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Analysis & Player Grades: Getting downright defensive

Sammy Kahsai (6) looks for an opening. Photo by Ed Thompson

Analysis & Player Grades: Getting downright defensive

Here’s the latest edition of the Riverhounds SC Analysis/Player grades, taking a look back at the grinding 1-0 victory over Old Guard Shield nemesis Charleston on Saturday at Highmark Stadium.

Hounds Roster Selection / Formation / Tactics 

Pittsburgh came out in 4-2-3-1, opting to go once again with a four-man back line at the beginning of the match. 

One interesting choice was having Ryan James, who’s previously started in all but one match on the left outside back/flank spot, on the bench, with Thomas Vancaeyezeele starting in the spot RJ usually occupies. 

It was a match where both teams did a pretty good job of bottling up the final third but didn’t really allow for too much room for quick countering chances, so most of the game was battled in the center of the field (just look at the USL Championship Match Center’s touch map!). While the Hounds owned the ball for more stretches and looked like the better team throughout, it was chess match and you could say they may have been too cautious for much of the match. Charleston were playing its third match in six days, and they seemed to be content to absorb pressure. 

The Hounds may be at their best in terms of playing keep away when they work in the combo of Kenardo Forbes, Kevin Kerr and Robbie Mertz on the field at the same time. Sammy Kahsai wasn’t a bad complement either, and Bob Lilley started him over Mohammed Dabo probably for that reason, knowing that the Hounds would hold the ball a lot against a Charleston side that would bunker.  

Soccer Scribe’s Takeaways

Earlier in the season Pittsburgh played through a string of 2-2 results, with numerous let downs in failing to mark attackers and allowing matches to be played in a more open-ended pace. 

This made for some entertaining matches, and for Head Coach Bob Lilley, it wasn’t exactly fun to watch. After all, Lilley’s been known to have some of the best defensive clubs in USL in his Hall of Fame coaching career. 

In the second half of the season, the Hounds are starting to regain the defensive form that Lilley wants to see, even in matches when they haven’t been in control, the back line and holding midfielders have done well to scramble and minimize dangerous opportunities from opponents. 

On Saturday, they did allow six shots, two on frame, but were rarely threatened, as keeping the ball and playing patiently against a team that had heavy legs were enough to please Lilley, as he pointed out in our post-game reaction piece. 

Post-game reaction: A changing of the ‘old guard’

It was better than the previous week’s performance when they allowed Louisville to dictate terms of the match.   

Frankly, if you take away that glairing 5-0 loss at North Carolina FC, when they came apart in the second half after a Thomas Vancaeyezeele red card left them playing down a man, the Hounds have been among the USL Championship’s most impressive defensive sides in the second half of the season.

On the heels of Saturday’s shutout of Charleston, Pittsburgh is now tied for second in USL Championship, with Indy Eleven, with 12 clean sheets. Only ahead of them is Phoenix Rising, who are running away in the Western Conference, with 14 clean sheets.  Overall, the Hounds have surrendered 28 goals this season, the fifth least. Indy Eleven have been the stingiest unit, giving up only 20. 

On Saturday, Pittsburgh limited Charleston to six total shots (two did get on target), but where they surprisingly took control of the match, particularly in the first half, was on the ball. The Hounds held a 67% possession edge in the first half, and 57% for the game, and were the more accurate passing team (79% to Charleston’s 69%). This probably had more to do with Charleston taking less chances. 

If you’re hoping for some open-ended, high scoring matches in the near future, you might have to look elsewhere.

The Hounds have two pivotal matches coming up against two of the league’s best defensive teams, at Nashville on Saturday, then the following week against Indy at home.

Lilley’s goal is that his team sets the tempo and is in control of every match. It’s likely we’ll see more tightly contested chess matches — that become so commonplace come playoff time — in the coming weeks.

Bottom Line

It wasn’t the most exciting match — but the important thing for Pittsburgh is that they keep the unbeaten string going at home, and as spelled out above, they’re starting to look stronger and stronger defensively. The Hounds haven’t lost in the regular season (or in run-of-play) at Highmark Stadium since last July, a 1-0 loss to Charleston. 

They’re on the brink of jumping into the top four. They can make a serious run at the top spot overall — if they come away with no less than seven points in the next three games — including two in Tennessee on Saturday (at Nashville), then on Tuesday at lowly Memphis. Even a tie at Nashville, followed by wins vs Memphis and Indy will put the Hounds in solid position to make a run at the top in its final stretch of matches in October.

Man of the Match: Kenardo Forbes  

The Hounds dictated tempo, and in the middle orchestrating things was Kenardo Forbes. who provided the assist on the only goal of the contest, and the midfielder ended the night with five chances created while completing 71 of 85 passes overall against a team that can be a tough one to solve.

FINAL SCORE:  Pittsburgh 1, Charleston 0

FINAL: Riverhounds SC 1, Charleston Battery 0

Key Stats 

Shots 11-6 (PIT) 

Shots on Target 3-2 (PIT) 

Corners 4-3 (CHS) 

Possession 57 / 43 (PIT) 

Passing accuracy 79% (PIT) / 68% (CHS) 

PLAYER GRADES 

Goalkeeper

Kyle Morton -6 – made two saves. Again, defense in front of him was pretty solid and really limited Charleston’s chances most of the night. 

Defenders 

Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 7.5 – showing versatility his coach really appreciates, again playing in left outside back spot, even creating a chance and also getting a shot on target early in match. Oh and there were six clearances and four tackles. 

Tobi Adewole – 7 – splendid as usual with ball at his feet (90% passing accuracy), giving coaching staff confidence for Tobi and Joe Greenspan to operate as two middlemen in back four. 

Joe Greenspan – 7 – winning his duels and another half dozen clearances while commanding the middle in the club’s 12 clean sheet.  

Jordan Dover –  6.5 – Played a lot through him. On a night when they held a lot of possession, was involved in 77 (mostly short, one-two touch, second only to Forbes) passes.  

Midfielders 

Kenardo Forbes – 8 – this was vintage Forbes performance, more in a holding MF role and exercising a lot of patience in a chess match. Didn’t get forward as much. But when he did — they created the goal. 

Sammy Kahsai – 6.5 – his 90-plus percent passing accuracy and ability to create chances led to him getting the starting nod in this one.

Ryan James (73′) – 6 – one the Hounds took the lead, they went to more of a five man back line, and James did his part defensively in a rare sub role, picking off three passes, winning his duels along with a tackle and a clearance. 

Robbie Mertz –  6.5 – good bounce back game. Was sharp with decision making and passes, and seems to be a good complement for Forbes and Kerr when the Hounds are working hard to keep the ball. 

Mouhamed Dabo (90’) – N/R 

Kevin Kerr – 6 – lots of quality on the ball, just a little concerned with losing majority of his 50/50 interactions (won one of seven duels). 

Anthony Velarde (82’) – N/R 

Forwards 

Steevan Dos Santos – 7 – another goal for the big guy. Got to the right place at the right time. Not nearly as much touches or shot attempts but made the most of one opportunity he had. 

Neco Brett – 5 – wasn’t his best night. Had decent chance before Dos Santos’ goal but header went wide. Lost eight of nine duels and had two shots off the mark. 

Subs not used: Austin Pack,  Noah Franke, Uchenna Uzo, Christian Volesky

 

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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