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Player Grades & Analysis: Historical defensive streak continues

Sammy Kahsai pushes keeps Memphis attacker away from goal (photo courtesy Memphis 901 FC/USL)

Player Grades & Analysis: Historical defensive streak continues

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC concluded a successful ‘Tennessee-Two’ step trip on Tuesday night with a 1-0 win in Memphis. Joe Greenspan score the game’s lone goal, heading in a corner kick delivered by the Pittsburgh kid, Robbie Mertz.

FINAL: Riverhounds SC 1, Memphis 0

Coming away from two games with four points, injury free, and now higher up in the standings, it was a fairly successful trip for Pittsburgh as they took care of business.

Remember all those 2-2 ties earlier in the season?

They’re a thing of the past.

The most impressive thing about this team right now is the record-pace they’re on defensively. It’s year two of the Bob Lilley era in Pittsburgh, and based on this impressive run of results in which they haven’t surrendered a goal since a 5-0 loss to North Carolina FC, this is starting to bear the trademark of a Lilley coached team being very, very tough to beat.

Even Lilley’s 2015 Rochester Rhinos, considered one of the greatest defensive seasons in North American pro soccer history, surrendering just 18 goals, never had more than a few three-game shutout streaks that season.

This current streak by the Hounds is certainly historic. In 20 years, the Riverhounds SC have never posted six straight shutouts, and going back to that loss against North Carolina FC, they’ve yet to allow a goal in a total of 555 minutes plus stoppage times.

Yes — that’s right — 555 minutes without giving up a goal!

The total of 14 clean sheets is now tied for league best with Western Conference runaway leaders, Phoenix Rising.

With Tuesday’s match being the Hounds second in four days, it was vital that Lilley dipped deeper into his bench. Lilley got what he wanted, providing some regular starters (Steevan Dos Santos, Neco Brett, Jordan Dover, Kenardo Forbes, Mouhamed Dabo) on the bench or a night off.

As a result, the Hounds came out with a little bit different look than what they’ve shown of late, with a 3-4-2-1 formation, with Joe Greenspan, Thomas Vancaeyezeele and recent re-addition Todd Pratzner holding up the back line, with Ryan James and Noah Franke on the wings, with Sammy Kahsai and Robbie Mertz working as central holding midfielders. Kevin Kerr and Anthony Velarde played higher up as attacking mids, with Christian Volesky the lone striker just in front of them.

The script played out well for Pittsburgh.

Each team knocked it around a bit in the first 10 minutes. When Pittsburgh set up its first corner opportunity, Mertz stepped up to take the service, and delivered an in-swinging ball that Greenspan timed perfectly and easily out-jumped everyone in the box to connect with a header that gave the Hounds the lead.

From there, Pittsburgh kept the ball a lot for bunches of the first half, but didn’t really threaten into the attacking third. In fact, they wouldn’t send another shot toward goal for the rest of the half.

Memphis had one free kick attempt from fairly close range in the first half, providing Hounds goalkeeper Austin Pack with his one routine save.

The second half, Pittsburgh continued to bunker, and really didn’t work hard enough to keep the ball. Lilley was even frustrated as he wanted his team to be ‘more ambitious to find the second goal sooner.”

Lilley also added:

“Memphis deserves a lot of credit for putting a lot of pressure on us in the second half. Thankfully we were able to hold out. I don’t want to go through many second halves like that.”

Memphis did well enough in creating opportunities from its longer stretches of possession to set up a few free kicks and corners, but each time, the Hounds were well fortified.

The Hounds were living dangerously, to a point.

It was almost as if the Hounds players are so confident in its defending, they were more than willing to absorb all of Memphis’ possession in the second half of its second game in four days.

Lilley boldly started two first-year pros in the pivotal holding midfield spots, as Mertz and Kahsai seemed to play it safe all night long. Conventional wisdom would have been that having at least one veteran in that critical spot on the field would have been expected in a game like this. But Lilley showed a lot of faith in Kahsai and Mertz. Eventually Lilley would bring in Mouhamed Dabo and Kenny Forbes in the latter part of the second half, and move Mertz higher up. As a result, Mertz started to get involved in creating some moments getting forward.

It’s an absolute logjam now at the top of the USL’s Eastern Conference, with three teams at the top with 56 points, then Pittsburgh and Nashville just one point behind with 55 points.

After Indy plays Wednesday at Atlanta United 2, the Hounds and Indy will still have one game at hand on all of the others heading into a pivotal match on Saturday with each other.

And on Saturday, they’ll meet their match in Indy, a club that has allowed the least number of goals (21) in USL Championship.

Pittsburgh has only lost four games this season, the least among the teams in the Eastern Conference. At this rate, it’s going to have to take something special for any opponent to crack through against the Hounds.

Who knew watching defensive soccer would be so enthralling.

If it brings a first place finish, and a USL Cup appearance, then bring it on.

For more reaction from Tuesday’s match, Matt and I talked it up on Pittsburgh Post-Game too. 

PLAYER GRADES

GK – Austin Pack – 6 – wasn’t really tested, but did make a few routine saves. Very important that he gets a few starts to be in sync with his teammates in game action, especially if he’s needed in critical moments later in the season/playoffs.

26 Todd Pratzner – 7.5 – what else can you ask for from a guy who just rejoined the squad? Replaced Tobi Adewole for 2nd half of Nashville, then puts together solid performance in another shutout win. DF
20 Joe Greenspan – 8 – another tremendous night for Ensign Joe. As I said in Pittsburgh Post-Game, he really should be in the running for USL Championship’s defensive player of the year. Add a goal to the night, and six clearances. He’s in beast mode now.  DF
17 Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 7.5 – did well in navigating a lot of balls out of the back with his feet. Stayed home on the back line for much of this night. DF
14 Noah Franke – 6 – mainly stayed at home, tucking in and keeping solid shape, came out when needed to make three interceptions and attempted two crosses, connecting on one. Adding this game to his resume will only help keep him ready and battle tested for when he does get the call. MF
7 Ryan James – 6.5 – thought he was a menace for Memphis’ attackers on the right side. Had five tackles and won 9 of 17 duels. Wasn’t really involved in getting forward much. MF
6 Sammy Kahsai – 6.5 – accurate passing (87%), five tackles and did well in working alongside Mertz as holding mids. Hounds relied on two first-year pros in holding MF spots for majority of match. MF
24 Robbie Mertz – 6.5 – Lilley showing so much confidence in first-year pro, to take set pieces (got assist on corner), moving him around starting at holding mid, then pushing up to attacking mid when Dabo and Forbes came into match. Did get booked for tackle from behind near edge of box. MF
12 Christian Volesky – 5.5 – with Hounds not pressing as much, and especially after the early goal, he wasn’t much of a factor. Maybe not his fault entirely, as the attacking mids really weren’t getting the ball to him. Only 12 touches the entire match. FW
10 Kevin Kerr – 5.5 – with Forbes out, Kerr wore the captain’s armband on night where team looked extremely poised. Weren’t many dynamic moments in attack but they weren’t stretched either so Kerr did what was needed on this night. Took a late ‘professional’ foul at midfield that resulted in yellow card. FW
15 Anthony Velarde – 5 – was first sub out. Like Kerr, wasn’t too involved. Lost most of his duels and passing accuracy not great (63%). FW

Substitutes

1 Morton   DNP
4 Rovira   DNP
3 Uzo  DNP
9 Brett  DNP
21 Dabo 61‘ 
11 Forbes 73
8 Dos Santos 81

 

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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