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Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Analysis & Player Grades: Hounds ‘go for it’, win big despite holes

On Saturday Riverhounds SC coach Bob Lilley faced a familiar opponent in the NY Red Bulls II and coach John Wolynec in the Hounds 3-0 win.

The two coaches have faced each other 11 times in the previous three seasons when Lilley was coaching the Rochester Rhinos. Lilley often had his way in the match-up — winning a USL Championship in 2015.

The constant between the two USL title winning coaches has brought about a classic clash of styles.

When Lilley and Wolynec have faced off — it’s been a test between an ultra aggressive, high pressing philosophy of the hard-charging, young version of the Red Bulls versus a strong defensive unit that swarms and suffocates its opponents and looks for timely goals.

What transpired Saturday was anything but.

What we saw was a rare lopsided scoreline in a match where Lilley’s Hounds were pushing forward as much as its opponent.

After Lilley’s dominance in the first year, eventually Wolynec’s Baby Bulls, which continually assemble an impressive corps of young players as part of the Red Bulls organization, broke through and solved Lilley’s Rhinos in a USL Eastern Conference playoff duel that ended 3-3 in 2016 – and ultimately decided 5-4 on penalties. The Red Bulls would march on to capture a USL title that season. Last year, the two teams, which both made the playoffs, split a pair of 2-1 contests.

Fast forward to Saturday night.

Now at the helm of a Riverhounds revival, Lilley and his coaching staff changed tactics a bit this time around against the Red Bulls, neutralizing New York’s aggressive style with an attacking mindset of its own.

“We chose to dictate that tempo. I don’t think they expected us to be so direct the other way,” Lilley said. “We had six or seven clear moments where we got in and behind the back line. We made that choice — that we’re at home and we’re not going to let them press us and lose the ball in our end. We had clear advantages by playing forward.”

Although Lilley rolled out a pregame line-up card that looked like a stacked 5-4-1, there was no way the Hounds were going to pack it in with both Neco Brett and Romeo Parkes in the starting eleven.

Even after the match — Lilley acknowledged that along with Brett, Parkes and Christiano Francois running around, this was a ‘very interesting lineup.’

Sure enough, once it was clear that Thomas Vancaeyezeele popped out of the back line into a holding midfield role — allowing Ben Zemanski and Kenardo Forbes to take more chances, the Hounds showed they were clearly going for it.

This wasn’t going to be a cautious affair.

Instead we got Rocky Balboa vs Clubber Lang,

Tommy Hearns vs Marvin Hagler was pretty great real life version of this by the way. Best three round slugfest I’ve ever seen. If you get a chance — watch it on YouTube sometime.

Sorry, I’ve digressed.

At times Ben Zemanski in his time on the field was on Tommy V’s right – and other times Zemanski would push forward into the central attacking midfield spot.

Kenardo Forbes, who has been playing a lot of central midfield, started this game spending most of his time on the left side of the attack which morphed into more of a 4-1-3-2 or a 4-2-2-2 depending on where Zemanski was floating around. Christiano Francois, who usually roams around on the right side in space, was checking back into the middle– alternating with Zemanski to cover the area underneath the higher Parkes and Brett.

While possession early was pretty equal, it was Pittsburgh that had the majority of shot attempts – taking five of the first six of the game.

Brett had a golden chance in the 9th minute after receiving a ball from Parkes who was practically pulled by NYRBII defender, but the big Jamaican forward wouldn’t go down.  More chances would come, but the Hounds kept coming up short — and they were testing Lilley’s patience.

Zemanski delivered a nice cross into Forbes, forcing NYRBII’s keeper Scott Levene to make a nice save.

Moments later Zemanski would come off — and Kevin Kerr proved to be a high quality option off the bench.

Eventually the Hounds would get the go-ahead goal in the 27th minute. Ironically, it happened on a play that began with a cross that didn’t connect. François sent a low ball into the box that Parkes simply overran.

Kerr was there — for the third time this year — on the other end of the cross on the right side to collect the ball and redirect it over to Brett. Hounds went up 1-0.

While they were missing ‘bunnies’ as Lilley also described, the Hounds were also leaving gaping openings on the defensive side. The four man back line and Vancaeyezeele, without much help, were giving up plenty of room. It was a rare night this season to watch a Hounds team concede lots of possession deep into the final third.

With the senior team also playing that night, and despite the clever play of Andrew Tinari in the midfield, Wolynec didn’t have his best lineup at his disposal.

The Hounds may have been fortunate that they weren’t getting NYRBII’s top team, but it seemed as if they threw their opponents off a bit with their tactical choice to constantly playing it forward

“They probably had three or four great chances there at the beginning of the second half,” Lilley explained. “It’s important to get it right at both ends. A more experienced team would have punished us — as open as we were in the back at times. And that’s a concern. You shouldn’t look like your gonna leak three or four. And we probably could have scored six or seven.”

The Red Bulls midfielders and forwards were spending lots of time and touches in the final third.  In fact, NYRBII were able to get 25 touches inside the 18 against the Hounds, who have been keeping that number somewhere around five or less this season.

Red Bulls II touch map for its midfielders and forwards against Riverhounds SC on Saturday. (USL match center image) 

That’s one of the things that Lilley wasn’t happy with.

That spot on the left side of the image inside the box (in RBII attacking third) on the USL match center heat map was pretty solid red. Lots of credit to Tinari for winning many battles, navigating and keeping possessions that deep. He was outclassing Vancaeyezeele and the Hounds midfield for stretches on Saturday.

As Lilley said after the game, his team was fortunate. The Red Bulls had seven shots from inside the box, with three on target. Ben Mines had the best one at the far post on a ball that got through in the 53rd minute. Defender Hugh Roberts hugged the post, and Ray Lee cleared the rebound — and the Hounds quickly went with the Balboa counter punch. Kenardo Forbes laid through a beauty of a pass for Brett that turned a close match in clear favor of the Hounds.

Parkes made it look even better by finally capitalizing on a cross into the middle of the box with a perfectly timed run — and header into the back of the net as Levene had no chance.

Sometimes when a match turns into a slug fest, its not always pretty. While both teams were getting forward plenty, it was physical — and the Hounds were guilty of conceding 23 of the match’s 29 fouls.

And in a week we’re starting to watch many World Cup games played with precise passing (even Iceland when they actually have the ball can really knock it around), neither team was exactly pinging it around with any efficiency. The Hounds were out possessed by 60/40 margin in a match were each team were sloppy in keeping the ball. NYRBII (65%) were better in passing accuracy than the Hounds (paltry 52%). Forbes in particular, seemed to be giving balls away more than usual. With the same amount of short pass attempts as Tinari, Forbes only connected on 48 percent, while the NYRBII play maker connecting passes 69 percent of the time.

This game defied the stats at times.

One team threw a lot of punches and connected on three.

The other — got it real close but couldn’t connect.

Once leading by a three-goal margin, Pittsburgh tightened things up, dropping Vancaeyezeele into the middle of a five man back line with four tight midfielders in front of them.

The Hounds had more than enough to power past an inexperienced team that for all of its aggressiveness and firepower — and has not played well on the road this year.

The Hounds still have work to do — but they’re keeping pace to stay near the top of the standings.

With Charleston and Louisville — two quality sides looming — Lilley has to like where his team stands, but knows that his crew needs to clean things up.

“I’m fairly happy with the result. I’m not necessarily thrilled with the performance, but we can work on it and hopefully get it better for the next game.”

#PGHvNY Player Grades

Dan Lynd – 6 – routine saves all made — and another clean sheet

Ray Lee 6.5 – nice assist on Parkes goal , won his battles on his side.

Hugh Roberts 6 – the usual positive line with clearances,  did what he had to do to prevent Mines’ shot from having a chance. Wonder if Lilley wasn’t pleased with center backs positioning and leaving too much space.

Thomas Vancaeyezeele6 – started as holding mid. Once third goal came, dropped as center back. Struggled a bit vs Tinari.

Todd Pratzner6 –  another reliable performance and hey — another shutout.

Jordan Dover5.5 – less assertive deeper in the attack, won share of battles but also conceded four fouls.

Ben Zemanski6 – (injured) – twenty minutes in — was alternating between holding spot alongside Tommy V and pushing forward. had a nice cross in 18th minute.

Kevin Kerr (22′) – 6.5 – register another assist in relief for the reliable Scotsman.

Kenardo Forbes 5.5 – didn’t think it was his best outing.

Christiano François– at times couldn’t figure out where he was supposed to be. When he keeps it simple playing with Forbes and Kerr he’s more efficient (team high 86% passing accuracy in this game!) but still not dangerous enough in final third where he needs to be.

Neco Brett 8 – two goals — now leads team with eight. Continuing to do what he needs to do!

Joe Greenspan (74′) – 6 – needing more game fitness, but did his usual quality work in clearing balls in the middle with three goal lead

Romeo Parkes 6.5 – that header has to be a tremendous confidence booster.

Kay Banjo (78′) – 5 – quiet night in return for big striker as Hounds last sub.

Subs not used: Mike Kirk, Tobi Adewole, Andrew Lubahn, Joe Holland

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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