Welcome home, soccer. Why don’t you stay awhile?
Atlanta United was a rainy, raucous romp for Music City soccer fans. Then, the Fans in Gold were forced to watch their team make seven road trips, from the Sunshine State to Bourbontown, with only a reserve-dominated match against Lipscomb in town to break the drought.
Now, soccer is back. And supporters are preparing to respond in record fashion at Nissan Stadium Saturday.
The team needs 20,143 fans to break the record for attendance at a USL expansion team’s inaugural match. They’ll also need at least that many to make Nissan Stadium feel less than cavernous. For the record, it looks like the team will surpass our predicted attendance of 17,500. Cheers to them for doing so!
The fans will be supporting a Nashville side that needs a win after dropping its opener at defending champ Louisville 2-0 last weekend. This piece will get you caught up on what we learned from that match.
Now, it’s time to learn about Pittsburgh. Here are the basics:
- Team: Pittsburgh Riverhounds
- 2018 Record: 0-0 [first match]
- Affiliation: None (previously Columbus, but the deal expired after last season)
- Stadium: Highmark Stadium (3,500)
- Built in 2013, the stadium is on the Monongahela River just east of where it meets the Allegheny at Heinz Field
- The field surface is FIFA 2-star certified artificial turf, the highest rating that an artificial surface can achieve, one of only six fields in the country to earn that rating
- Coach: Bob Lilley (1st season)
- Lilley previously coached the Rochester Rhinos, which are taking a one-year hiatus this season
- He led the Rhinos to four consecutive playoff appearances from 2014 to 2017 and the 2015 USL championship
- Lilley played alongside Penn FC coach Bill Becher for six seasons with the indoor Harrisburg Heat and one with the Hershey Impact. The two are longtime friends and speak well of each other
- First Season: 1999 (then a member of the USL A-League)
- 2017 Finish: 8-12-12 (13th Eastern Conference)
- Best-ever Finish: 2015 (5th East, Conference Quarterfinals)
- Nickname: The Hounds
- Supporters Group: Steel Army
- Three Fun Facts:
- In its 19-year history in the A-League and USL, Pittsburgh has only won its division once and never qualified for a championship match; in fact, the Riverhounds have endured eight losing seasons in their last 10 campaign
- Scottish midfielder Kevin Kerr has played more minutes for the team than any other player in club history. He’s also fourth all-time in appearances for the team; he has played in 131 matches since joining the squad in 2013
- Pittsburgh unveiled a snazzy new logo and wordmark for the 2018 season
Nashville SC v. Pittsburgh Riverhounds
Saturday, 5 p.m. CT
Nissan Stadium, Nashville
How to Watch
TV: WUXP-30 (MyTV Nashville)
- Comcast: Channel 1030
- DirecTV: Channel 30
- Dish: Channel 30
Live stream: YouTube
Full match info: USL Match Center
Why it Matters for Nashville
The stakes are higher for this home match than any other in the foreseeable future. This is an audition for thousands of casual soccer fans who could become hardcore supporters if the team wins them over. That starts with getting them in the door. [Check!] But now, the squad needs to impress them enough to get them back. A win isn’t essential, but an entertaining match with multiple goals is as vital as it’ll be all season.
One Burning Question for Nashville
Can someone score a goal? Nashville hardly threatened the Louisville net last week. Lebo Moloto, Ryan James and Tucker Hume provided chances, but the Boys in Gold struggled to break down a Lou City team that led the league in clean sheets last season. Thankfully for the team, Pittsburgh should present a lighter challenge. The Hounds were middle of the pack in goals conceded and clean sheets after starting keeper Trey Mitchell was lost for the season last August. Mitchell collected six shutouts. After that, Pittsburgh didn’t shut anyone out for the rest of the year, ending the season with an eight-game scored-upon streak in which it conceded 15 times.
Hume was arguably one of Nashville’s most dangerous players in the 33 minutes he was in the match, and he may push himself into the starting lineup in place of Robin Shroot or Michael Cox, who were less than effective against the Bourbon Boys. Then again, coach Gary Smith may want to give his initial starters more time to jell before pulling the plug.
Why it Matters for Pittsburgh
After a bye in Week 1, Saturday is the season opener for the Hounds. For a club that ended the season with a seven-match winless streak (it went 0-4-3), it’s imperative to get off to a positive start this year. In fact, the team lost or drew all but four matches after May 13 — that’s a record of 4-9-10 after starting the season with results in six of nine contests.
New coach Bob Lilley led Rochester to three regular-season titles and a USL Cup in his six years in upstate New York, and he brings that winning mentality to Pennsylvania, where he spent nine years as a player.
Pitt went 8-1 in the preseason, but every match except two was against a college team. The Hounds beat Bethlehem Steel 2-0 and Penn FC 3-2.
One Burning Question for Pittsburgh
Who will protect the net? The bad news for Pittsburgh: Mitchell, who let in just 16 goals in 17 matches before his injury, isn’t listed on the team’s 2018 roster. On the club this year: former Rochester Rhino Kyle Morton, who didn’t play a minute last year; Mike Kirk, who didn’t see 2017 action for Rio Grande Valley; and Dan Lynd, who earned 11 starts in two seasons for Rochester. So it’s safe to say there’s a lack of experience in that spot. Lynd earned six preseason starts and Morton got three caps.
While we’re at it, there are also questions about Pittsburgh’s attack. Forward Corey Hertzog scored 14 of the team’s 33 goals last year, and he plays for St. Louis now. 2012 USL Golden Boot winner Dennis Chin hopes to contribute, fresh off a stint in Israel’s second division. Kerr led the team with four preseason tallies, while three players — Joe Holland, Neco Brett and Romeo Parkes — scored three times.
Three Fun Things to Watch
- Record crowd. Can Nashville soccer fans come through in the clutch yet again? Signs point to yes, but the forecast suggests it could be a rainy Saturday, and that would inevitably hurt turnout. The record watch will come down to the wire, and we’ll be on site to track it.
- Moloto and Washington’s grudge match. Lebo Moloto and Taylor Washington are former Hounds. Read more about their history with the club here, in a piece we produced earlier this week. Both players displayed flashes of excellence in the Steel City, but surely both will be amped up to prove themselves against their old team.
- A real soccer field. Between Nashville’s opener at elevator-sized Louisville Slugger Field and its 15-game schedule at baseball’s First Tennessee Park, it will surely be refreshing for the team to play on a regulation-sized, high-quality pitch. Slugger Field was neither, and an infield lake was partially responsible for Atlanta’s first goal at First Tennessee during the team’s lone home friendly. There will be no infield — or patchy grass — at the Titans’ venue.
How We Expect Nashville to Line Up
We’ll make this easy: We predict the same lineup as last week.
Goalie: Matt Pickens turned away two Louisville shots and was largely blameless on its two goals. The veteran is the prohibitive favorite to start again Saturday, although we expect to see backup C.J. Cochran rotate in for cup matches and during weeks with multiple games.
Defense: The back line was far from perfect against Louisville (click here for Speedway Soccer Pod’s player ratings), but we could envision only one potential change: Taylor Washington for Kosuke Kimura. Given Kimura’s solid play against Lou City, we don’t expect that to happen. With that said, Washington could be the first player off the bench for the Boys in Gold. He was incisive against the Bourbon Boys in limited second-half action, and we would be surprised if he doesn’t enter this match at some point. We tabbed Washington (wing) and Bourgeois (center back) as predicted second-half substitutions, as we expect Nashville to be protecting a lead and playing with a more defensive mindset late in the contest.
Midfield: These three players may rotate less than anyone else on the team this season. Reed is the captain and was some pundits’ Man of the Match against Louisville. Lebo Moloto was ours. Matt LaGrassa will be a vital leader for this team down the road. We don’t expect any changes in midfield this week and we may not see any subs enter at this spot, unless the team gets ahead and Bolu Akinyode is sent in as a holding midfielder.
Forward: We debated here but ultimately left things the same. Our question: Might Smith insert Hume given his assertive performance against Louisville? We opted against it, as we think Smith values continuity early in the season and wants his front line to develop consistency. But he may have a quick trigger if Shroot and Cox struggle in the first half. Either way, we envision Tucker Hume playing an active role in the second half.
Projected Reserves (our predicted subs in bold): Cochran, Bourgeois, Washington, Akinyode, Winn, Hume, Mensah
Final Score Prediction
Let’s not make too much of Nashville’s season-opening struggles. Sure, they failed to crack the scoreboard and found themselves outmatched in the second half against Louisville City. But they were playing on a pockmarked field against a cup-winning side with 10 returning starters from last year’s title — a group that plays expertly on its claustrophobic pitch.
Sure, Pittsburgh added some pieces up top to replace Hertzog, but we expect chemistry to take time. The Hounds were the least physical team in the league last year and ranked third-to-last in passing accuracy. That’s a bad combo against a pressing, aggressive Nashville team desperate seeking its first goal. We think the Boys in Gold will turn a first-half counterattack into the franchise’s inaugural league tally, then tack one on in the second half for good measure.
Nashville SC 2, Pittsburgh Riverhounds 0
Goals: Lebo Moloto (32′), Tucker Hume (86′)