Bob Lilley is probably grumpy. As a general rule, coaches fixate on what’s going wrong with a team, even in the good times. And so even with a Pittsburgh Riverhounds team that was undefeated in USL league play until this past Wednesday, I can imagine that Lilley has a lot of things he’s displeased with. But then add to it the Hounds penchant for goalless draws (they’ve recorded 4) and overall lack of scoring (their 12 goals so far ranks just 11th in the USL Eastern Conference) and you can see cause for Lilley’s indigestion. And of course, he expressed his displeasure with the team last week openly, saying “We’re getting shut out because we’re soft right now in terms of really putting the hammer down.” He also called the club’s unbeaten 4-0-6 start ‘hogwash’. Lilley is nothing if not direct.
If the team is going to get right, they couldn’t ask for a better opponent. The Richmond Kickers are struggling right now, and in their last match they were soundly beaten 3-1, looking like the weaker side in a myriad of ways. If Pittsburgh wants a road win to re-energize their season, the Kickers might be just the trick.
The Kickers played in a very fluid 4-2-3-1 formation which was more of a 4-4-2 in defense and more of an amorphous mess in attack. I watch a lot of soccer. I spend a fair amount of the games I watch trying to determine how their players used shape, movement, and position to advance the ball in attack. With the Kickers, there wasn’t a lot of clarity in that effort in their May 26 match against the Charlotte Independence.
Like a lot of teams, Richmond press out of the back when the score is level, but they don’t press aggressively, and Charlotte basically was given a free pass to the center stripe on every re-start. That’s fine if your team then defends well in their half, but even when settled into their two banks of four, Richmond was cut apart by the slashing runs and quick passes of the Independence, who feature two talented creative midfielders in Cordell Cato and Yann Ekra, and two precision passers in left back Sam Vines and defensive midfielder Alex Martinez. But I’m not here to tell you how good Charlotte is – I’m supposed to be telling you how the Kickers play.
Richmond were out-possessed throughout the game 58% to 42%, and according to their play-by-play team, that’s a trend, as the club is below 50% possession for the year.
After a first-half of sloppy passing and ineffective countering, Richmond was behind 2-0 after 45 minutes. For the second half the team shifted tactics, deciding to go down the wings and bend in cross after cross. Overall on the evening, the Kickers played 23 crosses to Charlottes 8. Eventually, one of those crosses worked: in the 80th minute, Richmond’s Brian Shriver scored on a cross that bounced around in the box as Charlotte’s defenders were caught ball-watching. So, they can cross a ball well, and in a close game, that can make all the difference.
Defensively, they look to tackle the ball away from a player in possession rather than interrupt passing lanes. That explains why Richmond allowed Charlotte to have 82% passing in Richmond’s own half – they decided that was ok until the ball came into the box. You could also say that Richmond had a decidedly low-energy performance – they had a midweek US Open clash in which they beat Penn FC 3-2. Nevertheless, quick passing by Charlotte created problems for Richmond and was the cause of essentially all three of the goals they conceded.
The Kickers don’t have a lot of marquee names on the squad, and their affiliation with DC United hasn’t given them many academy loanees from Washington to help out, so the basic question of ‘is there enough talent on this club?’ is worth asking.
Their best player on this day was Brian Shriver, a veteran NASL and USL guy. Shriver played wide left but can also be a striker. He has pace and a very good first touch. The 30-year-old has played for 11 teams in his football career, mostly in North Carolina and Florida, and mostly across NASL and USL. He won the NASL Golden boot in 2012-13.
Another player of note is Mekeil Williams, a Trinidad and Tobago international formerly with the Colorado Rapids. Williams played mostly at left back for Colorado, but wasn’t up to the job as the Rapids finished at the bottom of the MLS Western Conference in 2017, and he was not retained going forward. Williams has pace, but his passing is suspect, as is his decision-making. Richmond has him moved inside to the center back position, where he looks comfortable.
Midfielders Koby Osei-Wusu and Brandon Eaton really struggled to generate offense and turned over a lot of balls, both on the dribble and with their passing. Osei-Wusu is in his first year out of George Washington University, my alma mater. Mid-game sub Yudai Imura is from Japan, and he looked brighter, more energetic, and more technical than almost anyone else in the midfield, so watch for him on Saturday either as a starter or off the bench.
Finally, the strongest and most experienced player for Richmond is Travis Worra, a loanee from DC United. The 26-year-old Worra has 19 MLS starts for DCU and recorded 4 shutouts in 2016, getting regular appearances due to the injury of Bill Hamid. Worra at his best is an MLS-caliber goalie with great growth potential, so the possibility is always there that he can be the difference maker in a match for the good.
Last note, which is neither here nor there: I really liked Richmond’s stadium. It’s a concrete bowl with paint flaking off and weeds growing through the cracks and a bunch of food trucks on the perimeter providing chow. It’s got a grunge aesthetic that I just really dig.
Richmond is still in the Open Cup and faces Philadelphia next week, so they may be resting some of their starters in this match. To date in USL play, they hold a 3-5-1 record, with a 3-2-1 record at home.