The mad scramble known as the 2020 USL Championship 16-game schedule is proving that it’s not going to be easy for any team.
Defending Eastern Conference champions Louisville City FC have struggled out of the gate, dropping its first two matches in its new Lynn Family Stadium.
The MLS 2 teams are mostly dealing with having to play numerous very young and talented academy players from their system as their senior clubs had to carry larger rosters inside the bubble in Orlando.
Even Indy Eleven, which started off 4-0, thanks to Tyler Pasher’s hot scoring streak and late-match heroics in Pittsburgh, finally dropped a match to Saint Louis FC on short rest.
Then there’s the Riverhounds SC. The defending regular season Eastern Conference top dogs, who started off with an impressive 3-1 road victory at Louisville, then really looked like the upper-echelon club they’ve been the past few years under Bob Lilley by disposing of the young, inexperienced Philadelphia Union II, 6-0.
By mid week though, they were defeated for the first time in two years at home in the regular season on Pasher’s stoppage time heroics, then they allowed another late goal in the 95th minute that bookmarked a sluggish performance four days later in New Jersey.
The Hounds have fallen back to earth.
Actually, they’ve crashed back into reality.
There’s a few factors in play, and my guess is that Bob Lilley and the veteran players among his group will not accept any mundane excuses.
For one, the Red Bulls II, who most thought would be the odds on favorites, along with the Hounds to finish in the top two spots in the group, are always going to give them a ferocious challenge, especially in Jersey.
Couple that with the fact that we knew that the early stretch of playing four matches over the course of just under three weeks would take its toll on the club. It’s one thing to travel a lot. It’s another to have to follow the USL Championship’s stringent protocols in playing during a pandemic.
If you penciled in the toughest matches for Pittsburgh when the schedule came out, the trip to Harrison would have been at the top of the list.
Lilley did his best put a fresh stack of cards on the table in his line-up selection for the Red Bulls match. However, there were numerous players making starts after playing 90-plus minutes on Wednesday.
And this is another concern.
Kenardo Forbes, Robbie Mertz, Jordan Dover, Ryan James, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Skylar Thomas have each played almost every minute of every match thus far this season. This is somewhat understandable. This is the core group of players Lilley wants out on the field almost all of the time, and each got the start once again against the Sugar-Free Bulls.
Back line players typically don’t tire as much, but the midfielders are generally doing a lot of work from box-to-box.
James and Dover are about as trustworthy of an outside back pairing as you’re going to have at this level, but if they’re playing 90-plus minutes per game playing up-and-down the flank, leading the team in touches and sending crosses into the box, and tucking back into defensive responsibilities, that’s asking a lot from both.
Lilley’s been able to use a steady rotation of substitutions with his group of forwards and attacking midfielders that include Ropapa Mensah, Steevan Dos Santos, Mark Forrest, Lukas Fernandes and Danny Griffin, who are working very hard in trying to press high and bring plenty of energy at the top.
By the late stages of the first half against the NY Red Bulls. they saw any early momentum erased from a early 1-0 lead on Thomas header from a terrific ball from Forbes on a free-kick. In fact, Pittsburgh looked like a team that was hanging on by a thread in a 1-1 contest. The Red Bulls II were threatening, the match was open-ended, with the Hounds’ failing to control possession and keep the ball away from the quick transitioning Baby Bulls.
Making his first start with the Hounds, goalkeeper Danny Vitiello came up with a couple of nice saves to keep the Hounds in the match.
Lilley had to go to his bench earlier, as the Hounds playing in its third game in eight days, and second in four days, brought on Steevan Dos Santos and Danny Griffin for Dakota Barnathan and Lukas Fernandes, once again using his substitutions to rotate his forwards and attacking-mids.
Pittsburgh needed to get to the locker room after the hectic nature of the end of the first half. Still, the Red Bulls were still getting forward with transition opportunities as the second half started, stretching the Hounds more and more. Kenardo Forbes came to the rescue on one of those breakaways in the 49th minute.
The Hounds and RBII each took turns dictating the pace. The Hounds were trying to slow the tempo down, take the ball away from the Red Bulls and play through Dos Santos, the experienced big target from Cape Verde to extend possessions in the attacking third. There were a few futile attempts to seize the go-ahead goal. Robbie Mertz broke through, but couldn’t get a touch to get around the keeper, and then still kept the possession alive then sent a ball to the middle for Dos Santos, but his shot went well into the seats at Red Bulls Arena.
The stats from the match were extremely even, across the board. Possession, duels, shots, passes and corners all very close.
It was sloppy match and one that a veteran team can usually find a way to push through and get a result.
There were more officiating hiccups too. The most glaring came in the 58th minute when RBII’s Omar Sowe slid studs up into Skylar Thomas’ shin, and received a yellow card. From the replay, he had no chance of getting to the ball and it was an open shoe into Thomas’ lower leg.
Still, the Hounds were stretched out and were disorganized in both situations when they allowed goals. Without midfield support, James was caught and definitely deserved to be booked for his foul in the box.
“It’s disappointing tonight how we gave up both goals. These shouldn’t be goals that we give up. The first one we had our back line back, we had a gap,” Lilley said.
“On the penalty kick at the end of the game, we stopped them on the sideline and they played a square ball to the middle of the field and we didn’t have our midfielders recovering into good areas.”
With the first quarter of the season in the book, the next two weeks should provide a bit of reprieve for the Hounds, as they’ll face Union II and RBII at home on consecutive Saturdays. This should allow Lilley to use his best selections with a full-week between matches.
However, they also have a total of five matches remaining against the other top two teams at the top of the Group F table, Hartford and the Red Bulls II, plus another three against Loudoun United and two more with Union II.
They’ll have to fight their way to the top of the table, as it’s not going to be easy.
Still, questions remain, particularly regarding squad rotation.
For the remainder of the season, do the Hounds have enough depth to carry them through this season in the central midfield and outside back positions?
Can Lilley afford to sit Forbes, Mertz, James and Dover here and there when the next stretch of games include extra travel and weekday matches?
Will we see more of Xhelil Asani?
What about Mark Lindstrom who had dealt with a leg injury in the preseason and during suspension?
Will Patrick Bunk-Andersen and Albert Dikwa ever join the team?
What about Tony Walls? He’s been away from the team for personal reasons. Will he be back with the club this year?
We’ll learn a lot more in the coming weeks about this club, I am sure.
Danny Vitiello – 6 – not bad in his first start. Made a few nice saves. Came off line well. Couldn’t get the PK, but showed he could be reliable back-up for Gomez.
Ryan James – 4.5 – knocked some points off for the late, critical foul, but otherwise another active day with 69 touches, three tackles won.
Hunter Ashworth – 4.5 – it’s been a learning process for the first year pro who’s been thrown out there with three starts in first four matches. Some good signs, but first goal Lilley was pointing at the back line’s inability to close things out.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 5.5 – not as involved (only 36 touches/26 passes). Want to see more of him helping play the ball out of the back, but that’s probably because of the nature of this opponent.
Skylar Thomas – 6 – converted on a set piece after a bunch of chances in first three matches. Had more touches on the ball than Tommy V playing it out.
Jordan Dover – 5 – again team high in touches (85) — as Hounds continue to play through the flanks. Created a couple of chances, but very little is coming from them.
Dakota Barnathan – 4.5 – it was a pretty quiet performance in his first start with the Hounds.
Danny Griffin (45’) – 5 – brought on to give attack a lift. Had a shot on target, but wasn’t as dynamic as he was in Union II match.
Kenardo Forbes – 7.5 – another beautiful assist. Created three chances. 85% passing accuracy (no one else on team even close). Made a great save to prevent a dangerous NYRBII chance. Nice bounce back effort after Wednesday’s subpar performance.
Robbie Mertz – 5 – continues to be working hard from box-to-box. Picked up another yellow card (second of the season) and conceded four fouls.
Ropapa Mensah – 5.5 – another nearly 90 minute outing is showing that Lilley is really counting on Mensah to create havoc at the top. He did draw three fouls and had two shots, but if the Hounds are going to be an elite attacking unit, might need more shots and goals from Mensah (just one in four games).
Mark Forrest (86’) – NR
Lukas Fernandes – 4.5 – drew a couple fouls, but didn’t get involved enough in the attack. Was pulled at the half.
Steevan Dos Santos (45’) – 5 – as the Hounds tried to play through him in the second half, to varying degrees of success. There was some pressure, but not much in the way of finishing and creating more chances.
Subs not used: Tomas Gomez, Xhelil Asani, Dani Rovira, Anthony Velarde