After taking a much needed four days off from training after yet another 2-2 result, the Riverhounds SC were back training last Thursday in preparation for two-games this week.
Yes — that’s right — for the first time this season, the Hounds will play two games in a week. And that means that Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is here, as the Hounds will be hosting the Dayton Dutch Lions on Tuesday at Highmark Stadium (7 p.m. kickoff).
Taking a respite from league play offers Head Coach Bob Lilley a chance to work on things that need to be fixed and improved with an extended number of training sessions leading up to the next league match (Saturday, at Memphis, 8 p.m. EST), but also provide extended game action for some players that may have only seen limited or no minutes this season.
It’s certainly not a time to panic, and probably too early in the season to be playing close attention to the USL’s Eastern Conference standings, but the Hounds are sitting in the lower half of the table with a meager 2-1-5 record. They’ll have to do more to become a top team in the crowded USL landscape.
They’re playing like a team that is still lacking a true identity.
As we learned on Sunday, Liverpool FC boasted only one loss in 32 Premier League matches, yet still couldn’t win its league title because its competition from Manchester City was pretty fierce, too many draws came back to bite them. If Liverpool had won one more match, they could have been crowned EPL champs.
In professional soccer, that’s a fine line that sometimes can be cruel.
The Hounds are currently on pace to get 20 (or more!) draws this season.
While it’s not entirely likely they’ll keep on that track, if they ended with a 9-4-21 record (yes — that’s about the pace they’re on), that would be good for 48 points. While this year, the playoff line will be a bit more forgiving as the top 10 teams will qualify for the playoffs, ending the season in the mid-to-upper 40s total point range could be disastrous come October. Last year, Nashville was the last team in the top eight with 48 points.
WHAT STANDS OUT ABOUT THIS HOUNDS TEAM?
One quick glance through USL Championship standings, and the overall team statistical rankings in the 34 team league, there’s nothing really that stands out about these Hounds. They’re in the middle of most categories.
A year ago at this time, they established themselves as a team that would be difficult to score against, and remained the league’s best defensive unit statistically in terms of goals against and clean sheets the entire season. This year, through eight games, the Hounds have only posted two clean sheets, which is only good for a tie for 25th overall with numerous teams. Tampa Bay Rowdies have ascended as the league’s most impressive defensive unit with six shutouts. The Hounds have conceded 11 goals (while Tampa Bay again have allowed a league lowest four goals).
A year ago the Hounds started off pretty strong (not losing until late May), establishing a defensive identity that’s become synonymous with many Bob Lilley coached teams of the past 20 plus years.
Still, with the exception of the Rochester Rhinos 2015 squad that dominated the USL from start to finish, Lilley’s teams don’t always start out flying high or establishing an identity.
Two recent examples before he came to Pittsburgh include the 2016 and 2017 Rochester Rhinos.
- After 12 games in 2016, his defending champion Rhinos squad already had four losses, the same number the Hounds had the entire season last year. That Rhinos team would eventually find its form, losing only one more time the rest of that regular season, and eventually losing on PKs to the eventual league champion, New York Red Bulls II in the conference semi-finals.
- After 10 games in 2017, the Rhinos had five draws (this year’s Hounds already have five draws), and most noticeably were smacked round in a 5-0 loss a Charleston. That team also was more inconsistent throughout the season (were win-less in September, with three draws and two losses, and nearly had a third loss but pulled out a late draw vs the Dave Brandt-led Hounds at Highmark on September 16). Even that Rhinos team figured things out — winning its last two games in convincing fashion (dominating Hounds in rematch), and taking eventual league Champions Louisville City to the wire in its overtime loss, also in the Conference semifinals in the USL Cup playoffs.
With additions of former Rochester players who were part of that championship squad, namely Christian Volesky and Steevan Dos Santos, plus Ryan James, who played for Lilley in 2017, and re-signing 11 players from last year’s Hounds playoff team, conventional wisdom going into this season was that Lilley would have this team clicking on all cylinders out of the gate this season.
That hasn’t happened.
What’s probably most surprising has been how the back-line and defensive unit have underachieved.
In each of the eight games, we’ve pretty much seen the same group of players on the field. Sure, as expected from a Lilley-coached team, there are some different tactical wrinkles each time. Both James and Jordan Dover have served as outside backs who also roam up and down the flanks, with both having an impact in assisting on goals and initiating attacks.
Joe Greenspan and Tobi Adewole have been center backs, but sometimes have also been joined by Thomas Vancaeyezeele in the middle three grouping.
Last match, with Mouhamad Dabo out with an injury, the Hounds turned to first-year pro Sammy Kahsai to sit on top of the back line in the holding midfield spot.
There’s no doubt that Lilley’s been tinkering with his line-ups, which he will tweak depending on each opponent and other factors.
He moved Dabo, a traditional holding midfielder if there ever was one, higher up to help with high-pressing efforts in two games. He’s moved around his most creative and proven play maker, Kenardo Forbes in various places already this year, including wide attacking spot and dropped him deep into the holding spot for stretches.
With Forbes in a more central attacking spot at Charleston though, the Jamaican veteran midfielder had his best game of the season, with an early assist to set up Kevin Kerr‘s goal, then redirected a James ball into the net for his first goal. Forbes has only had three shots taken all season, and already has three assists.
With the current group of players on this roster, Forbes has to be the table setter. He was unleashed at Charleston, and guess what? He was involved in both goals, and almost set up a third goal if Volesky’s header in the second half landed on frame.
Still, the biggest issue has been inconsistent play and lapses from the back line. Individually, each player carries a fairly impressive pedigree along with hardened USL experience. Still, as a unit they’ve allowed 11 goals in eight games.
That’s just not good enough at this point.
Again, looking back at one common thread, even with those 2016 and 2017 teams, Lilley generally had those teams playing its best soccer at the very end of the season. Ironically, that wasn’t the case with the Hounds in 2018, who had a tougher time in the second half of the season holding on to leads and shutting down opponents.
I’m never going to pretend I know more than coach Lilley or really know what’s best for this group. But…. if Lilley’s going to continue to tinker, why not try a few more wrinkles.
Here are a few thoughts:
Maybe it’s time they move Vancaeyezeele out of the middle of the back line for a few games. Just let Greenspan and Adewole command the middle.
I know there’s a tendency to want to have Tommy V in the middle of the back line to help with possessing the ball out of the back. My concern is when Vancaeyezeele is caught in situations where he’s asked to mark big forwards or being the final supporting defender in the middle to make a tackle or provide a crucial clearance, he’s losing those battles as he did with Nashville’s second goal or when he was called for the foul in the box at Charleston.
Have we really seen Vancaeyezeele and Dabo play together in, say, a 4-2-3-1, as the holding midfielder combo? That could be a successful duo, with Forbes in front of them. Or they could alternate games, and Lilley can start to give Kahsai more experience in coming month or two. We’ve also seen Vancaeyezeele play as an effective outside back. Is that a good enough central midfield against the top midfield units in the USL Championship?
For much of the game against Nashville, with Forbes playing deeper, and Dabo higher, the Hounds were outplayed and out-possessed. For the past five years, Forbes has been Lilley’s main field general, so he’ll go where ever he’s needed to help execute the team’s tactics. Sometimes that gets him into the attack, and sometimes it drops him deeper.
Since he’s tied for the team lead in assists, and has proven play making abilities, how about moving up James into a left wide attacking midfield spot? This will allow the Hounds to either play three in the back or go with four in the back with some different wrinkles (see aforementioned Tommy V in outside back spot?).
If James is wide left with mostly attacking responsibilities, the Hounds can play the high press as they’d want to, especially at Highmark, in 3-5-2 or 3-4-3, or 4-5-1 formations. James, much like he was in the past two games, can be effective in disrupting opposing midfield build-up on his side. Jordan Dover seems more suited to be a right back, but has also played far up the right flank at times.
HOW GOOD IS THIS TEAM’S DEPTH?
If you go through the Hounds roster of field players, they’ve had 12 players who’ve made appearances in at least six matches, but only five others who’ve combined for a total of nine appearances.
That’s a pretty distinct discrepancy between the players on the roster who are regular parts of the rotation, getting significant playing minutes, and those who are not.
The Hounds typically will roll out a mixed group of starters for early round Open Cup matches against lower division and amateur clubs. They cannot take any opponent lightly, as the organization learned the hard way in both 2016 and 2017, losing to amateur squads Lansdowne Bhoys (2-0 at Highmark) and Chicago FC United (2-1 in Chicago). Even a year ago, holding a 2-0 edge at the half, the Hounds had to fend off a pesky Erie Commodores team on the road to walk away with a 2-1 result to advance.
Playing in the early rounds of Open Cup provides opportunities for some players who haven’t played as much to either get the start, or get some minutes. A year ago, it proved to be especially challenging because the Hounds were down to approximately 15 or 16 healthy field players.
As of Monday, the Hounds have reported no further injury updates from their last recent match injury report (prior to last Saturday’s Charleston match).
That match’s injury report included four players sidelined:
- MF – Dabo – Out (hamstring)
- D – Prosper Figbe – Out (knee)
- GK – Ben Lundgaard – Out (back)
- D – Caleb Smith – Out (groin)
One player that has been added to the mix will be forward Mark Forrest, who was officially signed in early April, but has not been training with the team until this week. Forrest, who was drafted by Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer in the MLS SuperDraft, joined the Hounds on trial during the preseason, and was subsequently signed. However, Forrest was committed to completing his degree and coursework at Lehigh University, which ended last week.
There’s been some contention among others who follow the franchise that this year’s team is not as deep as last year’s.
It’s clear that at forward, Lilley has three quality options, and now adds a new alternative with Forrest. But forward hasn’t been a position where quality depth’s been a concern.
In the midfield, the Hounds have two key veterans in Forbes and Kerr, but beyond that, they have a lot of players with a lot less experience and still have a lot to prove.
Forbes and Kerr last season also had a reliable and talented veteran Ben Zemanski as a key part of the mix. This year, they’re supplemented with a bunch of younger players that include Anthony Velarde, Noah Franke, Robbie Mertz, Kahsai, Dabo — along with asking the team’s leading scorer from a year ago, Neco Brett or Volesky, who’ve each dropped into the midfield as the Hounds have played a lot with a sole striker, mostly Dos Santos.
Former NY Red Bulls (and NYRBII) midfielder Ethan Kutler was signed in March as a veteran player that could potentially provide what Zemanski gave the Hounds last year, but Kutler is no longer with the club, as I am told it was a mutual separation.
Velarde has been the one younger player who’s seen the most playing time, getting three starts and making appearances in each of the eight games. Still, his production hasn’t exactly been tantalizing, and it’s possible that he’s been playing out of position. Mertz, another rookie from Upper St. Clair, made three appearances, providing a spark late in two home games. Lilley said at the outset of the season that Franke (three appearances, 25 total minutes) would have more of an impact, but we haven’t see that yet.
The Open Cup games may prove crucial to building game fitness but more importantly experience and confidence for Kahsai, Velarde, Mertz and Franke. There’s no doubt that through the grind of a 34-game regular season, they’ll be called on as it would be fruitful to keep Dabo, Kerr, Forbes from logging too many minutes this season. In fact, Lilley said to me in the off season that he’d hoped to see the minutes spread out along his roster a bit more than the 2018 team, which did show signs of running out of gas late in the season.
Right now though, Lilley needs to get more players involved, or the same thing could happen at the end of the season. A veteran addition to the midfield may make a lot of sense, but I’m not sure if the Hounds have the resources at this time for another signing. However, they did part ways with Kutler, so they may have some funds there.
Going on an Open Cup run is always a fun thing — especially if they can get into the fourth round and take on an MLS side. But the second and potentially the third rounds can also provide much needed playing opportunities for the less used players on the roster.
Who knows, maybe a few of them can play a part in forging this team’s identity in the coming weeks.
PITTSBURGH SOCCER NOW COVERAGE THIS WEEK
We will have Ed Thompson, Rachael McKriger and me at the Open Cup game on Tuesday. Look for the Game Day blog to drop a few hours prior to kickoff.
For more on Dayton’s 2-1 win last Wednesday against Erie, here’s my recap and post-game reaction:
Look for Matt Gajtka‘s View From The Booth column on Wednesday.
Mark Goodman will provide a scouting report and match preview for the Hounds next league encounter at Memphis 901, likely late Friday or early Saturday.