Last Tuesday, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley arrived back in his office after an intense morning workout at Highmark Stadium, taking advantage of a gift from team owner Tuffy Shallenberger: a new elliptical machine.
The veteran coach was in high spirits, even after having just spent the previous weekend conducting early season invitational tryouts, closely watching aspiring hopeful young soccer players looking to make their mark, hoping to get his attention, and an invite to Riverhounds SC training camp come January.
The weekend before that – Lilley held an open tryout session on Saturday, November 30.
Last week, Highmark Stadium and its suites were taken over by the NCAA, as the Division II Men’s and Women’s soccer tournament was held in Pittsburgh. That didn’t keep Lilley away — in fact — he was very much in and around the facility all week — and along with assistant coach Dan Visser, were watching and scouting all of the men’s matches on Thursday and Saturday. I had a chance to sit down with Lilley earlier in the week for an in-depth interview, but also ran into him a few different times.
And thus, we enter our series of off season Riverhounds SC Notebooks after sitting down with Lilley to get his feedback on an array of topics.
I’ll look forward to bringing these to you every couple weeks from now through early February.
TRYOUTS ARE PART OF THE PROCESS
“It’s an opportunity to find some good players. We had some guys like Ryan James, Jordan Dover, who had to fight, work their way, prove themselves and make it after going through this process,” Lilley explained. “They were hungry, motivated and showed what they could do under pressure in those situations.”
Conducting these tryouts have always part of the protocol for all lower division soccer clubs — and for Lilley it’s certainly something he feels is a necessity.
This year, he wanted to get a step ahead, holding invitational tryouts a little earlier.
“We could have had it on a Tuesday or Wednesday later in the month, and had the option to move it indoors, if there was a problem with the weather. On weekends, we don’t have that option, as indoor facilities aren’t really available. If I set it midweek now, have to worry about guys having classes. So, we moved it up, and did it on a weekend,” Lilley said.
In addition, Lilley added, there are other combines coming up, including ones in the midwest that attract multiple teams and coaches.
“We’re up against so much competition,” Lilley said. “We wanted to try something early — so we did. We had more than we had past couple of years. There were 45-50 very high level players. Some guys were with us both Saturday and Sunday, and then went back and took finals. When they signed up two weeks ago, we told their coaches and agents,. They’re going to have to be organized. It’s going to be hard to study. They’ll need to concentrate on the soccer. We’re going to be doing a lot, it’s going to be hard,”
In total, the Hounds had 86 players take part in open tryouts on November 30, and another 59 players came for invites on December 7 and 8.
Lilley and his staff, from what they saw during the tryouts, they did identify 16 players — plus a trio of goalkeepers that they’ll be communicating with, and hoping to bring forward in the process.
Breaking down the entire process, Lilley was impressed with all of the players at the tryouts.
“The level of play is very good. Many can play in our league, if they find the right team,” Lilley said. “For us, even though we narrowed down to 16, we’ll only make decisions on a couple. What happens with the other 14, they’re all good players. All are not sure things as rookies. Some will go bunch of places, and keep trying out. Lets say seven players sign somewhere else. Then another seven are just not going to get a job. Out of that, there may be five that we really hone it on.”
Then, he’ll do it all over again in January.
“We’ll have another combine, and then we’ll hone in on another five to seven guys we really like,” Lilley said. “Then we bring all those 10-12 guys (from all the combines) into training camp.
“Now, the anxiety, the pressure, all that other stuff, they want to know, but they’ll have to sweat it out. Sometimes putting them through the fire. If you have 12 guys coming in, and you’re only going to sign three or four, they have to work for it,” Lilley said. “Most will know from the roster make up, we’re looking to sign guys for a certain position. Some guys rise under that pressure, and some go up into a ball. And, on top of that, I am putting heat on them. Some don’t handle it well. That’s hard.”
Roster building is a never-ending process through December and January, with the tryouts a key starting point for the Hounds coaching staff.
“We’ve seen them now. Some are hoping MLS will take them. And if we like them, that’s been communicated,” Lilley said. “If it doesn’t work out with MLS, some of those guys will come back in our direction. We’ll have them in in preseason with our guys. There may be a couple of signings from that.”
FREE AGENTS ‘HAVE TO BE RIGHT FIT’
After formally announcing that they have exercised contract options for eight players from last year’s squad in early December, Lilley and his staff while going through combines, are also looking at available free agents, including making offers to some key Hounds from the past two seasons who are currently unsigned, scanning through the international market.
“I have never rushed in this process,” Lilley exclaimed. “And never will.”
For now, Lilley’s been on the phone with agents, and is looking at a few potential key veterans that might be a right fit — and has said that with the Hounds’ success the past two seasons, they’ve been able to draw interest and be in the running for some top USL level players looking to play for a winner,
While the Hounds are hoping to move on signing a few more players soon, they’re in no hurry either.
“If we make any moves before the holidays, but it’s got to make sense. There’s some things we know now. If its the right fit, right price,” Lilley explained. “Every day that passes, I learn more about the market. I‘ll make better decisions the more I know. What types pf players are available. What positions are deeper. Prices go down if there are more players available at certain positions. If there’s a shortage of of players at other positions, we may have to move quicker. All those things you learn and the more knowledge gathered over the years — you know what’s out there and have all this information.”
Then — just as Lilley had gone through a few stages of assessments — a whole truckload of new players become available.
This will happen when there’s a group of players who won’t be drafted or invited to MLS camps in mid-January. It happens again when MLS start making roster decisions in early-to-mid February.
Lilley cited current Riverhound, Robbie Mertz as an example of a player who went through all of those steps.
Mertz, after completing his senior season at the University of Michigan, was already on Lilley’s radar in having trained in Pittsburgh as part of the Pathway to the Pros program in Summer 2018. went through the MLS combine in January 2019, and was subsequently taken in the MLS SuperDraft by the Colorado Rapids. Mertz went through training camp with the Rapids, but didn’t make the team. When Mertz left Colorado, he didn’t come directly to the Hounds, but went through the process of getting looks from other clubs.
“He called after he got let go by Colorado, but I told him to try other options first,” Lilley said. “So he did, went to another camp, fortunately for us, that didn’t work out for him either.”
Lilley added of Mertz: “He’s not the kind of kid that feels sorry for himself.”
Down to his last chance, and facing only other options of maybe signing late with a League One team if things didn’t work out in Pittsburgh Mertz made the most of his chance once he got back to training with the Hounds in the last weeks of the preseason.
“I told him he wasn’t guaranteed anything because he was a local player. He had to earn it,” Lilley said. “He had to fight. He needed to deliver at that point. He has to produce, or he’s not getting a job.
“There’s something to be said, if you like a guy, and he has to produce, and he’s able to do that,” Lilley added.
Now, Lilley and the Hounds are hoping to make Mertz, who they exercised a 2020 contract option, a foundational player for the club.
Lilley also mentioned that he benefited previously from picking up another player who went to camp, this one in Charlotte, and wasn’t signed, and ended up playing for him in Rochester, Wal Fall.
“Charlotte has had some really good teams, and Mike Jeffries does an excellent job, but for what ever reason, it didn’t work out,” Lilley added. “We got Wal Fall, and he really helped us in Rochester, and was instrumental in helping us beat Charlotte in the playoffs.”
The veteran midfielder is currently a free agent without a contract.
We’ll have more from our sessions with Lilley in the coming weeks and through the off season. The veteran coach provided lots of insights on many things — and also shared some personal recollections, influences and stories.