Underdog Riverhounds & the Promise of Tomorrow

We chewed the fat with two architects of the Cinderella Pittsburgh Riverhounds’ Cupset of MLS powers New England Revolution – scorer Danny Griffin and veteran boss Bob Lilley.
By: Jonah Fontela

The date May 9, 2023 will live long in Open Cup legend and lore. 

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds’ away win over MLS leaders New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium was the biggest Cupset of this edition of Open Cup. And one of the biggest of the modern era. But don’t expect anyone in the USL Championship side to get too starry-eyed about it.

“It’s a great result for our guys, especially since we’ve been middle-of-the-road in the league so far this year,” said iconic coach Bob Lilley. Danny Griffin, scorer of the only goal of the game, was on a similar wavelength: “It’s huge, sure, and I couldn’t be prouder of the guys, but there’s still things to work out and build on.”

Life in the USL Championship is a grind. Travel and accommodations are spartan compared to Major League Soccer. Games roll on and on without mercy – and with far smaller squads. Today’s results evaporate quickly into the void of yesterday’s news while tomorrow’s uncertainty always threatens. But it is worth noting the nature of the Riverhounds win on that fateful Tuesday night in Foxborough.

History for the Hounds

It was the first time that the Riverhounds, founded in 1999, beat a top-flight MLS opponent on the road. It also put them into the Round of 16, the farthest they’ve ever reached in the Open Cup.

“It’s nice to get rewarded,” said New Jersey native Lilley “Overall we played well and defended well.”

The Revs – our tournament winners in 2007 – began the game with a rotated squad. But it still fairly oozed quality. Open Cup champ (with Sporting KC) Latif Blessing and Jozy Altidore were among the starters. As was former USMNT defender Omar Gonzalez, who found himself flat-footed when the lively Griffin slipped in and latched onto a through ball from Marc Ybarra.

Bob Lilley (right) shakes hands with former USMNT and current NE Revs’ boss Bruce Arena (Photo/Jacob Rhodes)

Griffin – born in Massachusetts and raised in Connecticut: A true New Englander – finished with aplomb and sent the Riverhounds into the half with something to hold.

Just after the hour mark, with that lead still intact, Bruce Arena had had enough. The Revs boss, a serial winner and legend of the American game, sent on regulars Ema Boateng, Brandon Bye and Dave Romney. 2021 MLS MVP Carles Gil – among the best creators ever to play in the league – entered the fray too.

“I told the guys before the game, we’re in good shape if Gil comes in,” said Lilley. “Because there’s no way Arena wants to use him.

“I’ve known Bruce [Arena] a long time,” added the Riverhounds boss of his Revolution counterpart, who’s been in the top flight as long as Lilley’s toiled in the second-tier (Lilley even coached at Arena’s summer camps in his off months from playing at George Mason University back in the mid-90s). “I know him well enough to know we weren’t going to be sharing any pleasantries after that game.”

Danny Griffin at a raucous Highmark Stadium – which will host the Round of 16 game against the Crew (Photo/Chris Cowger)

“But I put my hand out and he shook it. He didn’t yell at me or anything,” laughed Lilley after the famous one-goal win when “it never really felt like we were under siege.”

It was only the second time Lilley had played against an Arena-led team in the Open Cup. The first came way back in 1997, in the early days of MLS when Arena was coaching the country’s best team, D.C. United, fresh off a league and Open Cup double in 1996.

“It was our expansion year,” Lilley said of his Hershey Wildcats of the now defunct USISL A-League. “It was my first time ever playing a big team in the Cup and it was before the academy system so you had stars like [John] Harkes, [Jamie] Moreno and [Eddie] Pope all playing.”

H2H: Lilley One, Arena None

That game ended 0-0 with the men from D.C. edging it on penalties. And so the win in Foxborough this year means Lilley is one up in the official Cup record against one of the top coaches in American soccer history (a shootout win records technically as a draw).

The buzz of a big Cupset doesn’t last as long as you’d think. “Sure we celebrated that night,” said the 24-year-old Griffin, who used to train with the Revs at that very Foxborough facility during his off-seasons from Providence College. “Guys were checking their phones and talking to friends and family. The next day, though, it’s right back to getting ready for the next game in the league.”
Lilley chats with veteran forward Albert Dikwa (Photo/Jacob Rhodes)

“We have some guys in the team, younger guys, and this is a huge thing to experience. I tell everyone to enjoy it, enjoy what you’ve done,” said Lilley, a man of practical impulses who’d be happy to talk advanced tactics all day. “But pretty soon it’s about getting ready for a massive game in the league – where we’ve been average so far.”

The 57-year-old Lilley, beloved by his players, hasn’t become an icon of the lower leagues by being sentimental. That next game was against the Birmingham Legion (the only other second-division team left in the Open Cup aside from the Riverhounds) and it ended in a 2-1 win in front of a packed Highmark Stadium – where the Pittsburgh fans turned out to welcome the boys after their historic night up north.

There’s a long trip out west to take on the Las Vegas Lights before another huge tomorrow in the Open Cup. On Wednesday May 24, the Riverhounds play for the first time in the Round of 16 against the Columbus Crew of MLS, a side who fully hammered USL Championship league mates Loudoun United 5-1 in the previous round.

Riverhound huddle at Gillette Stadium (Photo/Jacob Rhodes)

Lilley and Griffin both have history with the Crew too. That was the club that drafted the talented midfielder out of college – before releasing him later that same year. For Lilley, it’s one of many MLS clubs where he’s interviewed for the head coach position.

Highmark Homecoming in the Cup

“It’s gonna’ be a sellout [crowd] and the players are buzzing,” said Lilley about the next test – on the banks of the Monongahela River with a place in the Quarterfinals beckoning. “But I’ve been doing this a long time and I try not to get too high or too low. We’ll have another chance to show what we’re about and be competitive against an MLS team.”

Griffin spent three months earlier this year trying to get noticed by Nashville SC as part of their MLS Next Pro side Huntsville City. He still has intentions of shoe-horning his way into the country’s top flight, but he’s preparing for this next game like he does every other one.

“It’s big and we’re happy to have it here at home,” said the player who Lilley expects to have a “big future” in the game. “It’ll be exciting for the fans to have an MLS team in town. And sure, it’s the team that drafted me but I'm just focused on trying to get another win.”  

It’s all as simple as that. Do the right things. Don't get too high or too low. Take each game as it comes and leave the magic, and the flirtations with glory, to one side.

“The Open Cup is a chance and it’s something the guys always look forward to,” said Lilley, understated as always but quite seriously on the cusp of more history. “We’re pretty organized and not the easiest to break down and we’ll do what we can to make it hard on them.”

Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.