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Lilley Ball is up to the ‘Fury’ challenge: PGHvOTT Analysis & Player Grades

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC were on the brink of completing its third game in its first four with a scoreless draw on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.

Despite dominating possession and swinging crosses in at a rate of one every three minutes — it took more than 85 minutes for the Hounds to solve a determined Ottawa Fury FC club that put up a battle for 98 minutes.

MATCH SUMMARY: Adewole’s late tally extends Hounds unbeaten, clean sheet streaks to start the season

“We’ll have to be able to fight through these moments. Every game in this league will pose new challenges. Every week you have to be ready,” Bob Lilley, Riverhounds coach said after the match. “You have to fight for every inch that you get — and today we competed well and I am happy we got the result because Ottawa came ready to play.”

There are no easy games in the USL — and nobody knows that better than Lilley.

After the match, Lilley was sure to point out that the same Tampa Bay Rowdies team that pummeled Ottawa, 5-0, the previous week, had a 5-0 setback of its own on Saturday against NY Red Bulls II.

Some Hounds fans are starting to adapt a nickname for their beloved team’s veteran coach’s unique and successful brand of winning soccer:

Lilley Ball.

Lilley Ball we could say — because the veteran coach brings a unique style, and one-of-a-kind approach to doing things — is a name that’s patterned (in name only) after Billy Martin, who managed the New York Yankees, Oakland A’s, Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins in the 1970s and 80s with an equally unique style.

After this win on Saturday, and seeing the Hounds brush off another early season opponent with another dominant defensive effort, it’s probably safe to agree with some of these local, die-hard fans, that Lilly Ball has arrived in these parts.

It may not have been the prettiest form of the beautiful game again on Saturday —  but the result was another one to embrace for Pittsburgh soccer fans.

Despite facing an opponent that wasn’t giving an inch, Hounds kept their composure and remained committed to its game plan to possess the ball and break down its opponent  — mostly using the width and not stopping for 90 plus minutes.

Tactically the Hounds may have originally drawn-up a 4-3-3 on the line-up card that media get a look at before the match, but it was for the second straight week — a 4-2-3-1 — with Ben Zemanski and Mouhamed Dabo in the same holding midfield roles they were in the 4-0 win over Toronto FC II.

(ah yes — another thing to note about Lilley Ball — you never know what formation you will expect to see — thus far this season the Hounds have employed a 4-3-3, 5-3-2, 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1.) 

Zemanski moved up higher more often than Dabo who provided the support from a deeper position, while Thomas Vancaeyezeele was centered in an attacking midfield spot with Christiano François on his right and Kenardo Forbes on the left — as well as Neco Brett returning as the central forward after a three goal, one assist performance vs Toronto FC II.

It was much of the same look from the Hounds from the previous week, with Forbes playing in the spot where Kevin Kerr occupied as the left wide attacking option.

In the first half, Zemanski was orchestrating many of the Hounds initial advances into the final third — often times holding the ball up, not forcing anything through the middle or too directly vertical while opting to play passes out wide as Ottawa’s backline and central midfielder packed the final third.

The Hounds’ wider players, Lee and François in particular, were active in using the space that Ottawa was conceding on the corners. This resulted in a lopsided 12-1 advantage in crosses served in the first half for Pittsburgh, with many getting cleared away.

It took a rare, quick counter attempt for the Hounds to create its most dangerous effort of the first half.

The speedy François delivered a lining ball right at Brett in the center of the box sandwiched between a pair of defenders, that resulted in a redirected header that just missed left of goal that may have been the Hounds best chance of the first half.

 (Photos by J.J. Krysinsky) 

Despite a lot of crosses and balls played into the box, the Hounds only created three shots — and one on target — in the first half.

That changed in the beginning of the second half.

In the 46th minute, Lee penetrated deep inside the box, got pretty far up the left end line — and delivered a nice ball to Brett, who quickly redirected a shot inside the left post, but Ottawa’s keeper Maxime Crepeau made a nice, quick reaction save.

Early in the second half, the Hounds started to earn more corner kicks.

In fact, at one point right past the 50th minute, the Hounds had three corner attempts in a two minute span, with Zemanski taking the kicks.

Very few of the Hounds 10 corner kicks in Saturday’s game provided any dangerous scoring chances. And thus, something I am sure Lilley will want to see improve — especially in games like this when its opponent wasn’t giving much away inside the final third.

In the 52nd minute, Zemanski finally provided Pittsburgh with a quality set piece. This time on a free kick from the left side outside the edge of the box — that connected with Vancaeyezeele who hit the left post with a header. The ball bounced around near goal, and Todd Pratzner was there for the header to put it in goal.

The music sounded. Fans were celebrating the goal. The flag from the far side official, however, was up.

Center back Pratzner looked a lot like the guilty party — and was offside.

As the match entered the final twenty minutes, and despite a lack of goals up to that point in the contest and despite another strong showing from the Hounds supporters group — the Steel Army — the small crowd didn’t have much to cheer about.

Then things got real interesting.

Especially when Zemanski found himself in a bit of a scuffle with Ottawa’s Christian Portillo — and match referee Lorent Varga issued a double-booking of yellow cards.

Of course, when asking Lilley about this encounter — he offered his thoughts of it along the lines of two midfielders battling hard for most of the game that are not giving in to each other.

Then added a tongue-in-cheek comment about how confident he would be if any of his players would ever get into a  fight.

“There’s only one or two players on our team that could throw a proper punch anyways.”

In all, there were five yellow cards handed out — and as the match reached its final minutes, the Hounds needed to play with composure and continued persistence.

Eventually the Hounds would capitalize on something they acknowledged after the game that they spend a lot of time working on in training.

Getting balls into the box and putting the ball where it needs to be.

And that’s exactly what happened on the game’s lone goal.

Lee delivered a ball that carried past the far post — but thanks to his positioning as the outside attacker on the right side — Kevin Kerr, who came in as a sub in the 72nd minute, was where he needed to be to keep the ball in play –and the threat of a goal alive.

Kerr — on pure instinct and using his technical savvy — was able to quickly send the ball right back into the goal box for Tobi Adewole to deliver the game winner.

Much like his fellow center back Pratzner did earlier, Adewole came forward when needed.

The former George Washington University standout capitalized on his chance to score his first pro goal of his career in a big moment.

It wasn’t pretty. Adewole was falling over but got enough on the ball to redirect it in goal.

“Tobi was able to stroke it home from two yards.” Then the Hounds coach chuckled, and added.

“It was a sweet finish in my mind.”

And there you have it — a prime example of Lilley Ball. It doesn’t have to be pretty.

It’s all about the result.

Immediately after the goal, the Hounds with personnel in the game designed to get the go-ahead goal, now had to switch things up tactically to defend through the end of regulation that would include an eight minute span of stoppage time.

They went into a 3-5-2 — or rather a 5-3-2 formation designed to deny any looks Ottawa looks anywhere near the box.

This forced Vancaeyezeele back into a deeper spot, and the two wide players sandwiched between Adewole, Lee and Pratzner who provided three in the middle of the back line.

“Regardless of whether we’re playing a back three or back four — as you saw, we switched to a back three today — we have the same understanding to cover for each other, and we understand our positioning on the field,” Adewole said. “We get the job done by any means and not take risks back there, especially when we’re trying to close out the game.”

Getting pushed into eight minutes of extra time, the Hounds almost were caught off guard, but goalkeeper Dan Lynd, who wasn’t thrown into too much action for much the match, had to make his only save of the match count when Portillo ripped a shot from 35 yards that was heading right under the bar.

With that, the Hounds pulled through with a second win, and now can boast as the only team in USL that hasn’t surrendered a goal.

“We’re not playing at our best level yet, but we’ve shown a little more resilience than we did vs Harrisburg (Penn FC) in the home opener (0-0 draw). I’m looking for improvements each week. We held serve two games in a row,” Lilley said after the Hounds won its second straight game — both at home.

“If we keep posting shutouts at home, I think we’ll win our fair share of games.”

Lilley Ball is very real folks. It’s alive and well in Pittsburgh.


Dan Lynd – 7 – for much of the game he really wasn’t tested, but with a one-goal lead and eight minutes of stoppage time, he was prepared when he needed to be, when Portillo delivered a dangerous shot from 35 yards out.

Tobi Adewole – 8.5 – continues to make big plays — now on both ends of the field. He’s been the only player to start all four games at center back for a team that’s riding a four-game streak without conceding a goal. Not a bad start to his second season as a pro.

Todd Pratzner – 7 – for second game, paired alongside Adewole and they were solid much of the night

Andy Lubahn – 7 – getting his first start with the Hounds, the Erie, PA native was solid out in the right outside back in place of Jordan Dover, in another example where Bob Lilley’s assembled quality depth at most every position.

Ray Lee – 7 – with the middle of the jam packed, the Hounds were forced to try to get out wide much of the match and try a lot of crosses. Lee was very active on the left side swinging in balls — and the Hounds eventually converted on his ball in the 87th minute.

Mouhamed Dabo – 6 – there were a couple times Dabo misplayed a ball or lost possession but he was steady and worked very well with Zemanski in front of the back four (and three) for much of the match.

Ben Zemanski – 6.5 – wearing the captain’s armband, the one-time MLS standout with Portland was key in orchestrating in the Hounds possession-heavy and patient approach. Was subbed out shortly after yellow card.

Kenardo Forbes – 5 – a relatively quiet, but steady night at the office for the USL veteran as he’s still looking to have some impact moments with his new team.

Christiano François – 7 – if anything — at this point François may be the Hounds most fun player to watch. Every time he’s on the ball — or the Hounds are looking to push it forward my eyes go right to the Haitian winger. There was one more move in the first half, he went right at an Ottawa defender and practically broke his ankles shaking him off before sending a cross into the box.

Neco Brett – 6.5 – a week after a career performance, Brett provided solid work rate again at the top in a very crowded box — and his header attempt from quick Francois cross just missed and nearly got the go-ahead goal in the 46th minute if not for a solid save.

Kay Banjo (72′) – 6 – Along with Kerr, added another attack and helped provide a late game lift and energy the Hounds needed.

Kevin Kerr (72′) – 8 – when his team needed it, he delivered again in a big moment late in the contest. It was a productive yet short performance from a veteran — who made the most of his minutes (and said after match he could play tomorrow). This will only help during the course of such a long season to be able to afford to rest him at times early in the season.

Joe Holland (81′) – 6 – replaced Zemanski and did well to make a few decent passes including initiating the beginning of the possession that led to the goal. Also was called for a foul late in match that may have helped deny a Fury counter.

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

Riverhounds MF Danny Griffin

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