Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC midfielder Kevin Kerr (left) will enter his seventh season at the club when the Hounds take on the Tampa Bay Rowdies this Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
PITTSBURGH – Even for a seasoned veteran like Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s Kevin Kerr, the first game of a new season still brings a heightened sense of what’s to come over the next eight months.
As the Hounds prepare for their first game of the 2019 campaign on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) the level of excitement in the locker room is rising.
“The first game, you can feel the tension,” Kerr said. “You can feel everybody a little more tuned in this week. We’re finally playing for some points, and we’re confident that we can go down there and get a result.”
The Hounds were one of only two teams alongside the Charlotte Independence that didn’t kick off 2019 over the opening weekend. For Kerr and his returning teammates, the new season in some ways couldn’t arrive fast enough after the club’s heartbreaking elimination in a penalty shootout by Bethlehem Steel FC in last year’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at Highmark Stadium.
After finishing third in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, though, the sense that the club can build on the feeling that this is a new era in the club’s history is still present. From the arrival of Head Coach Bob Lilley – a hiring which snapped the side out of a funk that had seen it miss the past two postseasons – to the club’s new colors and crest, 2018 hit the reset button for a club that this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.
The club will honor that history over the course of this season, with the announcement last week of the first five inductees into the Riverhounds SC Hall of Fame. The Hounds are also starting to get greater recognition within Pittsburgh’s sporting landscape, with Tuesday being proclaimed “Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC Day” by the Council of the City of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC Owner Tuffy Shallenberger receives the official proclamation of March 12 as “Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC Day” by the Council of the City of Pittsburgh. | Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
For longtime Hounds goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap, who now serves as an assistant coach on Lilley’s staff, the heightened spotlight on the club is serving as motivation for everyone within the organization to make sure Riverhounds SC maintains its upward trajectory in the USL Championship this season.
“There’s a sense of expectancy within all levels of the organization that we have to get it done,” said Gilstrap. “There is accountability there. You have to pull your weight. You have to bring a level of excellence to everything that you’re doing if we want to win a championship. Honestly, you can say the goal is to make the playoffs, you can say the goal is to get a home playoff game, but the goal is to win a championship.”
After a hard preseason under Lilley’s watch, Kerr believes the Hounds are ready to achieve that next step and put themselves in the conversation for USL Cup at the end of the season. With the Rowdies entering their home opener off a victory against expansion side Memphis 901 FC last Saturday, Pittsburgh’s first game of the season should provide a good litmus test as to where both sides stand in the Eastern Conference’s pecking order.
“I feel like we’ve done the majority of the physical work,” said Kerr. “It’s been a long five or six weeks, and we’ve put in the miles. This week, I’m sure there’s going to be a big focus on just tweaking the small things, the tactical side of the game and making sure everybody knows what’s expected of them.”