CORAOPOLIS, Pa. — Improvement is in the eye of the beholder.
Per Opta stat-keeping, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC increased its share of possession from 35 percent in a 2-2 draw at Swope Park Rangers two weeks ago to 54 percent in a 2-2 tie at Bethlehem Steel FC last Saturday.
According to manager Bob Lilley, however, the attack in Kansas City was closer to what he’s looking for.
“I think our best performance was Kansas City, with the team they had and the chances we created,” Lilley said this week, following the team’s final training session at the Montour Junction complex. “Couple mistakes late, but I think we were a little more consistent in our application. I think we possessed it a bit better and created chances better.”
Much like in the Hounds’ playoff defeat to Bethlehem six months ago, Lilley felt his team got sucked into playing the Steel’s brand of direct, frantic football, as opposed to the more composed style he thinks fits his personnel better.
“Neither team kept the ball the other night, but neither team was out for possession,” Lilley told me. “I think in the playoff game, we got caught in that speed and tempo and I think we were guilty of it again (last Saturday), not dictating the entire game. I think, rather than a wide-open game, if we can play at our tempo and dictate the game and hold onto the ball, I think the shots are 20-6 instead of 16-13.”
Those numbers Lilley mentions are significant: The former was the shot margin in the Hounds’ 4-1 bashing of Bethlehem last September at Highmark Stadium, while the latter was the margin last Saturday as Pittsburgh (0-1-2) stayed winless on the early-season slate.
The team Pittsburgh faces this weekend, two-time defending USL Cup champ Louisville City FC, figures to be more patient with the ball. But, on the tight pitch at Louisville Slugger Field, the Hounds will have to fight the temptation to let the dimensions — and Lou City’s anticipated high press — rush their decision-making process with the ball at their feet.
“It’ll take some grit and determination, but also some quality on the ball,” said central defender Joe Greenspan. “They’ll run us ragged if we don’t keep the ball, so it’ll take some quality, patience, possession, and also determination to defend and win our battles.”
“I agree that on the offensive side, it would be fantastic if we could keep hold of it,” said midfielder Kevin Kerr, who got on the board in the fifth minute in Philly. “There’s a few things we have to sort out internally. Clearly we’re not at the level we need to be at, so we’ve stuck with it this week. The gaffer (Lilley) has put big emphasis on keeping the ball, and obviously if we have the ball they can’t score.”
Kerr’s last point is related to one Lilley made as well. The Hounds have gotten into a bad habit of allowing late goals this season, with three of the six scored against them coming in the 80th minute or later.
And lest we forget, Kyle Morton came up with a massive save in Saturday’s 84th minute, denying Bethlehem star striker Faris in a one-on-one showdown. Otherwise, we’re talking about a fourth late goal conceded and probably a second loss in three games.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) March 31, 2019
Lilley’s contention is that the Hounds’ lack of possession is forcing the team to lose its legs at the ends of matches.
“Our ability to play 90 minutes is going to be on our ability to take care of the ball,” Lilley said. “You can see how hard we’re working early in the game, and we get the ball back, but then we give it away cheaply. After a while, that work collectively starts to be more sporadic. The other guys aren’t following (the ball) as eagerly.
“We’ve talked to them about doing a better job valuing the ball. We can’t always go for the home run right away. We’ve got to balance possession in there. I love to see that we’re staying aggressive and we want to get behind (the opponent’s back line), but we’re stressing this week that we have to take spells of possession when it’s there.”
RESTARTS GET JUMP START BEHIND BIG JOE
Last year, the Hounds relied entirely on open play to generate their goals until late August, when the 6-foot-6 Greenspan started asserting himself as the primary target for set-piece service.
The former Navy Midshipman has charted a similar course at the start of 2019, with nearly every attacking-third restart aimed in the direction of his noggin. Often, Greenspan has headed the ball back across the face of goal to a secondary target, but in Philly he cashed in his first tally of the season off Kenardo Forbes’ pinpoint corner.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) March 31, 2019
“As a big guy, it’s my responsibility to be good in the box, defensively and offensively,” Greenspan said. “I take on that responsibility wholeheartedly. Guys are whipping in good balls and I’m able to attack it and win it. We’re going to keep working on that and perfecting it.”
With Greenspan and the 6-foot-3 Tobi Adewole on the back line, the Hounds have a couple of weapons to press forward on restarts. Adewole bodied home Pittsburgh’s first set-piece goal of the season in Kansas City, with Forbes again triggering the scoring play.
Lilley also throws the sturdy Thomas Vancaeyezeele and 6-foot-4 forward Steevan Dos Santos into the mix as alternative restart targets, but there’s no reason Greenspan can’t continue to be the primary difference-maker in this area.
“Joe struggled offensively the first half of (last) year,” Lilley said, “but he gained his confidence and he’s much more assertive trying to get on the end of balls and fighting through contact. He’s always going to be marked, so he’s got to create a bit of space for himself. We have some size there, so hopefully that continues to be a weapon for us.”
KEEPERS SHARE AND SHARE ALIKE
Chances are that Ben Lundgaard will get his second pro start Saturday in Louisville, as the Hounds aim to get a handle on what they have in their inexperienced goalkeeping tandem.
For now, that seems to mean an equal timeshare between the sticks for the 23-year-old Lundgaard and the 25-year-old Morton, who has five pro appearances to his name.
“We have high hopes for both of them,” Lilley said. “Just trying to get them consistently playing well. They both have a lot of upside with their size and dealing with crosses, but their shot-stopping has to be a little more consistent.”
Lilley noted that Morton was better in Philadelphia than he was in the opener at Tampa Bay, although the coach noted that perhaps Morton could’ve stopped Michee Ngalina with “a better push” on this impressive first-time strike.
— Bethlehem Steel FC (@BSteelFC) April 1, 2019
On the other hand, Lilley called Morton’s aforementioned stop on Faris “fantastic,” so it’s hard to say who might have the edge in the early going. Lundgaard allowed two goals in Kansas City, but didn’t get much defensive help on either.
Add this to the tandem intrigue: Lundgaard is on loan from Columbus Crew of MLS, and when Crew starter (and former Hound) Zack Steffen transfers to Manchester City of the English Premier League in July, Lundgaard might be summoned to Ohio.
But there’s plenty of USL schedule between now and then, which means plenty of opportunities for both Pittsburgh keepers to show out.
“It’s good to have both of them competing and playing at a high level,” Lilley said. “It’s going to be interesting, because they’re pretty evenly matched. We’ll lean to one a little bit more at some point, but we’re not there yet.”
LOOKING AHEAD TO LOUISVILLE
Pittsburgh went 1-0-1 against Lou City last season, including a grind-it-out 1-0 victory at Slugger Field in late June. Forbes netted the late winner, foreshadowing his increased offensive pace in the second half.
The 2017 and ’18 Cup champs have been a bit uneven so far, allowing a conference-high eight goals while splitting their first four decisions, but that might just make them more determined to tidy up their game for the Hounds’ lone visit of the regular season.
“Yeah, it’s going to take a lot,” Greenspan said. “They’re a good team, back-to-back champions, so we’re going in there and we know it’s going to be a hard game.”
Then again, the Hounds surely don’t want to wrap this season-opening four-game road swing without a victory, so the intangible edge just might be on the visitors’ side.
“It would be a bit of a statement to go down to Louisville and get a game,” Kerr said. “That would really be just what we need.”
Look for more on Lou City’s tactics later this week in Mark Goodman‘s scouting report, then ride with John Krysinsky for matchday coverage and after-the-fact player grades and analysis.