Riverhound Shapeshifter Danny Griffin Does it All

Mr. Versatility Danny Griffin has done it all (and then some) for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on their Cinderella run to the 2023 U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinals.
By: Jonah Fontela

He’s everywhere.

So much of the good the Pittsburgh Riverhounds do on the field goes through Danny Griffin – sneaky around the attacking positions and full of grit in his own half when the time comes to defend.     

“He solves a lot of problems for us,” said head coach Bob Lilley about the 24-year-old, listed as a midfielder but containing multitudes beyond the label. “Quick, competitive and extremely fit. You can play him as a six [holding midfielder] or a striker – or anywhere in between.”

“He plays much bigger than he is,” Lilley added about Griffin, who’s generously listed as 5foot8.

Watch the Riverhounds play (we highly recommend it), and your eye will be drawn to him. You can’t avoid Griffin. He’s a target and a pivot with the ball – and a greyhound tracking back without it.

When he buzzes the attacking positions, it’s not in the helter-skelter manner of a low-grade workhorse happy to be seen burning gas. There’s intelligence – and a sly geometry – to his darting runs and the diagonal balls he sprays out from midfield that Lilley says “get us out of a lot of trouble.”

Griffin (center) after scoring the winner against the NE Revolution (Photo Chris Cowger)

Versatility is important in the USL Championship, where the Riverhounds currently sit one point off first place. The squads of the second division are small and sacrifices are required. So is improvisation. If you’re just one thing, you’re a less valuable option. And Griffin is more things than his coach can count.

He started out coming off the bench in his rookie year in Pittsburgh in 2020 and, in the space of just a little over two seasons, Griffin has become, according to Lilley, “one of our best.”

A Man for Many Positions

“I’m happy to play where I’m needed for the team and Coach Bob,” said Griffin. “Higher up or a No10 [second striker] depending on the formation. Deeper, higher closer to goal – you name it.”

Though compact in stature, Griffin’s influence on games is huge. It’s been on display in all three of the Riverhounds Open Cup games so far this year – especially against the then-MLS leading New England Revolution on the road in the Round of 32.

When Griffin darted into space between Revs’ defenders Omar Gonzalez and Christian Makoun a few ticks before the halftime whistle went, it was just a quick little pattern – another among the hundreds of runs he makes every game. But his first touch and keen finish opened everything up.

It was a goal that sealed a huge upset and would kickstart a Cup run for the ages.

“I liked how aggressive we were,” Griffin said of the 1-0 win at Gillette Stadium that was prelude to another 1-0 win at home in the next round over the Columbus Crew (also of MLS). “We created chances and were never really on the back foot and to come out with a win on the road was just huge.

Griffin saw that win for what it was: “a chance to keep building.”

It was something else too.

A chance to show all the MLS clubs who continue to pass on his services just what they’re missing out on. Born in Massachusetts and raised in Connecticut, where he’d hop the fence at Wethersfield High to play with his friends, Griffin wanted to be a pro from an early age.

“My love for the game was there from the beginning; I knew it right away,” said the man who gives his all each time out for the Hounds. “And getting to MLS, to the highest level, is still part of my plans.”  

Between the Lines

While playing college ball as a Providence Friar, he spent his summers with the homegrowns on that very same field in Foxborough, Massachusetts where he made a Cup sensation of himself. He remembers going up against senior Revs heroes Lee Nguyen (now retired) and veteran defender Andrew Farrell too.

The Riverhounds and their fans after the 1-0 win over Columbus Crew

Griffin occupies a kind of limbo, like many American players under the age of 26 and toiling away in the second pro tier of American soccer. Always trying to be seen. On short-term contracts for little money compared to the salaries offered in MLS. To get a shot at the biggest stage, he spent three months at the start of the current season with Huntsville City – MLS club Nashville SC’s reserve team.

“Nashville had eyes on me and as soon as it was clear that I wasn’t going to be called up to the first team [for MLS play], I was already in my car driving back to Pittsburgh.”

He calls the Steel City his “home” these days and says “I’m all in for Pittsburgh – all my attention is here and my focus is to bring a championship to this city.” Coach Lilley – who would never stand in the way of one of his players trying to shoehorn a path into MLS – was “thrilled to get him back.”

When the Riverhounds beat the Crew in the Round of 16 – in front of a packed house at their Highmark Stadium – it was another win with overtones for the young Griffin. He was drafted by the Columbus club out of college only to be released later that same year without ever getting on the field.

The Open Cup is a place for those players – ones overlooked by MLS – to show what they’re about. And when the final whistle went on the win over the Crew, Griffin hardly seemed to notice. He was chasing a long ball into the opponent's half – a lost-cause ball. When the game ended, he didn’t fall to the ground with the miracle vibe of it. He turned around, smiled and hugged his nearest teammate.

Mission Improbable in Ohio

All of Griffin’s line-blurring positional awareness will be needed in the next test against an MLS superpower in the Quarterfinal (Tuesday June 6th at TQL Stadium and LIVE on the B/R App and B/R Football YouTube). FC Cincinnati are on an 11-game unbeaten run in Cup and league play.

Coach Lilley will likely be without Albert Dikwa, the 2022 USL Championship top-scorer who pulled up injured after bagging the winner against the Crew. And he’ll definitely be without Edward Kizza – Dikwa’s replacement center-forward – who'll be serving a suspension for a late-game red card.

Danny Griffin is tireless – but always with a purpose

The Quarterfinal stage is the farthest the Riverhounds – founded in 1999 – have ever gone (2001 and 2023). If they’re going to get one step farther and into the rarefied air of the Last Four, you get the sense that Griffin and his versatility might play a big part in the arithmetic that gets them there.

“He makes other players better,” said Lilley about his gem. “And he does all the dirty work too.”

The Hounds will need to be as good as they can be to have a shot at knocking out FC Cincinnati. And they’ll have to do their share of grinding too. It’s a game, in many ways, made for young Griffin – a man with a point to prove and a way to prove it.

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