Pittsburgh Riverhounds established themselves in pole position of USL Championship Group F with a resounding 5-0 win over second placed Hartford Athletic. Two goals each from Ryan James and Ropapa Mensah were accompanied by an Anthony Velarde penalty to round out a resounding home win.
The Riverhounds entered the game in excellent form on a run of three consecutive 3-0 victories against Group F opponents, including Hartford at Dillon Stadium in late August. Veteran coach Bob Lilley made two changes from the victory over New York Red Bulls II last time out, replacing Mark Lindstrom and Steevan Dos Santos with Patrick Andersen and Velarde.
The Riverhounds were without team leader in assists, Kenardo Forbes who was out with injury. Raymond Lee lined up on the left flank for the Riverhounds in a 3-5-2 system, and was a familiar face to Hartford fans having played 31 games for the team in 2019.
Another familiar face to Hartford fans will have been James who played on the left flank in the 3-0 Pittsburgh win at Dillon, in this game team captain James lined up as a central midfielder.
Hartford had bounced back from the heavy home defeat to Pittsburgh with a 2-1 midweek home win over Loudoun United courtesy of goals from Arthur Rogers and Gabriel Torres. Both scorers retained their place in the starting lineup, while Nicky Downs and Alex Dixon dropped to the bench to make way for Kevin Politz and debutant Justin Haak. Teenage midfielder Haak was a recent addition to the squad on loan from MLS franchise New York City FC. Midfield duo Conor McGlynn and Harry Swartz were injured and remained on the sidelines for Hartford.
Hartford coach Radhi Jaidi lined his team up with a different look defensively, possibly influenced by the heavy defeat last time he faced the Riverhounds. Hartford lined up in a 3-4-2-1 shape with striker Ever Guzman flanked by midfielders Daniel Barrera and Tyreke Johnson as Hartford made it difficult for the Riverhound defenders to play balls into central midfield.
When a Pittsburgh defender pushed on to become an extra man in attack, the attacking central midfielder tracked him. As illustrated in the clip below when Barrera tracks Andersen, allowing wide midfielder Alex Lara to drop and cover the wide channels defensively.
The first attack of the game came in the 4th minute when Mensah teed up Robbie Mertz to drive into the penalty area before going to ground under contact from Matheus Silva. Referee Eric Tattersall ruled no foul and the play resulted in a goal kick for Hartford.
After 7 minutes, players from both teams and the match officials made their way to the center circle and knelt in a unified protest until the 8:46 mark on the clock for racial equality and social justice. This is a gesture that was echoed league wide and will be for the remainder of the season.
Pittsburgh attacked in the 11th minute when Mertz carried the ball forward and fed Mensah. The striker took a touch wide before hanging a cross to the back post area where Lee headed it down only for Sam Strong to hack the ball clear.
The Riverhounds won a corner when central defender Thomas Vancaeyezeele drove an excellent pass out to Lee who drove to the byline and was tackled by Lara.
French defender Vancaeyezeele was a key figure for his team in possession. Not only did he display excellent passing range, he adopted high positions in a holding midfield type position during the buildup, allowing center midfielder James and Danny Griffin to move a level higher and join the attack.
The corner from Mertz found its way to James who had his shot blocked behind for another corner by Haak. Velarde’s corner was cleared at the near post, but the defensive header from Politz went directly to James who took it on his chest before firing home to open the scoring.
Pittsburgh won another corner in the 22nd minute when Jordan Dover aimed a cross to Mensah at the back post but Lara intervened to knock the ball behind.
Pittsburgh forward Mensah pressed Silva and forced a turnover before passing to Mertz who dribbled into the penalty area and cut inside to lift a shot over the crossbar.
Pittsburgh doubled their lead in the 27th minute courtesy of what seemed a significant lack of communication between Hartford goalkeeper Parfait Mandanda and center back Strong. Lee lifted a ball forward to lead Mensah in behind with Strong seemingly in a good position to win a race to the ball.
Mandanda came off his line with neither himself or Strong seeming sure of who was challenging for the ball. After the Hartford pair collided, the deflection fell invitingly to Mensah who was gifted an easy finish to put the Riverhounds 2-0 up.
The game was becoming a hugely one sided affair and Pittsburgh won another corner when Skylar Thomas advanced down the right wing and had his pass into the penalty area was cleared behind by Torres. Velarde lifted a deep corner towards James at the back post but the ball was worked clear by Hartford.
Hartford launched a rare attack in the 38th minute when Guzman was played in behind and took a touch wide before passing inside to Torres who was fouled by Velarde. Barrera chipped the free kick forward in the direction of Strong at the back post, but referee Tattersall whistled for a foul by Strong on Riverhound defender Thomas. Strong kicked the ball away after the play to earn himself an unnecessary yellow card.
Things went from bad to worse for Hartford when the Riverhounds went from end to end and won a penalty from the resulting free kick. Goalkeeper Danny Vitiello launched a ball forward that Griffin touched to Mensah. The striker directed the ball forward Velarde who was brought down in the penalty area. Velarde got up to take the free kick and sent Mandanda the wrong way to stretch the home lead out to 3-0.
Defender Politz limped off injured and was eventually replaced by Dixon in what was becoming a miserable first half for the visiting team.
Pittsburgh kept coming forward and Lee crossed into the penalty area and Strong’’s attempted clearance fell to Griffin who teed up Velarde on the edge of the penalty area. Velarde fired on goal but his shot was deflected behind for another RIverhound corner. Velarde curled in the corner kick but his cross was punched away by Mandanda.
Lee came forward again a minute later and nutmegged Lara before curling a shot over the crossbar.
Halftime arrived and Hartford coach Jaidi had a huge task ahead during the interval to change the course of a game that was a statistical mismatch. Pittsburgh had accumulated 68% possession and produced 8 shots, while Hartford had not managed a single shot on goal in reply.
Jaidi made his second substitution of the game at the break, and switched to a back four system when he withdrew Strong for Downs. The change meant Hartford had subbed out two of their starting back three before the second half kicked off. Right midfielder Lara moved into center back, while Downs joined young debutant Haak in central midfield.
It was a nightmare start for Lara at center back, when within minutes of the restart he took a heavy touch back into his own penalty area under pressure from Mensah. After a scramble involving Mandanda, the ball fell to James who rolled it home for a 4-0 scoreline. The strike meant that James had now scored 4 goals in his 2 games against Hartford so far this season.
The goal was a result of the high work rate of Mensah, who caused this goal and also a number of turnovers from the Hartford defenders during the game.
Hartford won their first corner of the game in the 49th minute when Torres played a one-two with Dixon and raced to the byline before his cross was blocked behind by Vancaeyezeele. Midfielder Rogers rolled a short corner to Torres but the cross was blocked and Pittsburgh worked the ball clear.
The Riverhounds won a 58th minute corner when Lee twisted and turned before having his cross deflected behind. Mertz sent over a low, inswinging cross but the ball cleared everyone on the way out for a goal kick.
The goals kept coming and Pittsburgh extended their lead to 5-0 in the 61st minute with a wonderfully worked strike from Mensah.
Griffin sprayed a pass to Mertz who split the defense with a perfectly weighted through ball. Mensah timed his run to stay onside and lifted a good finish past Mandanda.
Both teams made a pair of substitutions as the game entered its final half hour. For Hartford Aiden Mesias replaced Barrera, and Idan Cohen came on for Tyreke Johnson. Cohen was making his debut for Hartford after recently signing from Hapoel Tel Aviv in the Israeli league.
For Pittsburgh, Thomas and Velarde were withdrawn by coach Lilley and replaced by Albert Dikwa and Lindstrom.
Pittsburgh won a 75th minute corner when Dover chipped a pass into the penalty area to feed Mensah and Lara stepped over to challenge. Mertz took the corner but his outswinging cross was headed away by the defense.
Jaidi made his final substitution of the game soon after, replacing Guzman with Markus Naglestad.
Pittsburgh coach Lilley introduced his third substitute of the game in the 78th minute, replacing Mertz with Daniel Rovira.
The frustration of Hartford was starting to show through as the game entered the final 10 minutes. Torres, Naglestad and Haak all received yellow cards within a 3 minute span for hard fouls.
Coach Lilley made his final changes of the game with a double substitution in the 86th minute. James and Mensah had both scored 2 goals, but it would be a hat-trick for neither of them as they were withdrawn and replaced by Mark Forrest and Lukas Fernandes.
Hartford managed their first shot on goal during injury time, and it was an ambitious one as Naglestad turned and blasted a shot over the bar from 40 yards out.
The final whistle blew on an outstanding display from Pittsburgh, who clinched a playoff berth courtesy of this result.
The result was Pittsburgh’s fourth straight win, and fourth straight clean sheet as Lilley’s team solidified their playoff berth. Pittsburgh now held a 9 point lead over Hartford, though there is still work to do to win the group as the Riverhounds have played three more games. A trip to face last placed Loudoun United lays ahead next weekend as Pittsburgh look to continue their fine run of form.
Hartford will no doubt feel deflated after such heavy defeats against the Riverhounds back to back, but the fact is if Hartford can win their three games in hand they will be level on points at the top of the group. A midweek home game against third placed New York Red Bulls II is up next for Jaidi’s men in what could be a pivotal game for the season.
Three points against New York will move Hartford to the verge of the playoffs, while a defeat would have them looking over their shoulders and give the Red Bulls a chance of making a late postseason run.
13’ PIT Ryan James (Anthony Velarde) 1-0
27’ PIT Ropapa Mensah (Raymond Lee) 2-0
42’ PIT Anthony Velarde PK 3-0
47’ PIT Ryan James (Ropapa Mensah) 4-0
61’ PIT Ropapa Mensah (Robbie Mertz) 5-0
MAN OF THE MATCH
#3 CF Ropapa Mensah (Pittsburgh Riverhounds) – Hard working performance in terms of running in behind and forcing turnovers from the Hartford defense all night by the striker. Capped an all action display with two goals and an assist to James.
3: CF Ropapa Mensah – Man of the Match
2: CM Ryan James – Classy performance from the captain who dictated play in the midfield area and added two goals, his second brace of the season against Hartford.
1: CD Thomas Vancaeyezeele – Anchored a dominant backline that held Hartford to only one shot which came in stoppage time after the 90 minutes had been played. Displayed outstanding passing range and stepped up into midfield areas to create overloads and allow Griffin and James to move into higher, more dangerous positions.
3: CM Justin Haak – The teenage debutant showed composure on the ball and flashes of quality, tough debut but kept a cool head as the game got away from his team and kept working.
2: LM Gabriel Torres – Got forward and put a number of crosses into the box, worked hard end to end in a tough night for Athletic.
1: CM Alex Dixon – Subbed on just before halftime in an attacking midfield role, got on the ball and managed to spread play around.
PIT: Vitiello, Lee, Andersen, Vancaeyezeele, Thomas (Lindstrom), Dover, Griffin, James (Fernandes), Mertz (Rovira), Mensah (Forrest), Velarde (Dikwa).
HAR: Mandanda, Torres, Silva, Politz (Dixon), Strong (Downs), Lara, Johnson (Cohen), Rogers, Haak, Barrera (Mesias), Guzman (Naglestad).
Highlights of the game can be found at the RIverhounds YouTube page here.