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Blossomed: The journey of 2019

By Anthony Picardi, 11/26/19, 8:00AM EST


Maybe everything that glitters is gold.

Maybe rain can’t spoil a parade. And maybe the grass is greener on the other side.

For all one would have to do is look at the Highmark Stadium pitch. It’s not hard to miss. Before the blossoming of foliage along the side of Mount Washington, the field radiated through bare branches and the grasp of wooden fingertips. From across the Monongahela River, it appeared as if the playing surface had been replaced with a solar mirror.

But it’s all customary. Those who are the best deserve to have the carpet rolled out for them. Hollywood’s version is red. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s version is green. And at the end of the regular season, the new ground remained unblemished in the quest and acquisition of gold.

This is the story of a budding No. 1 seed, the 2019 Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.

The Recipe

The Pittsburgh professional soccer landscape had been barren for nearly five months, and its deserted playing surface had been covered by a layer of sand.

As workers installed brand-new turf at Highmark Stadium, the professional squad moved its training sessions west of the city to Coraopolis.

The team was no stranger to Montour Junction Sports Complex, and it would become a second home as the club continued to evolve. While the season kicked off in less than a handful of days, the Hounds would still face a lengthy layoff before competing at their home venue.

“We have four road games to start the season,” head coach Bob Lilley said leading into the team’s season opener. “We want to show we can win games on the road early, set that tone, certainly bring home momentum before our home opener in April.”

A strong core of returners was at the root of this recipe. Kenardo ForbesKevin Kerr and Joe Greenspan brought their All-League résumés to the table. Tobi AdewoleJordan Dover and Mouhamed Dabo presented stifling defense in front of goalkeeper Kyle Morton. Not to mention minutes leader Thomas Vancaeyezeele and scoring leader Neco Brett were back for 2019.

A dash of championship pedigree was also mixed into the pot. Steevan Dos Santos and Christian Volesky previously won the league title in 2015 under Lilley with the Rochester Rhinos. The head coach also recruited Ryan James, who led his Rhinos in minutes during the 2017 season, to join the Black and Gold ahead of the campaign.

“The first game, you can feel the tension,” Kerr said at Montour Junction Sports Complex. “You can feel everybody a little more tuned in this week. We’re finally playing for some points, and we’re confident that we can go down there and get a result.”

But early on, the results did not come easy. The team carried a 1-1-2 record into its home opener. Despite this slow start, the Hounds were ready to hit the gas. Marking the six-year anniversary of the first-ever game at Highmark Stadium, the team would be greeted by more than a new layer of turf. A sellout crowd of 5,182 cheered the Hounds on to a 3-1 victory. 

“We need to move this franchise forward, and I feel we already have,” Lilley said after the match. “But we’re nowhere near where we want to be. This has the opportunity to be even bigger than what we’re seeing now. We just have to keep doing our job on the field, off the field, and keep pushing that envelope.”

The Envelope

The team gathers postgame while Fourth of July fireworks burst over the city

The team gathers postgame while Fourth of July fireworks burst over the city

On the field, the club began sealing that envelope. The perceived slow start soon became the team’s floor as it began its accent.

The turning point came during non-league play in a stadium not of the USL Championship variety. After having their Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup run come to an end to Columbus Crew SC of MLS, the Hounds put their stamp on a historic season.

The Black and Gold collected four wins in the next four games, outscoring the opposition 13-1 over this stretch. Forbes just missed out on a potential game-tying goal in a loss against Crew SC, but his free kick game-winner against Bethlehem Steel FC garnered national attention. That night, his moment was chronicled on ESPN’s SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays.

“That was a celebration,” Forbes said postgame after Fourth of July fireworks decorated the evening sky over Highmark Stadium.

This July 4 victory marked the team’s fourth win in a row. Just above Forbes in the Hounds’ formation, Dos Santos served as an incredible catalyst in the turnaround.

Before the team fell to Crew SC, the Cape Verde native had only scored one goal and two points over the course of 11 league games that saw the Hounds log a 2-2-7 record. But after this match in Columbus, Ohio, the striker became a man on fire. During the club’s four-game winning streak, he scored a goal in three matches and added two assists.

“Sometimes, things don’t go your way,” Dos Santos said during this stretch. “I always believe that if you keep working, at some point the ball is going to go in. I think this is what’s happening now. The ball is going in now for me, and we’re winning. That’s more important for me. As a team, the first thing is winning. For me, if I can help with that then it’s good for me as well.”

Continue it did. The 6-foot-4-inch forward went on to score 10 goals during the 2019 campaign. And the Hounds’ record in these matches? 10-0-0.

Perhaps nothing exemplified his torrid pace like a practice session at Coraopolis in late September. As athletes divided into groups of three teams on a short-sided field, Dos Santos waited no time in finding the twine. After the goal, the 30-year-old facetiously pointed at the bench and asked Lilley if it meant he were able to end the practice session early.

But all joking aside, Pittsburgh suffocated its competition in the latter half of the season. While the team bonded during training, it punished the opposition on game day. Rolling on all cylinders, the Black and Gold shut out seven straight adversaries from mid-August through the end of September. The accumulated 698 minutes of shutout ball is the second longest such streak in USL Championship history.

And whenever a club-record seven straight clean sheets is the second-most impressive streak of the season, it’s safe to say the team had delivered its message.

The carpet was rolled out for them, and the Hounds did not disappoint en route to finishing regular season play unbeaten at Highmark Stadium. For 17 games, fans from across the region witnessed the best USL Championship soccer team the Eastern Conference had to offer.

"This is our house,” Forbes said upon defeating the Charleston Battery on Sept. 14 at Highmark Stadium. “We just try to protect it like you do at your house. You protect your house, so that's what we're trying to do."

Through the Trees

Preseason training session on a snowy Highmark Stadium pitch

Two games into the season, the Hounds signed a trio of players to their roster. While two of these athletes had been training with the team at Montour Junction Sports Complex, the other would not rejoin the club until two months later.

Finishing coursework at Lehigh University, Mark Forrest was away from the team when his signing was announced on March 29. But he did previously compete with the Black and Gold. With snowbanks pushed to the side of the pitch, the striker made his debut in the first preseason bout of 2019.

This preseason opener wasn’t ideal. The team had only been together for a week, and it showed against Cleveland State University. Seemingly destined for a nil-nil draw with the clock aging, Forrest struck. Assisted by Greenspan, the rookie fired a shot into the cage from within the penalty box.

That was the only goal Forrest would score before leaving Pittsburgh in February to return to Lehigh. It was just a glimpse, but that’s all it took.

“We invited him into training camp, and he was inconsistent, but he was dangerous,” Lilley said. “He’s got a good nose for the goal, big frame, he runs well. He does a lot of the things we’re looking for as a player. It’s just him getting used to the speed.”

When he finally arrived with the team in late May, it was no secret he was behind the eight ball. Learning the intricacies of a system and evolving chemistry with teammates is something that happens over time – something he did not have the luxury of possessing.

To the contrary of Forrest, Robbie Mertz had time. Like his rookie teammate, Mertz was not signed by the club until after the 2019 campaign commenced. In fact, his signing was announced with Forrest’s on March 29.

As Forrest reintroduced himself to the city, Mertz was ingrained in it. A Pittsburgh native, the midfielder won a couple state titles with Upper St. Clair High School before competing collegiately at the University of Michigan.

Both rookies would take the pitch together for the first time against Indy Eleven on June 1 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mertz scored the first goal of his professional career in the 15th minute before Forrest would sub into a tie game in the 79th minute. Two minutes after the Lehigh product entered the match, Indy notched a second tally to take the lead. Then in stoppage time, the striker would be sent off due to a red card following a foul on an aerial duel.

Being ejected from the match was by no means the professional debut Forrest would have envisioned. And from this moment, it became increasingly difficult for him to become accustomed to the speed of the professional game. Including U.S. Open Cup action, he would not see more than 70 minutes in a match and the most minutes he logged came against Crew SC on June 11. He didn’t record a shot at MAPFRE Stadium, but the game did serve as a turning point.

From that moment, he appeared in three more league games, including a start, over the course of the next month. Despite the uptick in playing time, he would still be in search of his first professional goal.

“Everything is done at a much quicker pace than the college game,” Forrest said as the team marched through its July schedule. “You hear that all throughout college. That’s the difference between the collegiate game and the pro level, the speed of play. If you put yourself in a position to play well under a tight situation, from there you’ll set yourself up for success.”

No situation was tighter than that of Oct. 20. The final game of the year came down to its final minutes. The proposition was simple – earn three points and clinch the conference regular season championship.

In the 88th minute, Forrest subbed into the match, one seemingly destined for a nil-nil draw. With the clock aging, Forrest struck. One could say it was just like preseason. Greenspan sent a ball into the penalty box, and the rookie drove it into the back of the net.

On the pitch, teammates celebrated with the rookie. In the locker room, players celebrated with coaches. At Pittsburgh International Airport, the entire club celebrated with its fanbase. And the fanbase with the city of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, Eastern Conference champions.

Purple Rain

Oh, did the rain fall.

From the time the Hounds opened the season through the Fourth of July, they were at war with the sky. Games were frequently delayed due to lightning, and one road match was even abandoned.

Perhaps saying the rain fell was an understatement. One spring day, it pooled on the Highmark Stadium turf. As the team crossed balls through the 18-yard box during a training session, the sphere would stop after a short hop and a skip only to cause players to mistime runs and overrun passes. The team left for the locker room after a short while and waited for the downpour to slow before later returning to improved conditions.

But it was only time before the Hounds would have the chance to laugh, bathe and celebrate underneath a sky bleeding blue and red.

Steel Army displays pregame tifo

“You just have to weather that first storm,” Dover said at training during the week of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals match. “It’s going to be high intensity, but I think if we get past that first 10-15 minutes and keep our heads about us, we’ll be in a great position to win the game.”

On Oct. 26, Highmark Stadium welcomed a then-record crowd of 5,627. And like it had invited itself many an earlier time, rain again served as an unwanted guest.

"When I got in the locker room, I realized that everyone was locked in,” Brett said. “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."

The team marched onto the field in the rain. Jeff Jimerson sang in the rain. Then cometh the onslaught.

To say Brett was looking forward to a game like this turned out to be an understatement. After recording a hat trick by the halftime whistle, the striker potted another tally during the second half to etch his name in the club record books as its all-time leading postseason goalscorer.

Dover and Mertz added scores of their own, while the team also was a beneficiary of a Legion FC own goal. If there were any question to whether Pittsburgh was locked in, a final of 7-0 provided the answer.

As the Hounds advanced, they met Louisville City FC in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. But this time, the match required an extra 30-minute period. Ousting the two-time defending champion is by no means an easy task, and on this night in front of a new record crowd of 6,073 it proved to be too much.

"They had a great season,” Lilley said after the team’s elimination at the hands of Louisville. “Crowd was great. It's disappointing. We had all home games left. I know we haven't lost in over a year at home. It's a tough way to end the season. I'm proud of them for the year they had."

We, Together

The impact is tangible.

Fueled by the energy of record crowds and a growing fanbase, Pittsburgh soccer is making its imprint. Not only in the USL Championship, but on the landscape of a region. In the coming years, Riverhounds SC will make Coraopolis its main practice site as the club partners with Allegheny Health Network to construct a state-of-the-art facility and campus.

Developments off the pitch are tied to on-field achievements. This season, the Hounds were crowned conference regular season champions. The Black and Gold won its first-ever playoff game at Highmark Stadium. And upon reflection, the score showcased resilience in spite of some of the dampest conditions.

But it’s all customary.

Just like how the best deserve to have the carpet rolled out.