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An oral history: Riverhounds SC’s turnaround 2018 season

Photo by Rachael McKriger

An oral history: Riverhounds SC’s turnaround 2018 season

The Bob Lilley era in Pittsburgh began in 2018, providing the Riverhounds SC with an organizational face-lift that established itself – quite possibly – for the first time in its history as serious contender for a USL Championship. Under Lilley’s guidance, the Hounds raised a lot of eyebrows around the league with a turn-around season.

Along the way, we chronicled coach Lilley and the Riverhounds on their journey of what was a long, grinding and unprecedented 34-game USL season.  From the preseason, which began in early February through the heartbreak of losing a home playoff game before more than five thousand fans, we were there, every step of the way.

As 2018 calendar year comes to a close, and before the Hounds turn the page, and begin a quest to greater heights in 2019, through this unique season recap, entirely through the words (and some adjoining photos) of Riverhounds coaches, players and occasionally others, captured by Pittsburgh Soccer Now contributors (including Matt Gajtka, Mark Goodman, Ed Thompson, David Hague, J.J. KrysinskyRachael McKriger) and with a few assists from the Hounds media team that included Anthony Meier and Tony Picardi, we take one more look back at a turnaround season.

LILLEY SETS THE TONE FROM THE START

“They’re getting used to me and they’re getting used to each other,” Lilley said after the team’s first training that began the preseason with 11 signed players – and a carousel of players that came in and out on trial. “The demands and the urgency we put on them will be a little bit of an adjustment, but for the first day we’re happy.”

“You know what to expect,” said Dan Lynd, a former Rhinos and Pitt Panthers’ goalkeeper, talking about his experience of playing for Lilley. “You have a clear idea what [Lilley] wants and how he wants to play, so I feel like some of the Rochester guys will be able to help out the rest of the group so we’re all on the same page.”

“It’s been good. He (Lilley) likes to win — clearly — you can tell,” Phil Fives, a local product, by way of Indiana University, who was brought into camp on trial, explained. “He’s a very vocal guy. He has the attention of this team — and after the past few years — hoping that he can help bring more success here to Pittsburgh, and that’s a good thing. You get used to it after while. It’s not the first time a coach is telling you what to do during the game, All you can do is try to stay focused.”

“He’s forever trying to get his point across. He’ll use anything for visuals — and find the nearest things,” Hounds veteran Kevin Kerr said when asked about Lilley using water bottles as props to go over strategy during a preseason halftime talk.

“He’s a capable player, but the way we want to utilize him, we don’t want Romeo to be the play maker, we want him to be on the end of service, not the play maker. We have plenty of guys that can do that. We need a guy that’s going to run in the box and get on the end of things,” Lilley explained after Romeo Parkes’ first preseason action. “A lot of times when it’s crowded he pulls back. We’re going to try to change that in his game. He seems to open to the coaching, and we’ll keep working on that.”

“That goes for Romeo, Kevin Kerr and Kenardo Forbes. Now we have to pull them all together and we’ll have to grow as a group,” Lilley added. “It starts with those experienced guys leading the group. I’m going to be hard on them.”

“Last year’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds, from my view, were a little bit of Kevin (Kerr) and Corey (Hertzog) show,” Lilley said. “To win in this league, you need a lot of guys playing at a high level. It’s not a knock on any of those guys, they’re all-league players. but I want more players that will have influence in the biggest moments in the biggest times. And that builds a stronger team.”

“I was all over him, screaming at him at the end of the game. I wanted him to finish. Not stand around the last few minutes,” Lilley explained when talking about trying to work with Parkes. “You got to drive him. He tends to be comfortable getting the ball and playing it back or negative. I talked to him after the game, and said to him, every time you play the ball back, or negative, and don’t try to play forward you’re allowing the other team to get 11 guys behind the ball.”

“Every preseason it’s long days. It’s a lot of work,” Joe Greenspan said. “In the USL there’s a lot of turnover, and here this is a pretty new group. We’re feeling each other out, figuring out the systems we want to play, but overall I think it’s going well, and we’re growing each day.”

Hounds banking on collective contributions from ‘starving’ trio of keepers

“I think early on, when we made the decision to sign all three (goalkeepers) prior to the season starting, we were comfortable — thinking that these three guys will be able to do it for us,” Hounds goalkeeper coach Hunter Gilstrap said after an early preseason match — when asked about the Hounds having three signed goalkeepers (Lynd, Kyle Morton & Mike Kirk prior to training camp. “More so than any other position on the field, we felt good about goalkeepers early on. There’s a little danger in that, we kind of made our bed, all the guys were signed before we even played games. You are going to see guys make mistakes in the preseason, they have to feel a rhythm, they have to get comfortable again. It’s an environment where it’s competitive every day, and competitive in not naming a starter, or a number two or three. There’s stress in that. Those things will flush there way out as we get into the regular season. These guys are very much on edge, and there’s no certainty right now for any of them. It’s been tricky to manage, as it’s a highly psychological position. Big picture, is that there’s going to be growing pains. We’re still all on front end of getting to where we want to be.”

A NEW ERA – UNLEASHED

Hounds reveal new crest, kits, TV deal and stadium expansion

“Tonight was meant to be a celebration of the excitement for not only the upcoming season, but also our fans and their support of this club over the past couple years,” Riverhounds SC owner Tuffy Shallenberger said. “This logo, this new era, has been something I’ve wanted to give the fans for a long time and I couldn’t be happier to see it all finally become a reality. We hope everyone can see the passion and dedication that went into this entire process, as we look to continue to build on and off the field and become part of this city’s rich sports culture.”

“Big fan, especially of the black one, it was a nice variation of kits,” Kerr said, as he and his teammates came out to packed room of more than 250 people in the Highmark Stadium suites. “It’s crazy, you can see how much work was put in behind the scenes, and they’ve got things going in the right direction. When I saw the layout, and I had that feeling it was very professional, like an organization that’s headed in the right direction. It’s night and day from when I got here over five years ago.”

STARTING STRONG ON DEFENSE

Despite dazzling 2nd half chances, Hounds battle Nashville to scoreless draw

“I am proud of the guys, it’s not easy on the road, with a mostly new group,” Lilley said. “Throw in the crowd support that got behind them. It was a physical game, and we had to respond, and I thought we made a great account of ourselves in the first thirty minutes of the second half, and even in the final 15, we didn’t have the same energy, but we still looked dangerous, and I was okay with that.”

“They were really feeding off the energy of the crowd,” Tobi Adewole, Hounds defender said. “You don’t realize it when the play is going on, but when there was a stop in play, you kind of couldn’t help but to take in the moment, and see the fans.”

“That’s what you want if you are a professional athlete, to have that kind of support,” Matt Pickens, Nashville’s goalkeeper, said. “Even though they (Riverhounds) were having their way, we were able to get back and create some chances of our own. We just felt bad we couldn’t get those fans three points.”

“Listen, you can win some of these games, this is not the kind of game we deserved to win. I’m not thrilled about time wasted in other things, but the reality is that we didn’t play well enough to deserve the three points,” Lilley said after another scoreless draw vs Penn FC (Harrisburg) in the home opener. “Don’t think we put enough energy. We didn’t pick up second balls. Tough to play forward when front three are standing off, and when they’re making straight runs. Midfielders and forwards were poor.”

FINDING NECO

“There was a lot of pressure building up, and I think they handled it well. Especially in the first half when we didn’t have a lot of chances. It tested our nerve,” Lilley said after his first official win, 4-0 over Toronto FC II in early April, as Riverhounds coach.  “We have a good squad. (We’re) building every week. Today, I think we took a step forward.”

Brett’s hat trick, assist leads second half scoring surge in Hounds’ first win

“Definitely, definitely! Everyone was super excited,” Neco Brett, a former Robert Morris standout who delivered the Hounds first hat trick since Rob Vincent in August 2015 when replacing Parkes in his first start as a Hound, said. “We knew that it could finally open things up and we were ready for it.”

“We wanted to keep it simple. We wanted to keep playing it forward quickly. Get it out wide. Anticipate our runs,” Brett added. “We want to make sure that I’m keeping a high line – and I am there.”

“The number one thing I was thinking was attack the ball, and be dangerous in the box,” Adewole said after scoring his first goal as a pro against Ottawa in a 1-0 win the following week. “I got to contribute to the team any way I can. Getting shutouts is one thing, but getting a goal is another. I’m blessed to get.”

 

“Look, it’s going to be a long season. We’re not playing at our best level yet, but we’ve shown a little more resilience,” Lilley added. ”

“If we keep posting shutouts at home, I think we’ll win our fair share of games,” Lilley said after four games, as the Hounds hadn’t allowed a goal through 360 plus minutes.

CINCY CHESS MATCH AND STAYING UNBEATEN

“That was an exciting soccer game,” Alan Koch, FC Cincinnati head coach said in his post-game interview after a 2-2 draw, after FCC battled back to score the first two goals of the season against Pittsburgh that erased 1-0 and 2-1 Hounds leads. “It was a bit of a tactical chess match. They adjusted. We adjusted. They adjusted. We adjusted. I am very proud of our group in how we responded.”

CINvPGH analysis & player grades: Exciting ‘chess match’ at Nippert ends in draw

“Playing for Bob is not easy. It’s very hard. Every time you come out, you have to give your best. If you don’t give your best, you come out. We want to work for him, and for us, and put ourselves in a good place,” Winger Christiano François said after providing an impressive assist on Brett’s fourth goal of the season in a 1-0 win at Highmark Stadium on April 28.

 

Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

“He’s always had it. He finds the game. He’s been really good recently. I expect him to keep it up. He’s been very consistent for me for three years,” Lilley said of Kenardo Forbes, who’s been with him since their championship season together in Rochester in 2015, and really started to assert himself in Pittsburgh after 2-1 win at TFCII and a scoreless battle against Indy Eleven’s talented central midfield. “We know where his strengths are — and his probably a little bit fitter. He had good moments.”

“We are starting to build better chemistry,” Forbes said. “They’re getting more used to me, and I’m getting more used to them. It’s getting better from here.”

“We knew if we press high early, that we would set the tone,” Noah Franke, Hounds midfielder said when the USL side took a road trip to Erie for a U.S. Open Cup first-round match against the NPSL’s Erie Commodores. Franke took advantage of getting playing time to help set up a foul in the box, en route to a Hounds 2-1 win over the pesky side. “I just try to use my pace, and my shiftiness, and found a little gap, and they clipped me a little,” Franke said. “Luckily, we got the PK and took the two goal lead early on.”

“We conceded a goal early, but we kept at it, and we kept going, and going,” Cam Philpot, a native of New Zealand who plays collegiately for USC Upstate, said. “I was lucky to get in a good position, and knock one home.”

“It was a game we let points slip away,” Lilley said after the Hounds would then travel to Tampa Bay, settling for a 2-2 draw in a back-and-forth match that saw them trail (1-0) for the first time in the season, but lose another lead. “There were plenty of positive signs. We just have to mature as a team. We did a lot of good things, but it takes maturity to win. Some of these ties we have to grow tactically and be able to manage these games.”

BUMPS IN THE ROAD?

“We’ve got a great group,” FCC manager Koch said, after FC Cincy came to Highmark in mid-May to hand the Hounds its first loss of the season in all competitions (US Open Cup Fourth Round match). “It doesn’t matter who’s going to play for us. I’ve absolute confidence in the group that played tonight, obviously, and I have absolute confidence in the group that plays for us every time we step on the field. Yeah, we rotated, technically, but we really don’t have a rotation. It’s very, very difficult to figure out the best players in each position on our team.”

FC Cincinnati seize command after half, knock Hounds out of Open Cup

“It’s been rough for me to miss so many games,” said Dennis Chin, who scored the lone goal late against FCC. The former USL Golden Boot winner in 2012 for Orlando City SC would ultimately only play spot minutes for the Hounds throughout 2018. “I would’ve loved to get the win, but I guess a goal is good to get. Mentally it’s tough. I’ve been involved everywhere I’ve been. Our team’s been doing well. It’s been impressive and Bob has these guys going. I just needed to get where I need to be.”

“We’re so easy to play against right now,” Lilley said after another scoreless draw against Penn FC a few nights later. “Everyone’s talking about our shutouts. Being unbeaten is hogwash. We need to start winning games. We’ll need our older players to make good decisions. Drive the group. They have to drive the group. That’s what happened in Pittsburgh in the past. The group wasn’t driven. Not just to single out Kevin Kerr, lets talk about all the senior players. There’s not a tenacity to our group. We’ll all be nice guys. Sneak in the playoffs. Maybe win a round if we’re lucky. But you don’t win championships that way.”

“I want to see guys crash into goal posts,” Lilley added. “I don’t see any desire, hunger to smother teams. That’s where that has to change, or where we’re just another decent team. We want to be special.”

“It’s disappointing to be beaten. I knew being unbeaten wouldn’t last forever,” Lilley said after the Hounds lost its first regular season match, a 1-0 loss vs Nashville at home on May 30. “It’s tough to lose at home. We made a mistake on the restart, and couldn’t find a goal a home. It’s tough to not get one goal at home or even come away with a draw.”

GETTING THE ATTACK GOING

“Obviously it’s nice to get those two goals after trailing,” Lilley said after the Hounds bounced back a week after the Nashville loss with a 2-1 win at Richmond. “I think we played very well. It is disappointing that we didn’t get on top of the game, and obviously Richmond is very good on this field, all of their wins are here. We knew it would be difficult since we played Wednesday.”

“I know it was probably great for the fans to see three goals and a win, but we can do better,” Lilley explained after what appeared to be a breakout 3-0 shutout of NY Red Bulls II.  “It’s important to get it right at both ends. A more experienced team would have punished us — as open as we were in the back at times. And that’s a concern. You shouldn’t look like your going to leak three or four.”

“When you get chances, we have to make sure that we finish them,” Brett said after scoring in back-to-back games at Richmond, then vs NYRBII. “It’s pretty fun to play with (Kenardo Forbes). Sometimes you don’t think he’s going to see you, but he always sees. I have to make sure I stay alert whenever the ball is going to come, and I know it’s going to come 95 percent of the time.”

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“Sure, I prefer to start. To come in (as sub) is always difficult,” Joe Holland, who is a part of the team’s rotation of attacking midfielders, would see times mostly as a sub through the season. “Bob requires a certain energy. If you start or you come in with two minutes to go, you are expected to play with that energy. You can see that competitiveness especially in the Eastern Conference — and teams we’re battling at the top, Cincinnati, Louisville. Playing time has been competitive in a lot of places in our league. You can see with a lot of players coming in from NASL the level has risen every year — and especially this year it’s been an especially large chunk.””

“If I could play 16 guys, I would,” Lilley remarked earlier in the season. “There are a lot of guys that can step up for us. We have a lot of competition for spots,” Lilley said. “We have plenty of options.”

“He’s a kid here that sees the game well,” Lilley said of Thomas Vancaeyezeele, a first-year player who emerged as the Hounds leader in minutes played, starts and appearances. “You get guys, big guys, strong guys, but they don’t always see the spaces, don’t always have the finesse and he has a lot of quality in his game. When you get a young guy that reads things instinctively really well, it’s exciting.”

“We held our own in a difficult place to play,” Lilley said after the Hounds played long-time, Old Guard USL rival Charleston to a scoreless tie on the road. “They don’t drop points here very often. I think it was a game they were desperate to have and I think we got a very good Charleston team tonight.”

“Very structured, very organized, good pace,” Louisville City’s James O’Connor assessed the Hounds squad which topped his defending champions, 1-0 on June 28 in the Derby City. It would be O’Connor’s last game in Louisville, as he would leave the USL for the head coaching post with Orlando City of MLS the following week. “They came with a game plan to press in the first half and try to attack with some speed. And they did. It’s frustrating to lose a game like that, where you feel like you have a good grip on the game,””

“I have never been in a situation like this,” François said when describing a long weather delay when the Hounds hosted North Carolina FC at Highmark Stadium on the Fourth of July. “When we were inside, we were still warming up and playing with the ball.”

Analysis/Player Grades: Hounds, fans endure bizzaro 4th of July

“This is one game where the night started glorious with Fourth of July and a packed house,” Lilley said. “My hats off to the fans who stayed and it was great to still have an atmosphere.”

“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.”

“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 cliché, but sometimes you find ways to win,” Lilley said then flashed a rare, full post-game smile.

“I am going to choose to be positive after this.”

DOG DAYS OF SUMMER

“The reality is we played well, but Charleston deserves credit. They were pretty sharp, and they hung in there, and found a goal. And that’s what good teams do,” Lilley maintained a positive outlook after a loss, as the Hounds fell 1-0 to the Battery at home.  “If we play a lot of games like that, we’re going to win a hell of a lot of games.”

“One thing I can say, is that Neco Brett is a good goal scorer. He hasn’t gotten a ton of chances the last four games, but today he had chances,” Lilley said after Brett couldn’t convert despite a few chances on target vs Charleston. “That’s a good sign. I’ll put my money on Neco to score on a regular basis because he’s a good player for us.”

“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 a few days after a second consecutive loss, this time a 2-1 decision at North Carolina FC that included what he felt was a lackluster first half effort when he subbed out Romeo Parkes in the 30th minute.

“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. 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. 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.”

“It’s a dangerous game to play if you’re not completely focused,” Lilley added when reflecting on his team’s two game losing streak. “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.”

“I don’t think we were waiting for anything to happen,” Lilley said after the Hounds bounced back in beating Richmond, 3-0, to improve its record to 10-3-7, good for 37 points. “We played with intent tonight, and we got rewarded. After dropping two games there was a certain amount of expectation and pressure on this game. I think for the most part they handled it well.”

“I was only a part of it,” Brett added. “We needed this win, and I was the only forward up top. It was extremely important to get back on the scoring sheet.”

“My job coming in with about 15 minutes left was to work my tail off,” Ben Fitzpatrick said, after providing the feel-good story in the Richmond win after making the most his chance, scoring in his first minutes of the season in the second half. The second year Hound had to battle his way to get back on into the game day lineup card after an early season hamstring injury. “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.”

“That’s what a good team does. Still finding goals. Still finding clean sheet. Ultimately find way to get the three points,” Lynd said after the Hounds picked up its third win of the season (and likely last ever) with a 1-0 victory against basement dwelling Toronto FC II at Highmark Stadium.

“If you don’t play well, you’re going to be lucky not to drop points. Tonight we were lucky not to drop points,” Lilley said during a near 15-minute post-game session with the media after squeaking out a win vs TFCII. “That’s the bottom line. There’s no gimmies. We have to pass the ball better. It feels like after a game like this we have to go back and review everything. We’re sending balls in that no one is anywhere near. We’ve got guys making runs to the same places. I got to find guys who can pass the ball. I got to find guys that can tackle. We got pushed around. Even when we crossed the ball. There’s no spacing. We work on it more than any other team in the league. It’s a lack of composure and awareness at times. So, we don’t carve out those chances.”

We just told the guys, ‘Look, it’s disappointing,” Lilley said after the Hounds’ sixth scoreless draw of the season, and fourth at home against Charlotte on August 18 despite large advantages in possession, shots and chances.

“Once they went down to 10 men, it was pretty quiet back there,” said Mike Kirk, who is the third Hounds goalie, along with Lynd and the injured Kyle Morton, to earn a clean sheet this season in the scoreless draw vs Charlotte. “We just pushed everyone up. So a lot of it was (about) staying focused, stay on (Joe) Greenspan and Tommy (Vancaeyezeele) in the back to stay connected and get everyone moving.”

“I’m very happy for scoring for my team. (Coaches Mark) Pulisic and Bob (Lilley), they did a lot for me. I can tell this year I’m improving a lot with them. They talk to me. They try to always help me improve my game,” Midfielder Mouhamed Dabo after scoring the Hounds lone goal in 1-1 draw with Tampa Bay Rowdies. After Dabo scored the goal, he danced, then ran over and embraced Pulisic. “Last practice, coach Bob was telling us to sometimes try to shoot. When Neco gave me the ball, I try sometimes to shoot. So I took my chance and it worked today.”

“It’s a mix of Senegalese and Nigerian dance. That’s what I tried to do,” Dabo further explained his goal scoring celebration, one of the more entertaining of the season.

“That was the type of game you need to control start to finish. We talked before the game about attacking the box and getting in behind. We wanted to get forward with our fullbacks, get around the edges. That’s why we started Andrew Lubahn. And Jordan Dover is always dangerous going forward,” Lilley added afterwards and added his pleasure with Dabo’s finish from just outside the box. “Most of them if they catch the bouncing ball and get it on frame with any type of movement – most of our guys can hit from there – that is a range we can score in. He did well to recognize it, ran on, concentrated and got a good strike. It was a big goal.”

SEASON-DEFINING ROAD TRIP

“It wasn’t the result we wanted for sure,” Lilley said in the aftermath of a wild, 2-2 draw at Indy Eleven, when the Hounds held the lead twice, only to have the home side draw level, including one goal in the 94th minute. “We have to execute down the stretch!”

Mike Kirk makes diving save in Indianapolis (photo courtesy USL / Indy Eleven)

“Glad we have Cincy right away,” Lilley said. “Our focus is looking forward.”

“We had a couple of good moments. They had a couple of good moments. Look, we can’t call off the dogs,” Lilley said following the Hounds valiant effort at first-place FC Cincy where they lost 2-1 after holding a 1-0 lead late in the match. “Once they tied it, they had a lot of attacking players on the field, they’re going to try to win it. We’re going to try to win it, but we got caught.”

“It’s the second game in the row, that I was on the wrong side of one I’d like to have back,” Greenspan said. “I am pretty pissed at myself. It sucks. We’re frustrated that we came away with just one point though we played well on this road trip.”

https://pittsburghsoccernow.com/2018/09/02/front-running-fc-cincy-rallies-with-two-late-goals-to-top-hounds-2-1/

“I think what this week (2-2 tie at Indy Eleven and 2-1 loss at FCC) showed was that we can play with anyone, home or away,” Lilley added. “We’re not going to hang our heads on this one. We gave a good account of ourselves. It certainly isn’t a moral victory, but it’s nothing to concern ourselves with other than we play them once more in the regular season. There’s a good chance we may meet them somewhere down the road in the playoffs, and we don’t need to be afraid to play them.”

DANCING IN SEPTEMBER

“We’ve been performing fairly well over these past few games. It’s just things haven’t quite gone our way,” Jordan Dover said moments after the Hounds beat in-state foes, Bethlehem Steel FC, 4-1 in return to Highmark Stadium on September 7. Joe Greenspan, Kenardo Forbes, Neco Brett and Dover scored in the win.  “I think we’ve been a little bit unlucky, so it’s finally nice to be rewarded for another good performance.”

“We had good moments in the game where we looked dynamic, but frankly, even at 2-1 up, we were open,” Lilley said. “Had they come back to tie us again, we could have been in trouble. We just have to be more complete, but we had a will and intensity to want to go forward to want to score goals.”

Hounds cruise past Steel FC with convincing 4-1 win

‘Playing with Kenny (Forbes) is one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. It’s give him the ball and pretty much run forward. It’s just waiting for the ball to appear in front of my feet,” Dover added, after Forbes’ performance that included five key passes, and connected on 55 of 63 passes,. “It’s always nice playing with him. His vision is amazing.”

“I’m happy with the three points. I’m happy with some of the things we did. But I do feel we need a better performance next week against Louisville. It’s a big game,” Lilley said.

“I got like two or three chances I should have put away, ” Brett describing the Hounds early struggles against Louisville City on September 15 at Highmark Stadium, where they would find themselves trailing 2-0 late in the contest. “Unfortunately I didn’t do it and that’s the reason why we had to take the hard way out.”

“Both goals were mistakes. We can’t stop every diagonal ball. You’re going to have balance on the back side. Even if they won the header, it’s not a goal scoring moment if our defenders in the middle react,” Lilley explained what transpired on that second goal to fall behind the defending league champions at home. “Once it went diagonal, we had guys ball watching. You can’t beat on a double header from midfielder because we’re standing. This is self-inflicted.”

Hounds pull off dramatic late comeback to draw Louisville City, 2-2

“Louisville showed their experience. They don’t need a lot. (They’re) similar to Cincinnati. They were able to manage the game pretty well,” Lilley said after he watched his team dominate in most statistical categories in the match, yet watched Louisville take a two-goal lead in the late stages of the contest for a reason. “I don’t think we were outplayed tonight. We were a little more on top of them.”

“We got some nice contributions from the guys that came in,” Lilley said. “It’s good to see them contributing. We’re not going to just win with one or two players. I’ve been saying that since the beginning of the season. I think we’re getting deeper. The response by Joe Holland, we brought him in the past two games. We know he’s talented. He was playing left back. He knew. He’s got to get into that space. He knew what I wanted because he’s a smart player. He knew what the score was. He puts in a dangerous ball. It’s a little thing, but he was ready. Good to know he’s there.”

“Every game now is going to be a battle,” Lilley said. “That tying goal may be the difference at the end of the season. It wasn’t a complete performance. Defensively, we played well, but made a couple big errors. Those errors we may not be able to get away with come playoff time. But I am delighted for the guys, because they’ve been working hard. We haven’t gotten bounces or stolen anything. If you’re down 2-0, in 84th minute, and your get two goals back, I told the guys keep this in the back of your head, because this is something that could happen when we’re up 2-0, that the game’s not over, until it’s over.”

“At 2-0, that game should be safe and tucked away,” Lilley explained after the Hounds ended a three-game homestand with another win, 3-2 over Indy Eleven. “We shouldn’t have had to score a third goal to secure this win. Stuff like this will happen in the playoffs, we just don’t want it to happen to us. I don’t like it happened to us, not only once, but twice. That’s disappointing. But we got three points and that matters but we have work to do.”

“You have to give them credit,” Ben Zemanski, Hounds midfielder, said. “They’re a good team, but we were a little bit complacent. We switched off just for a second, and against good teams. Against playoff teams, you can’t switch off. It’s better to learn these lessons when winning. But late in the season, we’ve got to start taking something from these lessons. We can’t give away these opportunities late in the game, especially when we’re leading.”

After wild finish, Hounds hold off Indy, 3-2

“They (Indy) were always one goal away,” Lilley said. “It’s something I’ve maintained all year. We’ve got to get better in all facets. We’re not defending well as a team, period. It takes a whole team to defend well. We’ve got some big guys back there, but we’re getting beat on individual challenges. Late in games we’re not dealing with it. We have the numbers, but we didn’t play great today.”

DOMINATING THE DERBY AND CLINCHING PLAYOFF SPOT

“It was a big night to put in a full 90 minutes,” said Greenspan, who was his usual overpowering self in the Hounds 2-0 victory at Harrisburg in clinching a second consecutive, and third Keystone Derby Cup in four seasons. “Everybody put in a shift. Everybody battled. To keep a shutout was even better.”

“We’ve been taught all season just to get across the goal,” Kay Banjo said in a match where he took advantage of getting the starting nod with a goal. “Because you can get easy goals like that, just tap-ins. Nothing special. You just sniff the ball and put it in the net. Christiano did all the work. Ben got it across and it’s my job to follow up.”

“We knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Lilley said. “They’re a good team and they created some good moments, but I thought overall our defending was good and we created some good moments on the road. It was a tough surface (after hard rainstorm before the match) but we found a way to get in behind them. I liked the effort of guys getting into the box. We’ve been working on that and it’s starting to happen more often.”

STUMBLING TOWARD END OF REGULAR SEASON

“I think we’ve done well. Tonight’s a microcosm of the season as a whole,” Greenspan said after the Hounds drew with FC Cincinnati at Highmark Stadium in early October, as Cincy extended its unbeaten streak to tie a USL record of 22 games, but had an impressive winning streak halted at 10 games. “We’ve competed with the best teams and we’re one of the best teams. We’ve shown that, but we’ve let ourselves down a little bit in key moments.”

“That’s the top team in the league, and we didn’t take advantage of pressure we put them under. When you draw at home, that’s a loss in my book,” Lilley said.

“I do, actually,” FC Cincy’s Alan Koch said of whether he enjoys matching tactics with Lilley for the fourth time in the season. “I’m satisfied tonight. I’m not happy or ecstatic with the result, but I’m satisfied with the performance, how we all managed the game, and how the players managed to get through it. Obviously, tonight, we tied a historic record, so that’s a nice accomplishment for the entire group.”

“This is where we have to be better,” Lilley said, citing his team’s inability to connect quality passes into the final third. “We passed the ball poorly tonight. We gave away too many possessions. I think if we play our best, we win by three goals. We could have destroyed them tonight, but I don’t think we took responsibility.  Our standard has to be higher. I am not sure we believe yet. I don’t know how many times we have to dominate a team. We’ve played all the best teams, Louisville, Charleston. I think we settle. We have to have fire at the moment of truth.”

“We’ve had some great battles against Pittsburgh this year. Every single game has been exciting, every game has been a chess match, every game has had ebbs and flows through the course of the game,” Koch added. “Hopefully, we both keep going, and hopefully we get to play against each other in the postseason.”

“They won their final six games, we didn’t,” Lilley said in retrospect after Louisville City surged past the Hounds late in the season to claim the second place spot. “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.”

“I think, for us, to regroup, understand what’s at stake and we’ll get them plenty of rest this week,” Lilley said after the Hounds followed up the Cincy tie by limping to a disappointing final week that included a 1-1 draw at Atlanta United 2 and 2-1 loss at NY Red Bulls II. “It’ll be important for us to have jump in our step next weekend. We need another gear at playoff time, and I think we have it.”

ANTICIPATION OF FIRST-EVER PLAYOFF MATCH AT HIGHMARK

“I’ll be honest, the last couple weeks, we haven’t had a lot of prep time. We’ve been going from game to game to recovery and travel. It’s nice to have the time to get properly prepared for the Bethlehem game,” added Lilley, after an early week training session in preparation for Bethlehem Steel FC in first-round of USL Eastern Conference playoff. “We finished third in a very difficult conference, and it feels like we left some unfinished business out there. We are capable of more, and I’m not sure we’ve shown our best level yet.”

”I do feel like we’ve had success against Bethlehem Steel. Obviously they’re a good team and they’ve scored a lot of goals. Tactically, how we play against (Bethelem Steel), is different than other teams. We need to be connected, if there are a lot of gaps in the field, Bethlehem can exploit that.”

“We defend,” Forbes told Gajtka after a breezy 90-minute workout under sunny skies. “We defend as a team. That’s our advantage going into the playoffs. All 11 guys defend. All 11 guys work for each other.”

“It’s tough, because at this point you’re playing tough teams,” Greenspan told Goodman. “The level is pretty high. I think when teams do play that positive ball in the attacking third, we’ve got to do our best to limit our mistakes and not give them chances. When they do make the play, we have to be in the right positions to stop them.”

“There’s a buzz in the air,” second-year Hound Joe Greenspan also shared after Wednesday’s training session. “There’s a lot of guys here, including myself, who haven’t played in a playoff game since our professional career started. “So yeah, I think a lot of guys are excited. I know the city’s excited. There’s lots to look forward to this weekend.”

“There are always going to be curve balls at playoff time,” said Lilley, whose teams have won four of five first-round USL playoff games since the creation of the league in 2011. “You also have the pressure and expectations. You have to manage your emotions. You don’t lose your identity.”

HISTORIC NIGHT, HEARTBREAKING RESULT

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“They were awesome. They were fantastic. I hope they believe in what we’re doing, and we see more crowds like this,” Lilley remarked about the crowd of more than 5,000 (mostly) Pittsburgh soccer fans that packed Highmark Stadium despite cold, wet and windy weather conditions.

“We couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t believe the place was like that,” Dover later said of the atmosphere.

“At 1-0, we had chances to put the game away. Not just protect the lead. And actually put the game away,” Lilley said after the Hounds couldn’t take advantage of more pressure after Ben Zemanski’s early goal. “I think energy up top, movement. I look at the starting three up top. Christiano (Francois), Romeo Parkes and Neco Brett, and they needed to keep attacking the game. It’s disappointing we didn’t get the second goal (in the first half).”

“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.

“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.”

“It felt awesome to get a lead in overtime,” defender Hugh Roberts said after pinning a go-ahead header in the 105th minute of the match to give the Hounds a 2-1 edge at the end of the first overtime.  “You’re thinking maybe you can hold onto the victory. “We went to five in the back. Usually when we have a lead, we go to five in the back. We played five in the back all year, so we were feeling very confident.”

“We just didn’t go away, the guys fought back and clawed their way back into the game twice,” Bethlehem Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke said.

“It was a long booting ball. It was a bouncing ball. I don’t think it was a foul. You’re allowed to box out there,” Lilley said of Roberts shielding away Santi Moar on a very high ball played into the top of the box. “The forward forced contact to try to draw a foul. It’s tough. They made it clear in first half, they were going to boot every ball forward.”

“Then our captain stepped up and brought us home,” Burke said of James Chambers, the Steel FC captain, who made the most of a close-range set piece that resulted from the foul call early in the second overtime that ultimately forced the match to be decided on penalty kicks. “He buries that free kick, buries that penalty. He led us, he controlled the middle of the field throughout.”

“I think it’s harsh to put a red there,” Lilley said of a red card assessed to Hounds sub Joe Holland who went in for a slide attempt on the ball, crashing into Steel FC keeper Jake McGuire in the waning moments of the contest in the second overtime. “Guys are going to go for that ball. We would have had Joe Holland score a penalty, but we made a lot of penalties.”

“I just said to the boys that we’ve worked so hard to get to this point,” Chambers said. “I told them to be confident, pick their spot and hit it.”

“I’m at a loss for words right now, it’s a really special day for us,” Burke said.

“It’s a tough game to lose when I felt we were the better team tonight and for much of the season,” Lilley said.  “But, that’s playoff soccer.”

“Brutal,” Kerr said after the match. “Rips your guts out.”

AFTERMATH

“This might be the last thing a long-time Hounds fan wants to hear, but a brutal defeat can often be as emotionally galvanizing as a glorious win, if not more so. It all depends on the follow-up,” Matt Gajtka, Riverhounds play-by-play broadcaster and Pittsburgh Soccer Now contributor.

“They found way to get it done. And we didn’t,” Lilley said when asked about Louisville winning back-to-back USL Cups.”I believe next year’s (Riverhounds) team core that’s been together will handle those key moments little bit better.

“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.”

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, and more. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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