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View From The Booth: A touch of ‘sophistication’ is the goal

Seeing the Hounds nab their first win of the season at the home of the two-time defending USL Cup champs was a thrill in and of itself. But there was more by way of entertainment value.

Neco Brett (right) battles for the ball during Tuesday's training session at Highmark Stadium. - ED THOMPSON

Editor’s note: Riverhounds play-by-play broadcaster Matt Gajtka brings his perspective on the team throughout the season in his weekly ‘View From The Booth’ column.

PITTSBURGH — Because of various obligations, last Saturday’s 1-0 victory at Louisville City FC was the first Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC match of 2019 that I was able to watch live, as it happened.

And I have to say, it was a compelling viewing experience.

Obviously, seeing the Hounds nab their first win of the season at the home of the two-time defending USL Cup champs was a thrill in and of itself. To pull it out on a second-half penalty kick made for extra drama and a bigger emotional payoff.

Beyond the visceral feeling of riding the 90-minute rollercoaster, though, there was an aspect of the Hounds’ approach that was satisfying to watch. I’m talking about the new look to the attack, spearheaded in Kentucky by one Steevan Dos Santos.

“I think after three games and (no wins), we knew that game would be a hard game to play,” Dos Santos told me after Tuesday’s training session at Highmark Stadium. “We knew that if we win that game, that would be a step forward in a right direction.”

No doubt the result was much-welcomed for the Black and Gold, but just as encouraging was how the 6-foot-4 Dos Santos served as top-of-the-formation general for a Hounds team that looks a lot more versatile up front than last year’s outfit.

With Louisville pressing the Hounds high on that constricted pitch at Slugger Field, Dos Santos was in his element. The Cape Verde native spent most of his night collecting long balls and using his frame to protect the ball and buy time for his fellow attackers to join the fray.

Not that Pittsburgh (1-1-2, 5 points) dominated the game — their shot advantage was 11-6 and Louisville won the possession battle 59-41 — but the Hounds were more threatening in the attacking third, at least partially because they now have that prototypical hold-it-up center forward to open up more options, as opposed to driving the car into a wall if the direct route is under construction.

And as head coach Bob Lilley intimated Tuesday, signing Dos Santos out of Ottawa was just part of the plan to help this team find more ideas around the opposing goal.

“Late in the (2018) season, we could win any game and we were in every game, but it was a bit predictable … power soccer,” Lilley said. “A lot of overlaps, whipping balls into the box, trying to cause chaos. It was not always breaking lines. We need to get a little more sophisticated if we’re going to have success moving forward, and that’s ultimately what we’ve tried to do.”

The obvious counterpoint for Dos Santos’ patient, big-body game is last year’s high-energy 15-goal man Neco Brett. Already this season, Brett has played at the top with Dos Santos underneath, and vice versa like we saw last weekend in bourbon country.

Throw in reliable goal-getter Christian Volesky, who’s still recovering from an ankle injury, and nifty rookie winger Anthony Velarde, and suddenly the Hounds have a variety of talent up front to supplement the proven playmaking skill of Kenardo Forbes and Kevin Kerr.

The Hounds lost some pace and power in the departures of Christiano François and Romeo Parkes, but they’re betting they can carve out a few more chances per game with the offseason roster changes.

“I think some of the savviness and playing through lines is going to be better,” Lilley said. “We have a little bit different spin on things because of our personnel. I’m pretty excited about not just Anthony, but two other forwards to play with. But I also think how we intend to play this year will bring some different qualities out of Kevin Kerr and Kenardo Forbes as well.”

The Hounds have scored five goals in four games, but just three were created from the run of play and just one of those has come from an attacking player: Kerr’s opening strike at Bethlehem Steel FC two weeks ago.

The revamped attack might not have blossomed just yet, but it’s showing enough signs, like when Velarde drew the decisive PK at Louisville on a brisk counterattack, or when Brett found Dos Santos’ head with a lob into the box a few minutes prior.

“It’s something we’ve been working on in training,” Dos Santos said of his burgeoning chemistry with Brett. “I think it’s something that’s just going to get better and better. I think it’s something that we had a couple of moments between me and him (at Louisville), but I think it’s going to get better.”

Maybe with Dos Santos (32 goals in four previous USL seasons) and Volesky (38 in four) in the stable, we might see more of Brett’s playmaking side. Regardless, the Jamaican-born Robert Morris University alum doesn’t have to be Mr. Everything up front like he asked to be at times last season.

That development alone should be good enough to snatch a few extra points in the standings, especially if Dos Santos can be the ice to Brett’s fire.

“I think we fit really well,” Brett said. “Just need to continue to learn about each other. That’s very important. (Dos Santos) has some qualities that I don’t have and I have some that he don’t have.

“Just have to watch his moves and make my runs a little bit different. Normally last year (the ball is) just coming straight in, to me. Now I know it’s gonna make a stop or it’s going to get flicked on. I need to be reading the play and I’ll know exactly what to do.”

The Hounds’ offensive fortunes don’t rest solely on those two, or the aforementioned group of creative playmakers.

As Lilley mentioned in our chat, 23-year-old former New York Red Bulls prospect Ethan Kutler is still working his way into form and will eventually join the rotation of attacking midfielders. And we still haven’t seen a lot in the attacking third from starting wingbacks Jordan Dover and Ryan James.

Starting with Saturday’s home opener against first-year Hartford Athletic, the Hounds have 28 matchdays to nail down all the formulas and permutations. The fact remains their attack has a higher ceiling.

It’s already more pleasing to my eye, for what it’s worth.

“I think we’re still figuring some things out offensively, but I think we’re deeper and better in that area of the field,” Lilley said. “Ultimately we’re going to be pretty good at both ends of the field, but it’s just getting our timing (offensively) and knowing how we’re going to utilize all our pieces.”

Matt Gajtka (pronounced GITE-kah) is a columnist, analyst and reporter for Pittsburgh Soccer Now. In addition to his four-year role as play-by-play broadcaster for Riverhounds SC, he has experience covering pro and amateur sports for over a decade. Matt got his start in soccer while calling games for the Marshall University men's and women's Division I teams. He fondly remembers attending Hounds matches at Bethel Park High School, although he lapsed during the Moon and Chartiers Valley years. Like many, the construction of Highmark Stadium in 2013 rekindled his passion for the club and local soccer in general.

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