Under the direction of new coach Bob Lilley, the Riverhounds have high aspirations this coming season.
And among the number of returning players that are already signed to the roster, one of the players they may have highest expectations for is Romeo Parkes.
The enigmatic Jamaican forward was brought back to Pittsburgh, re-signing with club after a disappointing season when he was provided a second chance in May 2017, after having his contract terminated and subsequently receiving a worldwide FIFA ban immediately after an infamous incident which he kicked a New York Red Bulls II opponent Karl Ouimette in the back in May 2016.
The addition of Parkes in 2017 came at a time while the Hounds were winning a string of three straight 1-0 games.
It was thought that Parkes would bring an added dimension to the Hounds’ attack.
Despite scoring five goals in six games with Pittsburgh prior to the outburst that got him banned worldwide for the rest of 2016, Parkes brought more inconsistency than quality in 2017, accounting for three goals and three assists while his coach Dave Brandt struggled to make up his mind on where to put him in the lineup.
Eventually, as the Hounds’ play hit peak form in August, Parkes settled into a role as an attacking midfielder along with team captain Kevin Kerr, in a 4-4-2 formation that would envelope into a 4-2-2-2 when the Hounds would try to run its attack through the middle of the field.
It was during the Hounds’ three-game win streak in August when Parkes played his best, picking up three assists, including two in one game.
That run of play — and Parkes’ influence in the central midfield may have been a brief mirage.
In the final five games, when the Hounds were in the thick of a playoff race, against quality opponents, when they needed Parkes to be a dynamic box-to-box midfielder as he was put into that role, he disappeared, without a goal or an assist.
Maybe he needed someone else to get him the ball.
That’s what Lilley has already recognized as a deciding factor in bringing Parkes back to the fold, and even before the Hounds took the field this preseason.
“He’s a capable player, but the way we want to utilize him, we don’t want Romeo to be the play maker, we want him to be on the end of service, not the play maker. We have plenty of guys that can do that. We need a guy that’s going to run in the box and get on the end of things,” Lilley explained after Parkes’ first preseason action on Sunday. “A lot of times when it’s crowded he pulls back. We’re going to try to change that in his game. He seems to open to the coaching, and we’ll keep working on that.”
On Sunday, in a 3-0 win against Cleveland State, Parkes played the first 70 minutes, scoring a goal on a penalty kick that was set up by fellow Jamaican trialist Neco Brett being fouled in the box by the keeper, then setting up a Skylar Milne goal. On the second goal, Parkes used his speed to slip behind the back line, then his soft touch to bring the ball down, and deliver a terrific ball into the middle of the box for Milne’s strike.
“His work rate was pretty good. He got involved, and had some good moments. I think he can clean up his runs, and his ideas, at times,” Lilley said. “I thought he was working. We’re going to be able to use his pace and his ability to get behind defenses. He was present, and that’s all I can ask right now as he has to work and improve in a lot of areas.”
Lilley also has emphasized numerous times already that while Parkes will be an important player, the Hounds will not be too dependent on any one player and they’ll be relying on a cohesive effort to be successful in 2018.
“That goes for Romeo, Kevin Kerr and Kenardo Forbes. Now we have to pull them all together and we’ll have to grow as a group,” Lilley added. “It starts with those experienced guys leading the group. I’m going to be hard on them.”
Lilley wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows when addressing Parkes on Sunday — especially after the way he felt Parkes finished his first game experience of the season.
“(I) was all over him, screaming at him at the end of the game. I wanted him to finish. Not stand around the last few minutes,” Lilley explained. “You got to drive him. He tends to be comfortable getting the ball and playing it back or negative. I talked to him after the game, and said to him, every time you play the ball back, or negative, and don’t try to play forward you’re allowing the other team to get 11 guys behind the ball.”
Lilley then proceeded to talk, as if he was addressing Parkes — providing a bit of a coaching session.
“And every time you allow them to get organized, and get guys behind the ball, there’s less space for you. For a fast player, you want space. So how do you receive a ball? What do you do with your first touch, and if they squeeze you, and you have to play it back? Do you know what seams to run through? You know where the back line is so you can time a run and get behind? Everything for you is to run North-South and using your pace. It’s not about coming back and playing ticky-tack small ball.”
And there it is — plain and simple — Lilley and his coaching staff want Parkes to play to his strengths in 2018.
Now, there’s a novel concept.
From the looks of it, Lilley’s not going to settle for ticky-tack small ball at Highmark Stadium this year.