Even when Riverhounds SC forward Neco Brett had gone without scoring a goal since mid-June, his head coach Bob Lilley had plenty of faith in his leading scorer this season.
Even after a 1-0 loss to Charleston on July 21, in a match where the Hounds did everything but score, Lilley reiterated his faith in Brett.
Sure enough, after two losses, the second which Brett was left off the line-up card due to a minor neck injury, the former Robert Morris University standout came back with a vengeance on Wednesday night, scoring twice in the the Hounds’ commanding 3-0 win against Richmond Kickers.
“As a player, you always want your coach to believe in you especially when you aren’t doing so well. Coach believed in me, and that is really important for me. It gave me the extra boost.”
Lilley was happy to remind us in his post-game remarks on Wednesday what he said after the Charleston loss.
“Do you remember what I said after Charleston game?” Lilley chuckled with a bit of a smile. “If we get Neco good looks, he’s a pretty good finisher. Any of you remember that quote?”
Brett and Lilley were also right about something else in their post-game comments on Wednesday.
The Hounds played with a sense of urgency that paid dividends right from the beginning of the match.
“I don’t think we were waiting for something to happen,” Lilley said. We had intent and we were rewarded. Attitude and mentality of press today was good. Got some easy chances because of it. Got behind them on number of occasions.”
Brett capitalized on an early Richmond miscue, when center back Conor Shanosky misplayed his header.
The win put the Hounds right back in the thick of the race for the top two or three spots in the USL’s Eastern Conference, but maybe more importantly, provided its players and coaching staff with a sense of regained confidence.
It’s not like the Hounds haven’t been playing well. Despite two consecutive losses, they only played one bad half of soccer, in North Carolina on Saturday.
The Hounds were aggressive and energetic from the get-go on Wednesday with a high press thanks in large part to players who have not been in the attacking four spots all that much this season, particularly Noah Franke and Thomas Vancaeyezeele.
Franke started in the wide right spot and Vancaeyezeele took root in the central attacking position.
“He’s done well. Good player,” Lilley said of Vancaeyeele, who made his 20th start in 20 league matches on Wednesday. “He’s not really an attacking mid but helped us win the ball up higher, and allowed Neco to press a bit higher.”
With Christiano Francois on the left side providing continued dynamic play, Franke worked hard on both sides of the field, and when opportunities presented, he found room on the other side to make a few deep runs and take a few dangerous shots near goal.
“It was great to see that type of performance from Noah [Franke],” Lilley added. “He had some moments earlier in the season and he’s a lively player. I thought he defended well tonight for the most part as well.”
Despite the Hounds out shooting Richmond 6-3, and 4-0 in terms of shots on target, and winning many balls in the midfield and attacking third, they were giving balls back away for numerous stretches in the first half.
Who knows, maybe having its two best hold-up mids (Kenardo Forbes and Kevin Kerr) sitting the first half out had something to do with it.
Lilley thought they could have been much more patient in the attack.
“It wasn’t a great first half performance. We started to tire because we didn’t have the ball,” Lilley said. “When quick counter is not there, we have to have composure to hang on to the ball. ”
Even in the beginning of the second half, holding on to a 1-0 lead, with some of the play continuing to get physical (the Hounds had three yellow cards) and with Richmond hanging around and some gaps and openings in its back four, Lilley made a few changes in the 62nd minute that tilted the match.
Joe Greenspan, who Lilley said has logged a lot of minutes since returning in early June, came in at center back, helped tightened things up in the middle of the back, allowing the Hounds to change to three center backs.
With Richmond playing more direct this provided a bit more reinforcement.
“I thought (starting center backs) Todd Pratzner and Hugh Roberts did a good job, but spaces were starting to open a bit,” Lilley explained. “We made those changes in time. I would have been mad at myself before I had that fixed.”
Instead of being mad at himself, Lilley had to be pleased that his other sub in the 62nd minute, Forbes provided what was lacking in the early portion of the game for the Hounds — ability to connect passes.
Forbes had a hand in both of the goals that would follow.
Francois broke free on the left sideline, then found Forbes in the 69th minute. Then Forbes had the quick vision to play a ball right to Brett’s foot.
“I knew when Kenardo got the ball, I knew he was going to make a forward pass,” Brett said. “He played a really, really good ball to my right foot. The defender stopped, and I decided to shoot.”
Then, Lilley’s final sub of the night was Ben Fitzpatrick, who made his first appearance on the season in the 77th minute.
And wouldn’t you know — the former Ohio State standout was played a ball from Forbes into a spacious left side four minutes after entering the match. The midfielder cut into the box and delivered a shot that banged off the lower right post and into the net for the goal that put the wraps on a 3-0 win.
“My job coming in with about 15 minutes left was to work my tail off. Christiano and Noah on the flanks were running their outside backs ramped. I knew if I just kept getting some runs in behind, a player like Kenny with his quality is going to play me the ball.”
It was one of the genuine feel-good moments of what’s been a really good season thus far for this team. All of the Hounds players were happy to share in celebration of Fitzpatrick’s first goal, especially as he was derailed for a good part of the season with a groin injury.
“It was my first time being rostered this game. Warming up on the sideline, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get in, but if I did I knew I needed to prove myself,” Fitzpatrick said.
Just like that, after a couple of days of feeling uncomfortable and irratated with having lost two straight games, the Hounds are back on track.
“Everyone comes in knowing it’s business time because we lost two games straight,” Brett said. “There weren’t many guys smiling. Everyone came in working really hard.”
“After dropping two games, there was a certain amount of pressure and expectation, and we performed well. We’re getting pretty healthy. I’m happy for guys. Of course there’s things we need to do better job, but we’re glad to get the win.”
Dan Lynd (GK) – 6.5 – a few nervous moments with punching ball out of danger brought back flashes of previous game, but was solid nonetheless.
Andrew Lubahn – 6.5 – was pushing forward a lot, and working hard to mark back. Solid night on left side.
Joe Greenspan (65’) – 7 – fortified middle to secure clean sheet. Blocked a few shots.
Todd Pratzner – 7.5 – paired well with Roberts, probably most effective of traditional center backs in playing ball short to holding mids and wide players.
Hugh Roberts – 7 – won most every aerial duel and again, paired well with Pratzner in 4-man back line
Jordan Dover – 6.5 – continued versatility shows, did solid job in more traditional outside back role.
Noah Franke – 7 – made the most of his chance in starting line-up. Effective getting forward and showing dynamic play, but also tucked back nicely into shape and worked hard defensively.
Mohamed Dabo – 6.5 – even when giving balls away, worked hard to win them back. Even had a rare shot on goal, but took while to pull trigger.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 7.5 – as attacking mid, not flashy but solid in maintaning effective high press, which was the tactical intent. Dropped to holding mid and left back a few times too. Maybe USL should have most versatile player of the year award, they can make him first recipient.
Ben Zemanski – 5.5 – maybe a little rusty still in his first start. Had a number of fouls, then eventually was booked. In second half, before being subbed out moved up, switching with Vancaeyezeele and was a bit more effective.
Kenardo Forbes (65’) – 8 – what a play maker he’s been for this team.
Christiano François – 7.5 – as long as the Cheetah keeps prowling on that left flank, it’s going to keep opening things up for the rest of the attack.
Ben Fitzpatrick (77’) – 8 – what a debut for Fitzpatrick.
Neco Brett – 8.5 – Lilley has faith in Neco, fans have faith in Neco. We all have faith in him.
Subs not used: Mike Kirk, Ray Lee, Kevin Kerr, Kenardo Forbes, Kay Banjo