For Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC head coach Bob Lilley, the off season provides little time for sentimental reflection or rest.
Spend some time with the long-time, successful coach in his office, and you’ll find out quickly that he’s all business and completely focused on 2019. Even in this digital age, the old-school coach prefers to zero-in on adding and subtracting names from a simple list on a big dry erase board in his office.
“In year one. we set a standard. Now, there’s an expectation. We know what it took this year to be at the top. We didn’t get there all the way. Not only do we have to get better to catch up with this year, but next year, it’s going to take a bit more,” Lilley added. “There has to be a significant jump to get to another level to get to the top.
The Hounds season ended abruptly in the first round of the USL playoffs on October 20, with an overtime loss on penalty kicks to Bethlehem Steel FC.
It was a strong turn-around season for the Hounds, as the club finished third overall in the USL’s Eastern Conference, earning a first-ever home playoff game at Highmark Stadium.
In the immediate days that followed the season-ending loss, Lilley met with each player, and informed them that he would be letting them know of their status in a short amount of time. Every player on the Hounds 2018 roster was signed to a one-year contract, with the club holding the option to sign them to another year.
Wasting no time, along with input from his coaching staff, Lilley took a good, hard look at the dry erase board to build a core group of returning players. One-by-one, he went through the difficult task of making decisions and erasing names from the team roster.
In some cases, Lilley acknowledged that decisions were ‘agonizing.’
The two-time USL championship winning coach set out a clear vision for where he wants the Riverhounds to go in 2019, his second season at the helm in Pittsburgh.
Lilley opted to keep eleven players from 2018.
“For us to get stronger, we had to make some difficult decisions,” Lilley said sitting in his office in Highmark Stadium’s suites. “You’ve got to find pieces that lock in together. You can’t just collect pieces. You can’t build a roster around 10 players, you have to put a roster of 22-24 players.
A CORE GROUP OF RETURNING PLAYERS
One of Lilley’s strengths in building championship-caliber rosters through the years has come from having a strong, core group of returning players.
He wanted to get order of business out of the way as soon as he possibly could this off season, as the Hounds were one of the first USL Championship (US second division’s new name moving forward) teams to announce signings of players they would be picking up second-year options.
“On the front end, we wanted to make decisions on who we want to keep,” Lilley said. “If we ended the season a bit stronger, maybe that number is 13 or 14.”
“The eleven we’ve kept is a strong core. We’re obviously are working on some things. But, we won’t sign a lot of players prior to Christmas.”
The eleven players signed to their option years, broken down by position, include:
- Tobi Adewole, Jordan Dover, Joe Greenspan,
- Mouhamed Dabo, Noah Franke, Kenardo Forbes (added an option for 2020 too), Kevin Kerr, Thomas Vancaeyezeele
- Neco Brett, Christiano François
- Kyle Morton
When Lilley returned to Rochester in 2014, after a hiatus from coaching the same club a few years prior, he turned the Rhinos into a playoff contender immediately. And, after the 2014 season ended, Lilley brought back nine players that would make up a core group of a team that would go on to win the USL Regular Season and USL Cup — with one of the most impressive defensive performances on any level of U.S. pro soccer history, conceding just 15 goals that season.
“In 2014 in Rochester, we got back in playoffs in that first season, then we only kept nine players, but had a good core,” Lilley reflected, then pointed to his current group. “This core here (in Pittsburgh) is better than what we brought back in Rochester. We had some fantastic additions to that core group, and everything fell into place that season.”
One of those players added as a key piece to the Rhinos’ 2015 team was play making midfielder, Forbes, who has been with Lilley every step of the way since that championship season.
Just as Martin Scorsese has his go-to-guy in Leonardo DiCaprio (or Robert DeNiro) — Lilley has Forbes.
Playing his first season in Pittsburgh in 2018, Forbes led the Hounds with eight assists. He also tied for the team lead in games played (33). After the season, Forbes was named USL All-League Second Team for the second time in his career (2016).
While Lilley is keenly aware and believes he’ll never depend too heavily on one player, Forbes will be looked at to provide leadership for a Riverhounds squad that will head into 2019 with championship aspirations.
“Kenardo is one of the few players in this league who can dictate the pace of a game on a consistent basis,” Lilley said. “With his versatility and soccer IQ, we’re able to employ him anywhere in the midfield. He’s just one of those players who makes the players around him better.”
At age 30, it doesn’t appear that Forbes is slowing down. The midfielder set career highs in goals (four) and points (16) this past season, and currently has 13 goals, 22 assists and 48 points for his four-year USL career.
Lilley’s well aware that the USL of 2019 is not the USL of 2015.
“It’s a completely different league now. It’s four times more difficult. This league constantly evolves,” Lilley explained. “It’s important for us to be on top of our game in the off season. We have to make good decisions. also have to find players beneath surface. We have a solid budget. (team owner) Tuffy (Shallenberger) has done a good job in getting us a competitive budget. Some teams will spend more. I’m happy we can put together a strong team. We need to maximize, get value out of what we have. We have to build a team.”
Even with last year’s regular season front-running FC Cincinnati out of the picture, and moving on to MLS, Lilley acknowledged two-time defending champions Louisville City as the club that sets a very high standard, but overall the league will be even stronger with 36 teams in USL, and likely two 18 team conferences. There are teams with deep pockets like Indy Eleven and Nashville SC that will reload. Hounds fellow old-guard foes Charleston Battery remain a top-four caliber club — and every returning team will be improving. In addition, the USL Championship’s reshuffling will have Saint Louis FC moving back to the Eastern Conference (again for the third time in five seasons!) along with two-time USL finalist Swope Park Rangers.
Expansion clubs in Memphis, Hartford, Birmingham and DC United’s new second team — Loudoun United — are also most likely Eastern Conference additions. Lilley cited Birmingham, under the direction of chairman Jay Heaps, potentially having a similar impact in its first season that FC Cincinnati did in 2015.
Competition will be fierce, and Lilley is focused on building a stronger roster.
“This group has the talent and the ability, but also the mentality, the work ethic,” Lilley said of his eleven returning players. “It’s a good starting point for us.”
FINDING THE RIGHT PIECES
It’s pretty clear that Lilley is very methodical in his approach in making additions to the roster. Familiarity is important, as Lilley really likes having players like Forbes who have a strong understanding of his methods, what his approach is — and are clearly aware of their roles.
When he took over in Pittsburgh in November 2017 for Dave Brandt, Lilley was very selective in only bringing back only a few former Hounds. In fact, he brought more players in from his 2017 Rochester Rhinos squad. He also took his time through the 2018 preseason, bringing lots of players to Pittsburgh on trial.
Lilley added numerous players from this process during the 2018 preseason.
Four remain with the club heading into 2019 — Brett, Dabo, Franke and Vancaeyezeele.
“When you stumble across a Thomas (Vancaeyezeele) late, and you say, ‘we like him better than all of these kids we’ve seen.’ We also saw him at MLS combines, and he more than held his own there. It makes the decision easier to bring him in here,” Lilley explained. “He did well. There’s no second-guessing, as we knew the market well at that point. It was a no-brainer, so, we signed him.”
Prior to signing Dabo, Lilley and his staff looked at lot of number sixes.
After a few weeks on trial, the 22 year-old from Ghana, Dabo, made a strong case.
“We knew. This player has a range that we don’t see that often,” Lilley said. “He’s coachable. He came in combine, he lost a few balls trying to dribble too much. We told him to tighten it up. Told him his job is to play simple. To win it. I knew him from Harrisburg (where he played in 2016 and 2017). Told him what our expectation from him to make the team. He did it. With his ability to win balls back, and cover ground. It was an easy decision to sign him.”
Sure enough, Vancaeyezeele and Dabo were mainstays in the line-up in 2018 — as Vancaeyezeele became the club’s all-time single season leader in games and minutes played. Neither were subbed out at any point in the 32-game USL regular season, and the additional playoff game.
After two seasons in Portland, both with the top MLS club, and the USL’s Timbers 2, Brett, a former Robert Morris standout, made the most of his return to Pittsburgh, with a strong preseason — then becoming the team’s leading scorer during the regular season with 15 goals.
In year two in Pittsburgh, Lilley now has a much better feel for what he wants and what he can work with to fill in the missing spots on the roster. He will put demands on all of his returning players to find that next level in their game.
“We are interested in building team that has staying power, and clear direction,” Lilley said.
Don’t expect any signings soon.
Between now and late February, Lilley will host combines, have more than two dozen (or more) players on trial, eventually settling on 11 or 12 additions to the roster.
“It’s early in the market. If you make signings now, you don’t have complete knowledge of the market. If you know a player is an exact fit, you may sign him early. When you get to late January, early February, there are players and MLS is no longer an option. You can get players for better value on the back end, then early, But if you have the right fit.”
Dabo and Vancaeyezeele were perfect examples of signings of specific players Lilley and his staff were looking for, once they knew the market better.
The long-time pro coach, who played collegiately many years ago at George Mason along with his fellow assistant, Mark Pulisic, said he certainly watches college games when he can, especially now that the NCAA has reached the playoff season, but knows that even in the highest levels of the college game, and teams in the power conferences don’t always provide clear-cut prospects.
“One of challenges that comes, is that there are very few ACC players that can walk into our league and start,” Lilley said. “Many that are drafted struggle in MLS then come to USL a year or two later. Sometimes there’s a kid out of Rider, that might be a better player at this level or a better fit, than a kid out of the University of North Carolina.”
Or a kid from the University of Charleston?
“Yes, exactly,” Lilley said, when Vancaeyezeele was mentioned. The French native was NCAA Division II Player of the Year in 2017 and lead UCWV to a National Championship.
“It’s almost like ACC players are like community property. They have the highest powered agents. They cost more than we’re willing to risk paying. Liking a player on what he’s done in college and knowing what it will translate into the pros is still guess work. Hopefully, more you find out about the player,about their character, it helps, but it’s still educated guess work to find out if they can make the adjustment.”
Lilley also shared that ultimately, he felt that last year’s version of the Riverhounds came up short in terms of having collective depth.
For 2019 — he’s banking on having a roster that will be deep enough to carry them through some of the season’s most difficult stretches. The additional signings will target players to fill gaps and provide the depth Lilley is seeking.
“If we do our job right, we will build good quality on back end of our roster. I don’t look at 11 guys as clear starters. I look every year for 14 clear starters — and another 5-6 guys that start 10 to 15 games,” Lilley explained. “If player goes down, another guy can step in to do the job. Although Dabo wasn’t a clear starter at the outset last year, he played so well, we always looked as him as a starter.”
That depth will be crucial for the Hounds in a league that’s only getting tougher.
“What we lacked were the five or six guys in the group where there wasn’t a drop off. Even having a consistent 13-14 guys wasn’t good enough. That’s why some players were let go. If we have deeper roster, some quality starters will less minutes than last year. If we done a good job of creating true competition and quality to group. Some of guys where eighth in pecking order might be 14th.”
Having more players that understand his system earlier in the preseason will provide the Hounds with a chance to get started early in the season on the right foot.
There are eleven players that have earned contracts for 2019, but they’ll have to work to stay in the rotation and in the starting line-up.
“I expect to have better depth, and having more players that make up core will allow for a better preseason,” Lilley explained. “I think we didn’t have an idea where a lot of guys fit in last year until the 10th game of the season. Next year, we’ll have clearer picture sooner.”
Lilley points right to the top of the table to build his case.
“Louisville won (the USL Cup in 2017 and 2018) not because they were the best team player-for-player, but because they were very good collectively. There are a lot of quality, talented players, 10 to 12 deep on some teams, but it doesn’t always translate to winning.”
LEARNING FROM YEAR ONE
In the first half of the first season of the Bob Lilley era in Pittsburgh, the Hounds were putting together a record-breaking defensive campaign. There were two stretches in the first 18 games where they held opponents without a goal for more than 300 minutes.
In the second half — particularly in the final few months of the season, the Hounds suddenly had trouble holding on to leads.
“Well, you didn’t protect the lead,” Lilley mocked as something of a criticism heard of his team late in the season. “Sure that’s true, but we need to get better at managing games in late situations. It cost us. We need to get better with our efficiency in the final third. Some of those other things don’t happen if we don’t give the ball away so cheaply,”
The way things ended in 2018 didn’t sit well with Lilley.
“I was disappointed that we ran out of gas. At the 20-game mark, we were sitting in a pretty good position. Maybe we were okay with it at the time. As staff and as team needed to push harder. The schedule was quite demanding,” Lilley said, then he pointed to a critical juncture in late August on a two-game road swing when the Hounds could only muster one point, even when holding leads against two top-flight teams in the Eastern Conference (Indy Eleven and FC Cincinnati)
“We were trailing (front-running FC) Cincinnati only 10 points when we went to Indy. Both games we were in winning position,” Lilley said. “That was a big hit. We did well to respond. After that, we were already thinking, finishing second was better than third. We had to stay ahead of Louisville. Unfortunately, we also had to protect guys from injury and use more depth.
Even after that failed opportunity, to gain on the league leaders, the Hounds responded by beating Bethlehem Steel FC 4-1 at home, and faced Louisville City FC at home.
In a wild match where they were mostly outplayed, the Hounds rallied to draw Louisville City, 2-2 with two late goals.
That result left the Hounds with a two-point edge over Louisville City with each team having six games left in the season.
“They won their final six games, we didn’t. They put the pressure on us, and we had to keep throwing up threes. That was an immediate response to what happened. Louisville had a busy schedule too. When we were settling for draws, they were getting mid-week wins. When they were using depth, rotating guys in and out — they were still getting wins and we were doing the same, we settled for draws.”
Saying Louisville City finished strong may be an understatement, as they showed their championship mettle, staying hot and playing with confidence all the way to the USL Cup final, which was played in Louisville.
“They found way to get it done,” Lilley acknowledged. “And we didn’t. I believe next year team or core that’s been together will handle those moments little bit better. As staff we’ll have to approach things differently. Hopefully it’s not a trend. Generally, the trend for my teams is when in winning position, has been we have teams that don’t give games away. We did that in first half of season. I am sure we can get that mojo back. We have to look at what we can do better. Maturing as a group. Players and coaches.”
THE HIGHMARK STADIUM FACTOR
When asked if having a better understanding of playing on the tighter pitch at Highmark Stadium goes into his thought process of building this team’s identity and roster for 2018, Lilley didn’t sugarcoat his response.
He also confirmed that the Hounds intend to put in a new playing surface in 2019.
“If you have good players, you can keep the ball on this field. We’re changing the surface. The new (field) turf will be put in. We don’t know yet when, as we have to find dates,” Lilley said. “It will help with for more efficiency, especially in the final third, and that’s a place where we struggled this past year. (New turf) will allow teams play a bit more with final third moments. The final pass. The weight of the pass. First touch. We created a lot of chances last year, but better turf will help.”
Teams that came to Highmark Stadium trying to play the ball out of the back, according to Lilley ‘were punished’ and the Hounds intend to do much of the same in 2019.
“We know the field better, and it will help. Still, I want to play good soccer. We want to be dynamic. Find those opportunities to break teams down, and it takes patience.,” Lilley explained. “Next year, if they give us the ball, because they’re not willing to play out — we will use the ball better. One of the advantages of playing on this field is that we train on it. If want to press we can do that here. We like to play on the front foot. If you look at the statistics, we out shot most teams this year at home. Even against Louisville and (FC) Cincinnati. We want to be that team that creates chances game in and game out.”
And that leads to what Lilley believes will probably will be the biggest area they’ll need to improve — and will affect everything else.
“Biggest reason why we were in third place, and not higher, was because we weren’t efficient enough in the final third,” Lilley stated.
In Lilley’s eyes, his team wasn’t sharp enough in connecting passes and making good decisions when it mattered most.
“We have to get better in terms of our possession. We did it even on the road. We showed we can do it. But, we weren’t consistent. There were some games when we were more accurate — more composed,” Lilley said. “But in terms of when to go (forward), when to keep it, we were sporadic in terms of our choices. How we took care of ball. That needs to be better. At this level, to be dominant for stretches, but not execute on the passing side, was disappointing.”
Lilley cited the playoff loss to Bethlehem Steel FC as perfect example.
“They (Bethlehem Steel FC) had no interest in possessing the ball. They were playing long and direct constantly. We had somewhere around 53 percent of the possession,” Lilley explained, describing his team being on the front foot for most of the match, putting 20 shots toward goal.
Simply putting forth a bunch of shots wasn’t enough.
“We didn’t create enough clear-cut opportunities. We didn’t work their goalkeeper enough. One of the reasons was it was a tennis match. we had lot of unforced errors. We passed the ball out of bounds. We passed the ball behind players. Simple execution mistakes. We just weren’t good enough on the night passing. That game would have been more one-sided, and I don’t think it ever gets to penalty kicks. We can’t miss out on that point.”
“There were many moments in games where we had great moments where we broke the midfield line, but the final pass wasn’t good enough,” Lilley added. “That comes with development. You don’t go to the store to pick up a ready-made team. You have to build it. We made some good purchases, but maybe picked up a few defective toys. We have to make some more good buys this off season.”
Lilley will look to make upgrades on the roster in key positions where he felt they — generally — came up short in 2018.
Taking a closer look on that dry erase board, there are spots there for taking at forward, at left back or on the left flank, another goalkeeper (or two), along with searching for more midfield and back line depth.
“I don’t expect our styles to change too much. My history, I generally have teams that generally possess well, that generally defend well, that generally finish near the top of the table, that have a good gap between goals scored and goals allowed, Lilley said. “Most teams I’ve had have been pretty assertive in how they play. They’re going to get at you.”
Lilley has already transformed this franchise in one season, establishing a professional environment and building a winning culture.
Now, comes an even bigger challenge.
Winning a championship.
“It’s easy to be optimistic and say we can make this group better. Even being marginally better may not even get us in the playoffs next season. The East is going to be so difficult,” Lilley said. “We have to continue to grind. Make sure as a staff that’s well within our vision next year. We’ll know next year to attach a bit more of importance to it to pushing to be the best. We maybe took our foot off gas last year as a group. You have to find it somewhere. Have to be mentally strong as a group. You can’t wait for it. You have to fight through those moments. It’s not going to magically happen. When you fight through those moments, then you hold on to leads. All the guys that are coming back — and even those who aren’t — all acknowledged that we underachieved. Sure, before last season it would have been looked at as a hugely successful season. After going through that full schedule we were better than teams scraping through playoffs. But, knowing we had it in us, and not delivering, we always feel we underachieved. It’s not something you want to experience, but it can be a motivator going forward.”