PITTSBURGH — Surrounded by five reporters and two TV cameras at the end of Thursday’s training session at Highmark Stadium, Riverhounds SC manager Bob Lilley had a message to deliver.
The gist? His team isn’t getting the respect it deserves, even after finishing first in a highly-competitive Eastern Conference race and dispatching Birmingham Legion FC in the playoff opener by an unprecedented 7-0 score.
With two-time defending USL Championship playoff champion Louisville City FC set to arrive in town for Saturday’s East semi showdown, Lilley went to bat for a team he’s guided consistently upward for two seasons.
“I don’t want them to sell themselves short,” Lilley said. “There’s people out there who are going to say that, since Louisville are the defending champs, that we’re the underdog. That’s crazy to me.
“I know what we’re capable of, on this field or on the road. There’s no one we take a back seat to. It’s important to remind people of that until it’s ingrained in their brains.”
Lilley hasn’t been shy — in the second half of the season, especially — about expressing his pride in how the Hounds have rebounded from a 2-2-7 start that had many across the league questioning whether the team’s 2017-18 offseason reboot had real staying power.
Since blowing a 2-0 lead in a home draw with Ottawa on June 9, the Hounds have been the best team in the USL Championship, going 17-2-4 over the final four months of the regular season, followed by that demolition of the No. 10 seed last weekend. They haven’t lost in 12 games, the longest unbeaten run in the league.
Of course, this next matchup will be different, with Louisville carrying championship experience and another characteristic late-year surge to the South Side. The Boys in Purple are on a 9-1-3 run since the start of August, boosting them into the No. 4 seed and a home setting for last week’s 2-1 quarterfinal elimination of Tampa Bay.
But Lilley’s overarching point rings true. No one’s been better than his Hounds since the start of summer, even if the team needed until early October to grab pole position in the East.
“Part of that’s on us, because we dug a hole early in the season,” Lilley said of the Hounds’ under-the-radar status. “As we’ve gotten closer to the top, we’ve done a good job staying consistent. There were six teams who … all were trying to do what we did, finish first in the East.
“I think we’ve proven ourselves to this point, but for them to get as much credit as we deserve, it’s important for us to keep winning and keep confirming why we’re No. 1 in the East.”
With each of the top four seeds still alive in the playoff bracket, the road to the Final will be treacherous. Lilley’s hope is that his constant emphasis on improvement will help this players keep the accelerator pressed to the floor for as long as this long-awaited playoff run will last.
Behind Lilley’s famous hard-driving exterior, it’s clear his goal is to have the grind pay off in the autumn.
“I’m always trying to get the most out of the guys,” he said. “They’ve worked really hard. They push each other. They’re a tight group. They bond together sometimes over my misery.”
He paused to chuckle.
“And that’s OK. I just want to see them get what they deserve. I’m proud of them, but we have a lot of work to do. Our goals are a lot more than winning their first playoff game at Highmark Stadium.”
— Mark Asher Goodman (@soccer_rabbi) October 31, 2019
ABOUT LAST SATURDAY
We’ve all wondered this week — or at least I have — how in the world does a team win a playoff game by seven goals, netting five before the halftime break?
Consider this, too: After netting exactly one of 24 shots the previous week in Birmingham, the Hounds buried seven of 12 shots (including an own goal) against the same opponent six nights later.
“We were lethal in the box,” explained Jordan Dover, who cashed in a Ryan James cross for Pittsburgh’s fifth goal. “Lethal in attacking areas. … We were clinical in the box, clinical with our finishing. We were really ready to go that game.
“It was lovely. After the first couple of goals went in, guys were getting really excited. The crowd was into it. Soccer’s not always the most glamorous sport, so anytime you can put a whole bunch of goals in in front of your home crowd, it’s a good time.”
Clearly, but that kind of output just defies explanation, even against a tired team like Legion FC. What isn’t as hard to understand, though, is how the Hounds were frothing at the mouth at the get-go.
Combine a full week of training with home field and bitter memories of last October, and a great performance was the result.
“There were a lot of players who played the playoff game last year, when we lost,” Thomas Vancaeyezeele said. “You didn’t want to experience the same thing. We just gave it all. The chemistry this year, I think, is better. We played aggressively, with a lot of intensity. We found the net pretty early, so we had control of the game.”
And, lest we forget, the Hounds posted yet another clean sheet, with keeper Kyle Morton hardly troubled to lift a finger during a two-save night. Over the current 9-0-3 stretch, Pittsburgh has shut out its opponent 10 times.
Vancaeyezeele, who has been routinely sitting in the middle of the back line for the past several matches, credited the whole on-field unit for the stingy ‘D.’
“I think it starts from up top,” the second-year Hound said. “The strikers help the defenders. The pressure from up top is good, so it’s hard for the other team to break us down. We’ve been winning a lot of challenges in the box, too. It’s all part of strong defense.”
If this week’s storylines sound familiar, many of them were trotted out nearly two months ago, when Louisville made its yearly regular-season trip to Highmark on Sept. 7.
The result was a 0-0 draw, but there was more intrigue than usually packed into that score line.
In that matchup, the Hounds created 10 shots in the first half — three of them brilliant chances — before Louisville punched back with six attempts in the second half. After all the domination by Pittsburgh early, it took a Morton point-blank reaction save on Óscar Jiménez to secure a point.
“I think we were aggressive in the first half,” Lilley recalled. “We were higher up the pitch and we wanted to go forward and generate chances. Good things happened. In the second half we sat back a little bit and they started to build a rhythm. Once they started to play through us, we struggled.
“It’s important to learn from that. If we sit back and let them have time and space, it’s going to be difficult.”
Louisville ended up with 56 percent of possession in that September meeting, a number the Hounds would love to cut into Saturday night.
Pittsburgh was a 47-percent possession team during the season, but they might have to make more of a concerted effort to hold the ball against a Lou City side with more skill and poise than most.
“They’re going to try to keep the ball and play through us,” Vancaeyezeele said. “They have a lot of quality, so we have to be ready tactically, more than anything. When we have the ball, we have to keep it as much as we can, to win the game.”
Then there’s the experience factor. Louisville retained 18 players from its 2018 title-winning team. The last team to beat them straight up in a playoff game — no penalty kicks — was Lilley’s Rochester Rhinos, 1-0 in the 2015 East final.
“Louisville is similar to us in the fact that they’re sure of themselves,” Dover said. “It took them a while to kind of get things together, but once they did, they were consistently good throughout the end of the season. They’ve been here before. They’ve won two championships, so they know what it takes. We have to be ready for their experience, their composure, match their energy and put out a good performance.”
While the two Jamaican-born men have faced each other a few times in USL Championship play, Saturday will be the first postseason matchup between Neco Brett and Louisville midfielder Devon ‘Speedy’ Williams, former teammates at nearby Robert Morris University. (Full disclosure: I work part-time in the RMU athletic department.)
Brett scored 42 goals and 16 assists during a spectacular career at RMU from 2012-15, while Williams compiled eight goals and 16 assists from 2011-14. Both went on to sign with Major League Soccer teams — Brett with Portland Timbers, Williams with New York Red Bulls — but they have made homes in the USL Championship.
While the playmaking Williams has won three consecutive USL Cups as a versatile, nifty midfielder, Brett has steadily established himself as one of the finest finishers in the Championship, notching 33 goals in two seasons with the Hounds. Brett told me this summer that he and Williams are in regular communication to this day.
Coming off a breathtaking four-goal game last Saturday, Brett has an excellent opportunity to get the best of his longtime buddy in a big spot, but as he told RMU Media’s Ethan Woy last summer, the two have a bond no soccer match can tear asunder.
“Rivals for 90 minutes,” Brett said, “Friends for life.”