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Riverhounds 2019 Player Review: Defenders

Riverhounds 2019 Player Review: Defenders

Surviving late December – the period with the lowest quantity of watchable soccer in the entire calendar – is hard. There is zero domestic football. There is barely any global football – the EPL is on, everyone else is off. So all we have of footy right now is a paltry handful of live games. Coupled with memory, anticipation, and boredom.

And now: PSN player reviews! We’re going through every player that saw the field for the Hounds in 2019: stats, our PSN ratings, my anecdotal observations, and thoughts about how the club might move forward at that spot in the coming year.

So, my friends, stay warm, drink some eggnog, and fight with me on twitter (@soccer_rabbi) if you think I’ve gotten the review horrendously wrong. Because heck, there ain’t much else to do in the dead of winter in Pittsburgh if you’re a soccer fan.

Tobi Adewole

Games: 35  Games Started: 34  Minutes: 3050  Goals: 2  Assists 0 

Key Passes: 6  Passes Per 90: 41.5  CBI (Clearances, Blocks, Interceptions) 188  Tackles 48

Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.43  High PSN Rating: 8  Low PSN Rating: 4

2019 Grade: B+

Tobi was an integral part of the 2nd-best defense in USL this year, so it’s pretty easy to say that he was a tremendous success for the Riverhounds. His passing became more comfortable; and frequent, as his Passes Per 90 increased from 28.4 in 2018 to 41.5 in 2019 and his accuracy improved from 74.1% to 77.4%. Defensively, he was solid as a rock behind Thomas Vancaeyezeele and alongside Joe Greenspan.

There’s also the intangibles that he offers. Tobi has a relaxed attitude that helps balance the locker room, but he’s still an elite athlete that pushes and competes with his compatriots at the highest level. I didn’t factor that into his overall grade (how could you?) but his coaches and his teammates have made it clear that Adewole is a ‘good chemistry guy’ for any ballclub.

The second-year man for the Hounds is 24 years old, and physically as sound as any player on the squad. He lead the team in minutes played, with 3050; and his pace and ability to run down attackers is excellent. As he matures, he’ll likely only get better at reading attacks and anticipating the tendencies of opponents. Tobi is out of contract right now, though, and whether he comes back in 2020 is still up in the air.

Joe Greenspan

Games: 34  Games Started: 33  Minutes: 2964  Goals: 4  Assists 2  

Key Passes: 7  Passes Per 90: 48.2 CBI (Clearances, Blocks, Interceptions) 218 Tackles 30

Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.61  High PSN Rating: 9  Low PSN Rating: 3

2019 Grade: A+

The 2019 USL Defender of the Year is pretty much all you need to write about Joe Greenspan, but we shall wax poetic about the big man’s virtues. Greenspan was 4th in all of USL in clearances with 159. He and the rest of the Hounds backline produced a total of 18 Clean Sheets, best in USL. While doing a tremendous share of the defending, Joe was also one of the team’s two primary distributors out of the back, with 48.2 Passes per 90 against Thomas Vancaeyezeele’s 48.3 PP90. Joe scored more goals – 4 – than Christian Volesky, a forward, and Anthony Velarde, an attacking midfielder. And only three of those were with his head!

Most importantly for us at PSN, his stats passed the eye test as well – in the 24 games for which we turned in player grades, Joe had the highest average of any defender. His best game, a ‘9’ (which I gave him – because John Krysinsky is that professor in university who only gave one A per semester and I’m like ‘yay! chocolate for everyone!’), came against Nashville in a critical game on the road while the team was chasing the top spot in the USL East. Of that game I wrote the following:

Yeah, you read that right, nine. Joe had 12 clearances – an insane number, even for him – and 4 interceptions, plus zero fouls and 80% passing. An excellent defender on the year, Joe was just quietly extra-ordinary Joe. The PG can have all the red-white-and-blue-he’s-in-the-navy-defending-our-freedom articles they want. The real story is that this man is defending Highmark better than Seal Team Six riding a wolfpack of nuclear subs armed with laser-sharks.

Joe’s worst game, a 3, came from getting a dubious red card in 36th minute of a match against Charlotte. Hey, man, it happens.

Greenspan is also out of contract, and likely to command a big price tag now that he’s established himself as one of the best centerbacks in USL for two straight years. He could go to the highest bidder in USL, or perhaps to one of the USL teams that have been announced as MLS cities in 2021 (Sacramento, Charlotte, Saint Louis and Austin) as they try to prepare for the big leap. Maybe an MLS team is interested; or perhaps his agent is getting calls from abroad.

 

Or maybe Tuffy Shallenberger is doubling mulch and concrete production in order to make the coin necessary to give Joe a proper raise. It would be a wonderful Christmas present to Hounds fans to find Ensign Joe signed, sealed, and delivered beneath the Christmas tree in advance of the 2020 season. We just need to set aside the fact that Joe can’t actually fit under any trees beside a Giant Sequoia.

Thomas Vancaeyezeele

Games: 33  Games Started: 32  Minutes: 2891  Goals: 3  Assists 0 

Key Passes: 11  Passes Per 90: 48.3  CBI (Clearances, Blocks, Interceptions) 164 Tackles 77

Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.36  High PSN Rating: 7.5  Low PSN Rating: 3.5

2019 Grade: B+

Tommy V had the challenging role of being the hybrid centerback in Bob Lilley’s sort of 5-3-2, sort of Diamond 4-1-2-1-2 system this year. Typically tasked with being the middle in a back three, Vancaeyezeele was also responsible for starting the attack; but sometimes he was really lined up as a more advanced defensive midfielder. He also missed some time at the Gold Cup with French Guiana, and he was occasionally lined up as a straight-forward centerback in four-man backline for the Riverhounds. Defending isn’t brain surgery, but asking a guy to modify his role every few games can have adverse effects.

Vancaeyezeele did well in 2019 – really well, obviously, considering how fantastic the Hounds did overall – but I can’t help but wonder if we could have seen a bit more from him. His Average Player Rating and his numbers on tackles (77) and interceptions (67) express that – he was fine in doing that job of being the first man on the backline to step to the ball, or being the guy to break up the play between the lines as the opposition came into the final third, but he wasn’t exceptional. Tommy’s a clever passer, but rarely played a devastating ball to unlock the opposition. He steps into passing lanes and defends pretty well, but he never comes across as a lockdown defender.

One could argue these are petty and minor complaints; Tommy was a great defender for a one of USL’s best defenses, and a defense is more that the sum of its parts. The Hounds were good, Vancaeyezeele played a ton of minutes, and the team succeeded while he was on the field.

Tommy’s largest contribution of the season was in the biggest game of the season. In the 10th minute of the Riverhounds do-or-die Eastern Conference Semi-final against Louisville City, Vancaeyezeele posted up his defender and held him off while creeping to the front post, when he flicked his head to the side and snagged the go-ahead goal. The Hounds would eventually collapse for a 2-1 defeat in extra time, but Tommy’s contribution in this game was huge.

 

Long term, I wonder if a full-time move to a fullback position or a proper and dedicated roll as a holding midfielder (some would argue he is, but the way the Hounds line up, it’s a little more complex) might unlock some unfound potential in the 25-year old. Tommy’s option was picked up for 2020 giving him a third year with the black and yellow. He is one of only 3 defenders Pittsburghers can count on returning for next year as of right now, and I think most fans should feel pretty good about handing Tommy V 3,000 minutes on the backline once more.

Jordan Dover

Games: 27  Games Started: 27  Minutes: 2,447  Goals: 2  Assists 2 

Key Passes: 20  Passes Per 90: 40.8 CBI (Clearances, Blocks, Interceptions) 81 Tackles 61

Crosses: 57  Crossing Accuracy: 17.5%

Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.08  High PSN Rating: 7.5  Low PSN Rating: 5

2019 Grade: B/B-

After emerging in 2018 as the best option at right wing back for the Riverhounds, Dover had a solid but unspectacular year in 2019. He was defensively sound, and impressive enough to earn a national team callup with Guyana for the Gold Cup. And to reiterate, the Riverhounds defense was excellent – and Dover was part of that unit and deserves credit.

However.

If we’re looking at a weak link on this back five, it’s probably Dover. His CBI (Clearances, Blocks, Interceptions) is the lowest of any of the five regular starters. What does that mean? Combining C + B + I gives you a picture of how defensively active a player is – how often he ‘makes a play’. Dover makes plays, but not as many as any of his fellow Hounds defenders. For comparison, Ryan James makes more defensive plays than Dover at the opposite side. The same applies for tackles. It could be because the Hounds frequently faced opponents that preferred to go down the right side (against James, thereby forcing him to make more plays) , but that’s statistically unlikely – over a long season, most teams see opponents go down both sides evenly. Realistically, the reason is that Dover let more passes get through and more shots come off than other Hounds players.

The same effectively applies on offense. Ryan James had more passes, more key passes, more crosses, and a higher crossing accuracy that Dover. That doesn’t mean Dover is bad – he’s good. But he’s not as good as James, and on a Hounds team where the ballclub make the playoffs two years in a row but did not win the Cup, there is likely some thinking that it’s possible to upgrade at right back.

Our PSN rating reflects these statistical observations, too. Dover registered a lot of 6’s. He was never bad; it’s not like he was a swinging gate over on the right side, ushering through all opponents through. But he also wasn’t exceptional on either end of the field. ‘Good enough’ isn’t going to cut it if the Hounds want to get past Louisville City and Red Bull II and Real Monarchs and Phoenix Rising next year.

Dover is out of contract, while his backup Dani Rovira was retained for 2020, and I suspect that means the Riverhounds coaching braintrust are looking to bring in a game-changing wingback to either take that spot or challenge Rovira for the spot.

Dover was fine. But imagine how good the Hounds could be in 2020 if they had two fullbacks of Ryan James caliber on the field at once. That is, if you can find someone that good.

 

Ryan James

Games: 36  Games Started: 33  Minutes: 3,027  Goals: 0  Assists 6 

Key Passes: 35  Passes Per 90: 42.2 CBI (Clearances, Blocks, Interceptions) 136 Tackles 99

Crosses: 122 Crossing Accuracy: 21.3%

Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.06  High PSN Rating: 7.5  Low PSN Rating: 4

2019 Grade: A-/B+

John Krysinsky, soccer writer and editor extraordinaire, had a running argument with me all season. He’d complain about Ryan James being ‘not good enough’ and I’d say he was great. And I’d complain about Steeven Dos Santos being ‘not good enough’ and he’d hay he was great. I’m not sure we’ve ever settled this disagreement.

Jame’s numbers, as indicated in the paragraph about Jordan Dover, were very good. Dude can defend and pass and swing in a cross. His 6 assists is equal to every other defender combined. He drives forward with the ball, chops defenders, forces opponents to shift, and open up lanes. When he was initially acquired I thought ‘Dammit, Bob just loves getting the band back together with these Rochester guys.’ But after seeing James, (as well as Kenardo Forbes and Christiano Francois and Kyle Morton) I’m a convert to the Rhinohound Philosophy. Trust in Bob, we should.

His low PSN Player rating is due to a string of bad early games; John rated him a 4, a 4.5, a 6, and a 5.5 in his first four games. But I think overall he had a very good year. Which is good, because his club option was picked up by the Hounds and he’ll be back for 2020.

Noah Franke

Games: 17  Games Started: 8  Minutes: 803  Goals: 0  Assists 0

Key Passes: 12  Passes Per 90: 37.4 CBI (Clearances, Blocks, Interceptions) 18 Tackles 23

Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.75  

2019 Grade: B+

Noah Franke had a pretty decent second year for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. The Creighton graduate doubled his minutes total from 2018 to 2019, going from 401 in his rookie season to 803 this year. He was a regular tactical insertion for Bob Lilley when he wanted to protect a lead, and he also saw a lot of mid-season action at full-back in place of Jordan Dover. With Dover out of contract, he’s got a shot at the starting job for 2020. But so does Dani Rovira, as well as anyone else Bob Lilley seems to like on the open market. Franke should probably stay away from the Christmas cookies and close to a gym this offseason.

Dani Rovira

Games: 9  Games Started: 4  Minutes: 364  Goals: 0  Assists 0

Key Passes: 3  Passes Per 90: 36.6 CBI (Clearances, Blocks, Interceptions) 24 Tackles 15

Crosses: 11 Crossing Accuracy: 9.1%

Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 5.17  High PSN Rating: 6.5  Low PSN Rating: 4

2019 Grade: B-

Rovira filled in some while Dover was away at Gold Cup, and did quite well. We only rated 3 of the 9 matches he figured in, so his PSN rating is quite incomplete. His other numbers, give a good picture of an active and aggressive defender – he has 5.94 CBI p90 – Dover’s rate is 2.98 CBI per90 and Jame’s is 4.04. Clearly his passing leaves much to be desired – his passing rate, crossing accuracy, and key passes all indicate that his defensive strengths might be offset by offensive liabilities. But the 23-year old from Colombia had limited minutes and was in just his first year as a professional after playing college ball at the University of Vermont, so for a rookie, he was pretty good -good enough to get a contract extension for 2020. But also, not good enough to take the job outright from Dover in 2019. We’ll see if the Hounds look to upgrade at right back  for next year, or just hand the job over to Rovira and see if he can blossom as a pro.

Uchenna Uzo

Games: 7  Games Started: 2  Minutes: 204  Goals: 0  Assists 0

Key Passes: 1  Passes Per 90: 32.2 CBI (Clearances, Blocks, Interceptions) 11 Tackles 4

Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 5.5  

2019 Grade: D

Uzo spent 2018 rehabbing from a broken leg and signed with the Hounds after a trial. He was out in training putting in fierce effort week after week, but could never crack the starting lineup save two matches, playing just 204 minutes all year. Somehow Uzo just never instilled confidence in the coaches enough to give him an extended run, and Lilley even signed Todd Pratzer midseason to be a backup CB rather than choose to play Uzo, which is pretty harsh damnation if you ask me. It is logical, then, that the Nigerian was not re-signed for 2020. Maybe another team in the Championship or League 1 could use him? 

Todd Pratzner

Games: 3  Games Started: 3  Minutes: <270  Goals: 0  Assists 0

Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.33  

2019 Grade: NA

Pratzner was picked up late-season from Memphis 901 FC , where he was mostly parked on the bench, because Bob Lilley wanted some depth at centerback. And he did pretty well in the matches he played. Unfortunately, in just his third match, he suffered a broken cheek and was sidelined for the rest of the year. He’s out of contract, and the club hasn’t made any commitment one way or another. He’s a Pennsylvania native and a former Rochester Rhino, so odds are at least 50-50 that he’ll be brought back for 2020: because he’s a Bob guy.

 

Caleb Smith

Games: 1  Games Started: 0  Minutes: 15  Goals: 0  Assists 0

Key Passes: 0  Passes: 4 CBI (Clearances, Blocks, Interceptions) 0 Tackles 0

Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: NA  

2019 Grade: NA

Smith signed with the team after a successful trial in February. He played 15 minutes against Swope Park Rangers in March. Shortly after that match, he injured his groin and missed many weeks. After that, he just wasn’t a factor in Bob Lilley’s squad selection ever again. Smith’s option was not picked up. To summarize my feelings on the matter:

Next up will be midfielders, so stay tuned, my friends.

 

Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

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