, shots wound up at 12-4, and all this played out before an overflow crowd of 5,627, largest in the venue's history.
They won't say it, so I will: It's no fluke. Not one facet of it.
Because that's exactly how good these Hounds have become in winning 12 in a row, giving up a grand total of two goals in that time, and rising up to the point where ... my goodness, even Bob Lilley, the impossible-to-please coach, could be seen smiling in the second half.
"I did?" he came back when I broached that afterward. "When?"
OK, never mind. Just watch all seven goals:
Brett was brilliant. He's blossomed from Robert Morris hopeful to a bona fide star at this level, these four goals added to his 13 in the regular season.
He credited his mates' focus, first and foremost.
"When I got in the locker room," he'd say, referring to reporting to the stadium before the match, "I realized that everyone was locked in. When 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."
Brett had help: Robbie Mertz might have been man of the match, believe it or not, with his early dissections of the Birmingham back line that began the Legion's bending, then breaking, in addition to a goal of his own. Steevan Dos Santos had the service of the night with his setup on a Brett redirect. Jordan Dover sprinted toward a back-door opening -- "Hey, it was there," as he told me, grinning -- for another. Joe Greenspan and Thomas Vancaeyezeele dominated the back. And Kyle Morton, the keeper with his side's 18th clean sheet ...
... well, he was at least busy afterward signing kids' autographs.
Lilley, like Brett, spread the attaboys.
"When you win 7-0, you probably don't have anyone who wasn't good," he'd say. "Neco had a great night finishing, and I'd never discredit any of our players, but I think it's the collective. It's the tireless runs from Ryan James and Dover, it's Steevan competing on every ball, it's midfield doing their jobs and keeping us in possession. I was real happy with Neco, and the ball fell his way tonight, but it could be someone else next week and, hopefully, that's what's going to help us do really well in the playoffs. We have a lot of ways we can hurt you."
Next up: Louisville City FC in the Eastern semifinals, next Saturday, 7:05 p.m.. That'll be right here next weekend. Louisville won its playoff game Saturday night, 2-1, over the visiting Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The Hounds will be favored. They should be.
Again, they won't say it, so I will: They're damned good. And they're daring to be great.
Why won't they say it, though?
I put that to a few key players after this one, as I'd done previously. And I continued to get nowhere.
"You're not getting this out of me. You just won't," Kevin Kerr, the team captain and midfielder in his seventh year with the Hounds, politely admonished me. "I'm being serious. I feel like, in seasons past, we've walked in on Day 1 talking about championship this or that ... from miles away. This year, we're taking it one step at a time. That's why we are where we are."
"Look, I genuinely believe in the group we have. We all do. But we know next week will be much tougher than this week, and that's all we can look at."
"These are good times, I won't lie," Dover told me. "This was a big statement for us. We got a lot of goals. But all we can do with that is try to carry the momentum into the next week."
That emanates, of course, from Lilley. In his two years at the helm, he's prioritized above all building toward a championship form, as he did in guiding the Rochester Rhinos to the USL Cup in 2015. When the Hounds have won but stunk under the surface, Lilley has seethed. I've seen it, heard it. After one match in September, a victory over Charleston, Lilley was so incensed he stormed out of the building. Similarly, after losses -- if anyone can remember that far back -- he's come across as strikingly satisfied.
"We've learned over this time how to be a team that performs at our best in big games," he told me after this. "That's why we've talked so much about operating a certain way, so that we'd be ready for moments like these."
And what's he envision ahead?
• The playoff victory was the first in Highmark Stadium's seven years, as well as the first playoff victory anywhere since Aug. 21, 2004, a 4-0 first-round shutout of Harrisburg at Moon Area High School. Or, as one exuberant fan burst out to Lilley after this match, "It's 5,544 days since the last time this happened! Thank you, Coach!" Imagine knowing that number.
• The passion was felt everywhere in the environment, from the first fan to pull into the lot for a tailgate at 9:30 a.m. for a 7:05 p.m. kickoff, to the extensive tailgating that eventually consumed much of the South Shore, to the match scene itself.
I stopped by the Steel Army's tailgate about an hour beforehand and, when I tried to take their picture, one member took my phone and ordered me to partake instead. So I line up with these people, and they spontaneously start chanting this:
Yeah, that's 'We hate Harrisburg!' For real.
There are rivalries, and then there's a rivalry in which one set of supporters derisively chants about a rival franchise that's been defunct since last year.
• There have been bigger crowds for outdoor soccer in Pittsburgh, as the city's occasionally hosted international matches or European exhibitions. But there's never been one that showed up like this for the city's team, and by that I mean the passion. These weren't curiosity-seekers. These were fans, fully decked out in black-and-gold Hounds scarves, kits and other gear.
And this despite a day-long rain that, at times during the match, had become overbearing. Fans didn't leave their positions, whether seated or standing.
Here's a soggy Greenspan on how much that meant:
• This is ultimately due to Tuffy Shallenberger's tough ownership. And I apply the term here advisedly, as Shallenberger's had to make moves over the years when dissatisfied with processes or outcomes until finally finding jackpot in Lilley and paying up to get him. Other USL teams, notably the Louisville side coming next, have higher payrolls, but it's the passion and accountability that've brought the Hounds where they are. That starts at the top.
• This is fun. Ask anyone who was here.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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