Two games into the 2018 campaign.
Two scoreless draws.
These two games that have provided an idea of what Riverhounds SC will be in 2018 — limiting opponents scoring chances — and where they’re clearly coming up short thus far — scoring goals.
On Saturday, the Hounds returned to Highmark Stadium in search of its first win, and first goal of the season — and came up empty on both fronts – playing to a scoreless draw against its Keystone Derby rivals, a revamped Penn FC, who were formerly Harrisburg City Islanders.
Despite coming out with its foot on the gas — the Hounds were good enough to have the edge for much of the game — and in particular in the first half when it seemed as if they could convert on an elusive first goal.
Ultimately, sloppy passing in the midfield, a three-man forward combination didn’t do enough to provide a persistent attack and one non-call in the box kept the Hounds off the score sheet.
Make no mistake, the Hounds were the better side on Saturday. They held 59 percent possession, had the edge in shots (12-8) and shots on target (4-1). Despite the result, and lack of goals, there’s a foundation and formula with this team that should be encouraging for Pittsburgh soccer fans.
With the way they’re playing defensively, it appears that there’s little doubt that they will be a very, very hard team to score against this season.
It was a second straight clean sheet for Hounds keeper Dan Lynd who was rarely tested, facing the only shot on frame in the latter stages of the match.
A four-man back line with Joe Greenspan and Tobi Adewole in the center, with Ray Lee and Jordan Dover on the outside were solid — particularly against Penn FC’s forward combination of Tommy Heinemann and Lucky Mkosano, two veterans who were among to top scorers in NASL a season ago.
But in the middle and final third, they are still lacking when getting into the attack.
And even if they converted on some of the chances created, Hounds coach Bob Lilley didn’t think his team played like it deserved to win.
Lilley, who’s known for putting together some of the best defending units at this level of pro soccer in the U.S. — badly wants to get this team to become an offensive force.
That sentiment was clear in his more than eight minute post-game interview with Pittsburgh soccer media contingent after Saturday’s nil-nil draw.
The Hounds coach was clearly frustrated with his team’s inability to be clicking on all cylinders, and for not being dynamic and creative enough to be a dangerous attacking unit for a full 90 minutes.
While his primary focus is on the field and with his team, Lilley knows scoring goals would also get more people excited about the Riverhounds.
Two games into the season, and with only 2,006 fans in attendance for the home opener, while other markets like Louisville, Indianapolis and Nashville are playing before large crowds — had to only add to the organization’s frustration.
Lilley came to Pittsburgh hoping to field a more dynamic, attacking team.
But right now, things have stalled.
Instead of getting off to a flying start, the Hounds have left a lot to be desired in building up some positive momentum early in the season that could potentially help get fringe and casual sports fans excited about soccer in Pittsburgh.
Sure, there’s a lot of time, as it’s a long season, and odds are that the Hounds will figure it out eventually, but in all, the home opener for a season filled with much promise and potential, was a night of disappointment for Pittsburgh soccer — both on and off the field.
Instead of a more formal breakdown of the game, I’ll let Lilley’s comments do much of the talking, then add in my comments in-between.
“I don’t think we played with enough conviction. We had good chances, and they had some too. We were better in (last week’s draw) Nashville, we worked harder, and tonight, we looked like after we had some chances early on, that they would continue to come,” Lilley said. “We knew they would slowed us. They were happy to play for a draw. Our movement up front was poor tonight. Christiano (Francois), Romeo (Parkes) and (Kevin) Kerr were all standing with defenders. The only runs they were making were straight runs. There’s no imagination in our movement. The midfielders were poor in terms of their passing in general,” Lilley said, focusing his frustration on his top six what was a 4-3-3 formation on Saturday.
A ‘few chances’ each half is not enough. Lilley and his staff put lot of stock in going with a three-man forward line that would be playing as high as possible. The combination of Kerr’s savvy, with Francios’ pace and creativity along with Parkes’ speed and skill looks good on paper — right?
But then they have to execute — and put forth a full 90 minute effort.
“To play a less than stellar second half after creating chances in the first. We’ll have to look as coaches to do better. Players have the ability. We were poor tonight.”
As his teammates in front of him were failing to convert on chances, Greenspan hopes that the entire team must have a stronger mindset.
“It’s always tough,” Greenspan added. “You get chances, you get opportunities, and it’s a bit deflating when you don’t score. That the mental part of the game that we have to overcome, and keep pushing forward to get that goal.”
Lilley is a demanding coach, and after this performance on Saturday, he’ll have more fuel to add to his fire.
“We work every day in training. There’s things that our guys, at this level. guys know how to make runs. But it takes work. We know that we need to move the ball quickly. Not lose it dribbling in bad areas. These things players know. We got to work to get options early. The ball’s got to move. You got to have a certain conviction, accountability when you play,” Lilley said.
It was also clear that Lilley wasn’t impressed with Harrisburg’s back line — and felt they could have been exposed a bit more.
“Don’t think we set a rhythm in the first half. We had a few chances because they were playing a high line, their backs don’t have the pace to do that. Our runs are not mature enough yet. Even some of them that we were in, we’d be in even cleaner if our runs were better. There were more moments, but our midfield were late to recognize to play the ball, and guys were offside. Tonight our spacing wasn’t good. There were no changing the angles. There were times our midfielders were all on top of each other. There wasn’t someone in the middle to rotate it out to the other side. That means there’s just running — and no understanding.”
The Hounds went with a midfield that had Joe Holland a bit higher, central in the field, than the other two midfielders, Kenardo Forbes and Thomas Vancaeyezeele.
“For some reason we get the ball to Christiano — and Romeo is coming to him. And all he does is brings other defenders. These are things we talked about. Obviously when your players don’t perform, as coaches, we have to look at the tape. What can we do better. We knew how the game would play out. We got the picture — and we didn’t execute. I’m sure there’s plenty of blame to go around — and I’ll take my share of it.”
The Hounds clearly continue to be settling for playing balls over the top more often than not. A few times they got out wide, they created the most dangerous chances of the night, and in particular, on the right side between Jordan Dover and Christiano François.
Maybe the nicest of their connections came when Dover and François, when the Haitian took a ball out wide, then found the outside back, Dover, making an internal run to the top of the box area. Dover, with lots of room to shoot from the right corner of the box, received the ball back from François, and put on a quality shot on frame. Penn FC Roumauld Peiser was forced to extend his body to make a highlight reel save to deny the Hounds first goal of the season.
The pair also hooked up again when Dover played a nice ball into the far right side to François as the Hounds were pushing forward. François’ delivered a perfectly placed cross into the far post area, but Romeo Parkes sent a one-timer way over the bar and over the Steel Army and the Paul Child Stand.
“Got to have pace out wide — when we got behind them that’s where the space was. We ran on top of each other all night. Even on restarts. We don’t want to jam it up the middle. You got twenty people in front of goal. The ball needs to be cycled out wide for new service. Lot of our mistakes were pretty naive. We need service. We need to open it up. We lacked quality.”
Without consistent quality in the attack — the Hounds will not be the dynamic team that Lilley wants them to be.
It’s that simple.
But it will take a lot more work.
And leave it to the veteran coach to let it be known that even if his team scored a goal or two on those chances, they still didn’t play like a winning, championship caliber team he wants them to strive to become.
“Listen, you can win some of these games, this is not the kind of game we deserved to win. I’m not thrilled about time wasted in other things, but the reality is that we didn’t play well enough to deserve the three points,” Lilley said. “Don’t think we put enough energy. We didn’t pick up second balls. Tough to play forward when front three are standing off, and when they’re making straight runs. Midfielders and forwards were poor.”
And maybe biggest dose of reality for Hounds fans came when Lilley took out team captain, Kerr in the 79th minute.
Maybe it’s possible that Kerr was not one hundred percent after dealing with a gash suffered to his head in Nashville that required staples that were only removed on Friday.
It wasn’t enough for Lilley.
“He was poor. As well as he played in Nashville. Was slow on the ball. Got pushed off the ball. Second (to balls) a lot,” Lilley explained. “There were other guys poor tonight. There were going to be times when guys are not on their game. I could have made subs for the front six tonight, and it wouldn’t have been wrong. I didn’t have six subs to put in the game.”
For Lilley and the Hounds, it’s back to the drawing board.
(out of 10)
Dan Lynd (GK) – 6 – one save on Heinemann in the second half, was very much in command of box on all balls in
Ray Lee – 5 – quieter than his outside back in the attack as Hounds didn’t get out wide enough, but solid in marking and working with back line
Joe Greenspan – 7 – another solid night — lots of header clearances and was mixing it up as usual
Tobi Adewole – 7 – made a nice block of Penn FC shot opportunity on a ball played to far post area. Worked well with Greenspan in the middle of back line. Might make it difficult for additional center backs (Todd Pratzner and Hugh Roberts) if he keeps up this level of play.
Jordan Dover – 6 – worked well a few times with François with movement off ball and passes when getting out in attack. Had a solid shot chance that was saved by PFC keeper Peiser.
Joe Holland – 4 – Lilley said that he didn’t have six subs to bring in for the midfielders and forwards, but he did take out Holland first, so that might have said a little something. Holland did have a decent chance late in first half, but again, Peiser was there to snuff out his shot that was heading inside the left post.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 4 – while he was better in possession from the back than in Nashville, still didn’t mesh well with other midfielders/forwards in getting balls out wide
Kenardo Forbes – 5 – moments of quality were there, and a terrific restart almost generated a goal scoring chance for Parkes in the first half, but spacing was an issue and the veteran midfielder needs more time to get on same page with many new teammates
Kevin Kerr – 4 – it just didn’t seem like a typical Kerr performance. Was the head injury bothering him?
Romeo Parkes – 3 – as said before season started, seeing how Parkes does this season as the center forward will be fascinating story line. Thus far, he’s missing out on some golden chances and not doing enough to create additional chances.
Christiano Francois – 4 – he and Dover were doing some nice things for a few spells in the first half, especially when getting into the width. But it wasn’t enough.
Ben Zemanski (63′) – 5 – in the first few minutes, Zemanski provided for some quality possessions, and even had a scoring chance in the 82nd minute.
Neco Brett (79′) – 4 – Lilley wasn’t happy with his passing and for second straight game wasn’t able to provide spark off bench to ignite a late scoring chance or two.