It’s been so long since we’ve seen the 2020 version of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds take the field. The last time they played in a competitive match was in wrapping up the preseason, as Bob Lilley’s hobbled squad played to a scoreless draw against Toronto FC II on March 8 at Highmark Stadium.
On Sunday, they’ll finally be playing for real. There haven’t been any tune-up matches or additional matches as the team only got back together as a full squad on June 26.
Here’s what we do know about what the squad for the opener on Sunday.
Steevan Dos Santos (groin) and Mark Lindstrom (leg) are on the injured list, and will be out, not making the trip to the Derby City. In addition, two additional players haven’t made it back to Pittsburgh due to international travel restrictions: Patrick Bunk-Andersen and Albert Dikwa.
Much of the buzz when talking to players and being around the team has been that this is a deeper squad than the team that finished top in the Eastern Conference in the 2019 regular season.
As you prepare to watch this year’s edition of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC finally take the field, here’s the breakdown of the team’s roster, by position with some additional insights.
Departures: Ben Lundgaard, Kyle Morton, Austin Pack
Newcomers: Tomas Gomez, Anthony Mwembia, Danny Vitiello
What to expect?
Tomas Gomez was a two-time Golden Glove winner playing for Lilley in two seasons in Rochester. He was battling through an injury last week, word has it that he’s going to be well enough to play Sunday. Meanwhile, Danny Vitiello, who was a back-up in Nashville last year, and rookie Anthony Mwembia have not yet made their professional debut. Lilley doesn’t like to anoint any keeper the main guy early in the season, and likes to use two keepers, but it’s clear that Gomez will be given every chance to be the number one guy. Typically Lilley settles in somewhere in the vicinity of a 3 to 1 ratio through the course of a full season in use of two keepers, as long as everyone is healthy.
Mark Goodman filed this feature on Mwembia in February.
Departures: Tobi Adewole, Prosper Figbe, Joe Greenspan, Todd Pratzner, Caleb Smith, Uchenna Uzo
Returners: Jordan Dover, Ryan James, Thomas Vancaeyezeele
Newcomers: Xhelil Asani, Hunter Ashworth, Patrick Bunk-Andersen, Mark Lindstrom, Skylar Thomas, Tony Walls
What to expect?
Hunter Ashworth, Patrick Bunk-Andersen, Mark Lindstrom and Skylar Thomas all arrive in Pittsburgh to fortify the
center back positions as they’ll have to fill the impressive shoes of all-USL Championship selection Joe Greenspan, who signed with San Diego and Tobi Adewole, with Saint Louis. The problem early in the restart to the season, the Hounds will be without the services of two of these four, Bunk-Andersen and Lindstrom. That’s where Lilley can count on Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Tony Walls , who are each proven players that bring versatility to the roster, as they can play in multiple positions at a high level in USL Championship. Don’t be surprised to see both plugging in as center backs or holding mids, depending on what the Hounds are doing tactically, which we know could change from match to match.
Stability is in order on the flanks, as Jordan Dover and Ryan James both return. whereas Xhelil Asani is new to America, and serves as a left-sided threat with international experience.
They said it:
Captain Kenardo Forbes on Walls and Vancaeyezeele…
“Tony’s a really good pro. He was our captain in 2015 when we won USL Cup (in Rochester). He knows what it takes to win in this league. He’s a champion. He knows Bob’s system.”
“The first time I was playing with Thomas in the preseason (in 2018), looked at what he was doing, and said: ‘He’s the Tony Walls. He’s exactly like Tony!’ We know what we’re going to get. Thomas is always steady. He can play many positions. Midfield. Back right or left back. Always good to have someone you can trust.”
Returners: Kenardo Forbes, Robbie Mertz, Dani Rovira, Anthony Velarde
Newcomers: Dakota Barnathan, Danny Griffin
Departures: Mouhamed Dabo, Noah Franke, Sammy Kahsai, Kevin Kerr
What to expect?
Last year the Hounds provided first-year pros, Robbie Mertz, Dani Rovira and Anthony Velarde with opportunities to get valuable playing experience. Lilley is now counting on them to take on more responsibility and playing time this season.
It was Mertz, the local product from Upper St. Clair, who emerged as the most productive player and a real workhorse in the middle of the field Now, they all return along with the veteran catalyst and play maker, Kenardo Forbes. Velarde is more of creator and attacking midfielder, while Rovira can be used on the width and also slide to an outside back spot if needed.
Forbes was recently voted as the most underappreciated player in the USL Championship by the league’s coaches, and for good reason. The Jamaican native might be the best two-way midfielder in the league.
Danny Griffin and Dakota Barnathan each enter their first seasons in Pittsburgh. Griffin showed some dynamic quality and potential in the preseason, even as a player right out of college, while Bernathan has pro experience and like Walls and Vancaeyezeele, can plug into a few different positions, but will likely serve as a holding midfielder.
Either Walls or Vancaeyezeele could rotate into the central midfield if needed, but it will be interesting to see who Lilley would use in the role that he plugged Mo Dabo in last year at times, situated higher in the midfield as someone who was there to disrupt teams when the Hounds were using the high press, especially at Highmark Stadium.
They Said It:
One of the big questions and what local soccer fans will be following closely this year — can Robbie Mertz, in his second season as a pro, take his game to another level?
“There’s supposed to be competition. I want Robbie Mertz to chase Kenardo, because when Kenardo can’t do it in a year or two or three. I hope that Robbie’s closes that gap enough, and get to an even higher level,” said Bob Lilley, back in December 2019.
“Every year, I was always looking around, saying to myself, who’s going to knock me off. Who’s going to be the ‘new Kevin Kerr’ this year? I was always preparing for it but it made me work harder. It’s not easy. Robbie Mertz was that guy last year. I would joke with him. ‘Hey, you’re going to come in, take my place.’ He worked so hard last year. He earned his spot and opportunity. I am looking forward to seeing what he can do this coming year,” said Kevin Kerr, Hounds long-time midfielder who retired in January.
Returners: Steevan Dos Santos, Mark Forrest
Newcomers: Lukas Fernandes, Ropapa Mensah
Departures: Neco Brett, Christian Volesky
What to expect?
Steevan Dos Santos and Mark Forrest return for the 2020 campaign, both serving as large targets on the front line. Dos Santos added a unique presence to the Hounds attack in 2019, with his ability to hold up the ball, draw defenders and redistribute the ball to other attackers.
With Neco Brett being gone, the Hounds will be missing his steady, dependable presence — and his clinical finishing skills in and around the box. The Hounds bring in Ropapa Mensah, still a relatively young player (23 years old) who carries three years of USL Championship experience, scoring 18 goals mostly as a player off the bench for Harrisburg and Nashville SC.
Lukas Fernandes, much like Danny Griffin, is a first year pro who showed lots of promise and high energy at the top of the attack in the preseason. Fernandes enters his rookie campaign after competing at Temple University and was the first player the Hounds announced as a new signing in the 2019-20 off season after impressing the coaching staff at open tryouts. While he has not been formally introduced as a signee, Albert Dikwa is a fifth forward that the Hounds are anticipating finally seeing in Pittsburgh once he gets his passport issues straightened out. The Cameroon native is just 22 years of age, and has already made 66 appearances in USL — with Orlando City B and Saint Louis FC — scoring seven goals mostly as a part-time starter and player off the bench.
They said it:
Playing alongside the likes of two proven USL Championship veterans Dos Santos and Forbes, whom he once watched play as they led his hometown Rhinos to a USL Championship, has been an unique experience for Fernandes.
“They’re awesome. They’re great guys. On and off the field. It’s been great. I’ve learned a lot from them already,” Fernandes said. “They’re so calm on the ball. You learn so much by watching and playing alongside them. They don’t have to say much, but they talk when they need to help you out, give you pointers. For most part, they great to have around.”
The bi-lingual Fernandes has a particular bond with Dos Santos. When the first half of the Pitt preseason match came to an end, they could be seen walking to the locker room together with the veteran giving advice.
“He speaks Portuguese like me,” Dos Santos said. “It’s fun spending time with him and all the guys. For the new guys here, we need to make them feel welcome and try to help them.”
Here are a couple features I compiled in the preseason on both Forrest and Fernandes:
PROJECTED OPENING DAY LINE-UP
With the injuries and Bunk-Andersen and Dikwa still not with the team, Lilley’s options are pretty much limited to the following 18 players.