Yesterday’s announcement of which players have been re-signed by the Pittsburgh Riverhounds was a long-awaited tidbit of news for fans starving for any morsel of soccer-related content from their favorite team. And of course, it really was a morsel – a tiny dab of food that doesn’t ultimately satisfy. You have to read between the lines (or irresponsibly speculate, as I am wont to do) in order to discern any rhyme or reason from the matter. So that’s what I’m going to do.
The Hounds exercised the team option of eight players yesterday: Steevan Dos Santos, Kenardo Forbes, Mark Forrest, Ryan James, Robbie Mertz, Dani Rovira, Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Anthony Velarde.
Another ten are out-of-contract, meaning they are free agents and can negotiate with any team, including the Riverhounds, for the upcoming season. Those players are:
Tobi Adewole, Neco Brett, Mouhamed Dabo, Jordan Dover, Noah Franke, Joe Greenspan, Kevin Kerr, Kyle Morton and Todd Pratzner.
And six players had their options declined, meaning that, barring unforeseen circumstances, their time with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds is done. They are:
Prosper Figbe, Sammy Kahsai, Austin Pack, Caleb Smith, Uchenna Uzo and Christian Volesky.
Based on that information, I’m going to take a quick look at the roster and lineup, and identify what the Hounds coaching staff will need to focus on in rebuilding the club for next year. Here is a possible starting XI for 2020.
Clearly, there are a lot of holes here, and even speculating that the returning eight are destined to start is folly. But we have to start somewhere.
Areas of Strength: Central Midfield, Fullback
Bringing back Forbes, Mertz, and Velarde as the midfield core should make Hounds fans obscenely happy. Kenardo Forbes passes and holds the ball as well as any midfielder in North America, at any level, and his defense is good enough, even if it isn’t his most attractive feature, to be of good value for his team. Robbie Mertz emerged as a tremendous two-way midfielder in 2019, and it will be exciting to see the 23-year evolve and grow his game next season. Anthony Velarde is more of a puzzle: he locked down a starting spot in central midfield at the start of the year, and looked like he’d be a dribble-and-pass menace in the mold of Tottenham’s Christian Erikson or Madrid’s Eden Hazard. But he fell out of favor as an automatic starter by midseason, and Coach Bob Lilley started preferring to utilize him as a sub instead. Statistically, his overall contribution was less pronounced than Forbes and Mertz. He had 32.5 Passes Per 90 minutes, which ranked an unimpressive 14th on the squad. The Passes Per 90 metric essentially indicates how ‘involved’ he was in the offense, and implies he ought to have been a link in the attack more often than he was. His 25 Key Passes was very good though, considering he played just over 1,000 minutes. By comparison, Kenardo Forbes had 77 KP on just over 3,000 minutes, so extrapolate out, and you have two guys that can serve in that deadly ‘final ball’. Velarde also could have scored more goals; while Mertz often played effectively in both directions and nabbed 7 goals, Velarde who tended to play higher up the field and closer to the opposing goal, only found the back of the net 3 times. Mertz, in short, often made the late run or found that seam between defenders in ways that Velarde didn’t.
I think Velarde’s defense, positioning, and decisionmaking could all stand to improve, and perhaps that is what the Riverhounds are banking on in their decision to bring him back. All signs point to growth for the young Californian.
Turning to the fullbacks, Jordan Dover was fantastic at right back in 2019, but his understudy, Dani Rovira, was quite good, too. The team may be negotiating with Dover for a new deal, but as a free agent who helped anchor one of USL’s best defenses in 2019, Dover may be able to command a higher price elsewhere. And the Hounds, meanwhile, can feel confident that if Dover departs, Rovira is very capable of stepping into that spot with little or no falloff – he did just that while Dover was off with Guyana at the Gold Cup. On the other side of the field, Ryan James was a great two-way player for Pittsburgh, as he often brought the ball up or swung in dangerous crosses for the team while also serving as a lock-down defender at the other end of the pitch. Bringing him back is fantastic, especially considering that left back is a hard position to fill – if you find a good guy there, you ought to keep him.
Areas of Weakness: Striker, Wide Midfield
Re-upping Steevan Dos Santos is a little enigmatic for me. It’s probably good, but only if you have an idea who the other striker is going to be and you don’t expect Dos Santos to suddenly double his output next year – AKA assume that Dos Santos can be Neco Brett. If you’re going to hand a starting striker position to a guy and assume that he’ll get 2,000+ minutes for you, I would hope that the team expects him to be an absolute top-of-the-league goal-scoring machine.
In 2019, that wasn’t Dos Santos, and I don’t think that’ll be him in 2020 either.
In 2,499 minutes in 2019, Steevan Dos Santos scored 10 goals on 71 shots. Brett, meanwhile, banged in 17 goals on 68 shots. Mertz had 7 goals on 20 shots, and although I admit that comparing midfielders to strikers is an ‘apples-to-oranges’ comparison, it still illustrates a simple fact: Dos Santos misses a lot. If the Hounds want hardware, they need a plus-plus goal-scoring forward leading the line. Dos Santos did not rank in the top 30 in USL Championship goalscorers. And he’s 30 years old. If the plan is to keep Dos Santos as your second-best scoring option – to have him knock down balls and do hold-up play and be a target man, that’s good. If the hope is that he is your main scorer while you go shopping for a bargain to be the second man, then, well, we may have a problem.
Mark Forrest played just 100 minutes in 2019. We can’t extrapolate out enough to know anything other than he’s a guy.
I marked wide midfield as an ‘Area of Weakness’. Robbie Mertz can be a good wing midfielder, but he’s probably most useful, especially with his defensive tenacity, as a more central player. Besides him, the team has zero wide midfielders on this roster – no Kevin Kerr, no Christiano Francois, no Neco Brett*. What that means is: this team is pretty much set up for a 5-3-2 or 5-2-2-1 offense. There’s no pacey attacking wingers** on the roster, and so the team can’t really monkey with a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 formation as currently constituted. Is that bad? Not really. But flexibility in your lineup options can be valuable, and my sense of the 2019 Hounds was that they lacked a variety of different looks which could at times be limiting.
Areas of Uncertainty (AKA there’s literally nobody to play the position):
Center Back, Goalkeeper
Joe Greenspan was USL Defender of the Year in 2019. Barring a miracle, I think that means he is absolutely, positively not coming back for 2020. I imagine that between the newish teams in MLS like FC Cincinnati, Nashville SC, and Inter Miami, one or all of them are in talks with his agent to make a triumphant return to the MLS level at a salary far above what USL teams pay. And if not, I imagine that the top USL teams that would like to make a run at the cup would want to add Joe to their roster, and would be willing to pay to do so. TL;DR, Joe’s gone. Get that paper, Ensign.
Which is why it’s great that Thomas Vancaeyezeele is back. He’s a good tackler and a good distributer. Tobi Adewole is *not yet* re-signed, but I’d guess that the team gets a deal done. Tobi probably wants a little more money, the team needs to figure out what they can afford, yada yada yada. Hopefully it all ends well for everybody.
The Hounds let defenders Uchenna Uzo and Todd Pratzner go, so they’ll need to find at least two more CBs to fill out this roster, assuming the can get Adewole back. Pratzner was only on the roster for a moment before he was hurt. I always liked what I saw of Uzo in training, but I guess he didn’t rate for Bob – he saw just 204 minutes of action in 2019.
Can they adequately replace Greenspan or Adewole? I have my doubts. Coach Lilley, whenever asked about the tremendous performances of his backline during the season after a shutout, would often hem and haw, and ultimately distribute some polite platitude about it being ‘a team effort’ or stating that the shutout was the result of ‘front-to-back defending’ that could be credited to all eleven players. So your feelings on the ability to replace the backline are entirely predicated on your level of trust for Bob Lilley – who, I might add, has constructed two playoff teams in a row for the Hounds that were defensive stalwarts. Doubting Bob Lilley is probably dumb.
But heck, I’m just that dumb, folks. Bob thinks he can plug and play anyone into this system and get results. And certainly he might be able to go get a recent NCAA grad or another talented USL guy and get another year of dominant defensive performance. But then again, he might not. You’re talking about replacing the USL Defender of the Year. Damn right if I have concerns.
I think Kyle Morton was a good keeper, and he’d be a good guy to bring back. And Ben Lundgaard is out of contract with Columbus, so maybe the Hounds want to bring him back – he was on loan to the Hounds for stretches in 2019. But maybe Morton or Lundgaard get a better offer, or maybe there’s another player that the Hounds make a play for. GK coach Hunter Gilstrap seems to have a knack for finding guys that can do the job: in 2018 the team had Dan Lynd and Mike Kirk between the pipes and got good results. They were both jettisoned for 2019, and Kyle Morton and Austin Pack did (almost) all the goalkeeping for USL’s 3rd best defense. I wouldn’t put it past the front office to turn over all the GKs again and *still* get good results in 2020.
— — — — — —
* I know Brett is a striker, but occasionally the Hounds lined up with Kerr and Brett or Mertz and Brett wide, Dos Santos in the middle. Without Brett, the team has one fewer experienced wide option.
** There are pacey attacking wingbacks though. To be clear.