Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies will square off with first place in the Eastern Conference on the line on Saturday night at Al Lang Stadium. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
The top two teams in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference will square off on Saturday night as the second-placed Tampa Bay Rowdies (18-8-6, 60pts) host first-placed Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (18-5-9, 63pts) at Al Lang Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET | ESPN+).
To provide insight on why these two teams are battling for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and the Players’ Shield this season, we’ve turned to our friend John Morrissey, who runs the excellent USL Tactics website in addition to contributing to other outlets including Backheeled.com.
Here’s his breakdown of the biggest game of this regular season.
This Saturday’s match between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC at Al Lang Stadium is rich with storylines.
It brings together the Eastern Conference’s top offense in Tampa Bay against the top defense in Pittsburgh.
The Hounds’ Albert Dikwa leads the Rowdies’ Cal Jennings by just two goals in the Golden Boot race.
Most importantly, it could decide which team takes the No. 1 seed in the conference in the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs, and potentially the Championship’s Players’ Shield.
Finishing on top of the East assures home-field advantage through the Eastern Conference Final, and that could prove decisive for either club. Pittsburgh has only one loss at Highmark Stadium in 2023, and they beat Tampa Bay by a 1-0 margin there in August. The Rowdies, meanwhile, have 11 wins and just three defeats at Al Lang this season.
With those stakes in mind, it’s worth considering what makes these clubs so strong and what might swing the result this weekend.
Albert Dikwa (left) and Kenardo Forbes (right) have let Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC's attack, with Dikwa leading the league with 19 goals and Forbes co-leader in the league with 10 assists. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
On the face of it, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has taken an unconventional route to the top of the table. They’re the second-least possessive team in the league, holding onto the ball only 44 percent of the time. Until mid-September, they hadn’t used the same starting lineup in consecutive games. Outside of Albert Dikwa, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a single player with more than four goals.
What this team lacks in conventionality, it makes up for in effort, energy, and buy-in to Head Coach Bob Lilley’s tactical philosophy. Lilley preaches a defense-first, next-man-up style, and he’s always willing to tinker with his team based on the matchup at hand. The median USL Championship team has four players with 25 starts or more; Pittsburgh only has two, tied for the least of any club.
The Hounds typically use a 5-3-2 shape when they’re defending, and no other side is as adept at denying space to opposing attacks. The Riverhounds have allowed the fewest shots on target of any club in the Championship because of it.
This team is so successful because they don’t let opponents up for air. When Pittsburgh presses, it pushes both of its wing backs and two of its three central midfielders high upfield to deny passing lanes. When they restart play in possession, the Hounds typically play long passes that tilt the action towards the opposing goal.
With their opponent pinned back, Pittsburgh forces turnovers ferociously. In doing so, the Hounds can quickly turn heel and bear down on goal. Between Kenardo Forbes (tied for the league lead with 10 assists) and Dikwa (first in the league with 19 goals), the Riverhounds are punishingly effective at feeding their most potent offensive weapons as soon as they regain the ball.
The system may seem simple enough on paper, but the level of composure and organization Lilley has forged is remarkable.
JJ Williams (left) and Cal Jennings (right) have combined with Charlie Dennis to lead the best attacking group in the Eastern Conference so far this season, with each player recording double-digit goals. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Even though the Tampa Bay Rowdies are one of the most consistently successful organizations in USL Championship history, their 2023 season hasn’t been without hiccups.
Reigning Championship Most Valuable Player Leo Fernandes went down with a torn Achilles’ tendon just before the season began and while he has made a remarkable recovery, it took until this past weekend to be included on the bench in the matchday squad for the first time this season. Adjusting to that absence, Tampa Bay went on to win one of their first seven matches.
Then, In July, longtime Head Coach Neill Collins departed the club, taking the same role at EFL League One club Barnsley FC. It was a moment the club navigated inconsistently, winning only one of its next four games, including its loss to Pittsburgh.
So, what kept the Rowdies afloat? Maintaining a consistent system, leaning into a versatile roster, and riding the hot hand in an elite group of attackers has done the job.
Nicky Law, a former Tampa Bay player and the club’s replacement for Collins, has led the way on all fronts. Law isn’t doctrinaire in the debate between a back four and back five, often starting with one look and pivoting to the other mid-match. He follows his predecessor’s lead in that characteristic. Players like Aaron Guillen, Conner Antley, and Jordan Doherty help the cause; all are top USL Championship talents on skill alone, but they’re also comfortable as center backs, full backs, or midfielders in a pinch.
Despite boasting the second-best defense in the East by goals allowed, the Rowdies aren’t a pressing team. They’ve won the second-fewest tackles and third-fewest interceptions in the entire league. They’re willing to sit back and absorb attacking moves.
When an opponent overextends, Tampa Bay strikes like lightning.
Long balls into Cal Jennings, a 17-goal scorer, are the most common outcome, but this team has options beyond him. Charlie Dennis is an elite ball carrier on the counterattack. JJ Williams may be the best hold-up striker in the league. The Rowdies have scored on 15.6 percent of their overall shot attempts this year and 19.9 percent of shot attempts excluding blocked shots, both the highest rates in the Championship, and it’s because they generate high-caliber chances in transition.
2022 USL Championship Most Valuable Player Leo Fernandes was available for selection for the first time this season last weekend after injury, and could be an X-factor on Saturday. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
In the reverse fixture in August, Law and Tampa Bay went with a 4-2-3-1 shape, hoping to overload the Hounds’ defense with a plethora of attackers. Instead, Pittsburgh’s two-striker, two-midfielder, two-wing back press maintained a constant edge. Tampa Bay is a team that wants to build short out of the back, and they weren’t allowed to do it. All it took was one turnover for Albert Dikwa to get his golden moment to win the game.
The obvious change, then, is for the Rowdies to adopt a back five. Even with Aaron Guillen having missed the last four games, this defensive corps is deep enough to bear the change. A 5-3-2 shape would match Pittsburgh man-for-man, better protect Rowdies goalkeeper Connor Sparrow in net, and it would also give the team a much-needed extra pair of feet to break down the visiting Riverhounds in build-up.
Pittsburgh’s bread-and-butter in 2023 has been tactical consistency. Their best move is to trust the process and keep the same formation that’s taken them here. In terms of a personnel shift, opting for either Tola Showunmi or Juan Carlos Obregon Jr. at striker next to Dikwa could pay dividends. Edward Kizza, a powerful and traditional No. 9, typically fills that spot, but the two alternatives are quicker, peskier in the press, and more likely to stretch the Rowdies out.
If there’s an X-factor in this game, it’s Leo Fernandes. He pitched in 19 goals and nine assists in 2022, and few players provide a more potent offensive threat. Between slaloming dribbles, audacious shot attempts, and clever passes, Fernandes is the king of the unexpected, and even a substitute appearance on Saturday could turn the tide.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, will rely on Arturo Ordoñez at center back to answer the Brazilian superstar - and every other threat Tampa Bay throws his way. Ordoñez has the second-most tackle attempts in the USL this season, but he’s incredibly discerning in committing to a challenge and always in the right spot. Between his contributions in the defensive zone and his excellence as a target for set pieces, Ordonez may determine the outcome.
No matter who lands on top, the Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh game will be a must-watch affair. These are two of the best-coached and tactically interesting clubs in the entire USL Championship, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Saturday is a preview of the Eastern Conference Final in November.