The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC kick off the 2019 campaign next week in Tampa Bay, but most of the rest of the USL clubs will begin regular season action this weekend.
We’ve once again connected with members of the local media who regularly follow the Hounds and the USL scene to collect their thoughts are on the season ahead.
Thanks to the following folks for responding and providing their insights and feedback on what we might expect to see this coming season and for making their own bold predictions:
- Mike Sparks (Mon Goals / Beautiful Game Network)
- Mark Goodman aka ‘SoccerRabbi’ (Denver Post / Pittsburgh Soccer Now)
- Matt Grubba (longtime Hounds beat writer/USL awards voter)
- Rachael McKriger (Pittsburgh Sports Castle / Pittsburgh Soccer Now)
- Matt Gajtka (Hounds play-by-play announcer / Pittsburgh Soccer Now)
- Jon Hanna (Sentry Media)
We’ve asked everyone to address four questions for the 2019 season:
- how many points will the Hounds reach this season and can they make the playoffs?
- who will be the team’s leading scorer?
- what new player are you most interested in seeing this year?
- who do you think will win the USL’s Eastern Conference?
I’ve added my two cents at the bottom of each section as well.
Q1: How many points will the Hounds reach this season/where they will finish in the Eastern Conference/can they make the playoffs?
Matt Grubba: I say the Hounds get 55 points and a top-6 finish with a record of 15-9-10 — I don’t think they’re quite as deep as they were last year, and that’s going to lead to a few more goals being allowed and more than 5 losses. Some of that will be offset, however, by being a little bit better on the front end, allowing them to get a few more wins that last year were 0-0 or 1-1 draws.
Rachael McKriger: Last year, Pittsburgh ended a two-year long drought of not making the playoffs. (head coach) Bob Lilley turned the roster around, brought back some familiar faces he knew from Rochester and now he’s doing the same routine again. It is a little concerning that the regular-season begins on March 16, but there’s only 17 players under contract. However, Lilley has been known to make good signings, and maybe another loan will come through. Give Pittsburgh fourth place in the Eastern Conference, making the playoffs for a second straight season. Hopefully this time Pittsburgh doesn’t have to face any penalty kicks.
Mark Goodman: 54 points. The Hounds are going to the playoffs for sure, and a second year of Bob Lilley should, in theory, make them a better, more cohesive team. And this is a strong team that should contend for a top-four finish in the USL Championship East. However, I have real concerns about this team as it’s been constituted. The Riverhounds brought back a lot of great players like Neco Brett, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Joe Greenspan and Tobi Adewole. And there are some intriguing additions, too, like Ryan James and Anthony Velarde. But there are also some big question marks here. Is Mohamed Dabo ready to be an every-game stopper as the defensive midfielder? Is Jordan Dover going to be the man at right back? Who will provide attacking width and speed? If one of the aforementioned players gets hurt, is this team deep enough to fill in? In a league that is picking up former MLS players, auditioning new potential teams for MLS, and catching some former top-flight NCAA players, did the Hounds spend the off-season adding the best available players? I’m worried.
Jon Hanna: Based on the signings that the team has made this year, I believe that the Hounds will build on their success this year, and will get at least 62 points this year. The team will finish in the top 2 in the East, especially with the promotion of FC Cincinnati.
Mike Sparks: Putting on my trusty “guessing hat” I think that the Hounds are going to finish around 54 points this season. Ultimately I think that one of the expansion clubs are going to pop and be a playoff caliber team, but otherwise we should be able to bank some “Ws” vs the others. All the buzz around the Championship at this point is about Nashville and Indy, and rightly so. Both teams spent big this offseason in an attempt to buy a title, but what that translates to on the field is anyone’s guess. I think that one of those two ends up outside the top four. Then there’s Louisville. Winning back-to-back championships is hard, doing it three times is practically unheard of. Cameron Lancaster accounted for 30% of the team’s goals, and he’s now with Nashville. While I don’t think they completely fall off, I don’t think they’ll be winning it again. So with all that in mind, I think that the Hounds end up 3rd in the East, same as where they finished last year.
Matt Gajtka: Hounds will accrue 65 points and finish second in the East. Yes, they will make the playoffs and go deep.
John Krysinsky: Looking back at Lilley’s tenures in each of his managerial tenures, he’s had enormous successes in his second seasons for each club. (see # footynotes at bottom of article for more) I have to believe, that more than anything, the uncharacteristic defensive lapses that kept coming up late last season have been lingering and sticking in Lilley’s mind all off season. In winning a championship with Rochester in 2015, Lilley’s Rhinos put together one of the most impressive defensive seasons in the history of North American pro soccer. It’s highly unlikely that season will ever be duplicated, but Lilley still draws from that blueprint — and he has three players from that squad on this team. So, what does all this mean for my prediction for the Hounds this year? I am going to bank on Lilley’s track record and past successes in second seasons with the same club. However, with the competition being what it is, the USL Eastern Conference will be a dogfight, and Lilley is seeking for something better than last year’s 15-5-14 record, and 59 total points to finish at the top of the table this season. I just don’t see drastic improvement in the standings, but another strong season should be in store — and this team will probably be better prepared to make a run at the USL Cup in October and November. What I do expect will be more consistent defensive results and continuing to be the toughest team to score goals against, along with more scoring options at the top of the attack. This will have the Hounds finish with a 14-4-16 record, good for 58 points.
Q2: Who will be the Riverhounds SC’s leading scorer?
McKriger: Last year, I was way off in this category. This year, I want to make another pick that isn’t just the usual. Neco Brett is obviously going to find the back of the net a lot this season. He just has that knack for scoring and his teammates are good at feeding him the ball. However, Steevan Dos Santos has the height that Brett lacks. Dos Santos is a commanding 6’4 and he’s not afraid to get physical in the box. His head could be a golden ticket for the Riverhounds.
Hanna: After a strong season last year, Neco Brett will continue to improve for the Hounds. Last year, he didn’t even start every game, but led the team in goals with 15. The former Robert Morris University star will go on to score, I think, 14 this year, and Steevan Dos Santos, the new signing from Ottawa will be close behind him.
Gajtka: Steevan Dos Santos takes the reins from Neco Brett with 13 goals in 2019, but I think the three forwards (Volesky included) share the load quite well.
Grubba: Leading scorer will be Steevan Dos Santos with 13 goals. I think all three forwards (Brett, Volesky and Dos Santos) get at least 8 goals each, but they’ll limit each others’ ceiling if all stay healthy and share the time. That balance will be better for the team in the long term, and I’m going with the biggest of the three to take top honors with his size.
Sparks: I’m still concerned about the Hounds ability to break down defenses when the other team just bunkers, which is something we saw increasingly as the season progressed last year. I don’t think opponents will stop bunkering against the Hounds in 2019; a lot of teams are going to be happy with a draw and a point against us especially at Highmark. Therefore, while I’d love to see more counter-attack or “pretty” goals, I think that most of our goals are going to be scrappy and somewhat chaotic. To me that means Neco Brett. He thrived on making something out of nothing last season, and I think that continues this year.
Goodman: Neco Brett. Neco broke out last year to lead all Hounds with 15 goals, and I think he’s going to have an even bigger year in 2019. That is, if Bob Lilley plays him alongside Steevan Dos Santos in a 4-4-2 or 5-3-2. If Lilley decides to play the Hounds in a 4-2-3-1, we might see Neco on the bench or in a wing-supporting role more, with Dos Santos getting the bulk of minutes at striker. Hey, if it wins games, I’m okay with it. But it means Brett might not tickle the twine as often as he’d like.
Krysinsky: Each of the three forwards that are on the roster, who have each had seasons scoring double-digit goals in USL, will bring something different to the table. Together they provide plenty of tactical options for Lilley, more than he had last year with Romeo Parkes, Brett, Kay Banjo and Dennis Chin. Which one will score the most goals though? It appears that Brett could potentially see some time as an attacking midfielder and on the wing too instead of being the lone, reliable top man. With eight assists last season, Brett was also terrific in creating chances for other teammates. Go ahead and watch the full sequence that led to the Hounds first goal in the playoff game vs Bethlehem, as Brett not only delivered a perfect ball into the box to Ben Zemanski, but maybe more importantly, he didn’t rush through the sequence initially when receiving the ball against a well-fortified Steel FC defense. He played the ball back to his holding midfielder, Mouhamad Dabo, got it right back, then delivered his assist when the defense opened up just enough. That’s what I believe Bob Lilley wants to see from his attacking players this season in being more effective in the final third. Of course, they’ll look for quick strikes and counter chances, but at home, when they’ll be on the front foot more often than not, they’ll have to be more patient against teams that will be getting back and filling the box with defensive support. With Dos Santos serving as a big target man, and Volesky as a proven, clever finisher in and around the box, goals for this year’s team can be spread around pretty evenly — and Brett will be involved on both ends, thus probably cutting into his total number of goals. If he replicates his assist numbers, playing in a little bit different role, that would be a good thing. With that in mind, my hunch is that Christian Volesky will be the team’s leading scorer with nine goals this season.
Q3: Which new player are you most interested to see this year?
Hanna: Steevan Dos Santos will be one to watch for the Riverhounds this year. He and (coach) Bob Lilley go back to his time in Rochester (with the Rhinos), and in two seasons with the Ottawa Fury, he scored 15 goals. Also, with Dos Santos’ 6’4″, 208 pound frame, he will be a force in the box.
Gajtka: Anthony Velarde, because I’ve been intrigued by his play making in limited preseason viewing and because he’s on a similar route as Tommy Vancaeyezeele was last year.
McKriger: He was the first official rookie signed by the team in the off-season. Anthony Velarde has already shown some flashes of what’s to come in the regular-season. Velarde was known for his assists in college at Fresno Pacific University. Dos Santos and Brett are going to be his favorite targets. When talking to Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s Mark Goodman this preseason, Velarde said he enjoyed slicing and dicing through defenders. If he can carry that over to the USL, Pittsburgh will have a real weapon in the midfield. Plus, he’s learning from Kenardo Forbes and Kevin Kerr, two quality veterans. He’s going to be just fine in the USL Championship..
Grubba: Ryan James is the newcomer I think will make the biggest impact, as I get the impression the coaching staff believes he’s a significant upgrade as an outside back. The one I’m most interested to see is the rookie, Anthony Velarde. He brings some serious offensive potential, but I also think he could find playing time tough to come by early in the season as he learns the ropes of Lilleyball behind guys like Forbes, Dabo and the three strikers.
Goodman: Anthony Velarde. I always get excited about a real number 10. Velarde is going to have growing pains, and it will take time for him to click with the tendencies of his teammates. But from the little I’ve seen of him in preseason, the kid has the technical tools and the game IQ to be the best player on the team.
Sparks: Considering all of the bunkering that I expect other teams to do we desperately need someone who can make creative and damaging final passes. It sounds like our hopes may rest on the shoulders of Anthony Velarde, so he’s the one I find most intriguing.
Krysinsky: one of the newest signings who joined the Hounds in training last week as a trailist, Ethan Kutler, is a very interesting addition. Kutler played four MLS games with the Red Bulls in 2018, plus was a mainstay with NYRBII (40 appearances in the past two seasons) logging more than 2,400 USL minutes in 2018. Kutler is still just 23 years old. He was a standout scorer in college, leading Patriot League Colgate University as a forward. In his first two seasons as a professional in the Red Bulls system, he’s played both right back and in the midfield. With the Hounds he’s listed as a midfielder, so Kutler may be yet another interchangeable and versatile player that Lilley can use in various positions depending on what he’s doing tactically.
Q4: Who do you think will win the USL’s Eastern Conference?
Goodman: Ding dong the witch is dead. FC Cincinnati have moved on to MLS, and by the looks of it from their first match against Seattle Sounders, a 4-1 drubbing, they are going to struggle. The two heirs-apparent to the Eastern Conference throne are Indy Eleven and Louisville City. I think they go 1-2 at the top of the table. I love some of the players Indy brought in during the offseason like Neveal Hackshaw, Do-Heon Kim, and Ilija Ilic to add to an already strong roster. Louisville City have a great mix of proven USL-gamers like Paco Craig, George Davis IV, and Paolo DelPiccolo. My only concern for them is, who’s gonna score the goals? They lost 2018 Golden Boot winner Cameron Lancaster to Nashville SC, and brought in a guy from the Cambodian League and a recent UConn grad to replace him. I dunno, man.
Gajtka: I think Louisville City FC takes it … but just barely. Lou City edges the Hounds by a point or two in the end.
Grubba: I think I’ve picked Louisville City FC almost every year, and to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. Their club has stability that is lacking in a lot of USL franchises, and while any of a handful of teams — Indy and Nashville jump to mind first with their additions — could finish in the top spot, LouCity FC is the only one I’d be surprised to see finish outside of the top 3.
Sparks: Nashville SC. They were referred to as “Pittsburgh Lite” last season because of their defensive prowess, and they should be defensively sound again this year. Where they struggled was on the offensive end, but this offseason they signed the top two goal scorers from last year in Lancaster (26 goals) and Daniel Rios (20 goals) who together had more than the entire Nashville team combined (43 goals). Much like Cincy last year, they’re looking to put on a show prior to moving to MLS in 2020, and I don’t think they’ll disappoint.
Hanna: With the aforementioned promotion of FC Cincinnati, it is a three-horse battle for the USL Eastern Conference title between the Hounds, Louisville City, and Charleston. Louisville City has had some key losses with net minder Greg Ranjitsingh and forward Cameron Lancaster, but I think they still have what it takes to win the USL East. It will be close though between the clubs.
McKriger: This is always a really hard question when you have new teams. Nobody knows what Hartford Athletic, Birmingham Legion FC, Loudoun United FC and Memphis 901 FC are going to look like. Furthermore, the Swope Park Rangers are a new team in the conference, switching from the West. There’s no more FC Cincinnati to take the top spot, as they’re in MLS now. Louisville City FC is still a club that has plenty of excellence and an excellent coach in John Hackworth. It might be a basic pick, but I think Louisville City FC is going to take the top spot. They were the closest to dethroning FC Cincinnati last year, finishing in second place, but then taking the USL Cup with a strong finish to the season. Give them the USL Championship and a strong playoff run.
Krysinsky: Competition will be fierce. On paper, Indy Eleven and Nashville SC have made some serious upgrades to their rosters. Louisville City may have lost a few key players to MLS, but they’ll remain a top contender and have a lot of championship experience remaining. If the Hounds finish with 58 points, as I predict, it won’t be easy. Much like future NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick, Lilley can mold a Championship level team without making big signings or have near MLS-level resources that some of his competitors have at their disposal. The Hounds will be right there, but I am going to go with Nashville SC finishing in the top spot in the regular season with 64 points. Indy and Louisville City will be right there too, Indy will finish second with 62 points, and Louisville City behind the Hounds with a fourth place finish with 56 points. As long as the Hounds stay healthy though, a strong run at the USL Cup is very possible this year.