The Riverhounds appear to be heading into the season opener on Saturday, March 24 in Nashville with a roster that has a nice mix of seasoned and young players under the direction of new coach Bob Lilley, with a quiet sense of confidence that they’ll be a playoff caliber team in what should be a strong USL Eastern Conference.
While the Hounds will have veteran presence among the field players — the goalkeeper position is one area where Lilley and his staff have opted to bring in three younger players — Dan Lynd, Kyle Morton and Mike Kirk – who are hungry for the opportunity to prove themselves at this level.
“There’s no certainty for any of them. It’s been tricky to get them to perform that well in games with that. That’s tough to manage,” Hunter Gilstrap, Hounds goalkeeper coach. “It’s a highly psychological position, and the big picture, there’s going to be growing pains. So far, they’ve performed well. But we’re still on the front end of the process. And we haven’t gotten to that point where we have — here’s number one, here’s number two and here’s number three.”
In January, the Hounds announced the signing of former Pitt four-year starter Lynd first, then subsequently the additions of both Morton and Kirk to the preseason roster before the start of training camp.
This was a slightly surprising move in that Lilley is often more methodical when it comes to building his roster by bringing players in on trial before filling in depth at each position.
“It was not necessarily in the plan. Bob historically has a system and wants guys to come in on trial, and see what they can do. Both Kyle and Mike came in on combines, and we got surprisingly to a point where we were comfortable with these three guys and what they can do it for us,” Gilstrap explained. “More than any other position on the field, we felt good about keepers early on. Sure, there’s a little bit of danger in that we kind of made our bed before we started preseason and played any games.”
Of the three keepers, Lynd and Morton come from Rochester where they were second and third on the depth chart in 2017 playing for Lilley behind Tomas Gomez, who’s moved on to St. Louis FC. Lynd started and played in 10 games a season ago, including two wins over the Hounds, while Morton didn’t see any game action.
A year before that, Lynd didn’t see any playing time with Rochester.
Under Lilley, that all seems as if it’s part of his master process in bringing along goalkeepers. And to say that the men between the pipes have fared well under Lilley would be an understatement.
The USL’s past four Golden Glove winners were all Rhinos — John McCarthy (2014), Brandon Miller (2015) and Thomas Gomez (2016, 2017).
And the past two seasons, Lynd, a Pennfield, NY native, was Gomez’s back-up, and comes in as the most seasoned of the trio of keepers with the Hounds this season.
“I didn’t play much early with the Rhinos. Got some chances later on – and that was good. It’s a big opportunity here and I am really looking forward to it. We’re all young. We all have a lot to learn, and a lot to improve. It’s going to be a big year for us,” Lynd said in discussing this year’s expectations for him and his fellow goalies.
Lynd also shed some light on what it’s like to play for Lilley.
“The demand is always high. He’s clear with what he wants. And if you don’t do what he wants, he’ll find someone that does. It’s good that it’s very clear. There’s never any question about what you should be doing. That’s what you want. He wants everyone to be on the same page defensively, and offensively. Having that understanding of what he wants makes it easier…”
Then he paused, chuckled, and added. “I’ll stop at that.”
Lynd excelled in goal at Pitt during the program’s most lean years — 2012 to 2015, when Gilstrap also served as the Panthers’ goalkeeping coach.
“Thing that impresses me is his maturity. Playing at Pitt in those days was hard. It was not a good program, not a strong program,” Gilstrap said. “He always had to wear the hat of I have to play my very best today to have a chance to tie – not always win. It made him pretty good. But, he’s still early in his development.”
At Pitt, as team captain during his senior campaign, Lynd recorded career-bests in minutes (1,606), GAA (1.51) and clean sheets (seven) while recording the most consecutive shutout minutes in program history (380) since 2002. During his sophomore season, the keeper recorded 87 saves in 14 games, which marked the most saves per game (6.21) in school history (minimum 10 games played).
In his complete collegiate career at Pittsburgh, Lynd totaled 51 games played, 230 saves, 15 shutouts and 4,681 minutes, the most minutes in goal in program history.
Lynd also got a taste of playing at Highmark Stadium — for the short-lived Riverhounds U-23 Premier Development League (PDL) team from 2014-15, while he was still at Pitt, playing eight games with 39 saves combined for these two seasons.
“I am really happy with how things have turned out. Getting to play in Rochester was really cool, and that’s where I am from,but Pittsburgh’s like a second home,” Lynd said after the Hounds 3-2 preseason win over Penn FC. “It’s great to be back here. It’s been great to work with Hunter (Gilstrap) again. You have an understanding of what he wants when working with him. He’s really good in getting you ready for a game and making you feel comfortable. I love being back.”
Gilstrap provided a closer look at each of the three keepers.
Having worked previously with Lynd, the former Hounds keeper has found it beneficial to work with someone he already knows.
“It’s unique and a cool thing for me. Even as a young goalkeeper at college level, I thought he would need time to develop – but he came along quickly pretty soon in his career,” Gilstrap said, then added some of his attributes and challenges. “Maturity. Demeanor – he’s even keel all the time. Someone I’ve been envious of because I was the opposite as a player. I admire a guy that can stay level. That has a calming effect on a team – and that goes a lot further than we even realize. For him, the unknown factor – he’s not proven yet – and done it consistently over long haul. He’ll have to be consistent. He’ll have to be able to ride through highs and lows. We’ll see.”
Morton comes over to the Hounds after a rookie year where while he didn’t get a chance to play, got acquainted with his coach that he’s followed to Pittsburgh. Morton played collegiately at James Madison University from 2012-16. During his redshirt senior campaign in 2016, the keeper was the only James Madison athlete to play every minute of the season. Morton posted a 1.22 goals-against average (GAA), .741 save percentage and four shutouts en route to being named Third Team All-Colonial Athletic Association (CAA). As a redshirt junior in 2015, Morton was named Third Team All-CAA, as he logged a 1.28 GAA, .736 save percentage and four shutouts.
One of Morton’s trademarks is his ability to punt a ball a very long way — as seen here before last year’s Rhinos playoff game — he booted one over the Genesee River in Rochester.
While we may or may not see Morton booming one across the Mon at some point — Gilstrap is high on what the West Chester, PA native brings day in and day out.
“Most consistent in training. He brings it every day. Excellent in air. Shot stopper. Checks all the boxes,” Gilstrap said. “But in his case, game experience is not there yet either. He’s played in one Open Cup game, but that’s it so far. He’s done well in (preseason) games he’s played, but like Dan, there’s a question mark.”
The third keeper in the fold, Kirk, much like Morton, went through his first full season as a pro without any playing time in league games with Rio Grande Valley FC Toros in the USL’s Western Conference.
From 2012-16, Kirk played collegiately at La Salle University. As a senior in 2016, the keeper earned a Soccer Six Defensive Player of the Week honor and registered a career-high 10 saves in a single match against the University of Pennsylvania.
“While Dan and Kyle are more similar in terms of build, good coming off line, getting crosses. Mike’s a little bit different. He’s a smaller guy. He’s springier,” Gilstrap noted. “He has to play a bit deeper in order to cover a lot more goal. Have to coach the position differently with (Kirk) than the other two in training – as it’s a different approach in size and angle play. Need more time to move and push his feet. And, he’s very good at that.”
“Because the other guys are bigger, for Mike, he pushes himself to do the same things. Sometimes he’s extra aggressive. We want him to do the things he’s comfortable with. And that’s been that a little bit with everyone so far.”
In the preseason each keeper has played a fair amount of time, but it’s been Lynd who started five of the past six matches including the last against Penn FC, while Morton got the start against Steel FC as they took turns coming off the bench for the other in the 60th minute.
Against USL competition after playing most college opponents this spring, both Morton and Lynd had their first tests. In the 3-2 win over Penn FC, the Hounds conceded a late first half goal after a hard foul outside the box that set up free kick, then succumbed to a penalty kick on a hand ball in the game’s 90th minute.
“We were getting in late for few challenges. I know Bob doesn’t like to give away silly fouls in the back and we did that a couple of times. That’s something we can clean up easily. It’s better getting into challenges than backing off,” Lynd said.
Gilstrap recognizes that it’s all part of the process to get the keepers to be on the same page with their teammates.
“You’re going to see guys make mistakes. They’re going to have to get into a rhythm. Have to feel comfortable. They’re in an environment when it’s competitive every day – competitive in naming a starter, or a number two or a number three. There’s stress involved in that.,” Gilstrap said. “Those things should flush their way out as we get into the season. These guys are still on edge. There’s no certainty for any of them.”
“I’m also a big believer we were attracted to all three of these guys because of their mentality, work rate, the personalities off the field, they’re good team guys, personalities that are not going to cause problems. If you take technical habits, good athletes and great attitudes you can get a long way with being able to manage guys in training and help here and there. This group is probably best groups that they’re all kind of starving for coaching, for information.”
Gillstrap and Lilley have made it clear that in order for the Hounds to be successful, they’ll need to have three outstanding keepers, and they’re doing everything they can to get them ready for the opportunity to play. Based on Lilley’s previous track record — they’ll have a great chance to be a part of something special.
Who knows, maybe even be a potential Golden Glove?
For Lynd, he’ll be just fine with being a part of a winner in Pittsburgh.
“The whole team has a good opportunity. I think we have a lot of talented players. There’s a good mix of veterans, proven guys, and you got younger guys that are up peddling. It’s a good mix,” Lynd said. The East is going to be brutal this year. So, every night we play is going to be a challenge. If we can stay on same page through the entire season, and go through the ups and downs together, we’re going to be fine.