Columbus Crew SC are not one of the 11 MLS clubs to own and operate a USL franchise, but they are one of the additional nine to have formed a partnership with a third-division team. To replace their 2015 affiliation with the now-defunct Austin Aztex, the Crew partnered with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at the beginning of the 2016 season, meaning they would send players on-loan to get playing time in Pittsburgh.
At the time of this writing Marshall Hollingsworth is the only Crew-affiliated player with the Riverhounds. Ben Swanson made five USL appearances before suffering a season-ending injury.
Even with the services of two MLS loanees, the Riverhounds are in the midst of a troubled season. The club is second to last in the USL Eastern Conference with just 13 points — only FC Montreal is below them — and they have picked up a total of three wins on the year. Coach Mark Steffens was relieved of his duties in May, being replaced by lifelong college manager Dave Brandt immediately following the "mutual parting of ways," and the Hounds were eliminated from the US Open Cup in the second round against amateur side Lansdowne Bhoys, which likely was the final straw for Steffens.
This all coming after Pittsburgh made the 2015 postseason with a fifth-place finish. It's been a very disappointing campaign for the Riverhounds, and a puzzling one as well. This team has talent, and should be performing considerably better than they are.
Midfielder Kevin Kerr has consistently shown the quality he possesses in chance-creation despite Rob Vincent's offseason departure to D.C. United. Kerr, wearing the number 10, often drops deep to pick up possession and fire long-range diagonal switches to overlapping full-backs or channel-running wingers, and when he pushes forward into the attack, he's good for the occasional goal.
South African winger Lebo Moloto is the most dynamic player on the team. He usually plays as an inverted winger and makes runs centrally, drawing defenders and creating opportunities. The 23-year old is skillful on the ball and acts as a good attacking complement to No. 9 Corey Hertzog, the team leader in goals this season with seven.
To go along with that core cast of players, the Riverhounds have made a number of signings since this disastrous season began. Melvin Snoh, Anthony Virgara, starting striker Alejandro Aguilar, starting defensive midfielder/left back Ryan Adeleye, brothers Nick and Jack Thompson, and Irish midfielder Danny Earls have each been signed during this season, and most of them have gotten minutes at one time or another.
But alas, the Hounds haven't been able to put it together this season, and that is the real reason for the lack of success. The coaching staffs — Steffen's and Brandt's — have struggled to put players in the correct positions, and to figure out how to come up with an effective lineup.
Pittsburgh are often playing without any semblance of organization, particularly in the attack. There are times while watching games where it's difficult to figure out the formation the team is supposed to be playing. A lot of the time, the Hounds' Twitter account claims a 4-2-3-1, but most of the time, it comes out looking like this:
That's kinda, sorta an absolute disaster.
Sometimes it's a 4-1-4-1, or some variation of a 4-4-2, or maybe even a 3-5-2 or a 4-2-4. It varies depending on wherever Moloto feels like going, and whether Kerr decides to go forward or stay back. Opposing teams take advantage of this, and that's why the Riverhounds are where they are in the standings.
The coaching staff needs to do a better job of putting together a starting XI that both best fits the team's desired playing style and puts its best players in their best positions. Right now, they're not doing either of those.
Moloto, Hertzog, and Kerr are each being played out of position, for one. Kerr, who is being played as a winger, is a central creator, and either should be played in deep midfield next to a pure No. 6 or should take Hertzog's place in the area where the No. 10 is supposed to be. Hertzog, in addition, spends more of his time playing like the No. 9 he is than doing the job of an attacking midfielder, leaving Aguilar without much service up top.
Moloto has the skillset to be a winger, but clearly has no direction on how he's supposed to play, because he likes to invert himself into the spaces left open by Hertzog and leave gaps in the spots where he is supposed to be. Thus, the right back is often stranded against opposing teams' brigade of attackers taking advantage of Moloto's positional weaknesses.
These struggles were only compounded by the forced departure of star attacker Romeo Parkes. Parkes, whose hot start to the season earned him a call-up to Jamaica's 40-man preliminary roster for the Copa America, was the Riverhounds' leading scorer after the first month and a half of the season, and was really their only hope of climbing back into the playoff race.
But as you may have heard, Parkes had an extreme temper tantrum in May against New York Red Bulls II, getting him kicked off the team. After he and NYRB center back Karl Ouimette were issued double red cards for an altercation late in the Hounds' 3-1 home loss, Parkes kneed an unsuspecting Ouimette in the back as the Canadian was calmly walking away from the scene. Ouimette would be carried off on a stretcher and Parkes would be given a world-wide FIFA ban until October 23. He had his USL contract terminated one day after the incident.
As much as anything else, Parkes's entire situation sums up what has been a dismal season for Pittsburgh.