Six weeks ago, Anthony Mwembia was a newly minted college graduate with his bachelor’s degree in business from Bowling Green University. And now he’s in the business of trying to establish himself as the number one goalkeeper for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
“My goal for the year is to play as many games as I can” says Mwembia. “(I want to) help the team go even further than in the past.”
Mwembia grew up in Toulouse, France, the son of Kabeya Mwembia and Marthe Bilo’o Messi, who came to France from their home countries of Congo and Cameroon, respectively. He found himself in goal from an early age, and played for French Ligue 1 side Toulouse Football Club and a Toulouse youth affiliate, US Castanet from age 14 to 18. Mwembia came over to the United States in 2016 to play for Bowling Green, and head coach Eric Nichols installed him in goal immediately.
Mwembia played in 66 games over his four years with the Falcons, recording 26 clean sheets. His standout Senior season helped to take BGSU to a 13-7-1 record. Bowling Green made it to the MAC Tournament Final against West Virginia, where they fell short 1-0, in a game that would have given them a bid to the NCAA tournament. Nonetheless, Mwembia’s impressive contributions earned him first-team all-region honors from United Soccer Coaches. Two other All-North selections, Penn State’s Aaron Molloy and University of Michigan’s Jack Hallahan, were MLS Superdraft picks.
Anthony impressed Hounds coach Bob Lilley enough to earn the chance to audition at an invitation-only tryout that the Hounds held in December.
Mwembia told PSN, “After the December tryout they were interested (in) me. After that, I had to wait until January to have further discussion.”
Like a lot of USL-hopefuls, Mwembia cast his lot with multiple teams before getting picked up by the Riverhounds. “I also tried out with Saint Louis, and Charleston, and went to Houston for a goalkeeper camp. That was challenging.”
There are real challenges to going on trial as a goalkeeper as opposed to trying out for a team as a field player. While a midfielder can expect to get anywhere from 40 to 90 touches a game, a goalkeeper might be presented with only 5 or 6 save opportunities per 90 minutes. For coaches, they have to make good decisions based on a very small data set. Of course, there are also a variety of different qualities that make up a good goalkeeper which a coach might be able to observe in training.
Mwembia says “You have to talk. Of course you have to make the big saves. And then there is decision-making. And see how you react on the field in a game.”
Mwembia feels he has specific attributes that make him a special goalkeeper. “I’m aggressive on the ball. I like to play high. I’m not afraid to get the ball in the air.” When asked who he patterns his game after, he reaches for the best. “I like (Hugo) Lloris. I like (Steve) Mandanda also.” Lloris, the starting GK for Tottenham, is well-regarded as perhaps one of the four or five best goalkeepers on earth. Mandanda was on the French National Team at the World Cup in 2010 and 2018, and has played nearly 600 club matches, predominantly with Olympique Marseilles, one of the best clubs in Ligue 1. Like Mwembia, Mandanda is from Congolese ancestry.
It may take National Team-level play from Anthony Mwembia to impress Riverhounds coach Bob Lilley and secure the number one goalkeeper spot for the Riverhounds. Lilley has been accused of being fickle and demanding of his netminders over his two years in Pittsburgh, a charge that is hard to refute. The Hounds 2018 starting goalkeeper, Dan Lynd, was well regarded in USL circles after an excellent campaign that included 12 clean sheets in 25 starts and a 0.81 Goals Against Average per 90. But after a poor performance in a playoff shootout against Bethlehem Steel, his services were not retained for the following year. His backup, Mike Kirk, also was not retained.
For 2019, the Hounds used Kyle Morton, who had missed most of 2018 with a knee injury, in net. Morton had an impressive season as well, recording 13 clean sheets, second-most in all of USL. He had 24 starts and tallied a 0.83 GAA per 90. But after a second-round playoff departure, Morton did not stay in Pittsburgh, choosing to join Saint Louis FC in the offseason. Hounds backup GK Austin Pack also and left, and will be playing for Charlotte Independence this year.
When Mwembia was signed, he was the first goalkeeper on the squad. But by the end of pre-season trials, the Hounds can be expected to add at least one more keeper, and possibly two. In the first week of February, Lilley took a look at Danny Vitiello, Tim Dobrowolski, and Evan Finney, all of whom are experienced USL goalkeepers. Vitello stuck around for week two of trialing, and the Riverhounds invited Tomas Gomez, formerly of Saint Louis FC, to trial. It is worth noting that Gomez played for Bob Lilley in Rochester in 2016 and 2017.
Whomever the Hounds add as their second keeper this offseason, it looks reasonably likely that they will have USL experience, and that Mwembia will need to battle to secure the top spot between the posts for the 2020 campaign. He knows it, and he is ready.
“I want to show all I can do.”
Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC