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Takeaways/Player Grades: Upper-echelon Hounds take Union II to school

Photo Credit: Matt Ralph (Brotherly Game)

Takeaways/Player Grades: Upper-echelon Hounds take Union II to school

On Saturday, the Riverhounds SC put together a 90-minute performance emblematic of what they’ve become under the direction of head coach Bob Lilley: an upper echelon club in the USL Championship.

Despite a slow start in which they had some trouble stringing together passes through the midfield and into the attacking third, and they allowed a few deep advances, they eventually picked apart an over matched Philadelphia Union II en route to a 6-0 blow out win at Subaru Park in Chester, PA.

FINAL: Riverhounds SC 6, Philadelphia Union II 0

PHIvPIT TAKEAWAYS

The Hounds were patient from the outset.

While it didn’t seem like they played with a great sense of urgency, but they were confident, organized and ready to force its opponent into making mistakes and make them pay most times. Even as Axel Picazo and Zach Zandi found a few opportunities to deliver shot attempts in the early going, one that had to be turned away by Tomas Gomez, it was clear Pittsburgh would dictate terms of the match.

It wasn’t even close.

The stats were very one sided. Pittsburgh held a 63/37 possession edge, 7-0 on corner kicks, they made 200 more passes (586-345), a 23-4 advantage in crosses and 15-4 (11-1 on target) difference in shots.

Lining up, the Hounds started off again with the same three center backs from it’s opening night line-up in Louisville six days earlier, with Thomas Vancaeyezeele sitting between Hunter Ashworth and Skylar Thomas.

Ryan James, who played in a holding midfield role in the opener, moved back to his more familiar position, as the left wing back, while Jordan Dover flanked out on the right.

Team captain Kenardo Forbes sat a bit deeper as a holding midfielder this week, while a trio of youngsters, Robbie Mertz, Danny Griffin and Anthony Velarde played in front of him. Mertz and Velarde were solid in the opener, while Griffin was getting his first-ever pro start after coming off the bench last week.

Once again, Ropapa Mensah, coming off a solid opening outing when he picked up two assists, was at the top of the attack, while the Hounds relied on Tomas Gomez in goal for his second start of the season.

 

It was clear that Lilley wanted to get James back on the outside, so they could have two solid veterans pushing the attack forward up and down the flanks against the narrow Union II 4-2-2-2 formation.  Once the Hounds started to get into a better rhythm, instead of relying on playing through the middle of the field, Forbes, Mertz and Velarde were content to find the outside backs to stretch the Union II shape.

Things finally opened up in the 27th minute when Griffin played a through ball to Mensah in stride. This pass found its way between the center backs who were giving up too much space in the middle. This led to a relatively easy chance for Mensah to take a few touches to get around 17-year old keeper and former Hounds Academy product Ben Martino for the clinical finish.

This really opened things up for the Hounds after this, catching the Union II disorganized and unable to fight off the Hounds ability to quickly transition into the attacking third.  As the Hounds worked their way inside and around the 18, they did so most times with both a barrage of crosses and with nice build up from one-two touch passes. The game’s second goal was a perfect example of the latter.

This had to please Bob Lilley.

That particular build up began with solid defensive work by Dover to get the ball back. The first pass into the attacking third went to the target forward, Mensah, who redistributed the ball back to Griffin in space and vision to see who would be making runs and who would be available. Griffin chose to use the width on the right side, finding Ryan James.  James found Mertz on the edge of the box. It was Mertz who drew a crowd, then passed it over to the middle — where to ball came back to Griffin.

The rookie from Providence made a decent move, then found just enough room to send a low shot to the left side of goal through traffic, getting by everyone, including Martino.

The Hounds continued to pick-apart the Union throughout the next 50-plus minutes.  It was quite a clinic.

Of course, at the center of it all, was Kenardo Forbes orchestrating things from the deeper holding midfield spot.  His ability to see the field and pick his spots in sending balls forward for the most opportune chances continues to amaze.

In the second half, Forbes had a terrific takeaway, then made a clever move to evade and react to a Union defender’s lunge in his direction. The All-USL Championship midfielder then turned forward into space, delivered a pass into the space where Anthony Velarde would take the ball into a one-on-one opportunity with the keeper, former Riverhounds Academy and Taylor Allderdice High School product Ben Martino.

It was a tough night for the 17-year old keeper from Pittsburgh.  He got an old-fashioned lesson in humility from his hometown club.  Almost none of it was his fault, as the team in front of him were outclassed by the veteran Hounds.

Forbes would pick up two more assists to become the first Hound to have three helpers in one match since Lebo Moloto’s Miracle on the Mon performance in May 2015 in that remarkable match that’s been well-documented in my book (yeah — shameless plug here!).  In just a little more than two seasons, Forbes is already climbing the top of the all-time club assist statistical charts, as he now has 21 total.

Having Forbes in the middle of the field running the show gives the Hounds midfield an advantage against most any team. But overall, the group in the midfield are playing well collectively and building confidence early in this unique season. Lilley continues to emphasize that there’s little time or room for error, and they’re working things out in each match.

For a group that was away from each other for the good part of three and a half months, they have found decent chemistry and using more players earlier in the season.

Many of the younger players, from the second year guys like Mertz, Rovira and Velarde who are stepping up into regular roles this year to the first-year guys, like Griffin, Fernandes and Ashworth, are fitting in well with the veterans so far.

HOUNDS CAN’T GET TOO OVERCONFIDENT THOUGH 

The Hounds can certainly build on this result but they can’t be too overconfident or the team’s fan base can’t get carried away with this win for two reasons.

One, Philadelphia Union II are a very young squad. This was their first match and they looked overwhelmed and disorganized. With the organization having to use a bigger roster for the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, and with none of those players available to leave the bubble, U2 are dealt a hand where they have to let their young players sink or swim in USL Championship competition.

“We have to feel it,” Union II head coach Sven Gartung said on a Zoom call with media afterwards. “Zero six looks ugly and I wish we could have avoided it, but it is what it is. We have to use the young players.”

For Union II that meant an average age of 19 on Saturday night. At 24, Zach Zandi was the oldest player on the field for the team and one of only three to play Saturday night who was born before 2000.

Unfortunately, this is the current set-up of the USL Championship, but it may provide some significant discrepancy between some of the MLS 2 teams, and the more established independent clubs.

Martino was one of three players to make their USL Championship debut in the match for the Union. A Pittsburgh native, Martino joined the academy last summer from the Riverhounds Development Academy.

The Brotherly Game‘s Matt Ralph reported after the match that Gartung said Martino was coming off a recent injury. Todd Morton, brother of former Hounds keeper Kyle Morton was the lone goalkeeper on the roster under contract until he made the recent decision to retire from professional soccer. Zandi, who grew up with Morton in West Chester and were teammates at Penn Fusion Academy, held Morton’s jersey in the pregame and it was hung up by the bench during the game.

Taking a quick look at the group standings in the Eastern Conference, not one single MLS 2 team of five (Atlanta United 2, NYRBII, PhilaUnion II, Loudoun United {DC United} and Sporting KC II), have picked up a win thus far this season. They’re a combined 0-7-2.

That’s pretty bad.

The other reason the Hounds can’t reveal too much after this win is because they may be facing its toughest opponent of the season next, when Indy Eleven, currently unbeaten in three matches and leading its group with nine points, come to Highmark Stadium on Wednesday night.  It will be a short turn around, and a significant step-up in competition.

With a national television audience on ESPN 2, and the first home match of the season, the Hounds should not have a hard time getting motivated for this match. It will provide a short turnaround, and that’ll be a challenge both logistically in his COVID-19 pandemic period when players are being tested after road trips and physically.

Lilley will be holding a Zoom call with the media on Monday.  Look for Matt Gajtka to provide the details/transcript on Pittsburgh Soccer Now, and we’ll also have coverage leading up to, and at Wedensday’s match at Highmark where it will be very weird without any fans.

PLAYER GRADES 

Tomas Gomez – 6 – made one save early but that was about it.

Ryan James – 7 – he moved back to where he’s most dangerous and effective with this club.

Hunter Ashworth – 7 –  the center back trio combined for a total of more than 190 passes, showing how patient and confident the Hounds were playing it out of the back. Ashworth was solid in his second pro game (winning 10 or 17 duels) and passing at a rate over 75%.

Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 8 – passing accuracy of 87% — with almost all short passes without much pressure led to a fairly workmanlike night for Tommy V in anchoring the back line.

Skylar Thomas – 7 – Solid, steady performance in the back for the big fella.

Jordan Dover – 7.5 – nine crosses, created one chance (which led to a goal)

Dani Rovira (72′) – NR –

Robbie Mertz – 7 – didn’t score any goals, but was solid doing a lot of the dirty work, playing unselfishly, making the extra pass (passing accuracy 86.4%) often times when the Hounds were knocking it around efficiently.

Steevan Dos Santos (81′) – NR – yes he scored twice, but it was in mop up time. It was good for him to get some playing time before Wednesday’s big match vs Indy Eleven.

Kenardo Forbes – 9 – not sure I’ve ever given any player a nine or higher in consecutive weeks. That pretty much sums it up.

Danny Griffin – 8 – great first pro start for the rookie from Providence. A goal and two assists. That wasn’t an easy shot either on his goal. Plays with a lot of confidence and is a high energy guy which Lilley has an affinity for in players in the attacking midfield.

Dakota Barnathan (72′) – NR – another match where he’s the first defensive sub that Lilley’s turning to. It’s nice to have an experienced USL player there to be able to bring on like that.

Anthony Velarde – 6.5 – made the most of his one shot attempt, accurate passing when he did have touches. But didn’t really have a lot of touches (only 17 passes, by comparison Mertz had 59 and Forbes led the team with 80!)

Lukas Fernandes (63′) – NR – nice to see the Temple University standout get his first pro goal against the Union. It appears he’s going to one of the high energy options off the bench, who will likely get some starts as the season progresses.

Ropapa Mensah – 7 – the topman didn’t get many touches early in the match, but when he did, he was set up with a terrific feed from Griffin to start the scoring.  With the Hounds owning so much possession, he did his part in drawing defenders and keeping the ball moving.

(Mark Forrest (64′) – NR – at this point, Mensah can only go so far expending his energy, so continue to look for Forrest in this spot, coming off the bench. Nearly scored a few times.

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for 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 US. 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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