The Pittsburgh Riverhounds made a statement in a battle between the two top teams in USL Group F with an emphatic 3-0 road win at Hartford Athletic. Left wingback Ryan James scored two goals, while Danny Griffin also scored for Pittsburgh in a return to his home state of Connecticut.
Striker Markus Naglestad was awarded a start after registering a goal and assist in his dramatic debut from the bench last time out as Hartford came back to draw 2-2 with Loudoun United. Tyreke Johnson was moved out to the left flank of a 3-5-2 in an otherwise unchanged lineup for coach Radhi Jaidi.
The Riverhouds were led by a USL veteran in coach Bob Lilley. Lilley made two changes from the 2-2 draw with Saint Louis FC last time out, calling up James and Anthony Velarde in place of Mark Lindstrom and Ropapa Mensah.
Jamaican international Kenardo Forbes featured in midfield for Pittsburgh and was a focal point of the Riverhound offense, Forbes is the USL Championship’s all-time leader for career assists.
The appearance of Forbes did not last long sadly for the visitors, as he limped off within the first 6 minutes of the game. The Riverhounds captain was unable to return after treatment and was replaced by Mensah, handing the armband to James for the remainder of the game.
The first attack of the game came when Arthur Rogers played a long pass forward and Alex Dixon raced behind Riverhound defender Raymond Lee before being tripped on the corner of the penalty area by Tomas Gomez. Goalkeeper Gomez received a yellow card for the foul from referee Jeremy Scheer.
Before the free kick was taken, every player and match official headed towards the center circle and stood in silence from the 7:00 to the 8:46 minute mark to protest for social justice and racial equality, a gesture that was echoed league wide over the weekend.
When play resumed, Johnson tried an angled, curling shot from the free kick that was comfortably held by Gomez.
Substitute Mensah made an immediate impact and was involved as Pittsburgh opened the scoring in the 11th minute, releasing onrushing wingback Jordan Dover with a neat backheel pass. Dover drove into the area before playing a square ball that found Velarde, who took a touch with his back to goal before teeing up James to fire home.
The pace of Dover blowing by Johnson and Jorgensen caused a chain reaction that led to a wide open James having a free shot at the back post. While the midfield of Hartford did make the effort to track back, no individual player was alert enough to identify and mark Velarde.
During the play, Rogers actually moved away from Valerde to provide half cover as Dover blew past Jorgensen and Johnson, as a result wingback Harry Swartz came in central to mark Velarde and left opposing wingback James wide open as a result.
Hartford tried for an immediate response and Swartz swung in a cross that was headed clear by Skylar Thomas, Daniel Barrera collected the clearance and fired a shot that was saved by Gomez.
The pace in behind of Dixon seemed to be Hartford’s primary attacking outlet and he was played in by strike partner Naglestad, only for no foul to be called as he went to ground under a challenge from Thomas.
Pittsburgh won an attacking free kick after a good spell of possession when Lee stepped into the attack and was fouled on the edge of the penalty area by Rogers.
The Riverhounds doubled their lead from the free kick, when Robbie Mertz put in a cross that was punched away by Parfait Mandanda. The goalkeepers punch went only as far as Griffin on the edge of the penalty, and the midfielder took a touch before firing a shot that Mandanda could only deflect into his own net.
Griffin is a native of Wethersfield, Connecticut and celebrated his goal with a sizable gathering of Pittsburgh supporters as well as his friends and family in the stands.
Pittsburgh were having little trouble playing through the midfield third, and Mensah exchanged passes with Mertz before sending over a cross that was too high for Velarde at the back post.
The ball pressure from Hartford was lacking in the midfield, and another extended phase of possession ended when Steevan Dos Santos played in Dover who had his shot deflected behind for a corner.
Lack of ball pressure for any reason can cause a chain reaction of issues that make it more difficult to defend in any system. The player on the ball has more time to make decisions and his confidence builds with every successful action, runners off the ball are allowed more time to create separation and defenders can join the attack causing overloads with the extra time allowed. These factors built up for Pittsburgh in the first half, giving Hartford a very tough task defensively.
Mertz sent in a low corner that was cleared at the front post by Jorgensen, before his second cross was headed away by Sam Strong. Pittsburgh recycled the attack and a third ball into the area saw Mensah have his shot blocked by Kevin Politz.
Pittsburgh came again in the 35th minute when Griffin was played in by Mensah and squared it to Dos Santos who took a heavy touch inside the 6 yard box and the chance went to waste.
Things got worse for Hartford in the 41st minute when Swartz went down with a hamstring injury that required extensive treatment before he was replaced by Alex Lara.
Hartford won a 44th minute free kick when Jorgensen was fouled by Griffin. Midfielder Jorgensen got up to take the free kick himself and his cross was headed behind for a corner by James. Two corners from Johnson were cleared behind by the Riverhound defense, before a third corner from Jorgensen cleared everyone on the way out for a goal kick.
Halftime arrived and Pittsburgh went into the interval holding a well deserved 2-0 lead, having had 61% possession and consistently found penetration, particularly down the right flank with Dover and an extra midfielder or forward joining the area to create numbers up situations consistently.
Coach Jaidi made 2 substitutions at half time as Hartford looked to gain a foothold in the game, replacing Politz and Jorgensen with Gabriel Torres and Nicky Downs. With the switch, Johnson dropped to left back and Hartford lined up in what looked like more of a 4-2-3-1 shape for the second half. Naglestad played as the central striker in this system while Dixon moved into a right wing position.
Pittsburgh won a free kick in the 48th minute when Matheus Silva fouled Mensah near the corner of the penalty area. Velarde sent in a cross from the free kick and Dos Santos knocked it down at the back post before Strong hacked it clear. Strong’s clearance launched an end to end counter attack as Dixon latched onto it by the halfway line and drove to the edge of the penalty area before firing a shot wide.
The Riverhounds were soon on the attack again and Velarde sent in a back post cross that James diverted to Mensah who had his shot saved from the edge of the penalty area. Pittsburgh recycled the attack and Dover sent over another back post cross that was volleyed home emphatically by James to give the visitors a 3-0 lead in the 50th minute.
Hartford kept fighting and Naglestad received the ball back to goal on the edge of the penalty area and teed up Downs who had his long range shot saved by Gomez. Dixon latched onto the rebound and won a corner when his cross was deflected behind by Lee. Barrera’s first corner was cleared at the front post, before his second cross into the area was cleared by Thomas.
Hartford won another corner when Lara launched a ball forward in the direction of Naglestad and Thomas deflected it behind. Strong met Barerra’s cross at the back post only to have his header cleared off the goalline by Dover.
Lara came forward and won Hartford yet another corner when he was tackled by James, who was putting in an outstanding performance on both the offensive and defensive end. Johnson took the corner and his cross was headed away in a crowd by Dos Santos.
Coach Jaidi made a change in the 62nd minute, as leading goal scorer Ever Guzman was brought on in place of Naglestad.
It is early days for Naglestad in a Hartford uniform, but he does show some signs of adding a physical presence and ability with back to goal hold up play that offers something different to the smaller stature, more mobile forwards in the squad such as Guzman and Dixon.
Guzman made his first impact in the 66th minute when Lara sent in a cross and the veteran forward headed over the crossbar.
Jaidi made his final substitution of the game in the 70th minute, replacing Johnson with Aiden Mesias.
The game reached the second half hydration break with Pittsburgh in full control, and Lilley made two changes when he replaced Dos Santos and Lee with Lindstrom and Dakota Barnathan.
Two more substitutions were made by the Riverhounds in the 82nd minute as the game moved towards a seemingly inevitable win for the road team. Lilley withdrew Velarde and Thomas, bringing on Mark Forrest and Patrick Andersen in their place.
The frustration of the home team was starting to show and Lara received a yellow card for a reckless challenge on Griffin.
On the attacking end for Hartford, Guzman picked up the ball in space and drove forward before teeing up Dixon who fired a long range shot wide. The attacking performance of Dixon was one of the few bright spots for Hartford, something that speaks well to his persistence and character. It is worth noting that in Hartford’s other heavy defeat of the season, it was Dixon who scored his team’s lone goal in a 4-1 result at Indy Eleven.
Pittsburgh dominated possession in the final stages to close out a convincing win that leaves them 3 points clear at the top of Group F having played one game more than Hartford.
POST GAME FALLOUT
Despite the emotional blow that will come with such a resounding home defeat, Hartford remains in a strong position in terms of both playoff qualification and challenging to win the group.
It is a big week ahead for Jaidi and his men, rumors of an August 10th training ground incident impacting morale can be swept aside with some good results, but if the team goes on a losing streak the off field drama will only grow. This is the last time Hartford will have a full week of preparation for a game this season, with midweek fixtures filling the schedule from here on out.
Hartford will host Loudoun next weekend, a team below them in the standings, but who gave them all they could handle, taking a two goal lead before a 2-2 draw on August 23rd.
Loudoun star man Elvis Amoh will be a key focus for the Hartford defense given the midfielder has scored 3 goals in his trips to Dillon Stadium this season, as many goals as any Hartford player has scored at the venue.
Pittsburgh made a statement with this win and would be looking for more points with a midweek game against Loudoun and then a weekend trip to New York Red Bulls II lying ahead.
A close race looks to be ahead between these two teams in the second half of the season, and they are the big favorites to emerge as the two playoff teams from Group F. Second placed Hartford held a 10 point lead over the nearest contender New Red Bulls II after this game.
11’ PIT Ryan James (Anthony Velarde) 0-1
22’ PIT Danny Griffin (Robbie Mertz) 0-2
50’ PIT Ryan James (Jordan Dover) 0-3
MAN OF THE MATCH
#7 LM Ryan James (Pittsburgh Riverhounds) – James was handed the armband when Forbes limped off early in the game, and took his leadership role very literally. Two goals from the wingback capped an all action display that also included an impressive shift on the defensive end.
3: CF Alex Dixon – Dixon was Hartford’s main attacking threat, drawing a yellow card for Pittsburgh goalkeeper Gomez and also carving out a shooting chance with a lengthy run on the counter. Dixon is emerging as one of Hartford’s more consistent players, and likely has more goals in him for the remainder of the season.
2: CF Markus Naglestad – New signing Nagelstad worked hard with limited service and showed signs of the physical presence and back to goal holdup play that could add a dimension to the Athletic attack.
1: CM Nicky Downs – Substitute Downs added some bite to a Hartford midfield that struggled defensively in the first half, the former Yale University player also contributed on the attacking end forcing a save from Gomez early in the second half.
3: LM Ryan James – Man of the Match.
2: CM Danny Griffin – Connecticut native Griffin pulled strings in midfield and was a key factor in a dominant Riverhounds performance, also scoring the first half goal that gave his team a 2-0 lead.
1: RM Jordan Dover – The speedy wingback consistently provided penetration throughout the first half, starting the move that led to the opener and also assisting with a cross to James on the third goal. Dover also came up with a second half goal line clearance to preserve the shutout for the Riverhounds.