The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC gained another win against a team that sits well-below the playoff line on Friday in its 1-0 decision against the expansion Loudoun United FC.
Following an embarrassing 5-0 loss at North Carolina FC in its previous match,Hounds head coach Bob Lilley, the players and the fans were probably hoping a commanding performance at home would get the team back on track — and regain its form from its previous five-game win streak.
Instead, they did just enough to walk away with another key three points.
It started well for Pittsburgh.
The Hounds scored early, in the 5th minute, on a well-executed, lofted ball in from Neco Brett to Steevan Dos Santos,
Once again, the Hounds lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Lilley’s strategy when he’s without one of it’s primary three central defenders this season, is to revert from the 3-5-2 (5-3-2) they’ve used a lot, to this formation. In this match, Pittsburgh would be without one of it most versatile players, Thomas Vancaezeele, who had to sit out while serving a one-game suspension for red card against North Carolina.
The Hounds managed to scrape through the night holding on to that 1-0 lead. It was a match where Loudoun United FC’s young talented players who are in the grooming stages for the DC United gave them fits, but ultimately weren’t up to the task to find one or two moments to change the complexion of the contest.
In fact, two players with Pittsburgh ties, Robby Dambrot and Andy Lubahn had moments where they came close to getting the equalizer.
Dambrot, a former Pitt standout (and as noted by Matt Gajtka on the broadcast, son of Duquesne University’s Head Basketball coach Keith Dambrot), forcing Hounds keeper Kyle Morton into making his only save of the half in the 27th minute.
After slightly controlling the majority of possession in the first half (51%/49% edge), the Hounds found themselves against an opponent that was willing to sit back, concede space, then looked to counter, much the way that they like to do.
Even as things opened up for both sides, to the displeasure of Lilley, the Hounds nearly doubled the lead on a few occasions.
Kenardo Forbes had a run at one that banged off the bar – and Dos Santos found himself in the middle of a counter with time and a few defenders, then let one rip from outside the box. Duba’s shot sailed just above the crossbar.
Loudoun looked more confident in the second half, and while pressing for the equalizer they took the possession advantage (finished with 54%-46% overall possession edge), and were slightly more efficient in shot conversion rate (while Pittsburgh held 10-9 edge in shots, it was a rare night its opponent at Highmark Stadium had more shots on target, 3-2).
Erie, PA native Lubahn’s shot attempt in the 51st minute nearly beat Morton, but was blocked by a lunging Joe Greenspan who raced in to cut off his former teammate’s shot attempt. Loudoun’s Connor Presley was also denied by Morton.
The Hounds buckled down in the second half, but couldn’t deliver a decisive blow and never were able to take full control of the match.
As Dos Santos pointed out after, Loudoun, with a few big bodied center backs, defended crosses and set pieces well, limiting Pittsburgh in that aspect. The match played out evenly on the stat sheet – as both teams had similar numbers in crosses in (Hound with 17-16 edge) and Hounds won 63 duels, while its opponent won 61.
The Hounds first real adjustment in the second half came when they brought in Sammy Kahsai in for Anthony Velarde in the 62nd minute. Velarde, who’s played more of late, struggled especially with his passing into the final third. Velarde has been playing well of late, but the PacWest Conference’s all-time career assist in his time at Division II Fresno Pacific, had at least three clear giveaways after the Hounds had some decent build-up to the edge of the box. With ball at his feet in the box in the second half, and some room and time to shoot after receiving a ball by the far post, Velarde played the ball back to be picked off. Already a bit shaken from previous mistakes in the match, his pass-first tendencies really came back to bite him in that instance. As Gene Klein pointed out in the broadcast, sometimes a player has to be selfish in those moments.
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
Greenspan went down with an injury that looked precarious at one point as the Hounds’ center back was holding the back of his leg. Ensign Joe shook it off, and got back on the field to help close out the victory. While Greenspan was down, Lilley turned to Dani Rovira, and nearly brought in the first year pro. If Rovira came into the match for Greenspan, it would have been interesting to see without Uchenna Uzo and Vancaeyezeele in the 18, how the Hounds would have line-up. Greenspan and Adewole accounted for 17 clearances on Friday — and together won 16 of 19 duels.
Mouhamed Dabo also came on for Kevin Kerr in the 75th minute to provide fresh legs to help close out the match.
Lilley didn’t get the complete performance he was hoping for, and most importantly the Hounds failed to control the tempo of the match, but his team did defend well in critical moments.
“We allowed the game to get stretched. That’s on us. That wasn’t by design. We tied a game against Swope Park early in the year where the game just became a track meet. We tied the game against Bethlehem Steel early in the year when we had the lead at one point, but the game became a track meet,” Lilley explained as he wanted to see his club enforce its will instead of allowing Loudoun to play at Highmark Stadium on equal terms.
Pittsburgh had to fight off a number of Loudoun advances in the match’s final minutes, but held on to walk away with a key three points as the playoff race for spots in the top half of the standings gets more intense with each passing week.
“We could’ve lost points tonight, we were fortunate that we just defended well enough.”
IT’S NOT GETTING ANY EASIER
The Hounds push through July and August has been impressive, winning nine of its last 11 matches but they continue to be outside the elusive top four spots in the Eastern Conference, and they must stay in the top six to avoid mid-week playoff scenarios come October.
It wasn’t pretty, but they took care of business they had to on Friday, maintaining its strong record at home in the Bob Lilley era (unbeaten in last 21 regular season matches).
Now comes a stretch against clubs that are very closely behind and in front of them: at Ottawa (next Friday), then home matches against Louisville City, Charleston, then the Tennessee swing (at Nashville and Memphis) – and finishing up September at home against top-four Indy Eleven. A strong run through this stretch will secure the top six – and even put them in position to be a top-four team like they were a year ago.
Over the weekend, Ottawa beat St. Louis to remain in eighth position, while Louisville showed they’re still going to have a say in the race, took down red-hot North Carolina FC, 1-0. An Indy Eleven win or draw on Sunday will put the Hounds back into sixth place. In front of Pittsburgh, the Tampa Bay Rowdies bounced back nicely to slam Memphis 5-0, NY Red Bulls won again (5-1 vs Swope Park) to remain in first, while Nashville also picked up three points beating ninth place Charleston, 2-1.
“I’m happy to get the three points as tight as it is,” Lilley said. “Our schedule stiffens significantly next week going into Ottawa. We have a lot of work to do.”
Kyle Morton – 7 – Picked up much-needed, clean sheet and likely re-boost of confidence after the conundrum in at North Carolina. He made two solid saves and re-affirmed his spot as the Hounds primary keeper.
Joe Greenspan – 6.5 – made what could have been a goal-saving play on Andy Lubahn’s shot attempt, and had eight overall clearances. Injured at one point in second half, as it looked as if he might have been subbed out, but stayed in. Gritty performance for the big fella.
Tobi Adewole – 7.5 – continues to shine in the back. Without Vancaeyezeele in there took on the responsibility playing a lot out with his feet to the tune of 80 percent passing accuracy.
Jordan Dover – 5.5 – conceded four fouls and was in tough battle with Griffin Yow and his former teammate Lubahn for much of the night.
Ryan James – 5.5 – was only Hounds player to create multiple chances 3) with his balls in from both sides as he and Dover kept swapping sides depending on situations. Had the most touches on the team (73).
Kenardo Forbes – 6 – Not his best night, as most Hounds fans would prefer that he’d be the guy with the most touches every night, but still usual solid presence in midfield – where he played deeper. When getting forward, missed on a few shot attempts, coming close with one banging off bar.
Robbie Mertz – 6.5 – passing accuracy solid again (87%) – with 54 touches and made a few key tackles and shot blocks. Showing he’s versatile as holding mid in 4-2-3-1 or when Hounds need him working higher, he can score goals.
Anthony Velarde – 4 – this was tough night for Velarde, who’s been playing well and earned his way into the starting XI for recent performances. As described above, he gave too many balls away, and it showed in the stat sheet (lowest in team with 57% passing accuracy/50% in final third). Work rate was good, won six of nine duels.
Kevin Kerr – 6 – crafty veteran shows why he’s valuable always working well without the ball, especially getting forward. Had three shots but seems as if they didn’t play it enough through his side of the attacking midfield in this match.
Mo Dabo (79’) – NR – another appearance off bench as defensive sub.
Sammy Kahsai (62’) – 6 – pretty decent showing in 28 minutes including 100% passing accuracy (on 12 attempts) and provided solid work rate.
Steevan Dos Santos – 6.5– another goal – and continues to keep possessions alive and draw fouls (4 more). Slowed down a bit in second half.
Neco Brett – 6 – once again showed his ability to create for his teammates as much as he can for himself with that terrific assist. When paired with Dos Santos, they have been working well together.
Subs not used: Austin Pack, Mark Forrest, Noah Franke, Dani Rovira, Christian Volesky