Sometimes things don’t always go according to plan.
The Riverhounds SC clash with North Carolina FC at Highmark Stadium for the club’s annual Fourth of July home tilt played before one of the largest crowds of the regular season provided a good example of this.
For the Hounds, regardless of the circumstances, they still did what they had to do under the circumstances to pull off yet another win, 2-0 over North Carolina FC to extend its unbeaten string to five games (4-0-1) and edge closer to USL’s Eastern Conference front running FC Cincinnati in the standings.
It was anything but an ordinary win on a bizzaro Fourth of July.
After a sweltering hot, 90 plus degree day, without a cloud in sight, the game kicked off right on schedule as a sellout crowd in a festive holiday mood, was taking its sweet time making its way to their seats. Things looked to be moving along methodically on the field as well, with both teams using the first 15 minutes of the match to feel each other out.
The Hounds started the game with a familiar formation with some different tweaks — staying pretty organized in a 4-2-3-1. Neco Brett was in the high spot, with Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Kenardo Forbes anchoring the holding midfield spots with Kevin Kerr, Romeo Parkes and Christiano François in the attacking midfield line.
The best the Hounds could do in the early going was see François push into the box in the seventh minute to lay a ball over to Kevin Kerr on the left side. Kerr had to act quickly, only able to redirect and poke a ball on frame just inside the left post. It was an easy pick up for NCFC keeper Alex Tambakis.
In the distance, behind the line of skyscrapers across the Monongahela River, the sky started to get a bit darker. Following consistent flashes of lightning in the distance as the game reached the 18th minute, game officials were given little choice but to suspend the match.
A half hour delay turned into a three-hour stalemate, with fans still hoping to catch the City of Pittsburgh’s fireworks show remaining congregated and took shelter where ever they could at Highmark Stadium, and in the surrounding parking lot areas. Many of the updates from what transpired during the delay were updated here in the live game file.
Finally, when the dangerous lightning strikes dissipated from the area, Pittsburgh fireworks show based at the confluence of the Three Rivers would carry on as scheduled at 9:40 p.m.
It was a pretty unique sight to see, as players (mostly from North Carolina FC), came out of the locker room area to witness the fireworks standing alongside fans.
Finally, at the conclusion of the fireworks show, game officials announced play would resume.
As the teams took to the field after a three-hour delay in which hardly a sprinkle of rain dropped onto Highmark Stadium, suddenly it began to pour.
Another oddity took place.
Team captains huddled at midfield with the officials trying to determine who would restart play with possession when a friendly game of rock, paper, scissors broke out — between Romeo Parkes and a NC FC opponent.
In going along with the night’s theme, game itself proved to be anything but routine.
Hounds coach Bob Lilley said after the match, while been around a long time, and has seen his share of weather related delays, it was a unique experience on Wednesday.
“It’s difficult. Most seasons you’re going to have four or five games you’re going to be affected by the rains, weather,” Lilley said. “Tonight, that was longer – altogether. I’ve had numerous where you come back after short delays, then they stop it again. I think the guys did a decent job playing with energy to get to the half.”
While both sides may have been cautious at the start of the game three hours before — this time around they came out with a bit more sense of urgency.
It was as if both teams — after waiting around for three hours — thought they could catch the other off guard in the early minutes to get an edge in the match. It was a pretty open ended, back and forth restart to the match.
Lilley changed things up — pushing Parkes a bit higher, and the Hounds suddenly were taking shape in a 4-4-2 for a rare occasion this year.
“Sometimes that happens when we change personnel,” Lilley explained. “And sometimes (assistant coaches) Mark (Pulisic), Dan (Visser) and Hunter (Gilstrap) will have an ideas. We can do a lot of different things. If we can get an edge we’ll tweak things. We have players that can adapt.”
The Hounds had the first go at it when Jordan Dover, who along with Ray Lee, settled into more traditional outside back roles on Wednesday, had a decent look from nearly 22 yards out — but his shot sailed way over the bar, and over the large contingent remaining among the Steel Army as well.
NCFC may have had its most dangerous moment only moments later when some combination passes led to D.J. Taylor having a chance to beat Hounds keeper Dan Lynd from the left side of goal.
As if he’s taken notice of some of the keeper heroics at the World Cup, Lynd came up with a top-notch kick save to deny a quick NCFC strike.
When talking to Lilley after the game, you wouldn’t think he was coaching a team that has posted clean sheets for more than four games, and a total of 397 minutes.
“Only thing I am disappointed with is how we’re why we’re having some mental lapses defensively. I am not talking about the back four, but I am talking about where we pressure, and where we’re supposed to be,” Lilley said.
“That’s one thing that has to change. We’re just riding our fortune right now. Reality is that I shouldn’t have to be moving chess pieces in the middle of the game. We dealt with all this in the preseason. It’s a positive result. We played okay. But I am expecting we’re going to have to clear this up pretty quickly. Again, just like (in games against) Louisville, (NY) Red Bulls II, they’re going through the heart, and getting easily behind us repeatedly and we’re having to make last ditch tackles.
One of the switches Lilley and his staff made when they came out in the 4-4-2, was switch around Kerr and François. While Kerr has alternated at various times this season between being on the width and in the middle, serving in the number 10 role, François has been almost exclusively on the right side.
Now, Lilley pushed the Haitian winger over to the left side.
“Christiano had a tough match up athletically. Though he caused some problems he wasn’t quite getting to the end line from the right, so we switched him up to the left,” Lilley said.
Sure enough, the speedy François, using his pace and ability to beat defenders, raced into the final third after he settled a ball that Forbes switched over to his left side. From there, he laid it off for Vancaeyezeele, who worked it wide for outside back Ray Lee. After François passed it back, he made a run into the open space on the left flank. Lee got him the ball and François took it from there — making his way past two defenders into the box from that left side, then cutting and ripping a right footed banger that blew past Tambakis as he entered the left corner of the box.
That’s the second time this year François delivered a net ripping shot from the same angle that instantly hit the back of the net.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) July 5, 2018
“He was able to cut inside, and he’s not known for his long-range goal scoring, but he can hit a ball,” Lilley said of his winger. “He strikes a good ball. He had a great chance later too, and he played a square ball. He’s got to keep recognizing when those chances are there, but he’s working hard, and I’m glad he got one.”
That energy that Lilley spoke about really came through when the Hounds needed it at the end of an evenly played first half which teams were almost equals in possession.
North Carolina were getting in behind the Hounds numerous times, forcing the vaunted back line to work a bit harder at times, earning Lilley’s ire.
But Pittsburgh’s attack were up to the task — and had contributions from two guys that haven’t been scoring a ton this year, but continue to be key contributors to the attack.
In the 70th minute, with a ball heading out past the end line, François would race to keep it in, playing it back to Forbes on the left side of the final third. The ever-composed Forbes took a touch and a moment to notice his fellow USL veteran Kerr on the far post side. Even with a defender in decent position, Forbes delivered a ball that Kerr zoned in well on to head it toward the opposite side. The header wasn’t a boomer by any means, but it had just enough on it to bounce past Tambakis.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) July 5, 2018
“It was a good goal by Kevin to nod it back, with a lot of backspin. It looked like caught the goalie moving and wasn’t set. If you nod it back to a dangerous area, either you’re going to score or someones there to clean it up,” Lilley said.
Actually it wasn’t exactly the kind of goal you’d might expect from a 5’7″ player — but Kerr was savvy enough to time it, beat the defender.
While Brett and Parkes have been the primary goal scorers this season, Lilley has to enjoy that he can get contributions from the likes of Forbes (big goal in the Louisville game, plus assist here), François and Kerr.
Still, North Carolina provided a few nervy moments in the late stages, enough to keep the Hounds coach on edge.
“I still think we’re not closing games out very well. But we still got our three points, and it’s on to the next one. I’m not going to dwell on this a long time. We’ll address some of the things, but the fact that we gutted it out, and I am not trying to be cliche, but sometimes you find ways to win,” Lilley said.
Having diversity in the attack, and numerous players that can score in different ways will only continue to provide the proper ingredients to mold this Hounds team into a championship contender.
At 12:15 a.m. — it was a long day for Lilley and his team. Despite his best efforts to stay in typical post-game mode, searching for ways to talk about how he could see his team improve, Lilley even broke a smile.
“You got to have good performances to consistently count on winning, but this was one game where the night was starting off glorious with a packed house. My hats off to fans that stayed, and the Steel Army too – it was exciting thatwe still had an atmosphere. We’re starting to get people to get invested and happy for the guys. It’s a game we have to have – as we have a tough game in Ottawa coming up,” Lilley said.
See, sometimes things always go according to plan.
“I am going to choose to be positive after this.”
#PGHvNC Player Grades
Dan Lynd – 7 – he has been such a steadying force in the back.
Ray Lee – 6 – quickly fed the Cheetah when he needed to
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 6 – played every minute of season, that says it all
Joe Greenspan – 7 – Hounds have yet to surrender a goal this season with Big Joe and his new (or old) haircut on the field
Tobi Adewole – 7 – worked hard alongside Greenspan. They made a good partnership in the middle.
Jordan Dover – 6 – worked hard up and down the flank — and tucking back in to back four.
Christiano François – 8 – He brings something special to the table. Has to bring it every game.
Kenardo Forbes – 6.5 – showing his versatility, wonder if Lilley wants more out of him, Vancaeyezeele and other midfielders in closing out spaces that last three opponents are finding
Hugh Roberts (73’) – 6 – when he came in, with two goal lead, Hounds went back to three-man back line.
Kevin Kerr – 7 – somebody has to score header goals, why not KK.
Andrew Lubahn (78’) – 6 – becoming a regular sub late in game.
Romeo Parkes – 4.5 – this was a weird game for Romeo. His work rate seemed fine — but had a few chances to put better shots on frame, but instead either couldn’t put trigger quick enough or took weak shots.
Mouhamed Dabo (62’) – 6 – no yellow card this time, and his presence allows for Forbes to push up higher later in games. In the past two games, Forbes has been involved in goals after Dabo has come on.
Neco Brett – 6 – work rate good as usual, but mostly quiet night for Hounds leading scorer when paired up with Parkes.
Subs not used: Mike Kirk, Todd Pratzner, Kay Banjo, Dennis Chin