Maybe the simplest group to evaluate in a season look-back article is the strikers.
Did they score goals?
If the answer yes, then the season was successful for them. If not, then not.
Of course, it is worth exploring that notion just a little bit. Strikers can do a lot of things other than score goals. A good holdup striker will win midfield headers. They will knock down balls. They will win second balls – when a loose ball under no one’s possession caroms to them and is corralled successfully. They will post up, back to goal, and hold up their opponent. They will pass and cross effectively in the final third. They will defend and press their opponents.
But mostly, they need to score goals.
Neco Brett, as they say, scores goals – 17 to be precise. Brett’s regular-season tally of 13 total goals was good enough for 14th amongst all USL Championship players. Brett added 4 more goals in the postseason to finish the year with a respectable 17 goals. Steeven Dos Santos also scores goals, but to a lesser extent. The big man from Cape Verde banged in 10 goals in 2019.
To have a complete picture of the effectiveness of a goal scorer, however, requires my favorite advanced statistic – Expected Goals. Expected goals is a measure of the average likelihood of any given shot in a specific location going in. Take all those shots, add them together, and you have a picture of how often the average shooter scores from the spots that your shooter has taken their shots from. If your guy is below that average, it means he’s a little inaccurate, a little unlucky, or both. An above-average shooter when looking at G-xG means your guy is a good shooter, or a lucky shooter, or both. This number is the holy grail for statheads and analytics in figuring out if your striker was good or not.
Unfortunately, we don’t have these numbers for the USL. We won’t know if Neco Brett’s 13 goals from the run-of-play this year was a spectacular performance by an elite goalscorer, or whether the maths indicate that another guy would have scored 20 from the same positions. Ditto all the other Hounds strikers.
Based on the evidence present, though, we’ll do our best to think more deeply about what each of the Hounds strikers gave us in 2019, and what we hope they might need to give to the team in 2020 to be successful.
Games: 33 Games Started: 29 Minutes: 2,511 Goals: 17 PK Goals/Att: 4/5
Shots: 68 Shots On Target: 42 Shot Pct: 61.8% Right Foot Goals: 15 Left Foot Goals: 2 Headed Goals: 0
Duels: 252 Duels Won: 84 DW Pct: 33.3% Aerial Duels: 78 Aerial Duels Won: 20 ADW Pct: 25.6%
Assists: 5 Key Passes: 36 Passing Accuracy – Opponents Half: 69.5%
Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.13 High PSN Rating: 8.5 Low PSN Rating: 4
2019 Grade: B+
Neco Brett is basically a testament to Bob Lilley’s ability to find good players and make them great.
After two relatively undistinguished years with Portland Timbers 2 in which he scored a total 8 goals, Neco has scored 32 goals over two seasons in Pittsburgh. Neco’s speed, agility, shooting accuracy, and intelligence at slipping between defenders all combine to make him one of the better strikers in the USL Championship. His 61.8% accuracy tells us that he is a very good shooter; and his 13 run-of-play goals further demonstrate that he gets into the spots to score, too.
One wonders if Neco, at age 26, has maxed out his performance-level; if Lilley bought low and is letting him move on with the knowledge that he’s had his peak-career years; or if Brett is likely to keep scoring at a prodigious rate for the next several years.
One also wonders whether Brett wasn’t just a little too one-dimensional. Brett’s 15 right-footed goals out his 17 shows that he’s a pure dribble-drive shooter, but that perhaps his left foot and his head let him down on occasion, or in the effort to shift to his favorite foot, some windows of opportunity closed up. Another stat demonstrates to us that while Brett was an adept shooter, his passing was less productive than that of his USL peers. That stat is Goals + Assists – PKs per 90.
Here’s a chart below, care of fbref.com:
By this measure, Neco was good-not-great at being a fulcrum of offense in the final third. As the fans all like to say ‘Neco Brett scores goals!’ But he doesn’t necessarily create goals, facilitate goals, or lead the team into becoming an offensive force. Brett can shoot the lights out, and his 69.5% passing in the final is very, very good; but his 27th-place spot in G+A-PK/90 shows that he’s not an elite player in the USL at being a goal-scorer/creator. If Brett’s 13 run-of-play goals were supplemented with the ability to suck in defenders, then dish the rock to a wide-open winger or attacking midfielder to bang home a goal, he’d get an A+ from me, and perhaps the Hounds would have gone a tad further in the USL playoffs.
Brett was a laudable player in his two years for the Hounds, and plucked from relative obscurity by Lilley, and now he continues on in his USL career to a new city, the lovely Southern metropolis of Birmingham, Alabama. Lilley is banking on a belief that he can sniff out talent in unlikely places, or coax greatness from an underperformer, in order to replace Brett with someone equally successful, or even better. Finding a suitable replacement for Brett’s 17 goals will be no small task. So far, Bob has signed Temple University graduate Lukas Fernandes and Nashville SC and Penn FC striker Ropapa Mensah in the hopes that they can match or exceed Brett’s productivity. We shall see.
But we should be grateful for what Brett produced in 2019, because some of his work last year was absolutely a joy to watch. And by work, I mean goals.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) August 15, 2019
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) September 29, 2019
Steevan Dos Santos
Games: 35 Games Started: 29 Minutes: 2,499 Goals: 10
Shots: 71 Shots On Target: 29 Shot Pct: 40.8% Right Foot Goals: 5 Left Foot Goals: 1 Headed Goals 4
Duels: 702 Duels Won: 353 DW Pct: 50.3% Aerial Duels: 420 Aerial Duels Won: 230 ADW Pct: 54.8%
Assists 5 Key Passes 23 Passing Accuracy – Opponents Half 54.0%
Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 6.24 High PSN Rating: 9 Low PSN Rating: 5
2019 Grade: B
For everything we said about Neco Brett, it is basically the opposite for Steevan Dos Santos; he puts his thing down, flips it, and reverses it. Neco was listed at 5 foot 8; Dos Santos stands a towering 6 foot 4. Neco scores almost exclusively with his right foot; Steevan uses his head and his feet in equal measure. Brett drives to the net with pace; Dos Santos uses strength, balance, and height to gain advantage in the box for headers. Brett converts at a high rate; Dos Santos misses a lot. Brett is good at moving the ball around the final third safely; Dos Santos is not. On the other hand, Dos Santos dominates in the air, winning an impressive 54.8% of aerial duels and leading all of USL in regular-season duels won overall; Brett is lousy at both duels and aerial duels.
Yeah, those two are very different.
Steevans Dos Santos led the Championship with 333 duels won in 2019.
Cristian Parano led the Championship with 109 dribbles completed in 2019.
— Nicholas Murray (@NJEMurray) January 9, 2020
In other words: Neco Brett does one big thing really well: score goals. Meanwhile, Steevan Dos Santos does several important but less-big things pretty well: his holdup play, his ability to win first and second balls in the air, and his ability body-up his man were all key contributions to this team.
His misses, though, are frustrating. A 40.8% shot percentage is just not very good, no matter how you look at it. I thought a guy that big who elevated over his opponents that often to get his head on the ball might successfully direct more chances into the net than he did, but no. If Dos Santos had a better compass attached to his head, I imagine it would have been good for five more goals in 2019 at least.
On the other hand, Dos Santos ofter occupied the opponent’s big meaty center backs so that the rest of the Hounds could have a bit more freedom. And he got as many headed chances as he did precisely because he elevated above the competition so regularly. He missed, but a lot of his misses certainly came on chances that no other Riverhounds player would have had in the first place.
Dos Santos does the thing he does – get up and win balls – better than almost any other player in USL. He’s not likely to evolve into a Zlatan/Lukaku-type big man that can win balls, score stunning goals, head with deft accuracy, and dish the rock like Neymar all the same time. He is what he is, and what he is good at, he is very good at. It’s up to the Riverhounds to use those skills to the highest degree, and then put the pieces around him that complement those skills for success.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) June 23, 2019
Games: 24 Games Started: 9 Minutes: 998 Goals: 3
Shots 25 Shots On Target 13 Shot Pct 52.0% Right Foot Goals 0 Left Foot Goals 0 Headed Goals 3
Assists 1 Key Passes 7 Passing Accuracy – Opponents Half 63.6%
Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: 5.92 High PSN Rating: 7 Low PSN Rating: 4.5
2019 Grade: D
You might think that ‘substitute striker with less than 1,000 minutes on the year’ is kind of an unimportant thing, but it isn’t. Having that late spark off the bench to plunge the dagger in can mean the difference between first place and eighth place in a tight year like the USL East had in 2019: a couple of goals one way or another can mean perhaps a six to nine point swing. Christian Volesky was supposed to deliver daggers for the Hounds. Mostly, he didn’t.
Of players in the USL with fewer than 1,000 minutes, there were 25 guys that scored more goals than Christian Volesky. Dairon Asprilla and Robert Kristo had 9 goals in fewer than 900 minutes each – Asprilla’s goals coming all in starts, Kristos predominantly from off the bench. So too Bienvenu Kanakimana and Kyle Coffee, who contributed 7 and 6 goals, respectively, as late-innings replacements. And no, I did not make either of those names up.
I mean, sure, you could also do worse than Volesky: there were more than a few USL strikers (Caleb Calvert, Albert Dikwa, Rashawn Daily) that produced even fewer goals with as many playing opportunities. But, uh, there weren’t many. Volesky generally underwhelmed.
Volesky’s contract was not renewed with the Riverhounds, and so he is off to the Colorado Swings Switchbacks, a fairly poor club in 2019 that fired Steve Trittschuh* and brought on former FC Cincinnati Head Coach Alan Koch to try and fix things. I don’t think Volesky’s the answer, but maybe the higher altitude and a fresh start will get Volesky, who once scored 11 goals for the Rochester Rhinos, to rediscover his shooting boots again.
* Trittschuh is now in Saint Louis. Saint Louis’ former head coach, Anthony Pulis, is now an Assistant with Inter Miami CF. It’s hard to keep up with the never-ending coaching carousel.
Games: 8 Games Started: 1 Minutes: 100 Goals: 1 Assists: 0
Shots: 3 Shots On Target: 2 Shot Pct: 66.7% Right Foot Goals: 0 Left Foot Goals: 0 Headed Goals: 1
Assists 0 Key Passes 1 Passing Accuracy – Opponents Half: 58.3%
Average 2019 PSN Player Rating: NA High PSN Rating: NA Low PSN Rating: NA
2019 Grade: NA
I’d be lying if I told you that 100 minutes of soccer had allowed me to form any sort of opinion at all about Mark Forrest. The Lehigh University alum joined the Hounds midsummer, after finishing up his degree, and wasn’t called upon to play much in his first year. He did score his first professional goal, though, and in an important game no less.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) October 20, 2019
Forrest is a big 6 foot 3 presence, and in college he was impressive enough to earn an MLS Superdraft selection from the Chicago Fire. He’s still young and raw, and maybe he turns into something useful for the Hounds in 2020.
Note: This article on the Riverhounds 2019 player reviews is part of a series.