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Riverhounds Early Forecast Part III: Keys to a Successful 2015

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John Krysinsky breaks down the keys to the Riverhounds upcoming campaign

Punxatawney Phil may have cast a shadow that has brought six more weeks of winter, but that hasn't stopped the Pittsburgh Riverhounds as they have begun their preseason, working their way beyond the shadow of what was a difficult 2014 season both on and off the field.

As I wrap up this three-part series that forecasts the Riverhounds upcoming season, I have already taken a closer look at the upcoming 2015 schedule, and the team’s roster. Now, I’ll be taking a look at few key things that we’ll be watching closely, and could be important factors to whether it will be a prosperous campaign or not for the Hounds.

Starting Strong
Starting a season seven or ten games without a league win is never ideal. That’s exactly what has happened to the Riverhounds the past two years.

In 2013, after an 0-4-3 opening, the Riverhounds were able to recover and make it to the USL playoffs – thanks mostly to the emergence of their record-breaking scoring tandem of Jose Angulo and Matt Dallman. With an even bigger hole in 2014, 0-6-4 in their first ten, they would come up short after a late-season push.

When the schedule was released a few weeks ago, the Riverhounds had to be happy to see that they will play four of their first five matches at Highmark Stadium.

Will this franchise continue to be snake-bit in March and April, or will they turn it around in the beginning of the season?

With rivals Harrisburg and Rochester coming to Highmark Stadium in the first two matches, the Hounds face two opponents they know well, and had mixed results with in 2014. In six matches, the Hounds were 2-3-1 (7G, 7 GA) against Harrisburg and Rochester.  Expect more of the same. Encounters that will be close, hard-fought and likely defensive battles that will go either way. Familiarity breeds contempt as the new schedule will pit the rivals playing almost a third of their schedule against each other. This should make for added intensity in each and every game.

Enhancing Fan Support and Soccer Experience at Highmark Stadium
The first season in Highmark Stadium, in 2013, brought a lot of new support to the Riverhounds franchise that played mostly at high school stadiums before few fans. As 2014 season kicked off, the team wasn’t able seize the momentum from the previous season, as they experienced a slight downturn in attendance. It didn’t help to have a cloud of bankruptcy, followed by a poor start on the field that led to a leveling off in fan support.

The extraordinary growth of soccer across the country has certainly extended to Western Pennsylvania. Maybe not quite at the rate as in some other places, but it’s been steadily increasing in recent years. It is believed that there are now more than 40,000 youth soccer players playing in our region alone.

With Highmark Stadium, the Riverhounds have been successfully providing access to so many of Western PA’s soccer players. They’ve partnered with many youth organizations and WPIAL, among others, to use Highmark Stadium as a showcase to play games and tournaments. They will need to continue making Highmark Stadium a destination location for the die-hard and casual soccer players in our region.

They will also need to make it a soccer destination worth visiting.

New team president, Richard Nightingale acknowledged at his introductory press conference that winning will be the biggest factor what brings continued fan support. It will also be interesting to see who will emerge as the team’s most notable players, as the franchise loses two of its most popular star players in recent years, in Angulo and goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap. Dallman, who led the USL in assists in 2013, returns as the team’s most recognizable player at the moment. Ryan Thompson and Anthony Arena and some of the newer players could certainly emerge as the season plays out.

While the Riverhounds realize that they may not reach the levels of fast-rising popularity that some successful USL markets have, like Orlando and Sacramento, they know that they must win first. And Nightingale acknowledged that -- as he stated that much in December. He knows that to build up a stronger fan base, it will start by having a good team on the field.

But adding to the fan experience won’t hurt either, and on this front Nightingale has been proactive. He announced the following enhancements recently:

  • All away games going forward will be shown / streamed ‘live’ in the new Sports Bar. English Premier League, International, UEFA Champions League and other matches will be shown also with expanded opening hours.
  • The team announced its new partnership with Nike (Nightingale’s former employer) including new Home and Away Jerseys that will be available in the new retail store located at Highmark Stadium on March 18.
  • As part of the four game series the Riverhounds will play with the Harrisburg City Islanders, they have now commissioned a special trophy that will be presented to the winner of the series on September 19 in Harrisburg following the final game of the regular season.
  • For the June 27 away game with the Rochester Rhinos members of the Riverhounds supporter group, the Steel Army, will be treated to a chartered bus to the game.

Replacing Angulo
There are a couple ways to look at replacing a dynamic goal scorer.

One is find player(s) of equal talent and ability. The other is build a stronger team and rely on multiple contributions. It appears that new head coach Mark Steffens believes he can make the latter approach work.

“We have quite a few guys that we have that we can count on going forward,” said Steffans after a recent preseason training session while addressing the loss of the team’s leading goal scorer the past two seasons.

“It’s going to be a combination of numbers. We don’t know who will rise to the surface. But there’s a lot of young guys that have a lot to prove and are working to rise to the top.”

Angulo was a threat every time he was on the ball or in space with Earls or Dallman delivering from the flanks and corners. The Riverhounds may not have the same, dynamic goal scorer in their line-up in 2015, but they may not need one person.

If you take away Angulo’s hat trick at Real Salt Lake Reserves in July, his goal total wasn't staggering in 2014.  That hat trick was a result of one of the strangest 1st half scenarios you will ever witness, in which all three of his goals were scored on penalties. Angulo only scored five gother oals in run of play in last season. As the Riverhounds turned their season around and made a push to the playoffs, goal scoring contributions came from a variety of players including Kevin Kerr, Mike Green and Danny Earls who are all returning.

Steffens, a USL Hall of Fame coach, believes in what he sees so far, and also appears to be assembling a strong midfield and back line in front of Thompson, Pittsburgh Riverhoundsthat he will be hoping to keep his team in every game.

Having dangerous presence in the attacking third is often what can separate top teams from the rest of the pack, and would be a crucial final piece that could elevate the Hounds into contender status. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but for now, the Hounds don’t have a signature goal-scoring threat at the top of the attack.

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

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