Mired in a 10-game winless stretch to start the USL Pro season, the Riverhounds players and coaches insisted all along that once the goals — and wins — started flowing, they wouldn’t stop.
Now’s the time to see if they were right.
The Riverhounds return to the field tonight coming off a league win for the first time this season. Saturday they won at Rochester for the first time in franchise history — the Riverhounds had been 0-16-4 at Sahlen’s Stadium — with a 3-2 victory that followed the formula many expected to be successful for them all season.
“Everyone feels good,” interim coach Niko Katic said. “Whether it’s against Adria in Open Cup or against Rochester, it feels good to win the games. Even when you play against your little brother at home, it feels good to win the games, let alone at a professional level.”
The Riverhounds scored two goals off corner kicks and reigning USL Pro MVP Jose Angulo netted what ended up being the winner in the 82nd minute.
Tonight they return to Highmark Stadium to face another regional rival in Harrisburg. The two sides met June 1, also at Highmark Stadium, in a game that ended in a 1-1 draw.
In fact, this is the second of three meetings between the teams over the course of two weeks. After tonight, they’ll travel to Harrisburg for another showdown Saturday.
“They know us, we know them,” Katic said.
The City Islanders haven’t fared much better this season, with only two wins. Since beating Dayton, 5-3, May 17, Harrisburg has gone into a three-game winless skid.
So in addition to intra-state bragging rights (the teams split their season series last year) the next two games could cause some significant shake-up at the bottom of the USL Pro standings.
A win tonight would move the Riverhounds ahead of the City Islanders and out of last place for the first time this season. Depending on other results, the Riverhounds could even move as high as ninth in the league standings. Despite the dismal start to the season, a playoff spot (top eight teams) is still within reach.
“It feels amazing [to get a league win], but every game is important for us,” Katic said. “We’re just going to keep working on the things we’ve been working on and just strive to be better. Hopefully it will pay off and show on the field against Harrisburg.”
The man, for now, charged with getting the Riverhounds back to the playoffs is Katic, who took over in late May when Justin Evans was fired.
Since taking the helm, Katic, also a reserve defender, has a 1-2-1 USL Pro record. He also coached the team to a 3-2 extra-time win against RWB Adria in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup.
“It’s been bittersweet, I would say, but it’s been an awesome experience,” he said of his transition to coaching. “I love it. I think guys are buying into it. The toughest part for me was to separate myself from being a player to being a coach, but I did that with the help of my coaching staff.
“The day I took the job I lost 18 friends in the locker room, but maybe I gained some new friends in the coaching staff.”
Despite his defensive nature, Katic earned his first career win Saturday against Rochester with a pair of offensive substitutions. Midway through the second hal with the score tied, 1-1, he brought on attacking players Joseph Ngwenya and Angulo for Brian Fekete and Mike Green, two more defensive-minded players.
The moves paid off as Ngwenya assisted Angulo on the winning goal late in the match.
“It’s what’s the best for the team,” Katic said. “You see who plays well, who trains well. You put your team out according to that. There must be a culture that nobody is guaranteed to play here.
“[Players] are fighting from week to week, and that’s the way it should be.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.