As the Pittsburgh Riverhounds kick off the 2018 campaign on Saturday in Nashville, I thought it would be fun for the second year to get an assessment from some of the local media and soccer writers that regularly follow the team of what their thoughts are on the season ahead.
Thanks to the following folks for responding and providing feedback:
- Mike Sparks (Mon Goals / Beautiful Game Network)
- Mark Goodman aka ‘RiverhoundsRabbi’ (Last Word on Soccer / Pittsburgh Soccer Now)
- Matt Grubba (DK on Pittsburgh Sports)
- Rachael McKriger (Pittsburgh Sports Castle / Last Word on Soccer)
And addressing some of the biggest questions for the 2018 season:
- how many points will the Hounds reach this season and can they make the playoffs?
- who will be the team’s leading scorer?
- what new player are you most interested in seeing this year?
- who do you think will win the USL’s Eastern Conference?
I’ve added my two cents at the bottom of each section as well.
HOW MANY POINTS WILL THE HOUNDS REACH THIS SEASON & WILL THEY MAKE THE PLAYOFFS?
Mike Sparks: I think that the Hounds are going to surprise a lot of teams this season. Lilley has filled every position with above average talent, and there’s a depth to this team that we haven’t seen in years. That’s going to push everyone to perform their best, and with the addition of a few more games to play, a 60+ point season is a real possibility. I think they finish in the top four in the East.
Rachel McKreiger: This season is a lengthier than last season, with the addition of new clubs and the sorting of conferences. Out of 102 total points, I predict that the Riverhounds will secure around 58 points. Despite the upcoming talented clubs, the Riverhounds certainly have a chance to make the playoffs. During his coaching career in the USL, Bob Lilley has never had a squad not make the postseason. That’s the type of winning attitude — and coaching — that the Riverhounds need. If Dave Brandt were still here, I believe he could have gotten the job down too, especially with a full season under his belt. However, rules were changed and now Lilley is in the coach’s seat. Lilley is the guy that can bring it.
Matt Grubba: I’m going with 49 (13-11-10 sounds like a way to get there in 34 games), and I think that will be good enough to get into the playoffs this season.
Mark Goodman: 45 points – final playoff spot
John Krysinsky: It won’t surprise me if the Hounds start off a bit slow, but get better as the season goes on. That’s been a trademark of Lilley’s teams. The one exception was in 2015, when Rochester basically were impossible to score goals against from the outset of that season (they surrendered only 15 that year). That being said, starting slow is one thing — and getting results is another. Lilley always seems to find a way have his team produce even when they’re not at their best. Hounds fans should be prepared for some hiccups (note: Rochester suffered a 5-0 loss at Charleston last year in April). But here’s the thing, the Hounds have a fairly favorable early schedule — as they play at an expansion team (Nashville SC), then rivals Penn FC, at home, then two non-playoff teams a year ago (TFCII and Ottawa) in the first four weeks, before traveling to FC Cincinnati on April 21. The Hounds should start the first five games with at least 9 or 10 points. A good start will only help, especially through the rigors of a long season. That, factored in with what we’ve seen in past with Lilley’s teams getting better as they start to really figure things out, has me believing the Hounds can finish anywhere from 6th to 3rd place — and be in the top half of the standings this season. Keeping expectations in check a bit — I’ll say 49 points and fifth place finish.
LEADING GOAL SCORER:
Sparks: From everything that Coach Lilley and the players have been saying, it sounds like Romeo Parkes is set for a breakout season. If he can stay up top and not get dragged into play making in the midfield, I think he’ll be the guy.
Goodman: Ben Zemanski and Kay Banjo tie with 8 each.
Grubba: team’s leading scorer will be Romeo Parkes with 14 goals. Bob Lilley is going to give him every opportunity to be the everyday striker, and I think he cashes in with more regularity than a season ago. (One caveat: Kevin Kerr could make a run at being the team leader, depending on how many penalties the Hounds earn. I’ll put him at around 8 goals in the run of play, so if he remains the primary PK taker, that number could inflate)
McKriger: While I’m tempted to say Parkes, I believe that Dennis Chin will be the leading scorer. Chin, the 30-year-old Jamaican international, has a world of experience at the forward position. He’s going to partner well with his fellow Jamaican Parkes, and even Neco Brett. I would love to see all three players form a partnership with Kay Banjo as well, the other forward on the roster. I chose Chin for this category due to his experience, goals with Orlando City and the fact that he’s returning to the Untied States to play soccer after one season in Israel.
Krysinsky: Romeo Parkes
WHAT NEW PLAYER ARE YOU MOST INTERESTED IN SEEING THIS YEAR:
Sparks: Hugh Roberts. Fans from Bethlehem and Richmond still talk about what a huge asset he was for them and how they continue to root for him to this day. Him and Joe Greenspan in the middle could be a nightmare for other teams to deal with. Close seconds: Christiano Francois and Ben Zemanski
McKriger: Thomas Vancaeyezeele, the Riverhounds’ most recent signing, will be a player to watch in 2018. Despite being signed on later in training camp, Vancaeyezeele has established himself through his work in college. He’s a Division II Player of the Year, and that was featuring as a defender. Lilley has seemingly made a switch, listing him as a midfielder. The move came as a surprise, as the Riverhounds already had eight midfielders in place and only six defenders. Midfield is certainly the spot with the most depth. However, I believe that Lilley has a plan to bring Vancaeyezeele to the defensive midfield position — a position that this team has lacked at least for the last two years.
Grubba: Neco Brett is the new player I’m most interested to see. He got off to a hot start as a pro in Portland but his scoring cooled off last year. He’ll probably begin the year as a high-energy forward to bring off the bench, considering he did miss the Penn FC preseason game with some nagging injuries, but I definitely could see him impacting games and possibly forcing his way into the lineup.
Goodman: I heard really good things about Mouhamed Dabo, and I’m also interested to see if he takes up his place at the center of the pitch as a defensive midfielder or if (coach) Bob Lilley slots him in on the back line or as a fullback.
Krysinsky: I already answered Parkes as who I think will be the team’s scorer, and the story line with how he develops under Lilley will be extremely fascinating. The other players that I’m really looking forward to seeing how Lilley will use them will be the veterans Dennis Chin and Ben Zemanski — and how they will contribute and what their roles will be — and how much they have left in the tank. Chin, a former Golden Boot winner with Orlando City’s USL side, is coming back from playing in Israel, and Zamanski only played sparingly with the Timbers (and some with T2) since returning from a difficult knee injury.
WHO WILL WIN THE USL’s EASTERN CONFERENCE
Sparks: Louisville has re-signed pretty much everyone from the team that won it all last season, so they’re going to be in the hunt. I think that Charleston takes a tumble after losing many of their key players to other teams, and it sounds like Cincy is having locker room issues which could derail things early. The Rowdies are going to continue to be a dominant force in the East and make a push for the top spot, and I think the Hounds might have a legitimate chance of contending. That said, I think it’s the champs to lose and Louisville wins the east for a second year in a row.
Goodman: FC Cincinnati or Bethlehem Steel.
Grubba: I think I called this one last year saying Louisville, and I’m going to stick with the champs until I see something to convince me otherwise.
McKriger: While it’s tough to pit against Bob Lilley, I would have to predict North Carolina FC. While there never seemed to be a huge difference in NASL and USL play, something always felt different about the way North Carolina was run — on and off the pitch. North Carolina has a great coach in Colin Clarke, who has held the position for six years, and a fantastic stadium down in Cary, North Carolina, which they share with the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL. I think that North Carolina takes the Eastern Conference over Louisville City in a dramatic fashion.
Krysinsky: Since I’ve been covering USL, There hasn’t been a repeat champion and since the Eastern Conference started in 2015, we’ve had three different teams take it. Will there be a different team emerge in 2018?
I’m a big believer in teams that pay their dues a bit, that bring back a strong nucleus and take things to the next level the following season.
Thinking with that formula here’s where I see some of the contending teams:
The Hounds are in year one of ‘Lilley Ball’ — and in both instances when he won titles — Lilley did it in the second year with those franchises (actually in Rochester it was the second year of his second stint).
Cincinnati has the same coach in Alan Koch, but have had too much roster turnover — and are counting on too many older players for my taste.
Charleston always seems to be right in the mix but have had more turnover than usual. If Charlotte can avoid a collapse and figure out how to replace Enzo Martinez, they’ll be a contender again.
The biggest unknowns are the two NASL carry overs — North Carolina FC and Indy Eleven.
I am a big fan of James O’Connor and what he’s done with Louisville over the course of the past three plus years. They very well have all the pieces to repeat again this year. Tampa Bay has a returning core too from a 53 point team, and their additions and depth — and having a second full year in USL could be what puts them over to a 60+ point team this year. Pick: Tampa Bay edges Louisville City.
So, there you have it — Pittsburgh soccer media members have make their predictions. What do you think will happen this year? Please feel free to add your comments below or on our social media platforms.