Things looked to be heating up for visiting FC Cincinnati Wednesday night in the 66th minute when Andrew Wiedman came bursting through the midfield and scorched a ball off his head in the direction of the opposing goal. Fortunately for the Riverhounds, Zack Steffen was in that goal.
The loanee goalkeeper put his hands in front of his face and ricochetted the ball to his right and out of bounds, essentially saving the game in that very moment, especially since Cincinnati came firing back moments later, only to hit the crossbar en route to a 0-0 final score between the two clubs on opposite sides of the table.
"Incredibly important," Dave Brandt said of Steffen's save. "Zack has been incredible for us, on the field, off the field, with the guys in the locker room. His performances, I think in every respect, have spoken for themselves. Just a real true professional. Quality person, quality goalkeeper. Of course it gives us confidence having him back there, for sure."
Despite not taking the loss to Cincinnati (14-6-8), though, the Hounds (6-16-5) have finally been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Brandt's club needed to win all three of its remaining games, among many other stipulations, to still have a chance of sneaking up from the depths of the Eastern Conference table.
You could sense that urgency in the second half, too, as things picked up for both teams in the second 45-minute session, but the Hounds just couldn't find much offense to put together. Much of it came from issues the team has had all season with trying to press.
"I'm always one to protect, because I don't want to give one up. As soon as you look like you're about to get one, that's when your most exposed in the back," Brandt said. "I always think we can nab one at the end, though. I thought we pushed a little bit. We were tired, but so were they."
Despite the effort on the late push, the best chances for the Hounds came in the first half. On several occasions, a Hound would find space and put a nice pass into the box only to find no one there or to be offsides. In the 23rd minute, Cristian Martinez gave it a go but shot but it found the keeper's paws. A few moments later, Corey Hertzog found Martinez streaking over the middle, but the young striker was called offsides.
Martinez later received a yellow card after bumping FC Cincinnati's Mitch Hildebrandt just outside the goal. Hildebrandt, Cincinnati's keeper, stood over top of Martinez on the turf but somehow it was Martinez who was carded. The scuffle provided the lone blemish on an otherwise solid night for the 19-year-old loanee.
"I'd like to take a little credit for it," Brandt said with a smile, speaking to Martinez' development. "Cristian's English is sparse, so I've taken to typing notes, English to Spanish translation, and giving it to him before the game. We sit down together, and I'll say, '1, 2, 3. These are the important points.' He's a talented young player, and we're happy to have him on the squad right now."
That "things to learn" phase will be an important one now that they'll turn their focus to the final two games of the season before Brandt's first offseason as a professional coach.
MATT'S THREE THOUGHTS
1. It's a shame Zack Steffen is on loan.
Man, this guy is something. He's been making spectacular save after spectacular save since coming over on loan from Columbus late in the season. He's the type of kid you'd like to build around. Some team will do it, but it'll be at the MLS level, not here in the USL.
You can tell he's a step above the crop just by the way he talks:
Steffen, too, knows this is just a building block for him here in Pittsburgh.
"Week in and week out, it's good," he said. "I get to push these guys and they get to push me."
2. Pressing with this team continues to be a struggle.
"We're not able right now to open up and press and go forward as quickly as I would like to," Brandt said. "I think at times when we've done that, we've paid, and it's just not the right thing for us to do right now."
With what Brandt is running, the offense feeds off of the back line. So, when the back line isn't able to push up and close off space, that creates issues with the offense.
Really, it starts to prohibit guys like Kevin Kerr and Lebo Moloto in the midfield from doing their job and finding open feet, too.
3. Chevy Walsh has great upside.
Brandt said he's thrown a lot to his new forward in the few weeks since he's been signed after winning the Golden Boot and being named the PDL MVP this past season. He's already got one goal under his belt, and he was very active tonight.
Brandt knows that process will take time.
"I think for him, playing through the summer and being off a little bit then being quickly integrated here (hurt)," Brandt said. "We hit him hard, so his legs are heavy right now."
When Brandt goes to making offseason moves, count on Walsh becoming a building block for the Hounds.
THE LOCKER ROOM
THE INJURY UPDATE
Hounds defender Ryan Adeleye had what Brandt termed a "tweak" and came off the field. Adeleye has been fighting a leg issue most of the season, though, so it seems to just be a nagging injury.
THE OTHER SIDE
FC Cincinnati's quest for home-field advantage in the playoffs didn't hit with the draw Wednesday night as they'll stay put in third place, a single point ahead of Charlotte. You could sense the same urgency in the visitors as the second half took off.
In addition to that shot right at Steffen in the 66th minute, Weidman sent a cross to Casey Townsend and Townsend sent one right on goal but it hit the cross bar. The missed effort served as the best chance for either team in the scoreless draw.
THREE NUMBERS OF NOTE
12 — Number of goals Corey Hertzog has on the season. Without scoring a goal, the Hounds striker wasn't able to up his season totals in the scoring department.
5 — Number of corner kicks that FC Cincinnati managed to take. Still, credit the Hounds' defense for strong play on each of those.
10 — Total number of shots in the second half for both teams combined. Overall, the two teams took 18 shots.
THE NEXT GAME
The Riverhounds have a quick turnaround and will travel to play Bethlehem (6-13-9) on the road on Sunday.