There was a record breaking crowd and one magical goal. For the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, that’s all they needed.
Bob Lilley and company are heading to the next round, the Quarterfinals, of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. The USL Championship club — who currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference — upset the Columbus Crew SC at their home, Highmark Stadium, on Wednesday night. It will be the Hounds’ first trip to the Quarterfinals since 2001.
Albert Dikwa supplied the game-winning goal, assisted by hometown kid Robbie Mertz. Dikwa slotted the ball low to the corner of the net, past Crew goalkeeper Evan Bush, after Mertz found him between two Crew defenders.
Mertz said he was a bit worried about a potential offside call, but the goal was ruled fair.
“I kind of hesitated, because I was looking for … Then I saw the secondary run from Dikwa,” Mertz said. “I was concerned about offsides when I initially left my foot, but he wasn’t offside. In those situations, it happens very quickly. Thankfully, there was enough to it.”
Pittsburgh didn’t park the bus, or let off the gas at all. Columbus did out-posses the Riverhounds, but that was to be expected, according to Mertz.
“I think we knew coming into the game that they’re a possession-oriented team,” he explained. “They out-posses teams in MLS 60, 65 percent of the time. We weren’t under any illusion that we would be an exception to that. But we did say that we wanted to give pressure when it made sense. I think we did that.
“In the second half, we started to tire a little bit,” Mertz continued. “It was natural for us to come under a little bit of pressure during that point of the game. That’s something we talked about, in this competition and the league, that we want to avoid being under a ton of pressure at the end of games … At the end of the day, you need to do what you’ve got to do. Everyone was sacrificing a lot to win.”
This is the second-straight shutout win against an MLS side in Lamar Hunt US Open Cup action. The Riverhounds are the first lower division club in the Modern Era (1995-present) to accomplish that. In fact, only two lower division clubs have ever shutout multiple MLS teams in a single tournament (1999 Rochester Raging Rhinos, 2022 Sacramento Republic FC), but the Riverhounds are the first to do it in consecutive games.
Pittsburgh got to the Round of 16 after a road win against the New England Revolution. However, before coming out to face Columbus, the Riverhounds didn’t put too much pressure on themselves — or think too much about facing “an MLS team.”
“You can’t think too much about the opponent,” goalkeeper Jahmali Waite said. “At the end of the day, they have 11 guys against our 11 guys. You go out there and stick to the game plan, play as a team and compete, and then good things will happen.”
Waite — who earned his fourth clean sheet of the season — made three saves against Jacen Russell-Rowe, Thomas Roberts and substitute Gibran Rayo. The goalkeeper had to be alert, with Columbus recording a whopping 75 percent of possession.
“It’s difficult, but that’s part of the job as a goalkeeper. You have to be focused, switched on all the time,” Waite, who represents the Jamaican national team, said. “So, being able to follow the ball and not let it out of your sight, see their players and communicate to the guys where they need to be, it’s a lot of focus, but we work on it in practice. We do that all the time in practice.”
Mertz gave credit to his goalkeeper, calling him a steady presence.
“He’s been steady all year. Not just performance wise, but emotionally in the locker room,” Mertz said. “He’s a steady guy. That’s what we needed coming into tonight. He came up when he needed to tonight. There are scary moments, when the ball goes into the box, during set pieces. Tonight, he was always in the right position. That’s a testament to the work he puts in during training … He’s stellar.”
Pittsburgh recorded nine shots, with two on target. In addition to Dikwa’s goal, Danny Griffin — who re-joined the Riverhounds just this month — added another attempt on Bush.
— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) May 25, 2023
Meanwhile, for the Crew, manager Wilfred Nancy said that his side was trying to “catch up” to Pittsburgh after the goal. He did state that it was intention to rest regular starters, due to the busy congestion of the Open Cup and MLS season.
“We’ve done this since the beginning. The idea was to give time to everyone,” Nancy said. “We have a lot of games. For me, it was a no brainer that we had to rotate … The plan was the same thing as the last game when we played in the Cup. We have a lot of games and we had to rotate.”
Home support brings Pittsburgh players needed energy
The Riverhounds had a record-breaking crowd at Highmark Stadium of 6,107 fans. Attendance has been up significantly this season. Even on Saturday against the Las Vegas Lights, Pittsburgh saw their fourth-highest attended game.
Riverhounds head coach Bob Lilley said that propelled his team to a win.
“It’s important for the club. We’ve been building this and growing certainly these nights, these opportunities to pack the house and have an MLS team here,” Lilley said. “We want to introduce the game to more people. The fans played a big part tonight. We were tired in the second half, and the game got stretched and wide open. We need to get ahold of the ball a little more. The fans pulled us through… It wasn’t pretty at the end. There was energy in the building, and our guys had something to hold on to.
Lilley said that pulling a crowd like Wednesday night’s wasn’t easy in such a crowded sports town.
“Soccer in Pittsburgh has always been a fringe sport. It’s deserving to be more than that. It’s global, and it’s so conscious in the world,” Lilley explained. “In Pittsburgh, we have support for the league, the exposure. There are huge sports teams in this town. It’s hard to work your way into the market. Nights like tonight show the growth of soccer here and what we’re trying to do to give this community the vision for the kids, who aspire to play at a professional level.”
Mertz said that, before the game, his brother was comparing the club’s theme of a “White Out” to that of the Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup attendance in 2009.
“I remember those days. There was a comparison to that,” Mertz said. “The atmosphere was incredible from the get go. I can’t say enough about what it was like to have that type of atmosphere.”
Waite said he felt the energy from the crowd before the first kick.
“Even coming into the stadium before we went out for warmups, the energy was there,” the Jamaican said. “It’s good for us. At home, we feed off that energy. As long as we keep performing, then they feed off that. Then, you see what happens.”
No fear heading to Cincinnati
Next up for Pittsburgh is FC Cincinnati, a side they know well from their former USL days.
However, Cincinnati isn’t the same team. They’ve vastly improved from their horrendous start in MLS and are MLS Cup title contenders. Their home stadium is a fortress, but the Riverhounds players are not backing down.
“It’s two teams playing. Even though we’re on the road, we’re not going to back down and sit back and let them work us all game,” Waite said confidently. “We’re going to go in and, whatever game plan the coach gives us, we’re going to stick to that. We’re going to try to keep playing our style of play the best as we can, creating chances and limiting their chances.”
Mertz said that the Riverhounds have quality to beat a third MLS side in this tournament.
“It can go either way. It was one of these nights where you have to think of the opportunity to be out there,” he said. “To get to partake in a night like that… I’m just really thankful. We thought things were aligning for us.”
“It’s a special moment for the club, for sure.”