The calendar has flipped forward to 2020, but we continue to look back, player by player, at the 2019 season. Somewhat for nostalgia, somewhat in thinking about what will be in 2020: what we can expect of players, and what we hope they can aspire to achieve.
The Hounds midfield was very good in 2020; the engine room of the club, the main point of resistance to enemy attack, and the chief conveyors and distributors of the ball. There were some shifting roles and a slight change in tactics from the infamously defensive era of ‘Lilley-ball’, a primarily risk-averse and defensive brand of football, to a more attacking and possession-based brand of play. That changed the expectations on the midfield as well as the outcomes. Because the Hounds won the Eastern Conference and were an effective defensive unit all year, we can definitely say they were a good or very good unit by USL standards. Still, without a trophy, questions should be asked about how to strengthen the core of the ball club in such a way that it will propel the club to even higher heights.
Note: This is the second installment in ‘Riverhounds 2019 Player Reviews’. To see the first installment, ‘Defenders’, click here.
Games: 36 Games Started: 33 Minutes: 3,014 Goals: 4 Assists 11
Key Passes: 77 Passes Per 90: 59.5 Crosses 38 Crossing Accuracy 13.2%
Tackles PG 1.36 Interceptions PG 1.36 Duels Won 144 Duels 299 Duel Pct. 48.2%
Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.77 High PSN Rating: 9 Low PSN Rating: 4
2019 Grade: A
There is no way for me to contain my undying admiration for Kenardo Forbes, who, along with Joe Greenspan and Ryan James, was one of the key players on the 2019 Riverhounds that propelled the club to great success. The Jamaican string-puller extraordinaire spent another year with metronome-like consistency, just like the year before and the year before that.
To some degree he became even better in 2019, at the ripe old soccer age of 31. Forbes’ 11 assists was a career-high for him, exceeding his 9 assists from 2015 and 8 assists from 2018. His dead-ball skills – particularly his corner kicks – were deadly accurate. Across the USL, Kenny was 4th overall in assists, and 8th in Key Passes, which tells you that as time has gone on, he has become better and better at picking out the right pass in the final third. To that we can add perhaps his most important but overlooked attribute, his dependability. Give Kenny the ball at midfield or in the back with the task of advancing up the field of play, and you can count on him delivering, time and again. He will occasionally risk the outlandish or spectacular play and miss, but only when it’s not in a critical spot. If I had a quarter for every time I saw Kenardo Forbes make a sloppy or thoughtless pass in 2019, I probably wouldn’t be able to do a single load of laundry.
And of course Bob Lilley made great use of Kenardo Forbes to the benefit of the team. Kenny lead the Hounds in Passes per 90 with a remarkably high 59.5, meaning most of the team’s possession went through him. Forbes was able throughout the length of a game to use that fact to his advantage – generally moving the ball up and around efficiently, occasionally making runs instead of recycling the ball, and sucking in defenders on occasion in order to spring his teammates free for the big play.
You probably don’t need my convincing that Forbes was the team’s most important player – heck, odds are good that you’re a member of Steel Army, and the Hounds supporters group gave Kenny the fan-bestowed MVP award at the last home game of the season. But if you do need convincing, here’s a piece of relevant data: Kenny was named to the USL team of the week six times in 2019. The rest of the Hounds *combined* made TOTW a total of seven times. He was also one of just three midfielders to make the USL’s All-League First-Team squad. Dude was good. People noticed.
On the defensive end of the field, Forbes did his job, but he left most of the defensive midfield heavy lifting up to Thomas Vancaeyezeele, and left the charging-around and harassing to Robbie Mertz. He was third in tackles per game behind Mouhamed Dabo and Robbie Mertz, and second in interceptions behind just Dabo. I think he did fine, but I do wonder if the Hounds might have benefited from a deep-lying midfielder who covered more ground or more effectively cut off passing lanes – a guy that can lay in the perfect pass and do a bit more defending as well. It’s a minor quibble, and one that you’d see anytime a soccer nerd looks at a team playing a so-called ‘Deep Lying Regista’ like Andrea Pirlo or Sergio Busquets; ‘Can he do more than just ping a perfect ball?’ But it does give me pause. Sometimes you want your best player to be even more than he is already, especially when your team comes up short of hardware for their 20th season in a row.
Honestly, you probably can’t get much better than Kenardo Forbes. Forbes doesn’t need to be like somebody else. Every other player just needs to be more like him.
Games: 32 Games Started: 28 Minutes: 2,284 Goals: 5 Assists 3
Key Passes: 27 Passes Per 90: 37.6 Crosses 72 Crossing Accuracy 22.2
Tackles PG 1.34 Interceptions PG 0.38 Duels Won 107 Duels 245 Duel Pct. 43.7%
Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.09 High PSN Rating: 9 Low PSN Rating: 3.5
2019 Grade: B-
There’s something about the way Kerr plays the game. The way he prowls, dips, even slides into space. It’s the way a veteran moves. Knowing just when your defender isn’t checking his shoulder, and just where that ball is likely to carom off the far woodwork. It’s beautiful to watch.
Kevin Kerr, in his 12th year as a professional footballer, does not race around the pitch with wild abandon trying to create space or find the seam. He moves to the right place at the right time. He accelerates in a blink, but only because he needs to. He settles the ball like a wizard. He dribbles with total authority.
The 2019 season was a rebound year for Kerr, who saw only 1,362 minutes in 2018 due to a calf injury. He started the season knowing he had “a lot to prove.” And he had a very good year – particularly when playing in a wider role and bending in crosses. With Ryan James coming from the left and Kerr coming down the right, Hounds opponents were constantly under threat from wide, accurate crosses, requiring them to play a little wider to close down that ball, which in turn could sometimes open up a little more space in the box for Hounds attackers. Kerr from wide wasn’t the fastest guy on the pitch, but he was dangerous nevertheless.
In the center of the pitch, Kerr was a bit more enigmatic. He didn’t chop defenders on the dribble like a deep-lying Neco Brett. He didn’t serve in the inch-perfect pass like Kenardo Forbes did, as evidenced by his ok-not-great Key Pass number. He wasn’t chasing down balls and winning tackles like Robbie Mertz did. Kerr was great at being the guy before the guy; he could always be counted on to recirculate and hold the rock. You need that guy, even if it means he cedes the limelight to somebody else, week after week.
Kerr had a couple of great moments in 2019. The first was this stunning game-winning goal, curled to the absolute most unreachable spot, in the home opener on April 13.
That play earned him USLC Team of the Week honors.
The second big game for Kevin Kerr will likely be remembered by Hounds fans for a long time to come. In a June 29 game against Birmingham Legion in front of a robust crowd, Kerr became the club’s all-time leader in assists with a cross into Robbie Mertz in the 26th minute. Twelve minutes later Kerr crossed to Mertz again; same spot, same goal; giving him 27 assists as a Riverhound, to the delight of the Highmark faithful.
But if you wanted to be more critical, you could look at Kerr as an echo of Kenardo Forbes, without the filthy passing results. Both are reliable ballcarriers, both are getting a long in the tooth, both are defensively solid but maybe not game-changers. Kerr’s interception numbers weren’t particularly worrisome – wide midfielders generally produce tackles and recoveries, not interceptions – but his duel numbers were. Kerr went for balls against his opponents but came away with the rock at the fairly low rate of just 43.7%. That could be due to speed, strength, leaping ability, or just timing and judgment. It’s only one metric and not necessarily the most important thing, but a team that loses the ball a bunch and doesn’t recover the ball as often as it should has an issue.
Kerr can still play the midfield, and he’s still a valuable asset for the Riverhounds, but he’s probably not an elite player in USL. He’s not up and coming like Robbie Mertz. He’s not a devastating passer like Kenardo Forbes. He can’t blow past you on the dribble like Ryan James or Anthony Velarde. He’s a great player, but the Hounds have to be asking whether handing Kerr 1500 minutes in 2020 gets them to the USL Championship Final.
With the lead in club history for assists, Kerr has firmly established himself as a Riverhounds club legend. He’s here. He’s there. He’s in the record books. And that was a pretty freakin’ cool thing about the 2019 Riverhounds.
Games: 28 Games Started: 21 Minutes: 1,925 Goals: 7 Assists 4
Key Passes: 24 Passes Per 90: 42.8 Crosses 25 Crossing Accuracy 20.0%
Tackles p90 1.59 Interceptions p90 0.94 Duels Won 240 Duels 99 Duel Pct. 41.3%
Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.24 High PSN Rating: 7 Low PSN Rating: 4.5
2019 Grade: A-
One philosophical issue that all ‘player grade’ articles have to deal with is the standard by which you are measuring a player. Does an every game starter have the same expectations as a guy off the bench? Does a veteran player get the same treatment as a rookie? Do the expectations you had for a player factor in?
For me, I think it makes perfect sense to grade players on some mixture of ‘what they contributed’ and ‘what you expected’; which explains why Robbie Mertz merits an A-. The former University of Michigan standout and Upper Saint Claire native Mertz came to the Hounds without anything expected of him, and the fact that he eventually emerged as a midfield bulldog and a very good two-way player, second only to Kenardo Forbes, means that he deserves stellar marks. After beginning the year as a bench option, Mertz eventually superseded Anthony Velarde in the starting lineup. He certainly still has areas of growth for 2020, but overall, Mertz was a very exciting addition to the Riverhounds.
Mertz’ counting stats – goals, assists, and key passes – were all very good. His 7 goals in 2019 was eye-poppingly good, even more so when you consider he took just 20 shots total all year. He was deadly accurate, but that may tell us that Robbie needs to be a bit more selfish going forward, and also that converting at that rate in the future seems very statistically improbable.
Here was young Robbie’s first career professional goal:
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) June 3, 2019
In defense, Mertz was very good: his interception and tackle numbers were quite high. His duel numbers aren’t great, and it’s not due to his short stature – his aerial duels rate of 41.3% is identical to his overall duels rate. Robbie may just need to adjust to the speed of the league and improve at sniffing out winnable balls and positioning himself for second balls. It’s an area for growth.
Mertz had a great first year. His continued growth into year two might be one of the most important factors in how far the Hounds can go in this new decade.
Games: 24 Games Started: 16 Minutes: 1,447 Goals: 0 Assists 2
Key Passes: 4 Passes Per 90: 41.4 Crosses 2 Crossing Accuracy 0.0%
Tackles p90 2.55 Interceptions PG 1.49 Duels Won 182 Duels 80 Duel Pct. 44.0%
Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 5.35 High PSN Rating: 7 Low PSN Rating: 4
2019 Grade: B-
As good as Dabo was as a defensive midfielder – producing more tackles and interceptions per 90 than any other Hounds midfielder – his defensive talents were offset by offensive liabilities. Lilley decided to try playing Dabo a little higher up the pitch sometimes, as a ‘forward harasser’, a role I really liked him in. But often, as evidenced by the PSN average score that John Krysinsky and I bestowed upon players, Dabo would be high up the field in attack, but not contributing. He’d screen or post up, but he didn’t create much. There was a lot of standing around or recirculating the ball. It’s never good to have a player in the final third who isn’t a scoring threat.
To some degree, that’s kind of unfair. Dabo might have been a good deep-lying midfielder who was asked to play in the wrong spot. Or perhaps he *was* a success – Lilley wanted him to press opponents and then let Neco Brett and Kevin Ker and Robbie Mertz convert those turnovers to goals. My sense, though, is that if that were the case, Dabo would’ve started 30 games instead of 16, and would have been resigned for 2020 instead of let go.
Maybe the question for Dabo is what you want him to be. If he’s meant to be a junkyard-dog-charge-around-and-breakup-play d-mid, I think he’s really great. But Bob asked him to contribute a little more, and he didn’t, and the club parted ways with him. Maybe they were hoping to find someone who can contribute more in both directions, or maybe they were hoping they can unearth another hard-charging defensive mid that’ll be as good or better. We’ll see. For next year, if you want to see Dabo create havok, you’ll have to stay up late for one of the USL’s Pacific Standard Time games, as he’s off to the windswept desert town of Reno, Nevada.
Games: 25 Games Started: 11 Minutes: 1,065 Goals: 3 Assists 4
Key Passes: 25 Passes Per 90: 32.5 Crosses 17 Crossing Accuracy 23.5%
Tackles p90 1.44 Interceptions PG 0.42 Duels Won 53 Duels 158 Duel Pct. 33.5%
Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 5.46 High PSN Rating: 7 Low PSN Rating: 3.5
2019 Grade: C
Figuring out Anthony Velarde’s grade is really difficult. He came in with big expectations coming off of a bang-up NCAA Division II career. As we noted when he was signed, in 2018, Velarde became the first PacWest player to record 12 or more assists in consecutive seasons. He finished his redshirt senior campaign with 14 goals and 20 assists while starting all 18 of his appearances. His scorching ability to lay in that final ball was a tantalizing treat for Bob Lilley and staff, who made Velarde the first player signed in 2019. That led to expectations that Velarde would be that game-changing creative attacking midfielder that every soccer team prizes above everything else. Velarde got a number of starts in the first half of the season, featuring on the pitch in 9 of the first 10 matches. But after the Hounds stumbled to a 2-2-6 record to start the year, Velarde went from starter to sub for the better part of the second half.
Anecdotally and looking at the numbers, what Velarde added in passing, he conceded as a defender. His 25 key passes in just 1,065 minutes makes him the clubs second-best final-ball delivery man, behind only Kenardo Forbes. But his interception and duels won tells you he wasn’t enough of a stopper for the Hounds, and a switch was needed. USL doesn’t keep a key stat, ‘Successful Dribbles’, but if it did, you’d see that Velarde’s key attribute for the Hounds is his ability to receive the ball and blow past an opponent with the ball at his feet. When he didn’t receive the ball, Velarde sometimes struggled to get involved or make him available, as evidenced from his low passes per 90 rate.
Velarde didn’t benefit statistically from becoming a sub, and he also sometimes lined up on the outside, sometimes inside, sometimes centrally, sometimes high upfield, which clearly made his task more difficult. He’s talented, and fast, and he might be the best dribbler on the ballclub. But he’s going to have to grow his game in 2020 if he wants to be more than Bob’s favorite option off the bench when the team is behind late.
Games: 13 Games Started: 7 Minutes: 638 Goals: 1 Assists 0
Key Passes: 5 Passes Per 90: 52.2 Crosses 6 Crossing Accuracy 33.3%
Tackles p90 2.40 Interceptions p90 1.27 Duels Won 29 Duels 74 Duel Pct. 39.2%
Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.25 High PSN Rating: 7.5 Low PSN Rating: 5.5
2019 Grade: B
In ten years, you probably won’t remember Sammy Kahsai. But he was a damn decent player for the Hounds in 2019, albeit in limited service. Kahsai’s passes per 90 indicate that he was always active and involved; his Tackles and INT per 90 were quite high, meaning he was a solid defender; and if you extrapolated his Key Passes out to 3,000 minutes, he’d be right on par with Velarde and Mertz. And lastly, to the eyes of PSN Hounds nerds John Krysinsky and Mark Goodman, he was regularly effective and occasionally quite good.
The UMBC graduate joined the Hounds after several weeks of trialing with the team, signing on March 4. He made his debut on May 4 against Charleston as a starter, playing 70 minutes in what ended as a 2-2 draw. He saw most of his game time later in the season – August and September – and scored his first goal on August 30. And boy was it a memorable one.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) August 31, 2019
Yeah, that’s a 50-yard strike into the top corner after stealing the ball off his opponent. Fantastic. Ridiculous.
Kahsai was good. But the Hounds had a lot of good things in the midfield, and once the regular rotation of Forbes with a mix of Mertz, Kerr, Velarde, and/or Dabo got clicking, Kahsai just wasn’t in favor. And for some reason, his option wasn’t picked up for 2020; so Sammy Kahsai is back on the market.
So in another decade, you may have to really mentally stretch to recall the time that Sammy Kahsai was a Pittsburgh Riverhound. But for what it’s worth, the guy was pretty good while he was here.