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The Pittsburgh Riverhounds are back

Don’t look now, but it looks like the Pittsburgh Riverhounds are back in the USL’s Eastern Conference.

2 min read
© Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

This is an excerpt from Monday’s Weekend Recap. Subscribe to our free newsletter to get future editions of the Weekend Recap delivered right to your inbox.

During a rough three-match stretch in the dog days of June, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds lost three straight games and shipped nine goals in the process. They switched their formation each week, couldn’t settle on a shape or a starting lineup, and seemed to have lost the strategic magic that has defined the Bob Lilley era at Highmark Stadium.

Since then, Pittsburgh has four wins in five matches with a +8 goal difference in the process. They’ve settled on Jahmali Waite in goal, stuck with a 3-4-3 shape that maximizes the talent on the roster, and settled on Albert Dikwa as the No. 9.

Waite’s metrics in net are pedestrian, but he sits in the 98th percentile for the share of his passes aimed long. His no-nonsense distribution pins play in the opposite half and lets Pittsburgh press up and hold a high defensive line. The result? Territorial dominance. Dikwa, when compared to other striker options like Dane Kelly, is a ceaseless, annoying defender that won’t hesitate to get in your face. When he creates turnovers, Dikwa is a ball of energy in the box, constantly roving to create space. He has six goals of his own in 2022, but those returns undersell the impact of the forward’s motion.

Because the Riverhounds live in the final third, their wide center backs in their 3-4-3 get forward and into the attack. Shane Wiedt sets the tone, often marauding up the right side to support moves – he scored the winning goal in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 win over Hartford this weekend. When Pittsburgh were sputtering last month, they lacked the energy and motion exemplified by Wiedt and Dikwa.

Moving Kenardo Forbes, the USL Championship’s all-time leader in assists, into the front line was a key choice from Lilley, too. Forbes typically operates as more of a box-to-box type, pulling the strings from deep and stepping into attack in rare moments. Now that he’s positioned higher up the field, he constantly roams in the halfspace. Forbes pins defenders deep in their own box and gets touches in valuable positions to buy space and time for players like Wiedt to overlap.

Things may only get better for Pittsburgh. This week, the Riverhounds signed Robbie Mertz from Atlanta United 2. Mertz played 40 matches for Pittsburgh in 2019 and 2020 but moved down South with the promise of a shot at an MLS jump. The midfielder excelled in Atlanta, proving to be the sole source of composure in an end-to-end, high-tempo team that could never quite organize their pressing system.

Mertz is a deft mover and completes 85% of his passes. In an Atlanta side with just 27 goals this year, the Michigan product has three goals and seven assists. Imagine that creativity, work rate, and skill working behind Forbes and alongside Danny Griffin, who provides similar intelligence as a versatile number eight.

Having overcome their frailties and rediscovered a pressure-filled, constantly rotating identity, Pittsburgh are in high gear. They’re just six points out of first place in the East and they’re a serious threat down the stretch as Mertz finds his way back and Dane Kelly – the league’s all-time top scorer – possibly gets back into the mix.