In previous seasons, a player with an impressive pedigree like Joe Holland would probably have been a solid bet to be a regular starter with Riverhounds SC.
A year ago, after an impressive collegiate career with Hofstra University, Holland played with the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer and its USL affiliate partners in EL Paso. After a third of the way through his first season in Pittsburgh, the Birmingham, England native found that the competition for playing time with Riverhounds SC is as fierce he’s ever seen at any level.
“Lots of good players, good competition here for spots. There are guys who played in MLS, in this league a long time. Also some young players, who have lots of energy,” Holland said after training session last week. “We had a busy stretch of seven or eight games in short span, so most everyone’s had a chance to get it. We have a very diverse group of guys — and battle for playing time is intense.”
Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley has built a roster of players that have been competing for playing time — and some for roster spots — from the first day of the preseason, enduring through each week of training and now through the first third of games played this season.
The results are hard to argue with, as Lilley’s Hounds have lost only one league game and two times overall in 15 matches in all competitions.
Often Lilley acknowledges that he and his staff are challenged each week to come up with selections for a starting eleven — and 18 players to pencil into the line-up.
“Sure, I prefer to start. To come in (as sub) is always difficult,” Holland, who is a part of the team’s rotation of attacking midfielders, has made three starts, eight regular season appearances in Pittsburgh. “Bob requires a certain energy. If you start or you come in with two minutes to go, you are expected to play with that energy.”
Holland sits among a talented and experienced group of attacking midfielders that each bring something different to the table for the Hounds.
Both Kenardo Forbes and Kevin Kerr bring more than a combined decade of experience playing and captaining USL teams. Ben Zemanski has played much of his career in Major League Soccer with Portland Timbers and can rotate between holding midfield role and into the attack. Christiano François provides dynamic speed and ability to stretch back lines. Holland’s strengths include outstanding ability to possess the ball in tight spots, pinpoint passing and accuracy on set pieces. In addition, waiting in the wings are a pair of young players that include Noah Franke and Bakie Goodman.
During a stretch in May when the Hounds played seven games in 22 days, and with some game fitness and injury issues, Lilley said that he was down to 16 or 17 field players, and wasn’t able to go with his strongest 11 for each game.
Still, he even acknowledged it’s not easy getting everyone quality minutes.
“If I could play 16 guys, I would,” Lilley remarked earlier in the season.
It’s been a consistent theme from the players has been that the coaching staff has been demanding and playing time has to be earned.
This is the message that extends to all Riverhounds players — veterans and young players alike.
Lilley has called out his veterans on several occasions this season — most recently after the second scoreless draw at home vs Keystone Derby rival Penn FC.
“At the end of the day, you can’t win games if you don’t have fighters. Not enough desire and pure will to go after it. I am disappointed in leadership in older players. They’re not driving the bus. They’re waiting for staff to get them going. To me, it’s not, I call it like I see it. Today’s just not good enough,” Lilley said after that result when the Hounds were in the midst of a three-game scoreless streak at home.
“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 continued. “Not just to single out (sixth year Hound) 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.”
And that’s the bottom line for Lilley — and to all the players that signed up to be a part of this year’s team.
They’re on a mission to bring a home playoff game to Pittsburgh’s soccer fans — and to strive for championship.
“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,” François, who also played for Lilley in Rochester, said earlier in the season.
While earning playing time is certainly the deciding factor under Lilley, the coach also has a lot of faith in every player on his roster. He wanted to make sure that he was getting as many players valuable game action. Through the team’s first 13 games, Lilley’s been able to get 21 available players at least one start, in addition to two Open Cup games.
“There are a lot of guys that can step up for us. We have a lot of competition for spots,” Lilley said. “We have plenty of options.”
One of the team’s biggest surprises has been the emergence and dependability of first-year pro Thomas Vancaeyezeele, as one of the most versatile players in the league. Lilley just can’t keep ‘Tommy V’ out of the line-up. The Frenchman’s leading the Hounds in minutes played (1,170), starts (13) and appearances (13 – tied with Kevin Kerr and Neco Brett).
“He’s a kid here that sees the game well,” Lilley said. “You get guys, big guys, strong guys, but they don’t always see the spaces, don’t always have the finesse and he has a lot of quality in his game. When you get a young guy that reads things instinctively really well, it’s exciting.”
By comparison, no other player has played in all 13 regular season games (Ray Lee, Jordan Dover, François and Todd Pratzner, who all played for Lilley in Rochester are next with 11 starts each). No one besides Vancaeyezeele has cracked the 1,000 minute mark.
Some players, like Joe Greenspan and Romeo Parkes missed a number of games due to injury, and the team’s leading goal scorer who’s also now tied for the league lead — Brett — has started eight times.
Two players who were expected to be counted on as mainstays in the line-up at the outset of the season, Greenspan and Parkes, were injured after the first two weeks. When returning, each didn’t exactly get shoved (or were needed) back on the field. A testament to how well the next players have stepped up — and have competed for playing time.
Parkes returned by May, but had to work his way back into the starting eleven — and finally capitalized with a solid effort in his first start at Tampa Bay in 2-2 road draw, and has since scored three times. Simply put, the emergence of Brett as the primary goal scorer forced Parkes to fight his way back into a relevant role with the team.
It wasn’t handed back to him.
In a 2-1 come-from-behind win at Richmond both Brett and Parkes scored key goals — and when they hooked up for the game winner — Lilley was probably convinced enough that he would start the two forwards together in the following game for the first time this season.
And wouldn’t you know it — both scored on Saturday too.
Greenspan only came back from a two month absence due to a debilitating calf injury as a substitute in the Hounds 3-0 win over NY Red Bulls II on Saturday. The Hounds back line has been solid in Greenspan’s absence to the tune of USL leading eight shutouts in 13 games — and surrendering a league low of seven goals.
Not only have they been rolling out numerous center backs who can start for any other team in USL in Pratzner, Hugh Roberts, Tobi Adewole, but a player that Lilley raved about providing him with ‘tactical versatility’ — Vancaeyezeele’s been an invaluable addition to the middle of the back line at times when the Hounds have gone with three or five in the back.
Another sign of the significant depth of this roster goes back to the forward position. The Hounds brought in former USL Golden Boot winner Dennis Chin late in preseason, and many may have expected him to be in the mix.
Instead, Chin’s been a victim of this deep roster, making only one regular season appearance (seven minutes at the end of Penn FC draw) as he currently sits as the fourth option at forward for Lilley.
What a fourth option to have.
Chin did score in another appearance, a 3-1 loss to FC Cincinnati in Open Cup third round.
“It’s been rough for me to miss so many games,” said Chin. “I would’ve loved to get the win (in the loss), but I guess a goal is good to get. Mentally it’s tough. I’ve been involved everywhere I’ve been. Our team’s been doing well. It’s been impressive and Bob has these guys going. I just needed to get where I need to be.”
Lilley has molded a team that will continue to develop and grow through the season — and it all starts with the competitive environment that starts in every training session at Highmark Stadium.
Talented players like Chin and Holland will have to keep putting in the work, and eventually will have their chances to contribute to the greater good to a team that is focused at staying in contention in a league that’s getting better and better.
“You can see that competitiveness especially in the Eastern Conference — and teams we’re battling at the top, Cincinnati, Louisville,” Holland said. “Playing time has been competitive in a lot of places in our league. You can see with a lot of players coming in from NASL the level has risen every year — and especially this year it’s been an especially large chunk.”
In Saturday’s win, Zemanski left the game with lower body injury, and was replaced by Kerr in the 20th minute. Seven minutes later, the veteran midfielder served up his third assist in league play this season to get the Hounds on the board.
The competition is fierce and furious.
If Zemanski’s going to be out for some time, it will lead to opportunities for the next man to step up — and bring that energy and competitiveness to help the Hounds stay near the top of the USL Eastern Conference standings.
That next man could be Franke, or Goodman or Holland.
Let the competition continue.