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Analysis & Player Grades: Hounds execute Lilley’s game plan with precision

Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Analysis & Player Grades: Hounds execute Lilley’s game plan with precision

For the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, everything went their way on Friday night in its utter domination of the Ottawa Fury FC, posting a 4-0 win on the road in a match between two teams fighting to push higher up in the top half of the USL’s Eastern Conference standings. 

This is what happens when everything comes together the way Riverhounds SC’s head coach Bob Lilley envisions when his game plan is devised earlier in the week. 

The roots of this win took place in the off season.

Trades in the USL Championship aren’t that common between teams, and shortly after the Riverhounds announced that they re-signed a number of players for the 2019 season during the winter, Lilley still had some options and was thinking up some ways to make his squad more efficient in the final third. 

In order to improve the Hounds conversion rate, Lilley took a gamble by selling one of those players he had re-signed in early December, who he knew had plenty of value — and was dynamic on the width and popular with the fans — but wanted to get something he wanted in return to make his team better. 

Of course, that player Lilley moved was Christiano François.

What the Hounds did was ‘sell’ François to Ottawa for cash. 

In turn, shortly after that, Pittsburgh signed Steevan Dos Santos. After analyzing these moves in the Winter, I quickly put together this analysis:

ANALYSIS: Dos Santos signing points toward Hounds’ desire to be more productive in final third

Fast forward to Friday night in the Canadian Capital, Lilley’s line-up selections were about on par what we might expect with one minor surprise — as he elected to go with Mouhamad Dabo as part of his midfield, leaving Robbie Mertz on the bench. Otherwise, it was the usual suspects — with the three man central back line (Joe Greenspan, Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Tobi Adewole) all together once again, with Dabo, Kenardo Forbes and Kevin Kerr operating in the central midfield — and Ryan James and Jordan Dover manning the wings. 

Ottawa’s coach Nikola Popovic has implemented a new club culture and system of play. With the addition of François and others, the Fury are a team that has improved considerably this season. Heading into this match with Pittsburgh, they were hanging around inside the playoff line, but trailed the Hounds by five points. 

Still, while Lilley did all of his roster building in the off season and into the last week of preseason, the Fury FC are still adding parts to its roster at this point in the season.

Most notably, the acquisition of former Orlando City SC and Swope Park standout Hadji Barry, Ottawa earlier in the month showed a sense of desperation and urgency to win now, in potentially in its last year in the USL (as they might be leaving for Canadian Premier League in 2020 or beyond). 

After a few matches of lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the Hounds went back to a 5-3-2 formation that has been effective. The approach of bringing high press and looking to counter with precision worked well on Friday. Having been together training and playing in games since February, the Hounds looked like the more cohesive group. 

In the teams’ early match up this season in June, the Hounds were still working out some of the kinks. They executed Lilley’s game plan pretty well through the first hour of that match, taking a commanding 2-0 lead. However, two quick goals by Ottawa, from defensive lapses — including a Thomas Vancaeyezeele foul in the box — and the Hounds had to absorb and settle for a 2-2 draw.

After reeling off 10 wins in its last 13 games since that match, the Hounds were intent on not letting that happen again vs Ottawa.

With Pittsburgh’s back eight firmly organized — it was the top two – Steevan Dos Santos and Neco Brett who really delivered the goods and showed tremendous chemistry. 

Dos Santos and Brett took advantage of Ottawa’s sloppy play out of the back to score or hook up for three first half goals in the first 33 minutes that left the home side demoralized. Dos Santos scored the first one, after receiving a nice pass from Brett after a terrible Ottawa giveaway in the second minute of the match. 

Brett scored two goals to add to his team leading total of 10 — both coming from assists from Dos Santos.

Pittsburgh had four shots on frame in the first half — with three hitting the back of the net. This only adds to its league leading 21% conversion rate.

Overall, Pittsburgh is 24th in the league in shots attempted, but after Friday’s 4-goal outburst, they’re now fifth in goals with 48.

Let that sink in for a moment. Bob Lilley’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds are fifth out of 34 teams in scoring goals after 25 games.

They’re scoring goals in all kinds of ways. Lilley’s common denominator usually means most will come in the box (sure enough they have 42 of 46 inside the 18), with 11 by way of headers, 24 right-footed, nine left-footed, one from a direct kick and four of seven penalty conversions.

The team’s attack is balanced, with Brett scoring 10 goals, Dos Santos eight, Robbie Mertz with six and Kevin Kerr has five.

But the most important of those is the 21.1% to be exact, conversion rate. Scoring those 48 goals on 102 shots on target with nearly half of its shots taken (total of 228) being on frame.

Compare this to last year — the Hounds scored a total of 49 goals in 2018 in a total of 34 games), with a conversion rate of just 13.6% (160 of 361 total shots on target).

Ottawa, with top passer in the league in the midfield in Charlie Ward (not to be confused with former Heisman Trophy winner and NBA point guard), were giving away balls left and right on Friday. The Hounds intercepted 18 passes in the first half alone (finishing with 25 interceptions in the match), and it seemed as if they knew everything Ottawa was trying to do.

The Fury FC had possession for much of the match, ending with 59 percent advantage, but it didn’t matter because when Pittsburgh took it away, they made them pay.

“I think we had a good game plan,” Lilley said. “We took some things we did well in the first game. We had a great team effort, and Ottawa’s still always on the verge of something. It was nice to get a couple goals and have a little bit of breathing room.

Just watch the halftime interview with Popovic.  The poor man was lost for words.

Lilley had gotten the best of him. 

I’m sure there was plenty of fury in the Ottawa locker room at halftime, but they couldn’t solve the Hounds in the second half either.

With a 3-0 lead, Lilley made one halftime sub, and that was bring in a first-year pro, midfielder Sammy Kahsai, who’s been picking up valuable minutes and contributed throughout the season here and there.

On Friday, Kahsai found his moment. Seizing yet another Ottawa turnover by the home side just beyond midfield, Kahsai saw that Ottawa keeper Callum Irving was out of position, and precisely hit his long-range bomb right on target to put the exclamation point on the Pittsburgh win.

Of course, all this is just one game, and one opponent.

“I felt we showed a lot of discipline to stick with the game plan. I think it was a mature performance for us and came at a good time,” Lilley added after the match.

Lilley, and his group, a stabilized roster that includes veterans who’ve won USL Cups — mixed with young, hungry players, may just be starting to smell blood.

Up next are two home games against Louisville and then Charleston. Louisville, who were hot, slipped up a bit on Friday night with a draw vs Indy Eleven after winning four straight.

Nonetheless, Pittsburgh, now in fifth place in the standings, will be in for a fight with the defending champions.

There’s little doubt that there will be another stellar game plan in place for the Hounds players to execute.

OTTvPIT Player Grades

Goalkeeper

Kyle Morton – 6 – rarely tested but showing a lot of confidence. Two saves, one punchout.

Defenders

Ryan James – 7 – the Hounds were picking everything from Ottawa. James was doing his part — and his interception led to goal number three.

Tobi Adewole – 7 – solid night — and again so comfortable playing out those short passes (90% passing accuracy!)

Joe Greenspan – 8.5 – 11 clearances, in command of middle as usual — and very good playing it out with his feet in this one.

Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 7 – has to continue to be careful with fouls in/around the box, but otherwise playing well back there — won six of seven duels.

Jordan Dover – 7.5 –  won seven of 11 duels and won four interceptions.

Midfielders

Mouhamed Dabo – 7 – very good 45 minutes in holding midfield. Showed his worth and validated his start with 93 percent passing and winning his duels.

Sammy Kahsai (45′) – 7.5 – what a night for Kahsai. Scores from way out, 93 percent passing accuracy.

Kevin Kerr – 7  – from a goal production standpoint, Kerr’s slowed down of late, but continues to make solid contributions in numerous ways. He’s the kind of guy that Louisville and Charleston won’t want to sleep on in upcoming games.

Kenardo Forbes – 7.5 – created four chances, team high 60 passes — overall solid night for Hounds captain.

Steevan Dos Santos – 9 – continues to shine alongside Brett. They’re becoming a dynamic duo. Big reason for Hounds improved conversion rate as outlined above.

Christian Volesky (73′) – NR –

Neco Brett – 8.5 – two goals on two shots. Added a terrific assist. Now leads the team in goals.

Noah Franke (88′) – NR

Subs not used: Austin Pack, Mark Forrest, Robbie Mertz, Anthony Velarde

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the United States. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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