It’s been an eventful first half of the season for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, one that’s left the club with lofty aspirations sitting just inside the playoff line, but with lots of work to do in the second half.
The 2019 campaign, the 20th in franchise history, has already included eight draws, half of them 2-2 scorelines, a four-game win streak, a U.S. Open Cup run to the fourth round to take on a Major League Soccer opponent and the emergence of a local hero — first year pro from Upper St. Clair — Robbie Mertz.
The Hounds currently sit in eighth place, with a 6-3-8 record, good for 26 points, but looking to climb the ladder.
Before we turn the page, and prepare for Saturday’s match vs. North Carolina FC, it’s time to take one more look back at the first half of the season.
We’ve assembled our motley crew of Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s Riverhounds contributors including Mark Goodman, Matt Gajtka, Rachael McKriger, Matt Harkins and myself plus we’re very happy to be joined by another MG: Matt Grubba, who’s been covering the Hounds as long as anyone in the Pittsburgh media. Together, we answer some questions and share our thoughts on the first 17 league matches (and Open Cup run) this week.
What’s your most memorable moment of the first half of the season?
Mark Goodman: It’s a tie between the home opener – with the amazing sell-out crowd and the dominant performance for a 3-1 win over Hartford Athletic, and Kevin Kerr‘s two assist performance against Birmingham on June 29 to set the team record for most career assists.
Matt Gajtka: Robbie Mertz‘ brace on home turf vs. Red Bulls II — both assisted by Kevin Kerr — ranks at the top of the 2019 moments for me.
Rachael McKriger: Seeing Pittsburgh open up the month of April with a road victory against Louisville City FC. There’s no denying the greatness of that Louisville team, so for Pittsburgh to get a result at their home stadium is impressive! Neco Brett had a well-deserved penalty kick in the 74th minute.
Matt Harkins: This Riverhounds’ team struggled finishing games and breaking through early on in the season and were not getting the results they wanted. They were settling for draws. Therefore the most memorable moments for me on the season would be the scoring outburst we saw with a 5-0 shutout at Atlanta followed by a 3-0 victory over New York and a 4-1 victory against Bethlehem Steel. The defense has been strong all year for the Riverhounds and if the offense scores at that rate, this becomes a very dangerous team.
Matt Grubba: The number of blown leads resulting in draws has been a bit maddening, but the 2-2 draw against Nashville with both Hounds goals coming after the 87th minute was a pretty enjoyable one that felt like a win, not a loss.
John Krysinsky: Strictly for high drama, the 2-2 draw against Nashville provided the most exciting finish, as the Hounds rallied for two goals in the final five minutes plus stoppage time to salvage a point against a team that had outplayed them for much of the match. Against his former team, Ryan James was the best player on the field that night — and it was unfortunate that he didn’t get credit for the equalizer. The powers that be in the USL also took away Kerr’s assist which would have tied the club record at that time. It was also a match where Robbie Mertz, in a short amount of time as a late sub, provided a spark for his hometown team when they sorely needed it. Since that rally, Mertz’ been an instrumental part of the Hounds attack and in the starting lineup.
Where can the Hounds improve?
Gajtka: Feels odd to say about a Bob Lilley team, but they could be better in protecting leads. Quite a few points squandered so far.
Grubba: Obviously, letting so many leads slip away late is the problem, but there are a few ways to fix it. Late-game defending needs to improve, first and foremost. Finishing chances earlier in matches to make one- and two-goal leads bigger would put games to rest before there’s late drama. I even think Bob Lilley could improve his use of the substitutes bench; a few of those tying goals have come with a player getting ready to come on, so perhaps using the fresh legs a little sooner could prevent the let-downs.
Goodman: I find the offense predictable: Ryan James will bring the ball up and swing in a big cross. Or the ball will work from middle to wide right and Kevin Kerr… will swing in a big cross. The team is not dangerous enough out of the center of midfield. Also, all of our strikers need to be better – in finishing, off the ball movement, everything.
Harkins: I think I answered this in my last response, more consistency on offense will make this team a dangerous one in the second half that can catapult them to the top of the Eastern Conference. Also, just playing a more complete 90 minutes on a consistent basis
McKriger: one of the biggest issues the team doesn’t do is shake things up. It’s great to have consistency with players featuring together. I think that Kyle Morton has earned the starting goalkeeper spot. It’s his to lose at this point. Also, I think that Christian Volesky could be used more this season. While it’s tough to put Neco Brett or Steevan dos Santos on the bench, it would make sense to throw a curveball at other teams every once in a while. Other teams are going to look at tape of Brett and dos Santos, because that’s who Bob Lilley starts. Why not throw a change-up?
JK: Holding on to leads has to be the biggest area. This is something that Bob Lilley was focused on correcting in the off season, after the Hounds failed to hold leads a few times late last season. Again, it happened numerous times early this season. After holding on for the 1-0 win vs Bethlehem Steel FC, Lilley said those were the types of games they have to win. Roster management is a key factor in ensuring that the Hounds have the fitness and stamina to finish the season strong, and Lilley is hoping to fine tune this squad to be playing its best down the stretch, and will be banking on contributions 18 to 20 players deep into the roster.
Which USL club has been the biggest surprise?
McKriger: While it might not be a surprise to some, it’s nice to see that the Dave Sarachan-led North Carolina FC is doing well. I was surprised that Sarachan wasn’t included on Gregg Berhalter’s U.S. Men’s National Team staff. I think Sarachan did an admirable job in leading the USMNT for a year. However, I hope that his work with North Carolina continues to do well — except for in this weekend’s match — because he deserves an opportunity to coach in Major League Soccer.
Harkins: After watching the Charlotte Independence take on the Riverhounds at Highmark, I really wasn’t that impressed, but after the coaching change they have looked like a different team. They are 3-0-2 in their last 5 and in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. If they keep this up, they would be my sleeper pick if they remain in postseason position.
Goodman: The obvious pick is Tampa Bay Rowdies, because although they had some nice pieces in place, nobody could have predicted that they’d go from below-the-playoff-line to top of the league while not adding any players of note. Neil Collins has done some impressive things with this team. On the other end of the table, Swope Park Rangers are surprisingly bad. They have an exceptional bunch of youngsters from the SKC academy, like fellow MLS club NYRB, but they can’t seem to make anything of them, like fellow MLS club Atlanta 2.
Grubba: I think most people expected Tampa Bay to be better than their 12th-place finish a year ago, but to have one loss in 19 matches so far is a pretty astonishing swing. The Hounds really could’ve used those three points last week.
Gajtka: I think everyone in the East is about where they should be, but I’ll say that I’m surprised about Saint Louis’ recent downturn. They seemed so tough to break down back in April when they came into Highmark.
JK: We knew that North Carolina FC would be improved under Sarachan, but I didn’t expect them to be a top-four squad. Tampa Bay has impressed for much of the season, but Saturday when the Hounds limited them to playing balls over the top, they looked beatable. Still, they showed that they’re dangerous, in getting the late equalizer here in Pittsburgh, and if they get the top seed, they’ll be very difficult to beat in Florida. It should never surprise anyone that New York Red Bulls II are near the top of the standings again, but when Floran Valot went down with a season ending injury in March, and Vince Bezencourt has spent more time with the first club, I thought they’d struggle to remain in the top five, but they’ve been right there all season, doing what they do best — bringing the high press, numbers forward, playing open ended matches with lots of goals. Ottawa, holding its own in seventh with former Riverhound Christiano Francois making contributions, has also been a bit of a surprise.
Which player has been the most pleasant surprise?
Gajtka: Mertz has been a revelation at times, and a solid player even on his off nights. Didn’t expect to see that boost from a rookie, especially a local one.
Goodman: Jordan Dover. He’s a solid and reliable right back. When he’s defending, you know he’s not going to be beat and he’ll handle his side of the pitch. That reliability is invaluable from such a key position.
Harkins: I’m going to answer the question as which players have been the most fun to watch and that has been Ryan James and Robbie Mertz. When the two of them are on the same side, they just seem to cause a lot of chaos for the opposing team and are able to generate some quality opportunities for the Riverhounds. If the two of them can continue being productive and creating chances that means very good things are happening here in Pittsburgh.
Grubba: As bad as the Colorado Rapids are (Sorry, Rabbi Mark!), how did they let Robbie Mertz get away without at least signing him and then stashing him in USL on loan? Mertz has forced his way into regular playing time with his production, and he’s well on his way to being the first Pittsburgher to be a regular starter/everyday player for the Hounds in the Highmark era.
McKriger: Seeing Jordan Dover get called up to Guyana was a big moment for him and the Riverhounds. While it’s not going to get the team on the map in the soccer world, it’s not a bad place to start. Dover is a great right back for the Hounds. While Dani Roveria did a nice job filling in for Dover while he was at the Gold Cup, you can tell the defense missed their guy. He’s been a bright spot for the Hounds this year, even if he doesn’t score goals and garner all the glory
JK: Mertz’ emergence has given the club a great lift. His attributes have blended well with the veteran combo of Kerr and Forbes in the midfield. Lilley wanted this squad to have a balanced attack, and Mertz has complemented Kerr, giving him more opportunity to be effective off the ball, and Kenardo Forbes, who Mertz will defer to initiate the attack. Mertz’ didn’t try to do too much too quickly when he first got his opportunities. The former Michigan Wolverine knows how to use his quickness and instincts, makes good decisions (second on the club to Forbes in passing accuracy) and has proven he can scrap in the middle against some of the best midfielders this league has to offer. He’s even admitted that he has a long way to go, but what a great start for the young man from Upper St. Clair. He’s been one of the best stories in all of Pittsburgh sports thus far this year.
Which player has under-performed / been disappointment?
Goodman: It’s got to be Steevan Dos Santos. I think Bob Lilley talked him up a bit in the offseason to the media, which led us to conclude he’d be a game-changer in offense for this team. But he’s really not. His finishing is just ok. He’s not that effective on the dribble, and his size mostly works against him – he never gets foul calls because the assumption is the little guys couldn’t be guilty of hacking him, and he often gets called for fouls for the same reason. When you consider also that he was effectively (but not literally) swapped for Cristiano Francois (Dos Santos came from Ottawa, Francois was sold to Ottawa), it just adds to the sense that he hasn’t been the guy. I can sort of see why Christian Volesky, who hasn’t blown me away either, is getting a chance to claim a striker spot for the Hounds.
McKriger: I don’t want to say under-performed, but in a battle between the two rookies, Robbie Mertz has surpassed Anthony Velarde. I think that Velarde could have a chance to gain his spot back, and he’s a really good person, so I refuse to say under-performed. I don’t think he had bad performances to get his starting spot revoked from him — I just think Mertz has been better — and he’s scoring goals. His popularity, too, being local player, helps. However, his play has been impressive, so it is what it is.
Gajtka: Until about a month ago, it was Steevan Dos Santos, but he’s been much more consistent lately. Maybe Thomas Vancaeyezeele? He’s had some difficult moments in the clutch, including conceding a couple of important penalty kicks.
Grubba: Mohammed Dabo‘s season has been disappointing because of injury — perhaps his absence explains some of the defensive lapses — but I also thought the Hounds would be getting more than two goals from Christian Volesky. Volesky hasn’t played badly, but before the season, the hope was there could be a strong three-man rotation at the striker spots. So far, Brett and Dos Santos have been the clear top pair.
Harkins: If I had to choose which player has under-performed this year for the Hounds, it would be Anthony Velarde. Velarde has a goal and two shots on target this year, but whenever he is in the middle of the field for the Hounds, the chemistry does not seem to be there like when Kevin Kerr and Robbie Mertz are patrolling things in the middle. I know you need to give Kerr and Mertz some rest, you can’t just play them a complete 90+ every match. If Velarde is that guy to give either of them a breather, the Hounds need to get more out of him in the second half of the season.
JK: First things first, I wanted to address that Dos Santos is what he is. I don’t look at him as a disappointment. At this level, with the strategical approach the Hounds are going with this season, Dos Santos has been an instrumental and reliable part of the attacking pieces that have led to more balanced scoring and keeping possessions alive in the final third. Sure, Dos Santos has missed opportunities at times. There are certain things he’s not going to do. By doing the dirty work at times in the midfield, he’s allowed Kerr to get forward, and has been most effective working alongside the more pure sniper, Brett. A year ago, the Hounds didn’t score many goals on set pieces, but with Dos Santos along with Tobi Adewole and Joe Greenspan, they create enormous match-up headaches for opponents on set pieces. I would have to concur with some others on disappointments early in the season from Velarde, who was a player a lot of people seemed excited about, but has not produced as much as some thought he could. But he’s got the early season experience, and he can only grow as a player moving forward. Vancaeyezeele’s been this club’s workhorse — playing every minute of every league match the past season and a half. However, the Frenchman’s had a few defensive challenges that he’d like to have back that have led to penalties in the box. He’ll have to clean that up.
Who is the Hounds’ Most Valuable Player?
Grubba: There’s a sentimental want to pick Kevin Kerr with his resurgence this season, his best since 2015 so far, but it’s hard to go against Kenardo Forbes with the way he controls matches. I could recite all sorts of distribution stats — Forbes leads the team in passes (943), is second to Mertz in pass percentage among players with 10+ games (81.3) and has 38 “key passes,” a total double the next player’s (Kerr with 19). But the biggest thing for me is always the eyeball test, and when Forbes in on the ball, the Hounds just seem to maintain possession with much more ease.
Goodman: Defenders never get the love, so while the obvious pick is Kevin Kerr for all his offensive production, my answer for MVP is Joe Greenspan. Go to a Steel Army tailgate and ask them how they feel on gameday when Greenspan is out with an injury or due to a red card suspension. The answer is ‘anxious’. No player is as much of a game-changer for the Hounds as Ensign Joe. A league-leader in clearances; calm on the ball; a very good distributor. If he could put on 10 pounds of muscle and could go full-on beast mode against opposing strikers with regularity, he’d be back in MLS in a jiffy.
Harkins: Do I have to pick one? I can’t choose, so I am going to go with a three way tie between Kenardo Forbes, Neco Brett and Robbie Mertz. This trio hascombined for 11 goals, 6 Assists and 21 shots on target. The chances that these three help create on the attack can’t go unnoticed and are what make this team fun to watch for fans.
McKriger: The king is high up on the throne. Kenardo Forbes is a stalwart in the midfield for the Hounds. For me, something that is more impressive than goals are assists. How else would those goals happen? Forbes has four assists this season and is also in the USL Championship Eastern Conference top 10 for distributing passes, completing 943 passes. He’s also at No. 10 in crosses, as he’s brought 73 into the box. Plays wouldn’t happen, goals wouldn’t happen, without King Kenny.
Gajtka: I keep coming back to Kenardo Forbes. With Kerr playing more of an attacking role this year, it’s been on Forbes to help connect the back end to the front. He’s been largely up to the task, and for a counterattacking team that’s important.
JK: for all the solid contributions from Mertz, Kerr, Brett, the center backs — and the outside back — it’s Kenardo Forbes who drives the engine to this club. When he’s getting involved in the attacking third, good things bound to happen. He’s the only Hounds player to land on the USL Team of the Week multiple times — and his goal on the Fourth of July against Bethlehem Steel FC was one of those ‘I’m going to put my team on my back and deliver when they need me to’ moments.
How do you feel about your preseason predictions? Do you have anything to add for the second half of the season?
For a point of reference, here’s our preseason predictions.
McKriger: I said that Pittsburgh would make it to fourth place in the Eastern Conference. After a slow start, the Hounds are climbing up the conference ladder. Right now, they’re in eighth place with 26 points. The current fourth place team is North Carolina, who hold 31 points to their name. There’s not that much of a gap there. I also said that Steevan dos Santos would be the Hounds’ leading scorer. I wasn’t too far off, as dos Santos has netted four goals — along with Mertz. Right now, Kevin Kerr and Brett are tied for the Riverhounds SC Golden Boot, but there’s still plenty of season left to play. I’m still interested to see what Velarde has to offer, because I think he deserves a chance to start again. Finally, I picked that Louisville would win the conference yet again, but they currently reside in fifth place. Tampa Bay is looking dominant, but there’s a lot of space within the Eastern Conference for someone to take the leap. Don’t sleep on Louisville. They’ll make the playoffs, but winning the conference could be a stretch.
Harkins: I predicted a top four finish for Pittsburgh and despite the slow start, they have started to stack up the wins and slowly move their way up the standings. I’ll also be watching the current Top 4 of Tampa Bay, New York, Indy and North Carolina to see who remains in the top four and who drops out. Tampa Bay has held down that top spot for most of the season, but can someone else make a push and knock them out of that spot.
Goodman: I predicted the Hounds would finish with 54 points. Right now they have 26, so, unfortunately, I was right that this year’s team isn’t as impressive as the 2018 edition. Check! I picked Neco Brett to be the leading scorer, and he’s tied as the leading scorer with Kevin Kerr. Check! I said Anthony Velarde was the player I was most excited about. That was more or less a miss — Velarde was given the job in midfield to start the year, and played his way out of the gig. He’s not bad, just only ok. Sometimes there’s an opening for a dribble or a pass, but rather than take the opportunity, Velarde takes the extra touch or plays a safer ball backwards, and the moment is lost. He’s fine, and tidy with the ball, but he doesn’t change the game enough. Maybe he needs another year of seasoning. I predicted Indy Eleven or Louisville City to win the East, and both are pretty high in the table. I stand by that one too. So I’d say I was two-for-four on predictions. Not bad.
Gajtka: I had the Hounds near the top of the table, so they’ve underperformed compared to that. However, they haven’t really been out of any matches and their three losses were to the No. 1 team in the East, the No. 3 team in the East, and at surging Charlotte on two days’ rest. I’d expect them to continue to steadily climb the table, possibly sneaking into the top four by mid-October.
Grubba: I said 55 points, and they’re on pace for 52, so I like where I stand on that. Dos Santos is finding his scoring touch, but 13 will be a stretch, and Volesky is hurting my prediction that all three strikers will score at least eight. (Dos Santos and Brett are on pace.) I don’t think there’s much question Ryan James has been the most important newcomer from start to finish, so the only prediction that looks bad is my Louisville pick in the East, as they’re sitting sixth, two spots above the Hounds but with two more games played. It’s a marathon, so I’m sticking with my picks to see how they play out — none of them are completely off.
JK: For what it’s worth, I did predict the Hounds would have 16 draws and 14 wins. Well, they have six wins and eight draws so I am close to being on track. With a string of games after North Carolina FC this Saturday that includes Hartford, Memphis and Sporting KC, the Hounds have a chance to build another streak and get off to a solid start in the second half. All of those matches are at home except for Hartford. There’s one thing we know, regardless of how things are going, Bob Lilley’s teams are tough to beat. The Hounds lost three matches in the first half, one where they were outplayed (opener vs Tampa Bay), another two lackluster performances on the road that came after mid-week games (Indy and Charlotte). I would expect a slightly stronger second half, which would mean a potential 30-32 point or higher push in its final 17 matches. My pick to win the conference, Nashville is very much in the mix but overtaking Tampa might be tough.
Anything else to add? Oh yeah, our panel has some more to share…
RM: “Stay Lavish” — Tobi Adewole.
Grubba: Be honest, you all were smiling at Jose Angulo’s goal for Hartford, and we can enjoy it now that the Hounds won that one, 3-1.
Not working for one of the major outlets in town this year, I’ve been able to be behind the scenes a little more, and Hounds fans might enjoy what was said in one recent conversation. Some Hounds staff, Kevin Kerr and myself were chatting in the club area last week before the Hall of Fame festivities. Kerr was jokingly being pressured by ex-teammates and coaches to show up early and play in the Hounds Legends game before suiting up against Tampa Bay. Kerr laughed, but the gist of his response was, “No, I’ve still got a few more years before I’m playing in those.” Sounds like the bounce-back campaign has the longest-tenured Hound planning on a few more seasons
Goodman: Watching the Hounds dominate their opponent in a match, one of the other members of the media turned to me and said “So what is Bob going to complain about this game?” A thing I appreciate about Bob Lilley is that, no matter how good a performance the team turns it, he believes it can always be better.
Harkins: Yeah, we had another weather delay during the 4th of July Game, Are you kidding me? But, getting the win was big for the Riverhounds in that one.
Gajtka: Although tickets are still available for most games, I’ve been encouraged by the increase in attendance, from 2,400 last year to nearly 3,300 this season. That 37 percent increase is the best in the USL Championship, with several warm-weather dates still to come.
JK: The 20th Anniversary season has been fun thus far, and can’t mention that without an added thanks to Patrick McCarthy, who’s digitized a lot of older VHS video tapes, and posted them to YouTube, including this gem.
Seeing Justin Evans return to Highmark as part of the first-ever Hall of Fame induction ceremony last Friday, five years after being unceremoniously let go by the team, was a feel good moment for those of us who’ve been following the Pittsburgh soccer scene for some time. Evans’ value to this organization cannot be understated and I was very glad to see him have his well-deserved moment of recognition and so glad he was part of the festivities.
The first half of the season also showed continued the overall positive momentum that this franchise has been carrying since the hiring of Lilley. Despite the three losses, they continue to be a very strong, competitive side that has championship aspirations, attendance is on the rise and now a new facility is in the works as its partnership with primary sponsors Allegheny Health Network and Highmark continues to grow. Indeed, the best should be yet to come.
Okay folks, it’s time to buckle up for the second half.
See you at Highmark!