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Analysis: What will it take for Riverhounds to be legit title contenders?

Can the Riverhounds SC contend for a USL title this year? PSN's John Krysinsky tackles this in his latest column.

Analysis: What will it take for Riverhounds to be legit title contenders?

Under the direction of Bob Lilley the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC are off to its best start in its history, remaining unbeaten through six games after Saturday night’s 1-0 win over Atlanta United 2.

RELATED: Riverhounds remain unbeaten, stymie feisty ATL 2 in 1-0 win

For the Hounds, it wasn’t necessarily a dominating performance, but one in which they were in control throughout giving them the ability to remain as one of only two teams in USL’s Eastern Conference to be unbeaten.

Now, this begs the question – just how good are the Riverhounds?

Do they have what it takes to go where no Hounds team has gone before?

Dare I ask, can they be a Championship contender?

When Lilley was introduced as the Hounds coach in November — he felt that this franchise had always had the potential to reach new heights.

“This club is generally poised to jump to the next level,” Lilley said in his debut press conference when he was introduced as the Hounds coach. “I think hopefully – getting a little more on the winning side will help propel that a little more.  Because I think it’s a great market, it’s a great city. I’ve been all over, but I am excited about this project because I want to experience this city because it’s such a great sports city.”

It’s a long season. In fact, the USL has laid out a fairly ambitious schedule – a 34-game grind over an eight month period for 33 teams competing in two conferences. And that doesn’t include the playoffs and US Open Cup competition.

There’s a long, long way to go.

But I can’t help but think that this team can be special.

When I began covering the Hounds regularly the 2013 squad got off to an awful start, not winning a match until May, playing in desperation mode and somehow maintaining the most impressive lossless streak that I’ve witnessed. Led by the combination of that year’s USL Pro Golden Boot winner Jose Angulo and the leagues assist leader Matt Dallman, the Hounds reeled off 10 straight games from early May through late June without a loss. That was an exciting season for Pittsburgh soccer as it marked the inaugural season of play at Highmark Stadium. Despite earning a spot in the playoffs, that team wasn’t quite ready for the next step, getting pummeled by eventual USL Pro Champions Orlando City SC in a 5-0 playoff loss.

The 2015 edition of the Riverhounds were a fun team that had some monumental wins and a memorable season. They were one of the highest scoring teams in the league that season. But — defensive weaknesses caught up with them, they weren’t able to shut down good teams, and eventually bowed out early in the playoffs in a 4-2 loss in overtime to NY Red Bulls II.

Those were fine teams.

This one, however, can be even better.

Hounds coach Bob Lilley (photo credits Chris Cowger/Riverhounds SC)

The coaching staff have set the tone, setting high expectations and outlining a clear purpose of what they want and how to use each player.

“Playing for Bob is not easy. It’s very hard. Every time you come out, you have to give your best. If you don’t give your best — you come out. We want to work for him, and for us, and put ourselves in a good place,” Christiano François said after the 1-0 win on Saturday.

In Saturday night’s win against Atlanta United 2, the Hounds held a team with numerous young and talented players without a shot on frame.

That’s right – zero shots.

For the second straight game, Lilley started versatile first-year pro Thomas Vancaeyezeele at center back – sandwiched between a second-year pro Tobi Adewole, who earned his second USL Team of the Week honors in the early season, and Todd Pratzner, who played in 13 matches for Rochester under Lilley a year ago.

Keep in mind, Lilley has a recent All-USL defender on the bench, Hugh Roberts and another player who was being counted on to be a leader in the middle of the defense, Joe Greenspan, who has been sidelined with a calf injury. Greenspan spent the past three seasons on MLS rosters.

Even with Greenspan and forward Romeo Parkes sitting out after two games, players like Vancaeyezeele, Adewole, François and Neco Brett have had USL Player of the Week level performances to lead the way in each of the Hounds three wins.

While ATL2 were able to maintain more possession throughout the contest, the Hounds kept them at a distance and, despite a few nervous moments late in the contest, were rarely threatened in the final third and inside the box.

The Hounds were quick and mostly efficient when getting out into the attack – even in a game where they were out-possessed by a 61-39 margin — they created more scoring chances.

According to the coach, the team’s just beginning to build its confidence.

And that could be scary thing for its opponents.

RELATED: Mon Goals – Staying Hot against ATL (including player grades)

They’ve been solid at home — going 3-0-1. Taking a closer look at where they stand in various statistical categories may provide a glimpse of where they stack up among the 32 other teams in USL.

The most impressive stat may be that you can’t find on the USL Team Rankings would be that the Hounds have yet to trail at any point in a game this season.

In addition, they’re mastering the defensive and discipline categories, but surprisingly underachieving in distribution:

  • least amount of goals allowed (2) – best in USL
  • clean sheets (5) – best in USL tied with Orange County
  • among tops in league in successful tackles (69.8%), duels (49.9%) and aerial duels (49.6%)
  • discipline – 26th in fouls (75), 28th in yellow cards (8), and zero red cards
  • 32nd in passing accuracy (67.60%) and 24th in successful passes (2,458)
  • 9th in goal conversion rate (16%), 15th in goals (8), and 20th in shots (71)

 

So, if this club is going to jump to the next level — what will it take?

Here are three things that we should be looking at closely in the coming months:

  • Win road games
  • Pick up quality wins / beat teams in the top of standings
  • Make most of scoring opportunities

1. Winning on the Road

Thus far, the Hounds have had some good practice playing in hostile environments.

Playing to a pair of draws before some very large crowds – first a scoreless affair in the season opener at Nashville, then a back-and-forth game where things opened up a bit at FC Cincinnati with a 2-2 result in front of more than 24,000 fans at Nippert Stadium, the Hounds have shown that they can dictate play.

“When you’re a top team, you have to be able to win in all types of environments,” Lilley said prior to the Cincinnati match. “Cincinnati’s not a place we can go, sit back, defend and just try to survive. We’re not going to be able to sit back for 90 minutes and absorb pressure and crosses against this team. We’re going to have to come out and look to take the game to them.”

The Hounds scored only five minutes into the match, and by the beginning of the second half, Cincinnati had started to find spaces inside the final third — and after scoring — things really opened up for both sides.

Lilley could have tried to tighten things up but instead wanted to make sure they continued to push forward for goals even on the road in a hostile place like Nippert Stadium.

The road schedule coming up consists of a return to Lilley’s old home this week, Rochester, NY, where the Hounds will play Toronto FC II in the second of three meetings this year. Then, after a home tilt against Indy Eleven, the Hounds will probably really see where they stand when visiting Tampa Bay Rowdies on May 19 in the Sunshine State.

If the Hounds are going to be a top-four team in the Eastern Conference, and earn an elusive playoff home game, they’re going to have to do better than most of the teams they’re battling with in road games. Picking up anywhere from five to seven road wins would be massive. Thus far, they’ve yet to lose on the road, but there will be some tough obstacles ahead.

2. Quality results vs top competition

In the first six games, the Hounds have only faced one other team in the top five spots of the Eastern Conference — FC Cincinnati.

Louisville, last year’s champion, are off to a great start, and lead the Conference with 16 points after six games. With a mid-week win over Indy Eleven, FC Cincy have moved into second place with 14 points after seven games played. Then the Hounds sit among three teams with 12 points. The other two teams, Tampa Bay Rowdies and NY Red Bulls have each played one more game than Pittsburgh, and while each have had some impressive performances, they have also hit some bumps on the road.

A closer look at the Rowdies shows that they’ve picked up four wins – but are stronger at home (3-0) and really struggling on the road (1-3).

The Red Bulls II have been the top MLS ‘2’ team in USL for the past three plus years – impressively working in its young talented prospects into a successful system. NYRBII’s has two five goal performances in 5-0 and 5-2 wins over the Rowdies and Charleston Battery, the team is 3-0 at home. But on the road, they’re underachieving – with a draw at two of the worst sides in USL to date  Toronto FC II and LA Galaxy 2 (Los Dos), and a 3-1 loss at ATL2.

Louisville is the only outfit that has been impressive both at home and on the road – with its only non-win a 1-1 draw with those pesky youngsters — ATL2.

After a slow start, Charleston is starting to round into better form after making some changes.

The only team in this group the Hounds will see three times this year is FC Cincinnati, including a return trip to Nippert Stadium on September 1.

There’s going to be a lot of intense competition throughout the rest of the conference, so the Hounds will be challenged to stay in the top four — and even the top eight.

The Hounds face Tampa Bay on May 19, and their first matches against NYRBII and Louisville City will be held in June.

We’ll know a lot more about where they stand after those encounters.

3. Converting scoring opportunities

If there’s one area that the Hounds may want to improve, it will be making sure they finish on more scoring opportunities and get more contributions.  Also, seeing the statistical categories — even if they’ve played a few games where they’ve conceded possession — they really don’t want to be among the bottom teams in passing accuracy.

But on that note, when looking closer at the Hounds pass direction percentage you might see why they’re lacking in the quality of passing accuracy. The Hounds have played 44.6% of passes forward, while going equally to the left and right each at 21.4%.  The Hounds play it back only 12.6% of the time (by comparison league leading Louisville City, a good possession side, plays it forward only 38%, right and left around 21%, and back 15.1% of the time).

This means that the Hounds are trying to get forward a lot — favoring to go vertically as much as they use the width.  When they’ve gone out wide, they’ve sprayed the box in the final third with 76 crosses — connecting on 16 of them.

If you look throughout moments of the first six games, there were times where they missed out on golden chances. In the central forward spot, Parkes was able to get into space a few times in the first two games — only to miss on his six shot opportunities.

In Saturday’s match against ATL2, it was François who missed a chance to bury a shot from a nice ball played to him to the far post area. In the opener at Nashville, they missed a few close ones in the early part of the second half — and not to pick on François, who’s been outstanding this year, but he pinged a shot off the right post that night.

Brett has probably earned a spot in the starting central forward — for now — as he’s been the primary converter — scoring four times on eleven total shots (six on target). Not a bad conversion rate for the former Robert Morris standout who has made the most of his chance in the starting lineup the past four games.

They also have to get the ball into the box to score goals — with all eight goals this season coming inside the box (seven from right footed shots — and one from Saturday’s left footed finish by Brett). So thus far this season we haven’t seen any goals directly from set pieces, no penalties, no headers and no shots outside the box.

Parkes returned on Saturday, replacing Brett in the 71st minute, and provided at least one dangerous moment about 10 minutes later when he nearly broke loose on the left side, forcing ATL2’s Miles Robinson to pick up his second yellow card of the match when committing a foul to slow down the Jamaican forward.

“Romeo’s going to be dangerous for us going forward this year,” Lilley said after the match on Saturday. “We brought Romeo in — and hoped to create a goal or a breakaway opportunity. and we were able to take a big center back (Robinson) for them out of the game as a result.”

Having a number of versatile players like Vancaeyezeele has also allowed for Lilley to mix up his line-up card each week.

Lilley has regularly changed formations and rotated a number of players in the midfield and on the wing — as he’s had plenty of options.

Among these players include seasoned pros Kevin KerrBen Zemanski and Kenardo Forbes. The most dynamic player has been François, who has been a catalyst mostly from the right side. Both Joe Holland and Andy Lubahn have started a few games too — and Mouhamed Dabo has been a steady presence doing a lot of the dirty work as holding midfielder.

In addition, when penciling in a line-up with a three man back line, both Ray Lee and Jordan Dover have been pushed to become hybrid wingers who will go further up the flank and be involved in the attack. In Cincinnati, Dover scored the opening goal while pushing forward. On Saturday against ATL2, both were instrumental in swinging in many of the team’s 18 total crosses, but also tucking back into shape when the Hounds were defending against a possession-heavy team.

“They’re catching their rhythm. They know what I want from being with me last year (in Rochester). They’ve been putting in better performances,” Lilley said on Saturday. “They were tested a lot tonight. We handled some of those balls in gaps better than we did in Cincinnati. We were more consistent through the 90 minutes.”

Even with Brett’s four goals and currently sitting among the league leaders in goals, there still appears to be no one player that will be relied on to do the bulk of the scoring.

As long as most everyone gets into the act when called into action and goals start to come from a few more variety of ways— then watch out.

So, there you have it.

If the Hounds get a little bit better in passing accuracy, finishing chances and creating more opportunities, start to earn some quality road wins and beat quality opponents they’re battling with at the top of the USL table — then we’ll have ourselves a serious title contender here in Pittsburgh.

Until then, it’s still a work in progress before we can say that the Hounds have truly reached the next level.

But they’re on the right track.

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including 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 United States. 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).

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