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Riverhounds Early Forecast and Analysis

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Hounds look to bounce back in year of transition

There has been a lot of activity and news emanating from the South Side in the past month, as the Pittsburgh Riverhounds gear up for 2015.

On the heels of the release of their schedule, most recently the Riverhounds announced that they've added some new faces to their roster with Jamaican goalkeeper Ryan Thompson and Ghanaian midfielder Stephen Okai, and bringing back Anthony Arena and Miro Cabrilo for their first full seasons under contract in Pittsburgh.

However, the Riverhounds will not see the return of two of their most popular players in the franchise’s first decade plus – Jose Angulo and Hunter Gilstrap. Angulo signed with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers this week, and Gilstrap has departed for the Carolina Railhawks (both iNASL franchises).

So, it looks to be a year of transition – both on and off the field for the Riverhounds.

As a mainstay franchise in a league that has undergone a significant expansion as part of their partnership with Major League Soccer, the Riverhounds begin 2015 under the direction of a restructured ownership and a leadership team (under the direction of newly appointed president Richard Nightingale) that has brought in a new head coach, USL PRO Hall of Famer, Mark Steffans.

While it’s a bit early, and with a lot of questions remaining about what lies ahead, I will be taking a look at the Riverhounds in a series of three articles in the coming week, that will provide some perspective and analysis of what we just might be expecting from the 2015 Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

Part I: Friendlier Schedule
Now that the schedule has been released, it appears to be a lot more friendly for players – and for fans.

The Riverhounds will open their season at home, on Saturday, March 28, against their in-state rivals, Harrisburg City Islanders, who were a surprising league runner-up a year-ago, losing to Sacramento Republic FC in the USL PRO Championship in September.  Harrisburg got the best of the Hounds in last year’s three Keystone Derby encounters, winning at Highmark Stadium and playing to two draws. This year, the rival clubs will meet four times.

In an offseason that has seen significant USL PRO league expansion through a stronger partnership with Major League Soccer (MLS), here are some the key developments:

  • USL teams will be split into two 12-team Conferences – as the Riverhounds will be a part of the league’s Eastern Conference.
  • Overall, USL PRO has added 13 new franchises, with three leaving. Orlando City goes to MLS, while the Charlotte Eagles and Dayton Dutch Lions have dropped into lower divisions.
  • The league announced that the top six teams in each conference will qualify for a 12-team USL PRO knock-out playoff format beginning in late September.
  • The complete regular season USL PRO and Riverhounds schedules have been released and are now available on the USL PRO Website: www.uslprosoccer.com.

The Riverhounds, who have struggled to get out of the gate each of the past two seasons (winless in first seven matches in 2013, winless in first 10 in 2014), will have four of their first five games at Highmark Stadium in 2015. After the opener against Harrisburg, they will host another Pittsburgh Riverhoundsregional rival, Rochester Rhinos on April 4.  Their first road match will be at one of USL PRO’s new franchises, St. Louis FC.

In the new schedule format, the Riverhounds will not face a single team from the USL PRO’s Western Conference, and they will not have any weekend road trips with back-to-back games as there have been in years past.

While the Hounds will face Harrisburg in the Keystone Derby four times, as the series will conclude at City Stadium in Harrisburg on Saturday, September 19, in the final regular season match of the year, they will also face Toronto, Louisville, Rochester and Charlotte three times apiece. In addition to their USL PRO schedule, the Riverhounds will be competing in the U.S. Open Cup, as they will begin play in the 2nd Round of the week of May 18-22. Last year, the Riverhounds advanced to the 4th Round of the U.S. Open Cup, by winning two games at Highmark Stadium (defeating NY Red Bull U-23, and RWB Adria and losing to MLS Chicago Fire in a weather shortened match at Toyota Park).

 Analysis
One thing is certain: the new schedule will be a welcome sight to players who have had to endure many back-to-back games on road trips in previous seasons. The new schedule essentially spares them from having to play Friday/Saturday, Saturday/Sunday or Friday/Sunday road swings that were so common in previous USL PRO seasons. Most teams are now seeing only occasional weekday games – and in most cases it will be 6 to 7 days between games. This will be helpful as teams can allow players to heal and recover between contests, provide easier and more cost-efficient travel schedules, allow teams to field stronger teams in U.S. Open and other outside competitions/friendlies, and maybe most importantly, improve the quality of play and level the playing field, assuring that most games will be played with teams getting the equal or close the same amount of time between games as coaches won’t be resting as many players due fitness and injury concerns.

After first glance at the schedule, here are some of the matches that Riverhounds fans may want to mark on their calendars:
March 28: Home Opener vs Harrisburg. First of four encounters in 2015. The City Islanders are 2-0-1 in Highmark Stadium, including winning the first game played along the banks of the Monongahela in April 2013.

May 16: Richmond Kickers: If the Riverhounds want to make a big splash in the Eastern Conference, they will need to get off to a respectable start to the season. Then, a strong performance against the Kickers in their first encounter at Highmark Stadium will be a great test to see if this team will be a contender. Richmond has many key returning players and will likely be one of the favorites to be near the top of the table through much of the season.

U.S. Open Cup vs TBA. Word has it that the U.S. Open Cup has continued to expand to include more teams, but we are only hoping to see the Riverhounds are match up again with the 2014 U.S. Amateur Champions, RWB Adria, in the early rounds for the third straight season. It would be intriguing  to see a third encounter, as these two teams played to extra time in the past two Open Cup competitions. The pesky Adria squad, and their goalie Igor Dimov, were a tough team for the Hounds to shake, needing penalties in 2013, and a late Jhonny Arteaga goal in 2nd overtime in 2014. Reaching a round of 32 or quarterfinal match with an MLS opponent is always the goal -- and would provide a big moment for a lot of the players and the organization.  Their's always the potential to host a U.S. Open Cup game against MLS would add a lot more excitement for Pittsburgh soccer fans.

July 4: NY Red Bull 2: For the third consecutive year, the Hounds will be playing a home game on the evening of Pittsburgh’s Independence Day celebration. Fans can stick around and enjoy the City’s Fireworks show.

Pittsburgh RiverhoundsSept. 19: Season Finale at Harrisburg: If the Riverhounds are fighting to get into the USL PRO knockout playoff round and need points in their season finale, they will have to travel to one of the tougher places to play – City Stadium.

Later this week, be sure to check back for Part II: Pittsburgh Riverhounds Early 2015 Forecast – Rounding Out the Roster.

Follow John Krysinsky for latest updates and information about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on Twitter @johnkrysinsky.

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