Of the many things to take away from Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley‘s post-game comments after another nil-nil draw against Harrisburg, I mean Penn FC, there was one comment that might have stood out.
“We’re so easy to play against right now,” Lilley said. “Everyone’s talking about our shutouts. Being unbeaten is hogwash. We need to start winning games.”
At the outset of this season, one of the things that stood out in watching Lilley mold his team here in Pittsburgh was, however unorthodox in its approach, they were going to do all of the little things right and be a very difficult team to beat.
The season started out that way.
They’ve played ten games, a little more than a quarter of the league season without a loss.
But they’ve got two issues that stand out.
They’re getting pushed around (statistics back it up) and they can’t create enough pressure and — as Lilley said –‘to lay the hammer’ down on opponents when they have them in trouble.
A closer look at the post-game stats revealed what the veteran coach was talking about.
The Hounds are getting beat — once again as they have in recent string of games — in the important one-on-one battles in the middle of the field and in the box.
Penn FC were the better team on 50-50 balls with a duels success rate of 57% (winning 56% of it aerial duels), against a Riverhounds SC club that kept the possession edge (56%/44%, but much stronger in the first half). The former City Islanders doubled the Hounds in tackles (19-8).
While the Hounds were more accurate in passing, had twice as many corners (6-3) and were sending in more crosses (19-12), shots (13-4, 5-3 on target)they were lacking that something extra.
Lilley had many words to describe his team’s performance on Saturday. One of those was soft.
This is a team playing without an edge — especially in the final third. It was a performance that was especially disappointing because the Hounds have now played two games against its supposed most bitter rival, and in each game they’ve left a lot to be desired.
Both games were played to scoreless stalemates. Andeach time, the Hounds didn’t do enough to fully apply constant pressure it needed too to seize each match.
The easy excuse to point to is a grueling schedule. There’s no doubt that’s a factor — as Pittsburgh has — since May 11 — played Friday, Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday and now upcoming another Wednesday and Saturday.
Lilley went out and picked up some depth by adding Connor Maloney from Columbus Crew on loan to help. Even with injuries to certain players, and managing the line-up cards in a way that has spread out minutes played enough to be able to get a maximum effort — the results have shown that the Hounds are just prodding along through this stretch.
It was veteran players who Lilley called out after the latest 0-0 draw with Harrisburg.
And rightfully so.
Tactically, it seems as if Lilley is still trying to figure out what combination of his seasoned midfielders and attackers to use.
On Saturday, they went with a 4-4-1-1 that put Kevin Kerr underneath the top striker Romeo Parkes — with Christiano François and Bakie Goodman, making his first start out wide left. Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Ben Zemanski sat behind them in the holding midfield spots. Kenardo Forbes came in for Goodman in the 71st minute, and Joe Holland was added to the attacking mix in the 86th minute.
By the way, when talking about being easy to play against, Lilley didn’t mean from a tactical standpoint, as he’s often changing up formations, and expects his players to be able to adapt accordingly.
What Lilley’s getting to is that teams are starting to sense that they can push around the Hounds.
In the last three league matches against Indy Eleven, Tampa Bay and Harrisburg — as well against FC Cincinnati in the Open Cup, the Hounds have been outworked.
Pointing to the attacking trio of midfielders, Kerr, François and Parkes in particular — that’s where Lilley is looking for more production and to lead by setting the example. Parkes once again came up short when he had opportunities to score, but he was equally inept at passing (31% in the attacking third) as there were numerous times Parkes took a touch, then simply gave away balls. He also lost a pathetic 13 out of 18 duels (8 out of 10 in the air).
Of course, the Jamaican forward shows dynamic ability when he does get out into space with ball at his feet, with two shot attempts in the early going– one from the left side of the box in the 3rd minute, then another that was blocked in the 24th that came to Kerr’s foot with room to shot just inside the box. The sixth-year Hound missed the frame by pushing his shot over the bar.
There were a few crosses that came into the box that connected for headers, but headers by Vancaeyezeele and Hugh Roberts also couldn’t put their attempts on frame.
All of this looks a little familiar though.
While Lilley pointed out that this game reminded him of the first draw with Harrisburg, and while he is correct, this result had me thinking a lot about another game that he was involved in.
This might make some Hounds fans feel a little bit better.
A year ago, when the Hounds, then coached by Dave Brandt, played Lilley’s Rochester Rhinos club for the first time, it was a game that ended in a — you guessed it — nil-nil draw in July.
The thing that I remember vividly about that match was how unimpressed I was with Rochester.
I remember making the comment about how the Hounds were the better team in the midfield and were winning all the little battles. Against a Bob Lilley team, I didn’t think that was possible. All the stats were similar too for Lilley’s squad at that time — as the Rhinos held more possession, played more shorter passes and had more shots/crosses. That Hounds team — with Tobi Adewole and Jamal Jack at center back — won most of the aerial duels (60%).
When the Rhinos came back to Highmark Stadium in September, and then October, they were clearly a better team. Getting a late push for a draw in September, then ‘laying the hammer down’ for a dominant 2-0 performance against a reeling Hounds squad in October.
Lilley created a winning culture in Rochester over the years. When his teams have been challenged and pushed around — they always responded andfound ways to win.
By the end of last season, the Rhinos cruised into the playoffs on a roll, while the Hounds limped to the end of the regular season without a win in its final seven matches. Of the two teams that battled to that evenly matched draw in July, it was Lilley’s Rhinos that figured it out. They were the one that was clicking on all cylinders, having strong veteran leadership and put themselves in position to challenge for a USL championship.
Can this Hounds team, which sit in fourth place with 18 points, get to that level?
Right now the answer is incomplete.
There really isn’t a signature win against a quality opponent. The Hounds four wins have come against teams in 11th (Ottawa), 15th (Atlanta United 2) and 16th places in the 16 team conference.
They are at the same point that Rochester was a year ago when they drew Pittsburgh in an uninspiring 0-0 draw.
“We’ll need our older players to make good decisions. Drive the group. They have to drive the group. That’s what happened in Pittsburgh in the past. The group wasn’t driven.” Lilley explained after Saturday’s draw to Keystone Derby rival Penn FC. “Not just to single out Kevin Kerr, lets talk about all the senior players. There’s not a tenacity to our group. We’ll all be nice guys. Sneak in the playoffs. Maybe win a round if we’re lucky. But you don’t win championships that way.”
“I want to see guys crash into goal posts,” Lilley added. “I don’t see any desire, hunger to smother teams. That’s where that has to change, or where we’re just another decent team. We want to be special.”
Lilley is right on point, but one question I have — and may continue to ask as they prod along in the coming months — do they really have enough reliable firepower at the top of the attack?
Neco Brett has been the only consistent presence and finisher.
Parkes and François are capable of being game-changing type players, but do they have what it takes to take this team to an elite level?
Kerr, Zemanski and Forbes are all seasoned pros — but are they doing enough — and are they being used properly?
These are all fair questions to ask, and if the Hounds can’t show more firepower, they can forget about being an elite team. Not with the likes of Louisville City, FC Cincinnati and a surging Charleston lurking above them.
Lets face it, expectations are much greater this year for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.
Lilley won’t settle for anything less. Suddenly the small, die-hard fan base won’t either.
Now, it’s up to the players.
PLAYER GRADES (#PGHvPEN)
Dan Lynd – 7 – another clean sheet. made saves when he needed to.
Andrew Lubahn – 5.5 – defensively solid, looked to play more balls forward than getting deeper into the attack.
Todd Pratzner – 5 – lots of short passing out of the back, lost his share of duels too.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 5 – most accurate passer (83%) for Hounds in match. Played pretty deep.
Hugh Roberts – 7 – Lilley said was only player who had solid game afterwards. Won his battles (13-4) + 80% passing accuracy — and former All-USL player is rounding into form. Would be nice to see him paired with Joe Greenspan in the middle when he gets healthy.
Connor Maloney – 5.5 – with a full season plus as a pro now — Maloney showed he’s sharper, more dangerous and why he’s still on an MLS roster — than his first go-around as a Hound.
Joe Holland (86’) – 6 – potential game winning pass was just offside.
Ben Zemanski – 5 – again played in holding role. Accurate passing but didn’t really insert himself into the attack much.
Neco Brett (71’) – 6 – had the game winner that was called off. Once he came in, Hounds fight near top got better.
Bakie Goodman – 5 – for a player that’s good in tight spaces, left outside mid didn’t seem like the best place for him and wasn’t very involved (only 20 passes in 60 minutes).
Kenardo Forbes (62’) – 5.5 – We still want more from former All-USL midfielder, even in 30 minutes, didn’t insert himself into match much.
Kevin Kerr – 4.5 – missed quality chance in 1st half, was quiet for stretches of the second and played his first full game in a while.
Christiano François – 4 – one sequence on right side he outworked three Penn FC players to ball then keeping it all the way down the sideline, using speed and shiftiness, then fell on his can. That pretty much summed up his performance.
Romeo Parkes – 3 – has moments of dynamism, then disappears for long stretches, then when has chance to win game took a weak shot that’s no where close to frame.
Subs not used: Mike Kirk, Tobi Adewole, Jordan Dover, Ray Lee