With both glorious weather and nervous trialists in abundant supply, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds began their 2020 season today at Highmark Stadium. Or at least, they began training for the 2020 season.
The quality appeared a little rough, and the movements were a little stiff from the vantage point of Riverhounds Head Coach Bob Lilley.
“Some of the guys that came in were tight as a drum. It was ugly,” Lilley said. “At the end, though, they were a little bit better because they started to just play.”
Lilley and the rest of Hounds coaching staff will be spending the next three weeks trialing various players to fill out the Hounds roster, which currently stands at 15 players. A full USL squad typically has 23 players on the roster, give or take a few, leaving a number of available spots the team needs to fill.
The Hounds are particularly thin in midfield and at goalkeeper, although centerback is also an area of some question.
The offseason addition of Ropapa Mensah fills in the big hole for the club at striker that was left by the departure of Neco Brett for Birmingham. Lilley told us, “There’s no doubt it’s a big hole to fill because he scored a lot of goals for us the last two years. But some of the new guys we’re bringing in here have the ability to score goals. I can tell you Mensah, 22 years old, is a handful.”
When asked about replacing Brett’s production in 2019, Lilley was enthusiastic about Mensah’s ability to at least equal Brett’s tally, saying “He was in a very crowded Nashville, (vying for time against) Alan Winn and Kharlton Belmar and Tucker Hume and Daniel Rios and Cameron Lancaster and Lebo Moloto.” If given the chance to start nearly every game, Lilley believes the Hounds will be just fine up front with Ropapa Mensah and his supporting cast.
Mensah scored 7 goals in 2019 in just 1,403 minutes of play, none of which were on penalty kicks, while Brett had 13 goals, 3 of which were from PKs, in 2,301 minutes of play. From those numbers, the two strikers compare quite favorably to one another.
Monday was the first opportunity to see new Hounds goalkeeper Anthony Mwembia in action. The French national and native of Toulouse looked confident and happy to be in Pittsburgh. He rotated in goal with three trialists; Danny Vitiello, Tim Dobrowolski, and Evan Finney. Finney spent 2019 with Real Monarchs of the USL Western Conference, where he played 2 games in goal. Vitiello was with Nashville SC in 2019, but spent the season on the bench without recording any game-minutes. Before turning pro last year, Vitiello played his NCAA ball at Penn State. Dobrowolski has the most experience of the three GK trialists, having been with Louisville City from 2016 to 2019. He played a little each year, but saw the most minutes in 2017 when he started 11 matches for LouCity. Louisville won the USL Cup that year, and made it back-to-back trophies with another USL Cup win the following year.
Hounds fans will also want to keep their eyes on Ettore Ballestracci, who joins the team on trial after completing his NCAA Division II career with the University of Charleston, WV. The forward scored 9 goals in 2019. Ballestracci, a native of Sarzana, Italy, will be familiar with Highmark Stadium, as he played a pair of games there this Fall when UCWV played in the D2 Championship, defeating Lynn University and Cal State LA to hoist the trophy.
Another ‘local Pennsylvania boy’ story in this week’s trialists is Mario Mastrangelo. The 6 foot 0 forward recently finished his college career with the Saint Francis of PA. Mastrangelo grew up in Venetia and played in high school for Peters Township.
Also on trial with the Hounds are three well-regarded USL veterans, Albert Dikwa and Sean Reynolds, formerly of Saint Louis FC, and Patrick Okonkwo, previously of Atlanta United II.
MLS Teams Still Trialing, Too
Major League Soccer teams begin their training and trialing this week, too. Most MLS teams are trying out a number of out-of-contract players, including 2020 SuperDraft picks, and will inevitably leave off a number of players. Last year, the Hounds scooped up Robbie Mertz after wasn’t brought aboard by the Colorado Rapids. In 2018, the Riverhounds picked up Noah Franke, who was originally drafted by FC Dallas. There may be slightly fewer of those stories this year, though, as many MLS teams skipped drafting players altogether in the third and fourth round – more so than in previous years.
As February rolls on, we may see more experienced players pop up in Hounds training on trial. Or perhaps the front office will skip the trialing and go straight to signing a former MLS player, as they did in 2018 when they grabbed former Portland Timbers midfielder Ben Zemanski.
New Kit Numbers
With unfilled roster spots still available, there are still a lot of uniform numbers left to distribute. However some of the newest Hounds have already grabbed their numbers for the year. Goalkeeper Anthony Mwembia will wear number 24 this year. Lukas Fernandes selected number 33 for his own, which was briefly worn in 2019 by Ethan Kutler. Mark Lindstrom will be wearing number 2 this season. That number was previously the property of Tobi Adewole.
Yet to Report
Several 2020 Hounds players were not present at training but should be joining the team soon according to the Hounds. Jordan Dover, Ropapa Mensah, Tony Walls, and Thomas Vancaeyezeele were all away with the team’s permission. Walls is completing a commitment with his current team, the St. Louis Ambush of the Major Arena Soccer League.
Current Hounds Roster (15)
Forwards (4): Steevan Dos Santos, Lukas Fernandes, Mark Forrest, Ropapa Mensah
Midfielders (4): Kenardo Forbes, Robbie Mertz, Dani Rovira, Anthony Velarde
Defenders (6): Xhelil Asani, Jordan Dover, Ryan James, Mark Lindstrom, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Tony Walls
Goalkeepers (1): Anthony Mwembia
Players on Trial – Preseason Week 1
- Adrien Awana D 5-11 208 Bordeaux, France (Manhattan College)
- Ettore Ballestracci F 6-0 165 Sarzana, Italy (University of Charleston WV)
- Dakota Barnathan D 6-2 165 Massapequa, N.Y. (Ottawa Fury FC)
- Brandon Bartel M 5-10 165 Fleming Island, Fla. (University of Pennsylvania)
- Youness Benmouna M 5-8 155 Germantown, Md. (Frostburg State University)
- Sam Biek M 6-3 186 Marburg, Germany (Western Michigan University)
- Albert Dikwa F 5-11 161 Garoua, Cameroon (Saint Louis FC)
- Tim Dobrowolski GK 6-3 194 Rockford, Ill. (Louisville City FC)
- Evan Finney GK 6-0 141 San Francisco, Calif. (Real Monarchs SLC)
- Joe Kellett M 5-11 150 Norfolk, Mass. (Boston College)
- Griffin Mallas D 6-3 180 Las Vegas, Nev. (Drexel University)
- Mario Mastrangelo M 5-11 160 Venetia, Pa. (Saint Francis University PA)
- Patrick Okonkwo M 6-0 174 Lagos, Nigeria (Atlanta United 2)
- Roko Prsa M 5-10 154 Sisak, Croatia (UMass Lowell)
- Sean Reynolds D 6-1 181 Fort Walton Beach, Fla. (Saint Louis FC)
- Skylar Thomas D 6-4 198 Scarborough, Ontario, Canada (Valour FC)
- Danny Vitiello GK 6-2 185 Massapequa, N.Y. (Nashville SC)