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Eastern Conf. Notebook — Crucial River Cities Cup Looms

By CHRIS HOCKMAN -, 05/25/18, 8:00AM EDT


Keystone Derby Cup provides motivation for Hounds, Penn; Collins ready for Rowdies after whirlwind week

Photo courtesy Brett Hansauber / FC Cincinnati

CINCINNATI – After both teams got back on track last week, FC Cincinnati and Louisville City FC do battle in the second River Cities Cup of the season this Saturday (7:30 p.m. | Match Center | ESPN+). With the two teams sitting first and second in the USL Eastern Conference this match looms as even bigger than the usual battle between the two heated rivals.

“They’re on a fantastic run themselves. They beat North Carolina FC and then Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC [in the US Open Cup],” said Louisville Head Coach James O’Connor. “They’re in good form, we’re in good form, so it makes for a really exciting game. They are games that both clubs enjoy and both sets of supporters, and it’s one we’re looking forward to.”

With Louisville having claimed a 1-0 victory in the first derby between the two sides of the season, the defending champions come into this match confident. But a lot has happened since that April 7th match at Nippert Stadium, and Louisville is sure to not take anything for granted.

“I think they are playing in a different formation to what they played early on in the season. I think in any type of rivalry game, I don’t know if either they or we take confidence from the run they’re on or we’re on,” said O’Connor. “It’s very much a case of what happens on the day. So, we’ll try to do the things we want to do and get the strong performances that we have had of late. We want to maintain that on Saturday.”

With one of the most raucous home crowds in USL, Cincinnati is a tough team to beat at home, and given the heated nature of prior contests between the two clubs separated by only 100 miles on Interstate 71 that is sure to ramp up even more. With plenty of travelling support set to make its way north to back City FC, the atmosphere should spur the players on to put in a big fight in what is sure to be an entertaining match.

“All games are fun to play in, but playing at home is very special for us because of the environment our fans create.  It's easy to get excited to play at Nippert for our home games because of how amazing the crowd is,” said FCC midfielder Nazmi Albadawi. “As far as taking momentum into the next game, I just try to work as hard as I can every single day in training and then play with no pressure on the weekend.”

DERBY ADDING MOTIVATION FOR HOUNDS, PENN: With the second leg of this season’s Keystone Derby Cup looming this Saturday (7 p.m. | Match Center | ESPN+) arriving at a busy time in the schedule for both Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Penn FC, the derby still holds plenty of motivation for both teams as they look to rebound from elimination in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup this past Wednesday night..

“I think it will give us focus, we’ve had to keep rotating the squad as a staff but we’re definitely going to try and get a result,” said Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley. “It’s a quick turn around from Wednesday to Saturday, that’s shorter than Saturday to Wednesday so I think it helps that we have Penn FC at home on Saturday and that they are a rival.”

“It’s a battle there. The guys are excited and ready,” added Penn FC Head Coach Raoul Voss. “This is going to be a really true battle of this small turf pitch so it is going to be a fight.”

With no match last weekend Penn FC has had the opportunity to regroup ahead of this important derby match, getting rest ahead of two important matches this week.

“We had the weekend off so it really was a well deserved break for the guys to get their mind off a little bit too. It was a good break and a very valuable break for us,” said Voss.

While only five players on the 2017 Pittsburgh roster remain in the 2018 squad, there isn't much memory in the Hounds' squad of prior battles between the two clubs, which has meant Lilley and the likes of Hounds midfielder Kevin Kerr have helped get their teammates up to speed as to what this fixture means to the club. That work hasn’t been too hard as the players have been able to draw on previous experience, including former Penn midfielder Mouhamed Dabo, who played on the other side of the derby last year.

“You’ve got some Pittsburgh guys and [Assistant Coach] Mark [Pulisic] and I are both from Central Pennsylvania, so the game in Harrisburg was always a big game for me, even when I was in Rochester,” said Lilley. “I think there’s enough familiarity and then a lot of these guys played at colleges where they had in-state rivals, so even if you boil it down to just us, Penn FC, and Bethlehem Steel FC are three teams in Pennsylvania and you want to end up on top.”

COLLINS MAKING TRANSITION: On May 14, Neill Collins was a player for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, but by the following Saturday the veteran center back was on the sidelines serving as the Head Coach for his team after a busy week for the Rowdies that saw former boss Stuart Campbell step down and Collins fill his shoes.

Things have happened so rapidly over the past two weeks, in fact, that there’s not even been time for Collins to process the changed role.

“It’s been such a whirlwind, I’ve not really considered the fact that I’m not playing yet and I’m solely focused on coaching so maybe I’ll know that in a month or two,” said Collins.

Arguably the trickiest part for someone in Collins' position, making such a rapid rise from player to Head Coach, is getting those players that were recently teammates on board to the new circumstances the club finds itself in. There have been positive signs, for sure, with numerous players voicing their support to Collins last Friday on social media when his appointment was announced, but Collins believes the club's performances will be a truer indicator for the side.

“I suppose we’ll only find out if the players are on board by their performances on the pitch and that will come if the performances are good,” said Collins. “I think they’re on board because they fought to the bitter end on Saturday and they’re a great bunch of lads so I’m not overly concerned about that.”

That fight to the bitter end in a 2-2 draw against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC that saw Joe Cole score a second-half equalizer after Tampa Bay had trailed at halftime gave the Rowdies their first point after three consecutive league defeats. Now Collins and the Rowdies head on the road to face Toronto FC II on Saturday afternoon (2 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) with the club looking to reverse the struggles away from Al Lang Stadium that have seen the club lose five straight away from home.

“I have a couple of ideas because I’ve been traveling on the road for a long time so we’ll change some things and try and change the mindset but the proof will be in the pudding as always,” said Collins.

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