This has been quite a turnaround season so far for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Soccer Club.
At mid season, under the guidance of Bob Lilley, the Hounds have posted an impressive record (9-1-7) to climb to second place with 34 points (out of a possible 51) in the Eastern Conference standings. They currently sit seven points behind FC Cincinnati, who now have three games at hand on the Hounds.
Through 17 matches, this Hounds squad has put up some historically impressive numbers, especially on the defensive end. By comparison, after 17 games a year ago, the Hounds were definitively mediocre, posting a 5-7-5 record, good for 20 points.
If you need a refresher on this groundbreaking 2018 season, here are the key boasting points for Hounds fans:
- surrendered only seven goals
- earned 12 shut outs in 17 games
- goal differential is a league best (tied with FCC at +14, 21 G/7 GA)
- goalkeeper Dan Lynd leads the league in clean sheets, and he’s accounted for nine of the 12. Kyle Morton was responsible for the other three before his season-ending injury.
- two impressive shutout streaks including the first 419 minutes (finally surrendering a goal in the fifth game at FC Cincinnati in the 59th minute) — and a current streak of 487 minutes stretching over the course of the past five and a half games
- players who began the preseason as trialists, now proving to be invaluable contributors include:
- Forward Neco Brett, a former Robert Morris standout, has scored eight goals, even though he didn’t start the first two games
- Midfielder/defender Thomas Vancaeyezeele, last year’s NCAA Division II player of the year and first-year pro who slipped past every MLS team at the combine and in SuperDraft, has started and played in every minute of every league match. He’s shifted between key roles in center of three man back line to central and holding midfield.
- Former All-USL defender Hugh Roberts has excelled as one of five players that can step in a play at a high level at center back.
- The Hounds are clearly the most disciplined team in the USL thus far this season. They’re last in yellow (22) and red cards (0), and near the bottom of the 33 team league in fouls conceded (26th with 212).
- When center back Joe Greenspan is in the line-up the Hounds have yet to concede a goal in seven matches. In 556 minutes, the 6-foot-6 Greenspan’s had 56 clearances, four blocks, 19 interceptions and won more than 70 percent of his duels (78.7% of aerial duels).
Lilley’s teams have been known to get better as the season goes along. That could be a scary proposition for Riverhounds’ opponents.
But for the core group of die-hard Riverhounds fans that have watched this organization always come up short, it must be a surreal to watch how things are currently playing out.
And they’re only halfway there.
As the Hounds head into the second half of the season, I will explore five pivotal keys to the Hounds success thus far and also take a look at what they need to work on and what’s ahead as they hunt for the top spot in the USL’s Eastern Conference and potentially make a deep run in the USL playoffs.
HOUNDS HAVE BEEN SUCCESSFUL BECAUSE…
1. Bob Lilley and coaching staff
In covering this franchise for a good part of the past decade, this is the most prepared and game-ready Riverhounds club I’ve seen on a consistent basis.
So much credit should go to Lilley and his coaches including Mark Pulisic, Dan Visser and Hunter Gilstrap as they clearly have set the tone for creating a professional and competitive environment that has led to the Hounds emerging as one of, if not, the most difficult team to beat in the USL’s Eastern Conference. From the day he was hired, through the process of player procurement and roster selections, from the first minute of every training session though the last whistle of every game, Lilley has set a very high bar here in Pittsburgh.
Right now, the Hounds are a legitimate USL title contender, and much of the credit should go to Lilley and his staff.
“We’re focused on each game, sure we’re looking at the schedule, at the standings from time to time,” Hugh Roberts said on this week’s episode of Mon Goals.
“But, Bob and staff do a very, very good job of making sure we’re on our toes, and we’re doing a good job every single day staying sharp and focused. That guy will never, ever let us take anything for granted. We had a few days off, but as soon as we got back, it was back to business.”
2. Right pieces to the puzzle
Lilley signed 11 players prior to the start of practices in early February, and also brought many talented players into preseason camp to battle for the remaining spots. Methodically, Lilley worked his way through the first month of the preseason looking at nearly three dozen or so players brought in on trial. Each player needed to be a good fit into the grand scheme of ‘Lilley Ball’, and had to earn a spot on the roster in a very competitive environment.
The discovery and emergence of first year pro Thomas Vancaeyezeele may be the best example of Lilley’s processes delivering a diamond in the rough.
In Vancaeyezeele, the Hounds coaches identified a player who may have been overlooked through the MLS scouting combine process, but blended well into their plans. Lilley recognized Vancaeyezeele’s versatility, skill set and understanding of the game — allowing the Caen, France native to become a permanent fixture in the starting eleven.
Make no mistake, Lilley has assembled a roster of players that fit what he wants. While there’s definitely a learning process for new players, Lilley’s relies on having a roster filled with seasoned pros.
This is clearly not a developmental team.
Case in point: Lilley brought seven players who have all played for him before this season in Rochester. Kenardo Forbes, Christiano François, Ray Lee, Jordan Dover, Todd Pratzner along with both keepers, Dan Lynd and Kyle Morton have each been through at least one full campaign of Lilley Ball.
“He has players with professional experience who can help them win. There are some high quality players. Then there’s players who fulfill role and purpose for every time they step foot on the pitch. Bob has been fantastic in finding those players,” Jay Vidovich, University of Pittsburgh men’s soccer coach, who has been seen chatting with the Hounds coaches after games, said.”They put out an intelligent message to the roster. They know how to win. The message is getting to the players, and the quality of the roster has been pretty impressive.”
3. Defense wins championships
It’s a cliche that’s is as old as any in modern sport.
Lilley has built much of his success on building around a strong defensive units that deny and limit opponents chances. His last USL championship team in Rochester only allowed 15 goals in 2015.
The 2018 Hounds do an excellent job of limiting shots and touches in and around the most dangerous areas inside the final third.
The back line has included five players that have alternated seamlessly in center back positions, and each could start for any other USL team. Having quality players like Roberts, Tobi Adewole, Greenspan, Todd Pratzner and Vancayezeele locking things up in the core of the back, has allowed for Lilley to have more tactical flexibility as he’s played three in the back for much of the season, while still making it nearly impossible for attacking units to get many quality looks in and around the box.
Under Lilley, midfielders and forwards are constantly working together to bottle up and deny opportunities for teams to play the ball through the middle of the field. There have been numerous times where Lilley has called out, and even benched, attacking midfielders and forwards who are not bringing energy both ways.
Quite simply, every player on the field must be working together when defending.
“Sure, I prefer to start. To come in (as sub) is always difficult,” Holland, who is a part of the team’s rotation of attacking midfielders, has made three starts, eight regular season appearances in Pittsburgh. “Bob requires a certain energy. If you start or you come in with two minutes to go, you are expected to play with that energy.”
4. It’s been a collective effort
Way back in November, one of Lilley’s first observations of the 2017 Riverhounds was that it was ‘too much of a Kevin (Kerr) and Corey (Hertzog) show.’
In the preseason, Lilley made it clear that under his guidance he wanted Romeo Parkes to a dangerous player who could get behind defenders, using his pace to get forward into open spaces with the ball in the final third. Parkes started the first two games of the season, but struggled in converting on his chances in and around the box.
Then Parkes injured his knee after the second week, thus paving the way for Neco Brett to earn his first start as a Riverhound against Toronto FC II at Highmark Stadium in the third match of the season.
Brett responded with a three-goal, one assist performance in the Hounds 4-0 win that afternoon.
Brett’s three goal output catapulted him into the starting central forward spot for much of the first half of the season, as he added five more goals to enter the race for the USL Golden Boot. This scenario seemingly brought out the best in both players.
Parkes came back from injury, and in his first start at Tampa Bay, scored once and the other goal came from his shot into the box that deflected off the keeper and defender standing in the box. Although he’s not on the pace of his early 2016 season five goals in six game start, Parkes has already matched his three goal output from 2017.
Although Lilley favors lining up with one central forward, he’s been able to work both Parkes and Brett into the line-up at the same time with positive results, including the 2-1 come-from-behind win at Richmond when both scored, and Brett assisted Parkes on the game winner.
There are probably some who would like to see more goal scoring contributions from others. François has been dynamic in moments on the width, with two blistering goals, one assist and a speedy motor that never stops running. The longest tenured Hound, Kevin Kerr (two goals, four assists), keeps finding ways to be a productive contributor and makes plays. Kenardo Forbes and Kerr have alternated between being the primary table setters into the final third. Forbes (one goal, four assists) is starting to get more and more into a groove with his teammates in both the holding, deeper central midfield role until later in games when he’s been pushing up higher on the field.
Former Portland Timbers midfielder, Ben Zemanski is another player who has shown can be effective in the center of the field either in a deeper spot or getting forward. The Hounds expect Zemanski to return in the coming games after suffering a lower leg injury in June.
Add Lee and Dover to the equation, these might be the Hounds most unsung players this season, along with Andy Lubahn who has made spot starts and as late sub in a lot of games. Some games these players are asked to play in more of an attacking role on the flank, and in other games, they drop deeper into the back four with occasional runs forward.
While the goalkeepers haven’t exactly had to stand on their heads with a strong unit in front of them, Lynd has carried the bulk of playing time, coming up with big saves when needed.
Indeed, the Hounds rise this season has been a result of a collective, team effort not reliant on any specific players to carry the load.
As outlined above, the Hounds for all their defensive mettle, remain the most disciplined team in the league. That is a remarkable trademark of Bob Lilley coached teams.
Not one time this season has a Riverhounds player landed on the USL’s Discipline Report. What a far cry from seasons past.
Mouhamed Dabo picked up yellow cards in consecutive games shortly after entering each match and Zemanski had a slight scuffle in one game, but those might have been the extent of Pittsburgh’s reckless play all season.
Often times, Hounds will foul tactically, inside the final third, often times defenders are never left in too many one-on-one situations, so they tend to avoid being called for fouls in dangerous areas.
SO, WHAT TO EXPECT IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE SEASON?
Areas to improve: Possess with intent, diversify scoring and win 50/50 balls
This is not a team that has been winning many possession battles, but looking even further, as overall passing accuracy (70%) has been near the bottom of the league, as only the Las Vegas Lights are lower. Part of the reason for this may be strategical.
Each game brings different tactics, and the Hounds have relied on being a counter attacking unit that has used the width and played a lot vertically trying to get behind defenses. Their passing distribution chart for the season provides further evidence of this, as the Hounds play the ball forward 42.9%, while going left and right, 22.4% and 21.9%.
The Hounds may have struggled at times this season when they’ve run into teams that concede possession. In both scoreless draws against in-state rivals Penn FC, the Hounds lacked quality in the final third, while holding on to the ball much longer in both contests (60% on March 31, and 57% on May 26).
They’re also not exactly the most efficient squad in creating and converting chances. They have to get the ball into the box to score (all 21 goals have come from inside the 18) with none coming directly from set pieces.
Lilley aptly pointed out after the second draw to Penn FC, their lack of execution was more of a sign of playing without necessary desire.
“We’re soft right now in terms of really putting the hammer down. We have teams in trouble, and we’re causal in front of goal,” Lilley said. “I want to see guys crash into goal posts. I don’t see any desire, hunger to smother teams. That’s where that has to change, or where we’re just another decent team. We want to be special.”
Additionally, a closer look at the stats when the Hounds were getting shut out at home for three straight games and also losing the Open Cup game there was another alarming theme. They were losing a lot of 50/50 battles, primarily in and around midfield. That wasn’t something Lilley was going to accept. Heading into the second half of the season, the Hounds are still not winning the majority of duels (48.7%). To be special. To smother teams. To play hungry, they’re going to have to take that number up a few notches.
Since that uninspiring draw, the Hounds would suffer its only league defeat at home to Nashville in what Lilley actually thought was a bit better performance.
Then came a significant turnaround.
After getting shut out in three home games in May, the Hounds would go on to outscore opponents 9-1 in June and July. In both wins at home they finally ‘laid the hammer down’ winning decisively by 3-0 over NY Red Bulls and 2-0 vs North Carolina FC.
Now, if those multiple goal wins at home can continue, then the Hounds will erase any reservations about its quality and urgency in the final third.
Depth will be tested
It’s a 34-game season. There’s no doubt the Hounds roster depth will be put to the test. Right now, Zemanski is still hobbled by an injury and may or may not return right away. Other than that, only Morton is going to be out for the season.
Lynd has started every league match since Morton’s injury, but Lilley may want to give back-up Dan Kirk a spot start here or there to keep him sharp.
It will also be interesting to see how the Hounds use the bench players down the stretch. Former USL Golden boot winner Dennis Chin didn’t play much in the first half of the season, but was brought on late in the win at Ottawa.
The Hounds have solid midfield options and depending on the opponent, we’ll probably continue to see a mixture of options. The most recent rotation has included Forbes and Vancaeyezeele starting as holding midfielders, with some combination of Kerr, Francois, Parkes and Brett in the attack. Lilley has also been bringing Dabo in the second half alongside Vancaeyezeele, then pushing Forbes higher into the attack.
If it comes down to the Hounds and FC Cincinnati, it will also be interesting to see as they may be running up against a team that has already been transparent during this open transfer window time period in trying to bring in MLS ready players into the fold as they prepare for next year’s step up in competition.
FC Cincinnati’s first business came last week when it sent Daniel Haber to Ottawa Fury FC on a free transfer. At practice the next morning, head coach Alan Koch said more moves could develop as the club finalizes its 2018 roster and begins the framework of its 2019 Major League Soccer squad.
“We’re working very, very hard to find the right fit,” Koch said. “We’re not pushing any panic buttons. We’re focusing on this season, but we’re also having to plan moving forward next year. We’re looking at a bunch of different guys.”
Reading this — it’s as if the Hounds, and everyone else, will essentially be facing an MLS opponent the rest of the way.
If anything, that should add to the intrigue of the final two matches between the teams this season. Who knows, maybe there will be a fifth match too.
Regardless, don’t expect the Hounds (or anyone else) to follow suit. Barring a significant slew of injuries, the current state of the Hounds roster should remain intact.
Building fan support — getting home playoff game(s)
With a lot falling into place, the question remains, can Pittsburgh get behind this team and pack Highmark Stadium for the good part of the rest of this season?
There’s been some progress with the past two home games showing crowds of more than 3,000 fans. One of those was the annual Fourth of July match that almost always sells out. Now, the Hounds have five matches at home in July and August to keep building on this momentum. Then, they’ll have a three-game home stand in September will be right up against the start of college football season.
As Lilley learned in Rochester, winning doesn’t always automatically equate in a boost in attendance, although with this franchise on the precipice of having a special season, it may be hard for Pittsburgh sports fans to ignore.
As luck would have it, the Fourth of July game was marred by severe weather delay that stretched until after the Annual City of Pittsburgh fireworks show concluded. Yet, a decent amount of fans stuck around to watch the Hounds pick up a big win.
“You got to have good performances to consistently count on winning, but this was one game where the night was starting off glorious with a packed house. My hats off to fans that stayed, and the Steel Army too – it was exciting that we still had an atmosphere. We’re starting to get people to get invested and I’m happy for the guys.” Lilley said after that game ended past midnight.
The Hounds two blemishes in the first half of the season came during a very busy stretch of play. Whether that’s a valid excuse or not can be debated, but losses to Nashville and FC Cincinnati (in the Open Cup) will stick in the minds of both the coaches and players.
While the season series with Nashville over, the Hounds will return to Cincinnati for a Labor Day weekend, September 1 tilt with the current league leaders in what is shaping up to be a pivotal match. In the first league match between the two teams, Pittsburgh held 1-0, and 2-1 leads on the road, but ended up playing to 2-2 draw in a match where both coaches were changing things up. The teams will meet again a third time at Highmark Stadium on October 6. Those matches vs FCC will be sandwiched by a critical stretch of games that includes a three-game homestand on Saturday nights against Bethlehem Steel FC (the only team in the Eastern Conference the Hounds have not faced this season), Louisville City FC and Indy Eleven followed by a weeknight match (Sept. 26) that will decide the Keystone Derby Cup in Harrisburg, then a quick turnaround at Charlotte only three days later.
The final week puts the Hounds on the road, starting with a Wednesday match in Atlanta against a struggling ATL2 — then a finale at Red Bulls 2.
A top four finish has to be the primary goal as that would guarantee at least one home playoff game for the Hounds. A top two finish may bring multiple home playoff games.
Enough already — let’s bring on the second half!