It may have taken three games, but the Riverhounds SC attack finally came through in a big way on Saturday — with four second half goals en route to a 4-0 win over Toronto FC II in a rare afternoon game at Highmark Stadium.
The man of the match for the Hounds was clearly Neco Brett in his first start with the club. After an outstanding college career with Robert Morris, Brett was drafted and spent the past two seasons with Portland Timbers organization both with the senior club, and also with its USL affiliate Timbers 2.
It was the culmination a successful return to Pittsburgh for Brett. And the Riverhounds hope this is just the beginning.
The Jamaican forward came to Hounds training camp in early February on trial, still looking to earn a spot on the roster. He didn’t waste any time showing the Hounds coaching staff that he could be a dangerous man in the final third early in the preseason, scoring goals, setting up teammates with solid passes and even drawing fouls in the box to set up penalties.
It was no surprise when Brett earned a contract with the Hounds about halfway through the preseason.
Brett has a constant motor – and never ending energy once he steps foot on the field and like most savvy forwards — a nose for scoring goals.
That’s exactly what the Hounds needed from their lone forward on Saturday against TFCII.
After two games, the club was missing that final piece – converting on the continuous scoring chances that the Hounds have been generating but not capitalizing.
Again, in the first 45 minutes against the Young Reds, the Hounds were in control, with more than 65 percent of possession, but still not quite creating enough dangerous moments to finally get that elusive first goal of the season.
Brett was doing his part in getting behind TFCII’s back line, but he wasn’t getting the support needed.
That changed in the second half.
On Saturday, the Hounds were in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the third different tactical look for the club in three games. Head coach Bob Lilley said that he’d be changing things up with each game based on each opponent the Hounds would be seeing, and this game was no exception.
Against Nashville, on the road in a hostile environment, it was a 3-4-3 that also morphed into 5-2-3 when in a tight defensive shape.
In the home opener, the Hounds opted to come out in 4-3-3 against Penn FC.
Each time, as a trademark of all teams coached by Lilley, the Hounds have been solidly organized from the back line through the middle with very few exceptions.
The only thing missing in the first 225 minutes of action in two and a half games were goals.
Teams that are as highly organized as Lilley’s are – often wear their opponents down.
Lilley wants as many effective two-way players on the pitch as possible. On Saturday, he got that with the performances from his five man midfield, that included Mohammad Dabo and Ben Zemanski both getting first starts as holding mids, along with attacking threesome of Kerr, Christiano Francois and Thomas Vancaeyezeele.
Lilley has been very pleased with what he’s seen from Vancaeyezeele, a first-year pro who excelled at University of Charleston, winning NCAA Division II player of the year honors and winning a National Championship. The Caen, France native has started and played in every minute of the Hounds first three games in the midfield. Lilley specifically cited his versatility as a two-way player – both being creative and knowing when to go forward in the attack, but solid in back tracking into supporting the defense. On Saturday, Lilley said that Vancaeyezeele was used in a bit of a hybrid role in the 4-2-3-1.
It was Vancaeyezeele who sent over a perfectly placed ball to Brett for the game’s opening goal. After calmly bringing the ball down, he found Brett making a well-timed run in getting a step inside TFCII defender. From there Brett used his body well, and beat goalkeeper Angelo Cavalluzzo sneaking it into the space inside the right post.
— USL (@USL) April 7, 2018
When the midfield starting pushing forward, and getting higher and higher, things really started to open up for the Hounds. Dabo and Zemanski were solid playing in front of the back four, intercepting passes and when they got forward, were able to open things up for the attacking group.
The second goal was a classic example of this. Zemanski anticipated a TFCII attempt to play the ball through the middle of the field, and was able to make a deep run to the top of the box area. He drew both defenders in that spot to him as he was going to his right – leaving Brett open in space to his left.
All it took was for the veteran midfielder, who played with Brett in Portland, to deliver a crafty little misdirection pass at the 18.
— USL (@USL) April 7, 2018
And even though Brett had room to shoot, he still had to connect with a precise shot inside the left post.
Goal number two of the match was in the books, and Toronto FC II, who has played two close games previously, were now fighting a huge uphill climb.
Sometimes it takes patience and persistence to not only beat his teams, but also for Lilley’s players to instill within a full 90 minute game.
On Saturday, the Hounds finally put forth a full 90 minute effort that eventually wore down an opponent with younger, and inexperienced players.
A couple more goals would follow that capped a dominant scoring surge.
Another second-effort came from the opportunistic Brett in the 83rd minute after Andy Lubahn‘s shot pinged off the post, then François’ dandy of a shot in the 88th minute that wounded the back of the net — set up by a nice lay off by Brett.
Lilley wasn’t happy with his team’s second half performance the previous week against Penn FC, when after dominating much of the first half, they didn’t step up the pressure.
Instead, against Toronto FC II, they may not have shown much in the first half in the final third, but through persistence and with patience – they showed what type of team they’re really capable of becoming.
With two more games against the constantly struggling TFCII, one in Rochester and another back here in Pittsburgh, if the Hounds bring the same kind of effort, they’ll have to take advantage of an opponent they should be able to beat. Even before Lilley, Pittsburgh has had its way with the Young Reds, now holding an 8-0-2 edge.
As for roster depth, without Joe Greenspan and Romeo Parkes, two players who featured in the line-up in the first two games, one leading the attack and the other on the back line, the Hounds did just fine with players filling in – posting another shutout – and three goals for the ‘other’ forward wasn’t too shabby.
Lilley has a lot of confidence in every player on his roster, and wants for everyone to be getting minutes, game experience and building match fitness. This is something you’ll see from the Riverhounds, especially in the early part of the season.
On Saturday Lilley went with a line-up that would have more possession. And even though Toronto had more time on the ball in the late stages of the second half, the Hounds still ended the game with a 53 percent edge in overall possession.
“We wanted to be more diligent. Guys stepped in and filled the need we have right now,” Lilley explained. “From our players, this is what we need game in and game out. We’ve got other guys that didn’t play today that certainly can bring a lot to the table.”
Kyle Morton got his first start in goal after Dan Lynd held the post for the first two games.
Saturday provided a chance for the Hounds to show they can do it with the next man up – and not miss a beat. For Lilley, it’s all part of his process to build his team up through the course of a grueling 34-game regular season.
After three games – the Hounds have yet to surrender a goal.
Now they’re a plus-four in the goal differential column in sitting in the league’s top eight.
And do you think Lilley is content with where his teams stands – with two draws and one lopsided win against what may be the worst team in the early part of the USL season?
Even asking about Brett’s solid performance on Saturday, provided a response that was pretty well suited for a coach that’s always looking to see his team do better.
“Yeah, I’ll give him an A-plus for scoring three goals, but there’s always areas where he can do better,” Lilley said, with a bit of a smile.
Lilley also was glad that the Hounds were fortunate to stay home as the game was switched from Toronto to Pittsburgh as late as Thursday morning due to terrible field conditions at BMO Field.
The Hounds will remain at home next week, with its first encounter of the season with another Canadian team, Ottawa Fury FC, who like TFCII are struggling without a win, and a minus 8 goal differential in two games played.
“We hopefully can build on this. Next week we have another home game. We have to take advantage of these home games, and have to win next week.”
#PGHvTOR RIVERHOUNDS PLAYER GRADES
Kyle Morton (Goalkeeper) – 6 – much like his fellow keeper Dan Lynd, who started the first two games, Morton was not tested all that much, but when he needed to come out, he was in command and had good communication with his back line. His booming punts were impressive too.
Ray Lee –6.5– the Hounds were a bit more active from the left side than they were in previous game, and Lee had a few moments where he got forward, connecting passes with Kevin Kerr and Zemanski, but his two-way play.
Jordan Dover –6.5– again, like Lee had his moments getting forward, but as part of the back four, put in another workmanlike effort.
Todd Pratzner – 7.5 – showed his quality and versatility throughout the match getting the start alongside Tobi Adewole as a solid center back pairing, even with the absence of Joe Greenspan. When Hugh Roberts came in, he slid over to outside back. Has there ever been a time when the Hounds have had this much quality depth at center back?
Tobi Adewole –7 – came into his own last season as a first-year pro, and on a day when the Hounds were without Greenspan, Adewole looked very comfortable out there as he and Pratzner worked well together to handle the highly skilled, fast young TFCII attackers and limited scoring opportunities.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele –6.5 – the first two games, I was a bit tough on Tommy V, but despite a missed touch or too strong or light pass here or there, he continues to show he’s a useful and versatile two-way player that Lilley wants in his midfield.
Ben Zemanski –8.5– though Lilley said that Brett was the only consistent player in the attack in the first half, Zemanski’s quality, especially with each touch and patience on the ball was evident from the beginning of the game. His assist was fantastic. It’s a great sign for the Hounds to have a player that had played at MLS level, who has overcome injuries, now rounding into solid form and fitness.
Mohammad Dabo –6- after a solid preseason, Dabo earned his first start and paired up well with Zemanski as holding mids in the 4-2-3-1.
Kevin Kerr –6.5– was crafty in a few tight spots, and his usual steady presence and improvement on last week’s sub par effort. Continues to take majority of set pieces with solid but not spectacular service.
Christiano Francois –7– much like the first game, really got going in the second half out on the right flank and deep into attack after not quite connecting on some efforts in the final third in the first half. His goal 88th minute was an absolute banger from the right side.
Neco Brett – 9.5 – forwards are measured by how many goals they score or can create. For Brett, all he did was get a hat trick, and an assist in his first start. Only thing keeping this from being a 10? Coach Lilley said there’s still things he wants him to work on.
Hugh Roberts (73’) – 6– former All-USL player two years ago, made his first appearance with the Hounds, and paired alongside Adewole in the middle, providing the club with remarkable depth in the middle of the defense.
Kay Banjo (73’) –5– a relatively quiet appearance as the Hounds were in command when he came in.
Andy Lubahn (81’) –7– came awfully close to scoring right after he came in with shot that was deflected, then hit the left post, that Brett eventually came in for a second-effort put back.
#PGHvTOR HARRISON HAMM’s TACTICAL ANALYSIS/OBSERVATIONS
As a special bonus this week — here’s some tactical analysis and observations from Harrison Hamm, who offered to provide some assistance to PSN’s Hounds coverage going forward: