At the conclusion of last season, veteran coach Bob Lilley anticipated that he would have to deal with some significant roster changes, even as his Riverhounds SC squad finished at the top of table.
One of the first people he had his eyes on bringing to Pittsburgh to re-stabilize things was Tony Walls.
“Tony is a very versatile player who will bring quality experience and toughness to our roster,” Lilley said. “He’s a player that competes well and knows how to win.”
Walls captained Lilley’s 2015 Rochester Rhinos championship team, which lost just one game over the course of the entire season (17-1-10). Walls most recently suited up for Chattanooga Red Wolves SC of USL League One in 2019, playing 24 matches during his lone season for that club,.
Now, Walls is back in the USL Championship — reunited with Lilley with one primary focus.
“I know Bob, anything less than winning is unacceptable. I am ready to be locked in and do the work,” Walls said. “You can tell right away. they have a high standard here in Pittsburgh. Coming off being regular season conference champions, and now we actually have to go out, and perform.”
Over the course of his three-season stint (2014-16) with the Rhinos, Walls played in 58 games and added six goals and three assists. During the Rhinos’ 2015 championship season, he was named All-League First Team as a midfielder. After his career in Rochester, Walls competed for Saint Louis FC for two seasons (2017-18) and helped the club to its first-ever playoff appearance in 2018.
During his career at the USL Championship level, Walls has been a durable player, totaling 98 appearances, eight goals and three assists. In the preseason, Walls played in a variety of positions, from outside back, holding midfielder and in the center spot on the back line.
“We’re pretty defensive team. On a week to week basis. We’re looking at who we’re going up against. Look at what the tactics are going to be. Who’s on form, who’s not. See who’s injured, who’s not,” Walls explained. “(Bob) pencils me in where he thinks ever I’m needed, and that’s the role I am willing to accept. Do whatever’s needed for the team.”
Walls has also been known as a player who carries over those high standards and expectations from Lilley into the locker room, and on to the field with his teammates.
Maybe more importantly, with quiet leadership coming from returning veterans Kenardo Forbes and Steevan Dos Santo, Walls might very well be a key ‘glue-guy’ for this year’s Hounds squad.
“When maybe the level’s not as high as we want it to be (in practice), he’s the one that’s either saying something or stepping up his level of play to show guys where we need to be at in order to get better,” Brandon Miller, the goalkeeper on that Rhinos Cup winning team once said. “He’s a shutdown midfielder. I have complete confidence in him that he’s going to break up every attack that’s coming our way.”
With Thomas Vancaeyezeele injured in the latter half of the preseason, Walls spent the past few matches playing in the middle of the three man, center back alignment directing traffic and cleaning things up out of the back.
“He’s a good defender. A few times, when they needed help in the back, he helped stabilized things back there,” Lilley said. after last week’s 0-0 draw vs Toronto FC II. “With Thomas (Vancaeyezeele) not here, he’s able to help. (Sylar Thomas and Hunter Ashworth) won a lot balls. They needed the right cover. The right talk. A few times I wanted Tony in different places, but overall, he was a big help.”
In a few sequences, the 5-foot-10 Walls, could be seen out jumping the pack on balls in the air and making well timed tackles.
“I’m alright at reading the game,” Walls, a former two-sport start, who played one season for University of Wisconsin-Green Bay hoops team. “Back there, I have more time on ball. See the field. Pick up tactics. Things that are in front of you. I’m comfortable back there. I played a lot of games there too.”
Bring up hoops to a former point guard, who plays professional soccer, and you’re bound to have an enlightening discussion about the parallels between the two games.
While the most obvious comparisons in both sports require an emphasis on proper spacing, passing, ball movement, defensive positioning and foot work, Walls channeled his inner Steve Nash to add his own perspectives, and emphasized the importance for young soccer players not to limit themselves to just one sport.
“There are a lot of correlations. Movements are the same. The Chicago Bulls ran triangle offense. In soccer, that’s also one of the things you do, is form triangles,” Walls explained. “I think the agility, quickness, decision-making are all similar. I think any kid growing up, should play both as long as you can.”
While he gave up a game that he loves after his freshman year at Wisconsin-Green Bay, he found a successful path in soccer.
The Wauwatosa, Wisconsin native was selected by the Chicago Fire in the third round (47th overall) of the 2012 MLS Supplemental Draft after he completed his collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He spent the entire 2012 season with the Fire, appearing in the club’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match against the Michigan Bucks.
“Here we are,” Walls said. “Nearly 10 years later, it worked out. Here we are. Still playing.”
And now the Rhinohounds have eyes on the big prize again.
“Feels like, but I know its a different city, but I am united with my old family,” Walls said. “We had a lot of success together. I am excited to be back with those guys, but you don’t just win games by putting your jersey on.”
Lilley is also very glad to have his former captain back with him for another go-around.
“He’s just been there,” Lilley said after Saturday’s preseason finale which Walls played the full-90. “He’ll end up becoming a very important and a very good player for us.”
“I’m excited. We’re still kind of meshing and still trying to put everything together. Still figuring out how to play as a team. Obviously the results in preseason haven’t been favorable. We’ve been seeing progress in our performances. I think we’re confident going into the season,” Walls added.
“We’ll need to fine tune a few things. I like to win and I know I’m in the right place.”