Throughout this week, The Howler will break down the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 2019 schedule in a five-part series. Taking a look at fresh challenges to new opponents, these installments will touch on all things to watch for coinciding with the 2019 schedule release.
Part Five: Postseason Outlook
When the USL Championship announced its 2019 schedule, it also revealed a brand-new playoff format for the upcoming season. Unlike previously when the top eight teams in each conference would make the postseason, now the top 10 squads in the East and West will have an opportunity to vie for the USL Cup.
The Hounds are scheduled to close out their season on Oct. 20 – a road match against Birmingham Legion FC. Afterward, it won’t be long until the postseason single-elimination tournament begins.
If Pittsburgh were to make the playoffs for a second straight season, the importance of finishing in the top six of the Eastern Conference could not be understated, as seeds No. 7 through No. 10 will first compete in the Play-In Round while the better-ranked teams are automatically advanced to the Conference Quarterfinals.
Heightening the significance of a top-six seed for the Black and Gold is that the Play-In Round provisionally takes place on Oct. 23 – just three days after the club finishes regular season play. Games on a short week are difficult, especially those at the end of a grueling season. And it only would be more challenging from here.
In the hypothetical situation that Pittsburgh wins a Play-In Round game, it would then face yet another quick turnaround. With the Conference Quarterfinals scheduled for Oct. 25-27, it would lock the Hounds in for three contests in a six-to-eight-day stretch, a period that would guarantee the team at least two of these three games on the road.
With all this considered, a top-six seed would be hugely beneficial to the Hounds if they were again to make a postseason appearance in 2019.
Below is the entire 2019 USL Cup Playoffs schedule:
-Play-In Round (Oct. 23)
-Conference Quarterfinals (Oct. 25-27)
-Conference Semifinals (Nov. 1-3)
-Conference Finals (Nov. 8-10)
-USL Cup (Nov. 14-18)
Part Four: Holiday Vengeance
On a historic autumn night at Highmark Stadium, the Hounds and Bethlehem Steel FC played neck-and-neck in the 2018 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The game lasted the entire extra time period followed by a shootout, which saw eight rounds of action before Steel FC broke through for a victory.
Now as the calendar flips to 2019, Pittsburgh is scheduled to take on its in-state rival twice during the upcoming season. It will first hit the road for a clash on March 30 prior to returning home for a Fourth of July showdown at Highmark Stadium.
With the exception of last year’s playoff match, the Hounds have not lost to Bethlehem while at home. Furthermore, the Black and Gold has rattled off two straight regular season wins against Steel FC and own the all-time advantage with a 4-3-2 overall record. All of which are positive signs for a team that will be looking to avenge last year’s postseason defeat.
Every Hound who scored against Steel FC in the 2018 regular season will return to the club in 2019. Striker Neco Brett notched three of Pittsburgh’s six regular season goals against the foe, including a brace at Goodman Stadium to lead the squad to a 2-1 road triumph.
The Fourth of July match has been a club tradition since Highmark Stadium opened in 2013, as the Hounds have played at home every holiday since then. Earning a victory against North Carolina FC last year, Pittsburgh holds a 3-2-1 record on July 4 during this timeframe.
With this history in mind added to the nature of the opponent, Highmark Stadium will once again be packed when fireworks sizzle alongside the Monongahela River.
Part Three: Brand-New Conference
The USL Championship Eastern Conference received quite the shake up for the 2019 campaign.
Gone are the likes of FC Cincinnati (MLS), Penn FC (USL League One starting 2020), Richmond Kickers (USL League One) and Toronto FC II (USL League One).
Taking their place are two former Western Conference teams, Swope Park Rangers and Saint Louis FC, and expansion sides Birmingham Legion FC, Hartford Athletic, Loudoun United FC and Memphis 901 FC.
The Hounds are geared up for their first-ever meeting with all of these new Eastern Conference opponents with the exception of Saint Louis FC. Pittsburgh and Saint Louis have totaled four prior meetings, as the Black and Gold won their most recent showdown, 2-1, on Aug. 19, 2017, in Fenton, Missouri.
As for the other five teams, the Hounds have had great success against league newcomers. Just this past season, Pittsburgh logged a 2-0-2 unbeaten record in their first-ever meetings against new clubs – something it will look to replicate for the upcoming campaign.
Below are dates when Riverhounds SC will clash with adversaries for the first-ever time:
-March 16 – Swope Park Rangers, at Children’s Mercy Park
-April 13 – Hartford Athletic, at Highmark Stadium
-May 18 – Memphis 901 FC, at AutoZone Park
-June 29 – Birmingham Legion FC, at Highmark Stadium
-Aug. 24 – Loudoun United FC, at Highmark Stadium
Part Two: Heavyweight Matches
For the second straight season, Louisville City FC was victorious in its quest for the USL Cup. As the Eastern Conference foe is in search of its third straight championship, the Hounds will look to continue their success against one of the league’s best teams.
In 2018, Pittsburgh held an unbeaten mark of 1-0-1 against Louisville, winning at Slugger Field and drawing at Highmark Stadium. Pittsburgh midfielder Kenardo Forbes, who returns to the club in 2019, played a pivotal part in both matches, scoring the game-winning goal on the road and the game-tying tally at home.
The two sides will meet twice in 2019 – at Louisville on April 6 and in Pittsburgh on Sept. 7. Both of these games could potentially have playoff implications as the year comes to a close, especially considering recent history.
Since the Boys in Purple entered the league in 2015, the Kentucky team and a Bob Lilley-led squad have both finished in the top four of the Eastern Conference table every season. Last year, both finished top three in the Eastern Conference during Lilley’s first year at the helm in Pittsburgh.
With past campaigns in mind, Louisville and Pittsburgh look to be in store for a second straight season of neck-and-neck competition.
Part One: Starting Out On The Road
In 2018, the Hounds could not have dreamed of a better way to commence a season. The club shut out opponents in four straight contests, did not trail in a match until 723 minutes into the campaign and rattled off a 10-game unbeaten streak.
If the Hounds were to duplicate any of these feats, the first leg of the 2019 season presents no easy task.
Pittsburgh will kick off this year with a four-game road trip. The rarity of a road stretch of this length should not go unnoticed, as the last time the club played four straight away matches dates back to the 2013 campaign, when it persevered two different road swings of at least four games – logging 0-3-2 record during the first one before bouncing back in its second extended travel stretch with a 3-1-0 mark.
As for their four-match 2019 road trip, the Hounds are scheduled to battle the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Swope Park Rangers, Bethlehem Steel FC and two-time defending champion Louisville City FC. With the exception of the Rowdies, which failed to make the playoffs, all of these teams won at least one postseason game in 2018.
For the Hounds to start 2019 strong, the recipe for success can be found just one year ago. Led by team defensive efforts, a Neco Brett hat trick and a final-minute game-winning goal from Tobi Adewole, the club grasped eight of a possible 12 points in its first four games.
This season will be no different if Pittsburgh can once again jump out to a strong start. It will need stout defensive efforts paired with offensive output – something that could very well be in reach, considering seven of the club’s top 11 minutes leaders from a year ago will return for the 2019 campaign.