ST. PETERSBURG — Despite being a standout team accustomed to making the USL postseason, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds will visit Al Lang Stadium Saturday night as a slightly unknown commodity.
For starters, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a regular-season match on tape, as this will be the ‘Hounds’ 2021 opener, while the Rowdies started off strong with a 3-0 victory over Charlotte. And for their actual starters, there will be a large number of different ones, with the chance for up to 12 Riverhounds newcomers possibly hitting the pitch.
Bob Lilley, entering his fourth season as Pittsburgh coach, guided the squad to a franchise-record 19 wins in 2019, and the Riverhounds went 11-4-1 last season — a better mark than the Rowdies despite finishing second to Hartford in their division. However, a 2-0 playoff loss to Louisville in which Pittsburgh could not finish its chances led to Lilley’s overhaul and promise of a more dynamic attack.
The Rowdies played a part in Pittsburgh’s roster turnover. Steevan Dos Santos, instrumental in two of the goals last weekend, was one of Tampa Bay coach Neill Collins’ biggest offseason targets.
“A lot of new players, so how Bob uses them will be interesting,” Collins said. “I think the player that’s been very effective for Pittsburgh and for Bob is Kenardo Forbes, very creative in the midfield, talented player. And thankfully we took his other most talented player, and we put him on our team.”
Dos Santos scored 14 goals in his two seasons in Pittsburgh, building on his sizable collection of 32 in four seasons between Rochester and Ottawa. He slotted right into the starting lineup for Tampa Bay and did not depart until the closing minutes of the opener.
In a Zoom call with Pittsburgh media, Lilley complimented Dos Santos as a “handful” but — interestingly, only after what seemed like a qualifying phrase — “when motivated.”
Dos Santos said all the right things when speaking on a call Thursday.
“I just have to focus like I’m playing against any team,” he said. “Of course I’ve been there before, but this is not the first time. When I was in Ottawa I played against Rochester, and when I was in Pittsburgh, I played against Ottawa. I just have to do my best to help the team..”.
With its strong mixture of returners and top-quality additions, the Rowdies are considered the favorites in the East. Dos Santos’s impressive debut was matched by right wing Connor Antley and midfielder Laurence Wyke. Both were previously known as defensive players — but with Tampa Bay’s three-man back all returning — were pushed up in the Tampa Bay attack.
Clearly, Tampa Bay does not want for options. Would-be starters Leo Fernandes and Lewis Hilton came off the bench, both playing big roles in the three-goal second half.
“It was really just, can we speed our play up (after halftime)?” Collins said. “Can we just speed it up, a second quicker? I really enjoyed watching them, after the first goal went in, felt the confidence. ... We expect the players, whether they’re starting or coming off the bench, to have an impact. That’s why they’re here.”
Said Dos Santos,“First half wasn’t as good, but I think it’s something normal, first game of the season you want to do everything perfect, and sometimes you’re going to miss some passes. But second half we upped the tempo, and (the result) was amazing.”
Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.. It will be the first of four meetings between the new divisional rivals.
“This is one of the strongest opponents we’ll face,” Collins said. “But equally tough for them. So it will be a very good game, and across the USL this weekend, I think a lot of people will be looking forward to it.”