NASHVILLE – There weren’t any goals scored on Saturday at Nissan Stadium, but there was plenty to take away from the Riverhounds scoreless draw with the upstart new franchise Nashville SC.
On a historical night for one of the USL’s newest franchises making its home debut in a city that will be fielding an MLS team in the next year (or two), Pittsburgh’s retooled club flexed its muscles enough to send Nashville’s 18,922 fans home without a win to savor.
The Hounds may have needed the first 45 minutes to get its attack in high gear, but for a full 90 minutes, they were a highly organized from the back, limiting Nashville attack, especially in the run of play, to earn its first clean sheet of the campaign.
And how about that crowd?
Even in a very spacious NFL stadium with the lower bowl completely full, Nashville’s fans made their presence felt — particularly in the last 20 minutes of the match when they started earning set pieces.
That’s when the yellow towels came out.
It wasn’t quite Heinz Field during Steelers-Ravens NFL game, but a few times the entire lower bowl at Nissan hit a point where everyone was standing and waving towels.
Isn’t Nashville the same place where Tennessee Titans players (and fans) were stomping on Terrible Towels nearly 10 years ago?
Even with a decent showing of supporter groups doing all the usual banter in the far end, Nashville still may have a way to go to get to be on the same level with Orlando City, Portland, Seattle or some of the other MLS city fan bases (and even Cincinnati) in terms of creating a more traditional soccer atmosphere.
“The support was terrific,” said Nashville head coach Gary Smith. “All along I said that there needs to be a relationship that is built between player and fans. Today went a long way toward that. I think the players felt that there was a feeling in the crowd. They got behind us when we got on top; they tried desperately to raise the group.”
It was a fun environment, an exciting game and provided our first look at the Hounds — which I’ll be breaking down a bit more below.
After completing my post-game interview with Hounds coach Bob Lilley, we spoke about the atmosphere and excitement of the match, and he was glad to have a few folks from Pittsburgh make the trip.
It was a match that I didn’t want to miss. Sure, there were no goals, but it was a game that lived up to the hype — and a road trip worth making.
On this night, Music City USA transformed into a soccer city.
“We are on to something now,” Smith said in his postgame remarks. “Now, we’ll move over to First Tennessee (Park), and we’ll have to create a real home field advantage in a more intimate environment.”
“The times are changing,” Lilley said to me as we parted ways.
“Absolutely,” I quipped back, “changing for the better, right?”
Pro soccer in the US may still have a long way to go to ever be on the level of the top countries in Europe, but Saturday night was a sign of the times — and where things are heading.
The Hounds came out in a 3-4-3. And yes, the Hounds were attack-minded. But make no mistake, the Hounds were fortifying with five defenders across the back line, especially for long stretches of the first half.
As things opened up, they certainly were moving the two wide wings — Ray Lee and Jordan Dover — into the midfield and as part of the attack.
A solidified back line that didn’t let much through included Joe Greenspan in the center of the back line — with Tobi Adewole to his left and Todd Pratzner to his right.
This, however, was what Nashville was looking at when they were in possession, which was for longer stretches in the first half.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele, who the Hounds only signed this week, spent most of the game right in front of Greenspan — roaming around in the holding midfield role. It was a bit of a surprise that Lilley started the first-year pro when he had veteran options. Nonetheless, Vancaeyezeele held that spot while Holland was the central attacking midfielder. Kevin Kerr and Christiano Francios were getting forward and making runs when the opportunities presented along with Romeo Parkes as the central forward. Parkes and Francios, in particular struggled in the first half, but when they started connecting passes early in the second half, we started to see that this team can be potent.
Still, the Hounds were highly organized, and that above all things, had to please Lilley — and the fans who just want to see results and a winning soccer team in Pittsburgh.
One game down, one point in the books, and a clean sheet. Not a bad start at all.
Clean Sheet For Lynd
The one position where the Hounds lack a lot of experience is with its three keepers.
Lynd wasn’t truly tested at a level like in his days playing for a lowly Pitt team, when he was under assault in just about every ACC match. The third-year pro made his first opening day start of his career in a hostile environment, and held his own.
At first, as Nashville took most of the possession in the early part of the first half, and with the aforementioned Hounds starting out very well organized in the back, they tested the keeper who’s only played ten USL matches prior to Saturday with a few decent balls into the air to the back of the box.
Each time, Lynd came out — and was in command.
“It was fun,” Lynd said after the game. “It was the most people I’ve ever played in front of, that’s for sure, and those last fifteen minutes were something. But that’s why you play — for games like that.”
While Nashville was able to create a few opportunities from corners late in the match, when the crowd was really getting into the match, Lynd and his teammates held on for the clean sheet.
Here’s my full post-game interview with Lynd on Facebook Live
Moloto Not Shying Away Any Longer
There was a time through the entire 2015 season when Lebo Moloto shied away from the spotlight — and from doing interviews.
Finally, when the Hounds clinched a playoff spot on the final game of that season, Moloto finally obliged, after having a goal and being an instrumental force on one of the highest scoring teams in USL that campaign.
After a tough 2016, the South African regained his form with Swope Park Rangers, and was an instrumental part of a team that made its way to the USL Cup final.
And on Saturday, as one of Nashville SC’s first signings in the off season, Moloto wasn’t shying away from his former team — as he was Nashsville’s primary danger man in and around the box.
Then in the 80th minute, he had a prime opportunity with an almost scissor kick, side volley that was saved on the line by Hounds defender Tobi Adewole‘s abdomen.
— Nashville SC (@NashvilleSC) March 24, 2018
“I seriously thought it was going in,” said Moloto. “They were all pushed up in front, and it was a good cross. It would’ve been nice if it would’ve went in. Pretty sure we [in the postgame press conference] would’ve been talking about something else right now. I would’ve been happy if it would’ve went in.”
While Moloto — or Nashville for that matter — have yet to score in two games, it’s clear that the former Hound is going to be at the center of their attack. He had five of the team’s six shots on Saturday, and led the team with three against defending champions Louisville City FC.
And in the post game press conference, there was Moloto — dressed in full suit — and ready to take on the spotlight for his new team.
Moloto said he’s looking forward to coming back to Highmark Stadium when the teams meet again on May 30.
“I have a lot of good memories, and love playing there,” Moloto said. “Last year, I played in the Western Conference, so I didn’t have a chance to go back. It’s a different team now, and they’re going to be very good this year.”
#NSHvPGH Player Ratings
Dan Lynd (GK) –6– early in match Nashville tested him with some dangerous balls to far post area, but each time Lynd was up to the task. Made two saves on Lebo Moloto shots, but was caught up a bit on the corner kick that almost went in, but was saved by Adewole.
Todd Pratzner –6– workmanlike effort, solid contributor to back three that pitched a shutout.
Joe Greenspan –7– for Hounds go to with 3-4-3 — is a clear indication how high they are on Greenspan, and as the middle man directing traffic he was instrumental in the clean sheet. The big fella provided support for other backs on a few occasions they were beat to thwart a few imminent threats and he was solid in the air, and even had a decent redirect at near post on a first half corner. When his keeper, Lynd, was tackled hard going for a ball outside of box, Greenspan asserted himself, took exception — and pushed back Ropapa Mensah after the hard foul.
Tobi Adewole –8- was pretty quiet in first half, but was tested a few times in the second, most notably in a battle with Nashville’s first sub Mensah that resulted in a foul called on the Nashville forward. Adewole came up with the save of Moloto’s half scissor kick shot that kept the score level.
Jordan Dover & Ray Lee -6- in the line-up as wings in the 3-4-3 — Lee and Dover were involved on the flanks when the Hounds got forward but didn’t do anything spectacular. But having played for Lilley in Rochester, they clearly understand and can get back into a tight defensive shape that looked like four or five on the back line.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele -4.5- the Hounds only first-year pro was having some trouble keep the ball more than any other player. Had a careless challenge to pick up yellow card. Lilley kept him in — and he seemed to get better as the game went on, won balls away in the center of the field and initiated positive possessions.
Joe Holland -6- showed some creativity, and had one solid shot opportunity — and maybe if it weren’t for a deflection of shot off his own teammate (Parkes!) — may have scored.
Kevin Kerr (c) –7– it was a gritty effort from the Hounds veteran who wore the captain’s armband for third season. He had a few header chances in the center of the box, was calm on the ball in tight spots and extending possessions in final third. On the last header, he was cut and after getting looked at by team trainer, had to wear a head bandage the rest of the match, looking very much like the venerable warrior I wrote about last week.
Romeo Parkes –5– was dangerous at times drawing multiple defenders around the box. It’s clear Lilley wants him as high as possible, and pressing deep into the final third every chance he gets. Playing at that pace, he may not make the full 90 on most nights. Hounds will still need more from him.
Christiano François –5– the ‘Cheetah’ was flying around — a bit less effective in first half and missed on a few golden chances in the second. The best may be yet to come if he can convert on those.
Kenardo Forbes (66’) –6– brought strong box-to-box presence and initiated some nice build-up play, and Lilley said afterwards that his ability to keep the ball, and slow the game to the Hounds rhythm was when he really thought goals would come. But couldn’t find the goal on Saturday.
Neco Brett (72’) –5– came on at the top spot for Parkes. Brought some high energy.
Andrew Lubahn (88’) – n/a – very late substitution for the Hounds newest roster addition.