It’s late November and generally a slow time for pro soccer news in Pittsburgh, except that there’s a new coach at the helm of the Riverhounds — Bob Lilley — who’s been busy in the past few weeks trying to put together a nucleus of players to build around.
On Wednesday, I had a chance to sit down in a conference room at Highmark Stadium with the long-time pro soccer coach who has been successful at every stop.
Now he’s preparing his Pittsburgh project.
Operation Lilley is underway.
We had a long discussion, and while news that Hounds fans are hoping to read about will have to wait, this session provided a chance to learn more about the coach, and what he is doing to assemble a roster in preparation for 2018 and beyond.
NO FORMAL PLAYER ANNOUNCEMENTS… YET
When Lilley was hired a few weeks ago he noted that he would have until November 30 to make decisions on players that have contract options for the 2018 season.
Lilley said that has met with each and every player from last year’s Hounds roster — acknowledging that that there will be a few players from 2017 roster that will be returning.
“That has been our priority over the past few weeks,” Lilley said. “We have group of players we want to move forward with and we’re in the process of restructuring deals.”
Bottom line here is that specific announcements for which players will be coming, as contracts are still being finalized and worked out. Some may come this week, but the likelihood is that they’ll come in the coming weeks.
“There’s still a lot of things in play. There are players out of contract,” Lilley added. “Negotiations are ongoing. We’ve made a lot progress. We anticipate having a lot of information in the next two weeks. Because we’ve made all of our decisions doesn’t mean all the deals have been finalized.”
“There’s a lot of moving parts — and been a lot of phone calls and there’s a lot of plans with the group here — and we’ve kept (owner) Tuffy Shallenberger in the loop because he wants to be involved.”
Lilley also pointed out that he’s used to and very comfortable working with a budget in building a team, but he’s very happy with what he’s working with in Pittsburgh, adding that “we’re not the highest, but we’re not the lowest payroll, but it’s healthy.”
“When I build a team, salaries are closer together than further apart. I am not a big believer in putting all money in couple guys,” Lilley explained.
“When people come to games — I hope that we play well enough that for sure that people are going to have their favorites. That’s important to have guys that relate to the fans. It’s important to have that eleven. Have a dynamic group of players that people will want to watch.”
It will be very interesting to see who Lilley wants back. Forward Chevy Walsh is signed through the 2018 season. Lilley was also quick to praise Corey Hertzog, Kevin Kerr and Romeo Parkes who he felt were so dangerous, especially in the first and most of the second game between the Rhinos and Hounds this year, that he was content to keep his defenders and defensive midfielders tightly organized.
Younger players having strong seasons in 2017, such as Victor Souto and Tobi Adewole would be solid candidates to bring back to the fold, while the likelihood of older vets like Stephen Okai, Danny Earls, Mike Green coming back as part of this core group appear to be slim.
Not every player will fit into what Lilley wants — and he made that clear.
ROCHESTER’s LOSS WILL BE PITTSBURGH’s GAIN
Not only will Rochester be losing Lilley to Pittsburgh, but it appears that some players from last year’s Rhinos team will become an integral part of Pittsburgh’s roster.
Yes — that’s right — Lilley confirmed he has turned to his 2017 USL Eastern Conference semifinalist roster to complete the core that will take the field at Highmark Stadium in 2018.
“The plan right now is to have a solid group from here that we’re really comfortable with — combined with complementary pieces from Rochester,” Lilley said.
“And, that’s going to be our platform to go into the free agent market to build from.”
A quick aside — with a deadline looming to reach a goal of raising $1.3 million to save the long-tenured second division U.S. pro soccer franchise — it appears that the Rhinos are falling short in this effort.
On Tuesday night, a ‘rally’ was to be held in support of saving the franchise — and well this is what transpired.
— Rochester Rhinos (@RochesterRhinos) November 28, 2017
Basically, with the Rhinos franchise in jeopardy of folding, Lilley and the Hounds are already moving forward with picking up players that have played for Lilley, and may even add a few more down the road.
“We’re on top of that situation right now,” Lilley said. “There are players from Rochester that are free agents, then others that are under player options until November 30.”
Among the potential additions to the Hounds could be any one of the following recent Rhinos who are coming off seasons playing in second year of contract option:
- Wal Fall (25 years old, defender/midfield, started 53 games for Rhinos in 2016 & 2017)
- Kenardo Forbes (29 y/o, midfielder, scored 9 goals in 82 starts for Rhinos from 2015-17)
- Michael Garzi (26 y/o, midfielder, team Captain past two seasons in Rochester, started 80 games from 2014-17 for Rhinos),
- Ryan James (23 y/o, midfielder, started 59 games for Rochester in 2016 & 2017)
- Bradley Kamden (23 y/o, defender, started 39 games for Rochester in 2016 & 2017)
- Sofiane Tergou (26 y/o, midfielder, started 19 games for Rochester in 2016 & 2017)
Also, Rhinos forwards from last year included Jochan Graf (27 y/o, 10 goals) and Christiano Francios (24 y/o, one goal, six assists )
Both recent goalkeepers are interesting possibilities too: former USL Goalkeeper of the Year Tomas Gomez and former Pitt Panther Dan Lynd.
When asked how many keepers he tends to have on his roster, Lilley said he always carries three guys. He noted that he’s had a pretty good track record with keepers (the Rhinos have featured the USL Goalkeeper of the Year for three straight seasons) and feels that it’s important for continuity and having three guys that are all on the same page.
So, chances are that Hounds goalkeeper coach Hunter Gilstrap won’t be forced out of retirement to serve as an emergency back-up this coming year, although Lilley quipped, “He’d probably be able to do it.”
Altogether, with a foundation of Hounds returnees along with bringing over some Rhinos ‘complementary pieces’ will likely round out to approximately nine or ten players.
It’s Lilley’s goal to provide roster stability, as he’s done previously in Rochester with a limited budget — and one way he will be doing that is to secure as many of the core players to two-year contacts.
“Obviously we don’t just want to bring on board not just for this year,” said Lilley. “That’s our goal. Any new players we bring in here won’t be on one-year deals. They’re assets for our project. We’re not looking at it as ‘renting’ a player. We want them here for winning in Pittsburgh.”
“Anywhere I’ve been I’ve always looked a players in two year window. It’s important for stability. Next year, when we’re looking at making decisions on players who we want to keep — they’ll be in house. It’s tough to hold on to nucleus, so we’ll want to hold on to as many as possible.”
Lilley acknowledged that the majority of his time and energy spent in the past few weeks has been on returning players — but in the coming weeks he will turn his focus to adding somewhere between six or seven free agents.
Among recent Riverhounds players that were recently not kept on MLS rosters — include Rob Vincent (DC United), Joe Greenspan (Minnesota United FC), Shannon Gomez (NYCFC) and Tyler Pasher (Sporting KC).
Lilley said that in some cases, it’s way too early to try to sign someone that’s in demand, unless it is someone that is really coveted and would fit into what they’re doing.
Also, Lilley made it clear that he’s not going to bring in players who may be demanding higher salaries.
“There are some agents that will reach out — and be asking for a lot of money this time of the year,” Lilley said. “I’ve found that being more patient, pays off.”
Pittsburgh soccer fans certainly will have their eyes on that group of players because they’ve seen Greenspan show that he can be a defensive force at this level in his stint here, Gomez, who’s only 20 years old, showed some promise on the wing — but Vincent, the Hounds leading scorer in the team’s most recent winning season, is who would get the core fan base really excited.
Of those players, only Vincent has extensive MLS playing time in the past two seasons, and will certainly have aspirations to stay at that level.
Because he’s coming off a season where he battled through knee injuries, then complications from a blood clot, he will be highly motivated to re-prove himself again in a MLS camp in January and early February.
Again, it’s anyone’s guess as to who Lilley brings in here — but after MLS and USL rosters are trimmed, he’ll have a lot of options and places to look.
There’s also a chance that he brings in a few more players that are more familiar with his system from free agent signings.
After free agent acquisitions, Lilley’s looking to have roughly 15 or 16 players, which is where the 2015 USL championship winning coach would like to have his roster heading into January.
STYLE OF PLAY
It’s no secret that Lilley has consistently put together some of the best defending units on the field that the USL has ever seen.
And he wants to continue doing this.
“We will want to limit our opponents first, make things very difficult,” Lilley said. “If we can win every game 4-0, that will be great. We’ll have to look at the players we have and what we’re working with, then we can start to figure out what we want to do tactically.”
When asked why his teams are always so good defensively, play physical, but often remain near the bottom of the league in yellow and red cards assessed, he provided a simple and interesting response.
“We’re always pressuring in numbers,” Lilley explained. “If you have two players near the ball, chances are that they will not be called for a foul as they won’t be in a vulnerable defensive position.”
Lilley has very high standards for all his players, but it seems as if having highest quality center backs is a priority.
Maybe a good example of this would come from a player that we’ve seen in Pittsburgh, who also played for Lilley.
Despite a solid, consistent presence on Hounds back line in 2016 a year after being the top SuperDraft selection for Columbus Crew, Sergio Campbell was not resigned by former coach Dave Brandt for the 2017 season, and Lilley picked him up late in the preseason.
Campbell, who earned a spot on Jamaican national team roster during this year’s Gold Cup, didn’t play as much in Rochester, and was the team’s third or fourth option at center back.
That’s the type of depth that Lilley is looking to have on his roster here in Pittsburgh — when a player like Campbell is fighting to be the third or fourth center back.
What we’ve seen from Lilley’s Rochester teams in recent years, while they’ve notoriously been tight and stingy defensively, when they are healthy and need to turn up the pressure — they’ve done so. They pretty much took the last two games to the Hounds this season — and in the playoffs they took it to Charlotte and even had eventual champions Louisville City on their heels.
Yes — defense will be first priority — but my hunch is that Lilley likes some of the Hounds’ attacking players and will want to bring some of those players back to the equation. He will build his back line and midfield with a core group of former Rhinos to fortify the defense.
The Hounds already conducted an invitation-only combine two-days after Lilley’s hiring announcement on November 16.
Lilley said that no players were signed from that combine, but as is his protocol, he notified approximately a dozen or so players that they’ll be considered when the Hounds are in need of filling roster spot needs in late January or during the preseason.
Another ‘open combine’ will be held at Highmark Stadium in early December, and Lilley said they could potentially identify a few more players to add to his list of those to be put into consideration for invites for trial periods when training camp opens.
PRESEASON AND LATE ADDITIONS
Lilley also confirmed that the Hounds will start training camp in early February, giving him and his staff six weeks to prepare for the season.
With the USL opening the season the weekend of March 17, a week earlier than last year, Lilley will have to have his roster completed earlier than ever.
Still, don’t expect the Hounds to have more than the core 16 or 17 players signed as camp opens.
“Of course we’ll want to be around 22 players when the roster is finalized, so there will be some additions and movement as we start camp, and as move closer to the season,” Lilley explained.
“Often times, there are guys that are good players that you can find at that time,” Lilley said. “Players being cut from MLS rosters – and agents will be turning to the USL. That’s when we start getting a lot of phone calls and get real busy. We’ll have to look at where we are — and if we have to fill some spots.”
In the next week or two, the Riverhounds will finally be making the announcements — but don’t expect too much to come out on Thursday from the club, even as it’s the deadline for all USL teams to exercise options.
I”ll have more coverage here on Pittsburgh Soccer Report, and also on DK Pittsburgh Sports.