Editor’s note: Riverhounds play-by-play voice Matt Gajtka brings his perspective on the team throughout the season in his weekly ‘View From The Booth’ column.
Bob Lilley simply had to laugh.
During one of our pregame phone conversations — aimed to give me some quick insights before conducting the broadcast — Lilley stopped in the middle of a response. Apparently, the son of Riverhounds SC owner Tuffy Shallenberger had entered the coaches’ office brandishing a custom T-shirt he had screen-printed.
I never got the full message, but Lilley said between chuckles that the soccer cliché ‘park the bus‘ was heavily involved in the theme. The man is nothing if not self-aware, apparently.
For the uninitiated, the term ‘Lilleyball’ has been thrown around by USL fans since the Hounds’ current manager was piloting the Rochester Rhinos to three regular-season banners and one USL Cup title earlier this decade. In a league where players come and go, it’s only natural for a coach to function as the face of a franchise.
But unless you were a fan of his teams, ‘Lilleyball’ has more often been used as a pejorative than a compliment. Highlighted by that championship 2015 Rochester squad, one that set the modern USL record by allowing 0.44 goals per match, Lilley’s teams have been typically known for their stifling defending. Ask most fans around the league and they’d say that signature goal-prevention success comes at the expense of the subjective entertainment factor that pro sports are supposed to provide. And if you follow a variety of sports, you know style is more of a concern in the soccer world than most other realms.
Personally speaking, I’ll even admit that when I heard Lilley was coming south to Pittsburgh due to the Rhinos’ self-imposed 2018 hiatus, I had mixed feelings.
Yes, the Hounds could use more discipline, more structure, more … winning. Lilley could obviously deliver all three. There have been myriad moments during the Highmark Stadium era when the Hounds have left valuable wins and points on the board because they couldn’t close out games.
At the same time, I was concerned that ‘Lilleyball’ wouldn’t adequately sell pro soccer in a market that still needs prodding to consider the Hounds a viable competitor to the other big brands in town. The closest the Hounds have come to a regional breakthrough in recent years was 2015, when a three-pronged attack of Rob Vincent, Kevin Kerr and Lebo Moloto terrorized opposing defenders throughout an intensely interesting (and winning) summer.
Ultimately, I decided it was unfair for me to completely judge Lilley’s aesthetic merits based upon the handful of times I’d seen his teams play the Hounds. Hey, after two stagnant seasons at Highmark, it’s not like the club was diverting from a wildly successful formula. Change was needed. So be it.
Seventeen games into the Lilley Era, 12 of which have finished with zero goals for the opposition, I’ve learned a few things. First among those: Defense can be fun.
Instead of being some slow-it-down approach to the sport, I’ve found ‘Lilleyball’ to be rather malleable. In closing out a 1-0 win at Ottawa on Sunday, the Hounds were tightly organized and “mature,” to use winger Andy Lubahn‘s words.
— Andrew Lubahn (@SirLubahn_16th) July 8, 2018
That’s the kind of composed stuff I thought we’d see to secure points this year, especially on the road. Score early and defend like hell. That basic formula was followed to a ‘T’ in Canada’s capital, which was ideal for the second gameday of the week.
But just as often Pittsburgh has put pressure on to try to turn a match.
The signature victory at Louisville two weeks ago provided a fine example of the latter. On that muggy midweek night, the Hounds used the pace of Christiano François, Neco Brett and others to make life difficult for the boys in purple, eventually forcing enough mayhem in the Louisville end to generate the decisive goal.
Along those uptempo lines, the Hounds have also relied upon a brisk counterattack game once they recover the ball. With middle-of-the-park contributors like Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Kenardo Forbes connecting defense to offense, I’m not sure there’s a scarier team in the USL’s Eastern Conference after collecting a turnover.
That look matches up what Lilley has been talking about since he got to town. Yes, he wants his teams to work extremely hard at the defensive aspects of the game, but when it’s time to attack, he wants the accelerator pressed down hard. This style of play takes physical and mental energy in equal measure, so I hope the Hounds are enjoying their 13-day midseason break.
So, in summation, ‘Lilleyball’ is about defense first, but it’s not about defense only. It’s tough to say Brett has been too limited by the team’s demanding style, since he’s on pace for one of the best point-production seasons in franchise history.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) July 12, 2018
Before I get too carried away, there’s no doubt the Hounds are leaving some offensive potential in the holster. Better finishing would help, as Pittsburgh ranks in the bottom half of the league in shot-conversion rate, but the Hounds aren’t going to catch rival FC Cincinnati in terms of filling the net even if they’re all fitted for golden boots.
The comparison with Cincy is rather illustrative, actually. Both teams are battling for the top of the table honestly, boasting healthy goal differentials. But Cincy’s plus-15 is the result of an offensive onslaught (35 goals), while Pittsburgh’s plus-14 is due to allowing just seven goals all year. We can dream of a clash-of-styles East final, which is a credit to the Hounds’ gobsmacking transition into a lockdown unit.
Remember those ’15 Rhinos? This year’s Hounds have a few things in common with them, most notably the defensive record. At 0.41 goals against per match, Pittsburgh is on pace to break Rochester’s incredible mark. Tip your cap to Dan Lynd and his nine clean sheets at the midway point, but kudos are equally due to every Hounds who’s bought into Lilley’s tenacious, swarming ideal of defending.
The ’15 Hounds they are not. Not even close. But there are different ways to win. And judging by the increasing crowd sizes and social-media buzz surrounding the squad, there are different ways to captivate an audience, even if you have to occasionally catch a whiff of bus fumes.
Just kidding, coach.