For the first time this season the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC are in the midst of a losing streak – of two games – following Saturday night’s 2-1 loss at North Carolina FC.
A few days after the result, coach Bob Lilley was pleased to have a full complement of players back in training.
“We’ll see what we’re made of, now that we’ve reached the second half of the season, games take on more meaning,” Lilley said. “On a day like today, when we get back to training, we have guys with knocks, that might need the day off. But everyone stayed, went the full session today.”
The Hounds are trying to move on from its first road defeat of the season on Saturday.
It was a night when the Hounds put themselves in a hole early in the match. In the first half hour, they were constantly absorbing pressure from North Carolina, then after a careless possession, they conceded a goal in the 30th minute as NCFC found an opening after a quick restart that caught Pittsburgh off guard.
A couple quick passes made their way to Daniel Ríos at the top of the box. The Mexican striker found enough room to get a shot around defender Tobi Adewole, and beat Hounds keeper Dan Lynd in the process to put North Carolina FC ahead, 1-0.
“It was a comedy of errors,” Lilley said, in describing the sequence that led to North Carolina’s first half goal.
It started with a poor pass out wide to Thomas Vancaeyzeele that went out of bounds. North Carolina reacted quickly, catching the Hounds off guard, and in a rare moment of leaving too much open space in the final third.
“We may have been a bit complacent, comfortable, even after the loss after Charleston, we were pretty positive. It’s been a while since we played a half that poor,” Lilley added.
Other than one slip-up by Dan Lynd on a Joe Cole free kick at Tampa Bay earlier this season, that sequence may have been the most uncharacteristically bad goal that Pittsburgh’s allowed all season.
The first half effort clearly had Hounds Coach Bob Lilley perturbed enough to do something he doesn’t do that often — make a rare non-injury related substitution after just thirty minutes, taking out Romeo Parkes for Kay Banjo.
Only moments before coming out — Parkes couldn’t provide a quality finish after receiving a ball with loads of space to move in and deliver a shot on target. Instead, Parkes scooted a weak shot to the left of goal keeper Alex Tambakis.
When Parkes came off, on the USL telecast audio, you could hear Lilley giving Parkes a mouthful.
“There’s no rule that says we can’t make a sub in the first half. There were a lot of guys I’ve could have pulled the way we were playing,” Lilley said. “Romeo’s been good for us this year. He’s shown progress in some areas. We need him to be a leader. He’s an experienced player. We don’t want him to react to the game. We want him to be proactive. He’s scored three goals, but there are games where he’s sitting on chances, and could have scored six or seven goals at this point. He helped us in the Tampa Bay game, against Atlanta he drew a yellow card late, his pace against Louisville won us the game.”
Trailing 1-0, the Hounds looked like a much better team in the second half. For the third time this year, Christiano François scored a dynamite goal –hitting the equalizer in the 58th minute with a brilliant strike using the outside of his right foot while coming into the right side of the box.
The Hounds were on the front foot for much of the final 45 minutes.
“By the time we woke up, we were down 1-0. We did well to turn the momentum,” Lilley added. “If we played like the first 30 minutes, we weren’t going to win the game. But we showed we had backbone. We fought. We scratched and clawed to get back into the game. We flipped the momentum between 30th and 75th minute or so. Then it became a match where in the final 10 minutes or so, both teams began pushing for the go-ahead goal.”
One fatal foul on the right side of the box led to a North Carolina free kick from short distance would cost them the match.
Lynd made an effort to punch the service away, but wasn’t able to clear the cross into a scrum of bodies away from danger. The ball landed at the feet of substitute Wuilito Fernandes, who delivered a ball through traffic that went into the back of the net.
For the second time in as many games, the Hounds surrendered a goal in the very late stages.
“We left the door open, where one bad sequence cost us,” Lilley said.
Is this enough to be concerned?
“We’re still in the building process,” Lilley further explained. “We’re still going through ups and downs. We have to learn from this. The best teams, like Barcelona (FC) when they’ve had one or two loss seasons, learn how to bring the same, consistent effort night after night, no matter who they’re playing.”
With the loss, the Hounds, once seemingly the team with the most realistic chance in catching front-running FC Cincinnati, are now battling just to stay in the top half of the standings.
On Monday, first place and MLS-bound Cincinnati bolstered its roster with the announcement of the acquisition of two Major League Soccer players (Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe) prior to its inaugural MLS season in 2019.
Also acknowledging that some teams are taking a rapid roster turnover approach until they figure things out (namely Tampa Bay Rowdies), Lilley didn’t rule out the possibility that the Hounds could make roster additions if the right opportunities came up, though he’s fairly confident in the group he has right now.
“If proven guy who’s in top form would be available, we might be interested, but it’s highly unusual” Lilley said. “If we played poorly for long stretches, and I might be concerned, but we have been in good form. We’ve found ways to win games. The Charleston game we played well. I don’t consider the North Carolina an abysmal game either. Sure, we’re always monitoring what’s out there, but unless we get injuries, we like what we have.”
Lilley said he will have a full complement of players to choose from as the team now hits a stretch of two games in four days as they’ll have a chance to right the ship a bit by week’s end. Both matches are at home against 14th place Richmond (18 points) and last place (16th) Toronto FC II (6 points).
“It’s a dangerous game to play if you’re not completely focused,” Lilley said. “Margins in this league are so small. There’s no room for error. We weren’t focused the other day. We can’t make it easier for other teams. As staff, we’ll do what we can in terms of coming up with formation, shape and personnel. Both of our next opponents are quite capable teams.”
For the first time since early June Ben Zemanski got back into game action on Saturday as a sub (for Kevin Kerr in the 60th minute), and with Neco Brett training after last week’s reported neck injury, Lilley has a full roster of field players from which to select. There were a few players Lilley said have some ‘tweaks and knocks’ but should be ready for this week’s upcoming games at Highmark Stadium.
The Hounds coach did say with a busy stretch of games, he will look to ‘have some rotation’ and won’t overload playing time.
The Hounds (9-3-7) will host Richmond (5-11-3) at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, then Toronto (1-15-3) on Saturday at 7 p.m. Pittsburgh won their first meeting, 2-1, with Richmond and both matches vs Toronto FC II (4-0, 2-1) earlier this season.
Wednesday’s match will mark Faith and Family Night, presented by Cornerstone Television and K-LOVE.
— North Carolina FC (@NorthCarolinaFC) July 29, 2018