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Riverhounds SC Notebook: Addressing the latest preseason questions

Goalkeeper Tomas Gomez in action during the Riverhounds SC's 2-0 loss to Penn State on Saturday (photo courtesy Jared Todhunter)

Riverhounds SC Notebook: Addressing the latest preseason questions

The Riverhounds SC have played four preseason matches, coming up short against Penn State and Pitt’s men’s teams, losing to the Nittany Lions, 2-0, and playing to a 1-1 draw with Pitt after starting the first weekend with wins over Duquesne and Villanova.

Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley wants to see the group that he has in preseason playing better collectively, and start to develop a group mindset that’s going to work together to produce results, even when they’re not playing their best.

“We’re still in the discovery phase,” head coach Bob Lilley said. “We, as a staff, saw some improvement in areas. We’re also seeing a lot of things that we need a lot more work on. We’re better than we were when we started the first week. We’re making good strides, but we need to learn how to win games and get results.”

It was a bit disappointing that the Hounds rolled out a unit for Wednesday’s scrimmage with nine signed field players, and couldn’t seize the match from the outset — ultimately settling for a draw against a Pitt squad that could very well be in the 2020 Preseason Top 25. Kudos to Pitt for handling the Hounds high press well early in the match, finding a few opportunities, and capitalizing on one of them.

In this edition of the Riverhounds SC Notebook, we take a look at and try to address some of the most questions about the club as the preseason approaches the midway point.

What does the current Hounds roster and current depth chart look like? 

The Hounds have a total of 14 players signed.

Goalkeeper (1): Anthony Mwembia

Forwards (4): Steevan Dos Santos, Lukas Fernandes, Mark Forrest, Ropapa Mensah

Midfielders (4):  Kenardo Forbes, Robbie Mertz, Anthony Velarde, Dani Rovira

Defenders (5): Xhelil Asani, Jordan Dover, Ryan James, Mark Lindstrom, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Tony Walls

If you have been wondering how come a few players haven’t been active during the preseason thus far, Mark Lindstrom has been dealing with a knee injury, and has been doing side work in training each day, and Ropapa Mensah remains the only signed player yet to report to the club due to some visa issues that should be worked out soon.

Who’s been the most impressive player thus far in camp? 

From limited viewings, Kenardo Forbes, at age 31, still looks like the guy who plays on another level.  He appears to be in great shape, ready to carry over his form from a stellar 2019 campaign which he was an All-USL First Team selection. He is clearly the leader of this year’s team.

Lukas Fernandes’ goal against Pitt on Wednesday was pretty nice display of his technical skills in traffic, and his ability to remain poised to find an opening in tight space to deliver a clinical finish was impressive. He’ll have to do it against the pros, but that wasn’t a bad start for the rookie.

What are the Hounds biggest roster needs? 

They currently have a decent core, but what they’re lacking is depth in the midfield, another quality center back (or two) and they’ll need to add at least one, but probably two more goalkeepers.

I’ll put this out there too — the Hounds have a lot of solid, versatile USL-level players on the roster, and among the current group of invitees, however, what they’re missing may be another dynamic midfield player or scorer that can add another dimension to the attack. With Forbes setting the standard in the midfield, Dos Santos at the top of the attack and numerous veterans in the back, Lilley is trying to build a team of promising young players around some these core veterans, and hoping that the younger players can get to that next level.

Can Ropapa Mensah become an elite scorer? Will Robbie Mertz take the next step? Who will be the next Thomas Vancaeyezeele to emerge from out of nowhere and lead the team in minutes played?

The answer to these questions are still to be determined, but the Hounds definitely need to have success in taking the ‘next man up’approach, as they’ll need some unknown commodities to replace the production and value that Joe Greenspan, Tobi Adewole, Neco Brett and Mo Dabo, among others, brought the last few years to make the Riverhounds at top-of-the-table club.

It looks like the Hounds will be going down to the wire with filling out the roster as it figures that he’ll want to be somewhere around 21 or 22 players when the season begins or shortly thereafter. After the Penn State scrimmage, Lilley did indicate that he was probably going to start making some decisions soon. What Lilley’s done this preseason, more so than previous years, has been keeping more players on trial around for multiple weeks. There are some invitees who have been getting an extended look.

Much like in 2018, when Lilley had to build his roster up from scratch with only a few holdovers, he’s showing more patience in adding players. That season, the Hounds signed two veterans, Ben Zemanski and Hugh Roberts, very late in the process.  It’s very possible that Lilley will go that route again, as he monitors the market as some quality players may still be available toward the end of the preseason.

How many players are currently on trial — and who are they?  

We’ve had more access to information from the club at this point in the preseason than ever before, as the list of players on trial with the club has been made available regularly. We appreciate Tony Picardi and the club for providing us with most of these updates.  The Hounds did start week one with 17 trialists, but since that first week, the list has hovered more or less between 10-12 players.  The Hounds currently have 10 invitees now in camp.  Earlier in the week, the initial Week three invitee list appeared to have minimal changes, but prior to Wednesday’s scrimmage, there have been some updates, as Lilley did make a few changes, sending a few guys home, while adding Sean MacLeod.

FORWARDS

Albert Dikwa F 5-11 161 Garoua, Cameroon (Saint Louis FC) – the young, 22-year old forward remains in camp with the Hounds, although he hasn’t played in the last few matches. He had 44 appearances in two years with Saint Louis FC, scoring four goals. So, while he’s young, he has plenty of USL-level experience.

Ettore Ballestracci F 6-0 165 Sarzana, Italy (University of Charleston WV) – has been with Hounds since preseason started. Was once a teammate of Thomas Vancaeyezeele, and was part of the University of Charleston men’s team that won the NCAA Division III National Championship at Highmark Stadium. Lilley and Dan Visser were scouting him back in December, and apparently liked what they saw. In preseason matches, has been getting a look in as an attacking midfielder. Despite some struggles in Penn State match with some decision making, was bit more confident and had more positive touches against Pitt.

MIDFIELDERS

Dakota Barnathan D 6-2 165 Massapequa, N.Y. (Ottawa Fury FC) – former Fury FC defender from Long Island, has also been with the club all the way through since the beginning of preseason. He’s been getting a look as a holding midfielder, in front of the central defenders, so we’re including him with the midfield hopefuls on this list. He’s shown a good work rate and pretty poised on the ball. This is yet another versatile player that Lilley likes to have that can play multiple positions.

Danny Griffin M 5-9 165 Wethersfield, Conn. (Providence College) – Griffin joined the Hounds in week 2, after being selected in the MLS SuperDraft in January with the second selection by Columbus Crew. As a part of the attacking midfield group, he played in both Penn State and Pitt scrimmages in the second half. As the Hounds seek midfield depth, the former Providence College standout showed some flashes of solid play, is shifty in traffic with the ball at his feet and a good passer.

Mario Mastrangelo M 5-11 160 Venetia, Pa. (Saint Francis University PA) – the former Peters Township standout has also been with the Hounds since camp started in early Febraury. He’s played mostly later in the preseason matches, in wide, attacking midfield spots, but not getting on the field in Penn State match until the extra period of play was added.

Sean MacLeod M 6-2 157 Troon, Scotland (Seton Hall University) – attended and graduated from Notre Dame, and played a season as a graduate transfer at Seton Hall. Kevin Kerr has retired, so there’s room for another ‘Fighting Scot’ on the Hounds roster, right?

DEFENDERS

Skylar Thomas D 6-4 198 Scarborough, Ontario, Canada (Valour FC) – another trialist who’s been here for the entirety of the preseason. The 26-year old Canadian, and former SuperDraft pick of Toronto FC is a veteran center back who’s played in nearly 100 USL matches and another 22 in the Canadian Premier League.  He’s been getting plenty of playing time in the preseason.

Jerry Wiltshire D 6-4 187 London, England (Des Moines Menace) – Wiltshire has been in camp from the beginning. Nearly converted a couple header opportunities on balls in the box . He played at the University of West Florida (NCAA DII),  and in theNPSL with the Memphis City FC where he was named the team’s MVP, and his last stop was with USL League Two’s Des Moines Menace — and has competed internationally for British Virgin Islands, most recently in the CONCACAF Nations League.

GOALKEEPERS

Tomas Gomez GK 6-1 196 Webster Groves, Mo. (Saint Louis FC) – has been with the Hounds since week 2, and has made appearances in the Penn State and Pitt scrimmages. The former two-time USL Golden Glove winner brings plenty of experience, and has played for Lilley, so it would seem he would have a great chance to get signed.

Danny Vitiello GK 6-2 185 Massapequa, N.Y. (Nashville SC) – since the start of preseason, Vitello and Gomez have been getting the majority of playing time in matches, along with signed keeper Anthony Mwembia. It looks like these guys will keep battling it out. Vitello fits the mold of a typical keeper that Lilley and the Hounds have brought on in recent years going back to the likes of Calle Brown, Trey Mitchell, Dan Lynd, Kyle Morton et al, as a guy that’s been around the pro level, but eager to prove himself as he hasn’t been the top guy anywhere as of yet.

When will there be more roster signings?

While this week is nearly in the books (the Hounds will scrimmage Akron on Saturday, at 1 p.m.) it’s almost a sure bet that there won’t be any roster signings until early next week at the earliest.

As previously mentioned, don’t be surprised to see the Hounds wait until the final week of the preseason, and right up to the season opener to get the roster number up to around 20.  Last season, as you might recall, they waited until after its third game to announce the signing of three players, Prosper Figbe, Mark Forrest and Robbie Mertz, 

What’s ahead?

The Hounds will play Akron on Saturday (1 p.m. at Highmark Stadium).

Then, they’ll face its first USL opponent this year, when Loudoun United FC visit Pittsburgh on Wednesday, February 26 for a Noon kickoff. This will be followed by a friendly in Columbus as the Hounds will take on Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew on Monday, March 2, followed by a preseason finale on Saturday, March 7, against Toronto FC II at Highmark Stadium.

 

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the United States. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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