The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC will be starting its season late Sunday afternoon against a Louisville City FC club that has set the standard in USL Championship’s Eastern Conference during the past five seasons.
The Hounds will also have the honor of being the first opponents to play in Louisville City’s brand spanking new Lynn Family Stadium (kickoff is 5 p.m. Sunday, and the match will be televised on ESPN2).
Riverhounds SC’s head coach, Bob Lilley, who led the Hounds to the top record in the Eastern Conference during the regular season last year, believes this is a good place for his club to start its new season.
“Every year, each team I’ve coached has to establish its identity. Once you start playing games you learn more about where you are as a team,” Lilley said. “That’s positive about playing Louisville right away. We’ll know where we are.”
The Hounds players are also pretty excited about starting the season against an opponent that beat them in the playoffs, and will be opening up its new stadium.
“It’s a great way to open up for us. The guys here excited,” Kenardo Forbes said. “We’re looking forward to going there. Going for some revenge. We can’t wait.”
The Hounds will begin its 16-game campaign through a three-plus month campaign with a challenging slate in July, playing three of four matches on the road. Three of these squads made the USL Eastern Conference playoffs in 2019, including Louisville City FC.
“It’s a demanding schedule out of the gate. How we get out of gate with those seven tough games is going to matter a lot in terms of putting ourselves in a good position.,” Lilley explained. “We can’t afford to be in bad form. Slumps are going to have to be avoided. That’s one of the challenges. Learn as much as we can early on, and continue to grow rapidly.”
The Hounds roster will see the return of numerous key players from 2019, and much of the group that was together at the close of preseason and prior to its season being suspended has returned.
(We’ll have a deeper look at the complete Hounds roster and our projected depth chart on Friday on Pittsburgh Soccer Now)
Lilley did admit that he has some players who are a bit nicked up and a couple are facing issues with getting back into the United States. One of those was a previously unannounced signing, Albert Dikwa, from Cameroon, and the other is Patrick Bunk-Andersen, who is from Denmark. Lilley said both have work permits, are cleared to play. He’s hopeful that both will be in Pittsburgh and with the team as early as next week.
The Hounds have been training as a full squad since June 26, more than a week after the USL Championship lifted its training moratorium on its teams. The Hounds weren’t afforded the opportunity for any additional preseason games or tune-up matches to prepare for this coming Sunday’s restart in the Derby City.
Entering the 2020 season, the defending Eastern Conference champion Louisville City FC, who came to Pittsburgh and upended the Hounds in the USL Eastern Conference semifinal in overtime last November, have brought much of its roster back, and have since added more talented players, including a former MLS defender Jimmy Okford, who Lilley told me in the off season was a player he would love to have added to the Hounds roster.
“They have a good team. Everyone back. Plus they added Ockford. they got (Former USL scoring leader) Cam Lancaster back. They’ve added Corben Bone. They played bunch of MLS teams in preseason. They had good win in (North) Carolina before the (season) postponement,” Lilley said. “They have a little more mileage. I”ve watched the North Carolina game. Both teams looked really good. North Carolina’s a good passing team. That looked like two teams in midseason form.”
(Look for Mark Goodman’s Scouting Report on Louisville City FC on Pittsburgh Soccer Now this weekend!)
When asked if any of his tactics might change from how his club was preparing in the preseason, Lilley was adamant in pointing out that his tactics change for each opponent on a regular basis, and has been preparing his players accordingly.
Forbes said Lilley was sending him and players all kinds of information and videos through the quarantine.
“We had assignments from Bob,” Forbes chuckled. “We had a lot of homework to do. We had video to watch. He was preparing us for what to expect when got back to training. The guys have responded well.”
Lilley is constantly adjusting and tweaking things which makes him one of the most, if not the most prepared coach in the league. In fact, respect for the veteran coach came through in flying colors when a coaches survey conducted by The Athletic revealed what we probably already knew, Lilley is the most admired coach in the league among his peers. Lilley received 10 votes, while the next closest coach received four.
“A lot of things we worked on prior to break — are still things we’re focused on. I’m always trying to make our team versatile. So we have that flexibility through season,” Lilley responded. “Last year — you saw we changed tactics pretty regularly. There’s core principles. We want to be organized. Not sit back. Possession will be important. With a shorter season, it’s all teams not just us. We’re going to need to have patience with ball. We pressed a lot (last two years). Are we going to go on road and press? Obviously, we’ll try to gear our tactics to who we’re playing. We’re always trying to find a way to create chances. We want to lock teams in their half when we can. We’re not team that sits and counters. In terms of formations and how we do that.”
A season ago, the Hounds started off with a precarious (for a Bob Lilley coached team) 2-2-7 record after 11 games. The Hounds turned things around to finish the season at the top of the Eastern Conference.
“Guys have to take everyday and be as productive as possible. After 11 games, even though we only lost twice, we were settling for mediocrity last year. We were very good the last 23 games. We don’t have 34 games this year. Everything is ramped up,”
This time around, they can’t afford to have a slow start.
“We’re going to Louisville and we have to be able to play if we’re going to get a result. The only way to get a result, and I think this way all the time, is to be able to play. Against Louisville, on set pieces, attacking areas, if you sit back and just try to hang in there, you’re asking for trouble,” Lilley explained.
“They’re (Louisville) going to find chances, put a ton of pressure on you if you just try to survive. It’s important to be able to play, find our outlets and get forward. We have to be able to attack. Our belief is that the last two years we’ve been ambitious. We’ve shown that last couple years. We’re always better when playing on front foot. Louisville is going to have stretches on ball. Home or away they’re going to be dangerous. We’ll have to slow them down. One of the ways is getting forward and make them have to defend. Lot of it is the mindset. Getting our passing cleaner. Work on our understanding. We have partnerships that are little bit different. We have core players Thomas Vancayezeele,, Kenny (Forbes), Robbie (Mertz), Ryan James, those are good glue pieces that have been through it. Some of the younger guys are capable players are going to have to grow and have to adjust quickly.
One area where Lilley has taken notes has been in watching the return of soccer overseas after the unusual layoff.
” You can see even in the EPL and in Germany, the ball was turning over constantly. Timing of runs, chances created were down — and there were less goals in the beginning. As some of those leagues are four or five games in now, we’re starting to see better overall play.”
Another interesting development for Lilley and all USL coaches will be how they’ll use the revised five-substitution provisional rule for the 2020 season. The five substitutions can only be used three different times during each match.
The Riverhounds SC’s coach has said that the five sub rule is something he’s always been in favor of at this level and is glad they found a middle ground to institute it for this short season.
“It’s good. It’s necessary. We have difficult travel challenges. There are a few more mid-week games. The speed we’re returning to game action is going to be intense. We’re going to have to have some squad rotation. When you have three subs, you probably keep one in your back pocket for most games, and save a last sub,” Lilley said. “Now, you can be pretty aggressive. You can make two or three subs at halftime. It can help change a game, protect a player or if someone goes down, you have more options. It will be nice to have two or three at end of game. Ultimately could have three subs around 70th minute.”
The USL Championship last used five substitutions when Lilley was coaching in Rochester, and coming off a USL Cup title in 2015.
“They talked about going to three a year earlier. I was against it,” Lilley admitted. “We have reserve teams. but I also wanted to develop my whole roster. I had teams with young players — guys out chances. For our league, it’s good for the game. I am fine with five subs with three times changes. I think it might be here to stay. Even for fans. They might want to see other players. The game’s open now. You know how game can drag, especially late. This would keep the energy of the game positive. Prolong it with five, I prefer five. We’ve won games if I have three or five. I am not complaining either way.”
Even with rules changes, dealing with a frantic schedule or numerous other challenges, Lilley and his players are in preparation mode and are focused on bringing a soccer championship to Pittsburgh.
“It’s a unique time. A crazy time. I hope we — and other teams can be as safe as possible. Us playing is a positive for our fans. We are trying to manage it as productively as possible. There’s going to be challenges. We’ll see.” Lilley added.
“Things are changing every day.”
UPDATES FROM BOB LILLEY’s ZOOM CALL WITH MEDIA ON WEDNESDAY:
On a call with @RiverhoundsSC head coach Bob Lilley.
He confirms the team has had zero COVID-19 positives as they prepare to open Sun. at Louisville.
— Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) (@MattGajtka) July 8, 2020
Lilley: "The @RiverhoundsSC, we want to play top teams. We want to see where we are so we can get feedback and improve as soon as possible… If you want to do well in this league, you've got to play big games, win from them and learn from them."#USL | #UNLEASH
— 𝗥𝗮𝗰𝗵𝗮𝗲𝗹 𝗞𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗲𝗿 (@RachaelKriger) July 8, 2020
Lilley hasn't named a starting lineup yet, but said veteran keeper Tomas Gomez has recovered from 'a nick' last week. (Other two GKs on roster have yet to play a pro game.)
"There’s still competition there. Tomas having experience, we’ll continue to measure that."
— Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) (@MattGajtka) July 8, 2020