To me, one of the most fascinating and entertaining things we can enjoy about watching and following sports is when two teams and coaches with very different and distinctive styles and philosophies clash — and do so on a regular, ongoing basis.
On Saturday night, the Riverhounds SC defeated NY Red Bulls II, a familiar opponent, by a familiar scoreline, 3-0, to put themselves back into the conversation as a team the rest of the USL Championship may find be very difficult to beat moving forward.
Since 2015, Bob Lilley and John Wolynec have each led teams to USL Cup victories and regular season championships.
Here in Pittsburgh, we know Lilley’s background pretty well by now. He’s never had a losing season, and most recently with the Rochester Rhinos, and now with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, Lilley’s teams are often among the top in the league in defense, they’re highly disciplined and will take away what its opponents do best.
Wolynec implements the aggressive high pressing and short passing approach the Red Bulls organization is known, using this formula successfully at the second division level, even with fluctuating MSL developmental roster relying on some key, core players, but rotates many of its top, young talent from the first team’s roster. ‘
It’s usually a sure bet that matches between these two coaches have resulted in a struggle between two teams trying to impose its tempo upon each other.
Although Lilley’s Rhinos dominated NYRBII (3-0-1 including a 2-0 playoff win) in 2015, the Red Bulls II were the only team to score twice against them that season. They played each other five times in 2016 — with all three regular season games finishing in draws (1-1 and two scoreless draws). But the Red Bulls beat Lilley’s Rhinos both in Open Cup (1-0) and in a memorable playoff duel (3-3, 5-4 on PKs). The teams split a pair of 2-1 contests in 2017.
For the fifth season, the two veteran coaches teams collided once again at Highmark Stadium.
And once again, the battle of contrasting styles saw the Hounds withstand early pressure, but ultimately pick apart the Baby Bulls in the second half to coast to a 3-0 victory.
Actually it was a very familiar scoreline between the two franchises. For the third time in the past five seasons, the Hounds walked away with a 3-0 win against the Red Bulls II.
In 2015, when the USL’s then two-highest scoring outfits met at Highmark, Pittsburgh rolled to a 3-0 win on the Fourth of July.
Last June, Lilley’s boys methodically withstood the Baby Bulls early pressure, and rolled to a 3-0 win.
As Yogi Berra once famously remarked: ‘It was like Deja Vu all over again’.
Another interesting note about those 3-0 wins in past years, the Hounds would go on to lose to reinforced Red Bulls teams later those seasons, In 2015, it was in the First Round of the USL Playoffs. Last year, the Red Bulls II won in the final week of the regular season.
That’s some history the Hounds will be hoping doesn’t repeat itself.
NO NEED TO CHANGE A THING
This 3-0 win provided a much needed shot in the arm for the Hounds.
Sure, the Hounds stomped on Atlanta United 2, 5-0 last week in Kennesaw, Georgia, but the Red Bulls II had won three games in a row in impressive fashion, even beating Louisville City FC last week 1-0.
For the Hounds, there was no fall off from last week’s performance.
Lilley and the players spoke after the match about how important it was after winning a 5-0 road match, to have a strong week of training.
“Competition for spots is pretty intense, and guys are battling hard all week,” Morton said. “We’re pushing each other and we’re getting better and better.”
Suddenly with two straight wins, with the latest against one of the teams sitting at the top of the table, the Hounds now thrust back into a top ten spot in the standings and into the conversation as a team that will be very tough to beat.
They accomplished this as Lilley didn’t change a thing from the previous week. He rolled out the same exact line-up that pummeled young Atlanta, with the same exact 5-3-2 formation.
For the first forty minutes, it was tense, back-and-forth affair.
The young Red Bulls, in a 4-2-2-2, with a line-up that didn’t include some of its recent starters, were doing their thing fairly effectively. They were getting into the final third and pressuring the Hounds by swarming its back line. The Red Bulls short overlapping runs, passing in tight spots and exchanges were causing some havoc, crossing up the Hounds defense near top of box. Still, the Hounds kept their poise and worked well together play the ball out sometimes with effective short passes and sometimes by clearing it away. As this developed, as expected the Red Bulls II built-up considerable possession edge (58%-42%).
Early in the match the Hounds were more turnover prone, but still, showed enough poise and never panicked and maybe most importantly, kept the Red Bulls’ shot opportunities on frame as manageable for keeper Kyle Morton, who’s biggest test came when Ben Mines rocketed a close range shot redirected from a corner into his gut. Morton also saw a few weaker shots from the top of the 18, when forward Jared Stroud came away with some space after some build up.
The Hounds, who were looking to take advantage of Red Bulls overloading pressure, finally found an opening — when Neco Brett made the club’s first shot on target count in the 40th minute.
It came on a brilliant counter that was perfectly executed by the two Hounds forwards.
Dos Santos, as he always seems to somehow do, managed to get a few touches to keep the ball played to him at midfield alive, then turned and found Neco breaking free with all kinds of space on the right side of the last defender. Brett went into his bag of tricks once RBII’s keeper Rashid Nuhu came off his line to chip it over for the terrific finish.
Having broken down and persevered through the first half against Red Bulls II’s press and frantic style, the Hounds started to have their way in the second 45 minutes .
Kevin Kerr did some fantastic work on the left side to set up a corner, which led to another quality set piece goal from Dos Santos, his second in as many weeks. Only a few minutes later, the Hounds put the nail in the coffin, when on another corner, yet another Dos Santos’ dangerous header was stopped, but not cleared, giving way to Thomas Vancaeyezeele to poke his second goal in as many weeks to give the Hounds a three-goal advantage.
The Baby Bulls frustration came to the forefront when Jean-Christophe Koffi was sent off for a pair of yellow cards in a short period of time a few minutes later, and the Hounds coasted for the rest of the match.
“To me it wasn’t a great first half. We were okay on some of the team tactics,” Lilley said. “We actually went over it at half time what we worked on all week because I felt like we didn’t nail it. I thought second half we were better.”
In fact, as the game wore on, Lilley brought in the same subs at nearly the same exact times, swapping forwards: Dos Santos and Brett gave way for Christian Volesky and Mark Forrest.
Always looking ahead, Lilley acknowledged this team isn’t going to rest on the laurels of this victory.
“We’re by no means in a great spot in the league standings. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Lilley said.
Still, winning a pair of matches by a combined total of 8-0 in the past two weeks can only help with building a team’s confidence and chemistry heading into the second half of the season.
“I think we’re getting closer to where we want to be at. I think the last couple results have really showed who we are. Five goals last game, three goals tonight, two clean sheets, not giving up too many chances,” Morton said,
“I think it’s two really good team performances and we just keep building off results.”
Kyle Morton – 7 – solid in facing early pressure. Thought the biggest difference with Morton in the past few appearances is that when he’s coming off the line with he’s doing so with more conviction and confidence.
Ryan James – 6 – as Mark Goodman pointed out last night when watching the game together in press box, the Hounds play an awful lot through the left side with James, who put forth his usual solid work in picking off five passes from turnover prone Bulls, sending crosses to mixed results (only one of seven was successful).
Tobi Adewole – 8 – Tobi was a force. He anticipated most every pass — with eight interceptions and won all eight of his duels. What else can you ask for?
Joe Greenspan – 7.5 – Big Joe was his usual solid self — and Bulls really didn’t try to go through the air much and when they did, he had three clearances.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 7.5 – Even with some nervous moments while under pressure in the first half hour, the past two games has contributed solid, two-way performance. Scored for second straight game and the reliable central defender/midfielder handled Red Bulls early pressure.
Noah Franke – 7 – thought it was a good overall effort for Franke, who had five crosses (one really dangerous one in first half), solid defensive numbers and won eight of his 13 duels. Lilley said he would play a bigger role with this team this year and now, in the absence of Jordan Dover, he’s filled in very well in the past two weeks.
Robbie Mertz – 6.5 – Lilley noted that he struggled a little bit more playing against a tough opponent, particularly in the first half, but also pointed out that he “helps our possession game” — and has found his place as a steady presence in the central midfield.
Kenardo Forbes – 8.5 – Instrumental in helping with navigating possessions out from the back against high press, with another team leading passing performance (87% accuracy, with 71 total passes), had the most dangerous crosses and his two corner attempts connecting with Dos Santos led to two goals.
Kevin Kerr – 6.5 – efficient (less touches with 32 passes/passing accuracy again 84 percent), yet quiet night at the end of attack for longest tenured Hound.
Anthony Velarde (83’) N/R –
Neco Brett – 7.5 – what a finish on the first goal. Now the team leader in goals.
Christian Volesky (75’) – N/R
Steevan Dos Santos – 8 – another vintage Dos Santos performance. In the past two weeks, he’s scored twice, assisted on two goals, and really should have had another goal, but solid save denied his second header attempt,but that lead to Vancaeyezeele’s tally. We’re seeing that he’s probably most effective playing just underneath Brett or Volesky.
Mark Forrest (75’) – N/R
Subs Not Used: Austin Pack, Uchenna Uzo, Dani Rovira, Sammy Kahsai