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Analysis & Player Grades: Hounds come up short against battle-tested Louisville City FC

Photo by Ed Thompson

Analysis & Player Grades: Hounds come up short against battle-tested Louisville City FC

Everything fell into place for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC this season, as they carried all kinds of momentum into the USL’s Eastern Conference semifinal on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.

The Hounds finished the season strong, earning a number one overall seed in the USL Championship playoffs, riding a 12-game unbeaten streak, an unblemished home record, began the playoffs with an emphatic 7-0 win, and with record crowds coming out to cheer them on, it seemed as if nothing could stop Pittsburgh’s magical ride.

Then, on Saturday night, a resilient, talented, and playoff-tested Louisville City FC club came to Highmark Stadium.

In the Hounds first-ever match played in November, the USL’s reigning two-time champions walked away from Pittsburgh with an impressive win, sucking the energy out of their opponents and Highmark Stadium in the process.

The experienced visitors weathered the early Pittsburgh storm, erased a 1-0 deficit, and dictated tempo for large portions of the second half and especially into overtime to walk away with a 2-1 victory that ended Pittsburgh impressive season, halted all of the Hounds impressive streaks.

“It’s disappointing. They had a great season. Didn’t play well tonight in any phase,” Hounds head coach Bob Lilley said after. “We said we have to be able to pressure them and disrupt their rhythm, which we did a good job for most of the game. I think we ran out of gas at the end.”

STARTING ON FRONT FOOT

Pittsburgh came out pressing high in a 3-4-2-1 formation, that morphed at times into a 3-5-2 depending mostly on where Kevin Kerr was lurking.

The starting line-up included the notable absence of Steevan Dos Santos, who was limited in training all week with a strained abdominal muscle, putting him out of the starting eleven.

“Steevan really wanted to go,” Lilley said after the match. “We thought we would get about 20 or 30 minutes out of him at the most, so he started on the bench.”

Kerr and Neco Brett, along with Mo Dabo made up the high attacking trio that did what they could to cause havoc for Louisville City’s back line.

When the Hounds beat Louisville City in early April, it was the first we saw of this strategy to put Dabo, a traditional holding midfielder, in a higher attacking spot.

The reason, as Lilley cited a few times during the season was to utilize the Senegal native’s ability to close down space and win balls back.

With Pittsburgh playing without Dos Santos in the middle of the attacking tandem to play through and extend possessions, in the early portions of this match the Hounds relied on frantic energy from Dabo and Kerr, while Brett worked to get behind the back line.

Mo Dabo was utilized as an attacking midfielder against Lou City all three times this season – photo by Ed Thompson

It worked in the early going.

They nearly got the game’s go-ahead goal in the 10th minute when Kerr provided Dabo with a nice feed on the edge of box, but the Hounds midfielder saw his right-footed shot spectacularly tipped over the crossbar by a diving Chris Hubbard.

The ensuring corner however, Kenardo Forbes’ whipped in a ball that found the head of Pittsburgh defender Thomas Vancaeyezeele, who timed his run perfectly to flick a header into the back of the net.

Much like they did the previous week — the Hounds were up early and had all the momentum and the crowd was whipped up in a frenzy.

Photo by Ed Thompson

Keeping it going would prove another challenge.

Louisville eventually started to play the ball out of the back with a little more composure, and despite finishing the first half without a shot on frame — the match started to tilt in their favor.

Oftentimes, winning the possession battle doesn’t matter for this Hounds team, as long as they’re able to keep enough pressure and make the most of their chances. They’ve won numerous matches by absorbing some pressure and conceding possession, but remaining very dangerous on the counter as they were tops in the USL in conversion rate.

Brett had a golden chance to double the lead just before the half, when he took a deft touch on a long goal kick from keeper Kyle Morton, then raced toward the edge of the box where he sent a hard shot, forcing Louisville’s keeper Hubbard make a dazzling save.

At halftime Louisville had more than 65 percent possession, while the Hounds had converted on one of its four shots, three that were put on frame.

Things seemed to going according to script for both teams.

MATCH TURNS IN LOUISVILLE’S FAVOR

Even after the second half began, the Hounds brought the pressure again. Brett had an opportune chance in the 49th minute to give Pittsburgh a commanding two-goal lead again by taking advantage of a poorly played Louisville ball out of the back.

Brett worked his way to the left side, behind Hubbard, but could only muster a soft shot toward the open goal. That gave time for Louisville’s Paco Craig to race in and made a potentially game-saving kick save right on the goal line.

 

Moments later — the match turned.

Luke Spencer, one of those past playoff heroes for Louisville City, came through after getting a nice ball in from Oscar Jimenez, one of the USL’s best assist men. Spencer had Ryan James on his back, and Tobi Adewole trailing the play trying to close in on Louisville’s big man.

It was a mismatch, as Spencer — who had created a few dangerous moments in the first half — used his size and leverage advantage to turn on James to open space, where he fired a left-footed strike into goal.

From that point forward, Louisville continued to dictate tempo.

Louisville’s coach John Hackworth sensed that the Hounds were getting weary and brought in his high energy man, Brian Ownby, as his first sub in the 60th minute. Not only would the Hounds have to continue to try to disrupt Louisville’s possession game, but they had to deal with another pacey threat — as Ownby can get into open space quickly.

Lilley did sub in Dos Santos eventually, for Kerr in the 74th minute.

As he usually gets mixed up in some physical duels, Dos Santos had two moments shortly after entering where he was working to draw a foul — one in the box — and another on the far side line. The play in the box, against Craig on a cross in from Jordan Dover that went too high saw Dos Santos’ shirt being tugged.

The second time, he appeared to be clipped, and went down.

Lilley wasn’t very pleased with the officiating by head man Michael Radchuk, pointing to that moment, and another hard collision between Adewole and one of his former Rochester players, Pat McMahon, who was already sitting on a yellow card.

The match got to the point in the second half and into overtime where things got a bit chippy, as neither side was giving in.

Lilley credited his players, who worked hard through the night to try disrupt Louisville’s game. Adewole in particular was knocked to the ground a few times, but kept getting up and pushing forward.

The Hounds scrambled defensively with 21 clearances and 24 tackles, compared to only 13 and eight in same categories for Louisville City.

Into the first overtime, the physical play continued when Adewole’s center back sidekick Joe Greenspan had a head-to-head encounter with Lou City’s Abdou Thiam.

Greenspan was bloodied — and had to change shirts. Thiam came off a bit wobbly, but both came back on to the field to continue playing.

As profiled in Alan Saunderspost-match piece, the Hounds were simply doing too much chasing and started of run out of gas.

“We didn’t execute the game plan,” Forbes said. “We didn’t keep the ball enough. That’s on us as players. That’s on me as the midfielder to get us possession and I didn’t do that today.”

It was a disappointing night for the Hounds midfield in those key battles, as they failed to set the tempo of the match. The rookie Mertz was the only midfielder who won the majority of his duels.

http://pittsburghsoccernow.com/2019/11/02/out-of-gas-hounds-feel-disappointment-of-falling-short-in-extra-time/

“When we played forward, we didn’t close the spaces,” Lilley said. “So every ball that spit out, they were picking those up and turning them into transition moments. That’s a big part of the game, when it’s that competitive: winning second balls, getting recoveries in the midfield.”

As things opened up an — Louisville City were finding more seams and stretching a Hounds side that had heavy legs more and more — and suddenly Kyle Morton had to come up big.

Eventually, with time winding down and penalty kicks coming on the near horizon, the defending champs persistence created yet another bounce that went their way.

Lilley finally brought in Mark Forrest off the bench after that, but with only two minutes left, the best Pittsburgh could do was attempt a long free kick into the box but they were called for a foul.

In the end, possession really did matter.

Louisville ended with 60-40 edge in possession, and had nearly 304 more passes (837-533) than Pittsburgh. What hurt the Hounds too was when they did have the ball, they weren’t connecting passes well enough (only 65 percent accuracy, while Louisville were connecting at a 76 percent rate).

It’s probably going to be easy to second-guess the Hounds’ veteran coach for not going to his bench sooner in the match, especially when much of their success has been predicated on disrupting teams that want to possess the ball out of the back at Highmark Stadium.

Fresh legs could have helped with this. Lilley said to me last offseason that he wanted to punish every team that tries to work it from the back line. It worked all season long — and Louisville City were the only team that came to Highmark Stadium and defied that.

That’s also a testament to the two-time champs, their style of play and execution.

In addition to Ownby coming off the bench, they went to George Davis IV, who just happens to be the USL’s all-time leader in appearances along with bringing on the battle-tested and dangerous Thiam, who also nearly had the game-winner that banged off the post in the 105th minute.

Lilley said he didn’t want to take out Forbes or Brett, even as they slowed down a bit in the second half and in the overtime as he wanted them for potential PK’s.

On his bench, Lilley’s options were mostly a quartet of inexperienced field players: Noah Franke, Dani Rovira, Uchenna Uzo, Anthony Velarde.  Other players that didn’t even make the 18 included proven veteran Christian Volesky and a rookie midfielder Sammy Kahsai, who started a number of matches down the stretch this season. 

There’s no doubt that the Hounds had an impressive season, but as they look to build on this successful campaign, it will be interesting to see what Lilley’s next approach will be in terms of his roster selections and players that he resigns heading into 2020. Louisville showed again that veteran experience is vital in this league — and to have off the bench.

The Hounds veterans aren’t getting any younger either. Kerr, Forbes and Dos Santos are all at least 30 years old. How much more do they have left in the tank?

There’s little doubt that the core of the younger guys — primarily Vancaeyezeele, Mertz, Adewole, Greenspan, Dabo, Brett — will be priorities to re-sign, but it appears that Lilley will go back to the drawing board this off season.

There will be changes, but we can leave that for more analysis in the weeks and months to come.

For now, the Hounds will have to absorb a tough loss on a night where they came up short.

RIVERHOUNDS SC PLAYER GRADES

Kyle Morton – 6 – thought he came up big with a couple of key stops to keep it 1-1. 

Ryan James – 6.5 – worked hard on left side. Won a whopping 16 of 18 duels, plus had 10 tackles and four interceptions — but only one of nine successful crosses.  Got beat on the first Louisville goal, as Spencer used his size and leverage on him. 

Tobi Adewole – 7 – always plays well when scrambling around and in uncomfortable situations, which has been rare for Hounds back line this year. Won 12 of 14 duels, had six clearances — though his passing out of the back was lower percentage than usual (71%) still tops among the back line. Top of my list of players Hounds should re-sign. 

Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 6.5 – scored the header goal, and provided stability on back line all night — with team high seven clearances. 

Joe Greenspan – 6 – battled on — had his hands full at times with Louisville attackers, but held his own as usual. 

Jordan Dover – 5.5 – laid back quite a bit, conceded four fouls and had only three crosses, all unsuccessful but still, created a few chances. 

Kenardo Forbes – 5.5 – by Forbes standards, it was a tough night. Sure he had the assist, but if the Hounds don’t dictate terms, and are chasing, then it’s because the midfield was outworked. 

Robbie Mertz – 6 – early on, Mertz was everywhere, and his stamina was good even at the end, but spent lot of time chasing and defending. 

Mouhamed Dabo – 6 – was effective early, even had great shot on goal. Like Mertz, could run all day but even he wasn’t the same after doing a lot of chasing into two overtime periods.  

Kevin Kerr – 6 – was asked to play even higher than he has a lot this year, more like the 2015 Kevin Kerr. Nearly set up Dabo for an early goal. 

Steevan Dos Santos (74′) – 5.5 –  battling abdominal injury, played beyond what coaches expected. conceded a few fouls, didn’t get any shots on target and they weren’t able to play through him effectively as they’d hoped. 

Neco Brett – 5.5 – had some chances for the second goal. If he could have put more on that chance early in second may have been a different game. Did a lot of running and was pretty gassed late in match. 

Mark Forrest (117′) – NR 

Subs not used: Austin Pack, Noah Franke, Dani Rovira, Uchenna Uzo, 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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