The Riverhounds SC did what they had to do on Saturday night by dominating Philadelphia Union II’s young, inexperienced squad in a 4-0 win at Highmark Stadium.
While this win kept the Hounds near the top of the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference Group F table (after Hartford’s 4-1 win vs Loudoun United on Sunday, Pittsburgh currently sit in second place in the group), the result against an over matched opponent, left little for head coach Bob Lilley to savor.
In addition to the commanding victory, Kenardo Forbes also moved into the top spot as the all-time assists leader in USL Championship history with two technically proficient passes that he made look pretty routine.
Hounds coach Bob Lilley, as we’ve often seen in the past, used the postgame interview session to make it clear that he wasn’t very happy with his team’s performance, particularly in the second half, as they were already in the drivers seat with a 3-0 lead. The veteran coach made it pretty clear he’ll have plenty to nit-pick when he arrives at the Hounds first training session early this week.
“I think we can be better. I know the level we can play at defensively and I don’t think we played at that level tonight. It needs to be tighter. I’m happy we won, but this is not the night that defines us,” Lilley said.
“We’re thinking what we have to do and what we have to work on to get to the next level.”
And that next level would mean playing well-enough to beat teams like Hartford and the NY Red Bulls II, who the Hounds are battling for playoff spots in Group F.
The Hounds showed lots of patience in the early going of Saturday’s match against Union II’s young lineup, and sure enough, they started to pick apart their opponents from Philly, with its captain leading the way.
FORBES MAKES HISTORY
The match’s first goal exhibited the Hounds’ patience and professionalism — and Forbes’ underrated brilliance.
After putting some added pressure on the Union — and having stretched its back line enough — Danny Griffin found a seam between the center back and widest defender on the attacking right side. Forbes made a well-timed run behind the defense as Griffin slipped a through ball in. From there, it was an opportunity for Forbes to deliver a cross that landed right in the middle of the box for Steevan Dos Santos to make a perfectly timed run and head into the back of the net for the game’s go-ahead goal.
From that point, the Union played on its heels for the rest of the first half.
The Hounds set up one of seven first half corner kicks in the 36th minute. Robbie Mertz took most of the corners to that point in the match, but this time, he would defer to his captain, Forbes.
The veteran midfielder delivered an in-swinging, bending ball to the back post that connected with Thomas Vancaeyezeele for the 2-0 lead — and put Forbes into the record books as the league’s all-time leading assist man.
We’ve seen some very good midfielders come through and play for the Hounds in the Highmark Stadium era, but Forbes has cemented his place not just in the Hounds’ annals, but as one of the best to ever play in the USL Championship.
Forbes, who said that he didn’t even know about the record as recent as last week, and much like his coach, whom he’s been linked with since 2015, isn’t that concerned with statistics or individual accolades.
“To be honest, I didn’t even know about this record until about a week-and-a-half ago. I got an email about the record a week or two ago. I didn’t come into the season trying to break the record necessarily,” Forbes admitted.
The humble and often soft-spoken team captain who was delivered the game ball when he arrived for his postgame interview, appeared more comfortable talking about his club’s first win in three matches and what they have to do next.
“It felt good. After losing two in a row, it was great to get a win tonight, but we’re looking forward to working harder, getting better and getting ready for next week against New York.”
Dos Santos added another first half goal in what was a result of Union II’s comedy of errors in the 42nd minute. Dos Santos received a deflected ball, one-timing it with the outside of his right foot over the Union’s keeper, Mitch Budler, who was way off his line. It would be Dos Santos’ fourth goal in a little more than 45 minutes of action again the Union II, as he scored twice in mop up time in the Hounds 6-0 route in Chester two weeks ago.
Three of Dos Santos’ goals this year have come from Forbes’ assists.
“He’s been working very hard, and it shows,” Dos Santos said of his longtime teammate in Rochester and now Pittsburgh.
“He reads the game very well, he knows where to be, where to pass the ball. Like he said, we have a connection. He knows where we are going to be and to set us up.”
Forbes, who captained a USL Cup title in Rochester with Lilley, is only concerned with winning the next match.
“We know they are going to press, so we have to be better on the ball. We have to make quicker decisions and play together for 90 minutes because they’re a really dangerous team.”
GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS
Forbes comments echoed his longtime coach who was a bit perturbed by his club’s second half effort, which included another goal, on a volley-to-volley connection between Anthony Velarde and Ryan James.
Despite the goal, the Hounds were actually outshot 8-1 in the second half, even allowing three shots from inside the box, forcing keeper Tomas Gomez into making three saves. The Hounds only took one shot from inside the 18 (James’ goal) in the second half, and actually conceded the shots total (9-8) to the Union in the match.
With the lead, the Hounds didn’t do a great job in staying in command, completing 100 less passes in the second half (344 in first half, 244 in second) as passing accuracy dropped from 86% in the first half, down to 72% in the second.
Forbes and Dos Santos got some well-deserved rest, coming out of the match
“We didn’t create as many good chances in the second half,” Lilley added. “For me, we haven’t performed as well as I would’ve liked in our last two wins.”
LINEUP / TACTICS
The Hounds went with a 3-5-2 on Saturday, which at times morphed into a 3-4-3. Danny Rovira in the outside left back / left wing spot, moving Ryan James over to the three-man center back grouping that included James, Skylar Thomas and Vancaeyezeele. Jordan Dover made the start on the outside right back / right wing spot.
This match also provided Dos Santos with his first start at the top of the attack, and paired him with Ropapa Mensah.
Mensah was doing a lot of work and battling at the top of the line, while Dos Santos came into the middle of the field more, as the Hounds played through him to extend possessions. Dos Santos did his usual thing of drawing fouls and working the ball back to the width and the central midfielders.
Last week, after the loss to the Red Bulls II, the Hounds third match in eight days, I shared some concern about playing the likes of James and Dover a lot of minutes so early in the season, especially if they’re on the flanks. Lilley moved James for the second time this season into middle of the field, and for the first time as a central defender. It worked well against Philly, and provided Rovira with another match to build confidence playing out of the back.
Lilley also said after the match when responding to my question about player rotation that he now doesn’t feel good about some guys right now as he did after the Indy Eleven match, when the Hounds lost by giving up a stoppage time goal to Tyler Pasher.
Without naming names, the Hounds coach could be eluding to a number of players.
The Hounds 18 included both back up keepers on the bench: Danny Vitiello and Anthony Mwembia.
Mark Goodman pointed out after the lineups came out that Xhelil Asani wasn’t in the 18, and it was confirmed he was a healthy scratch. Lilley opted to move James into the middle, and kept rookie defender Hunter Ashworth, who played in the loss to the Red Bulls II, on the bench. Although he contributed an assist in the second half, Anthony Velarde didn’t start again, as Lilley went in favor of Griffin.
The one sure thing we’re seeing is a steady rotation at the forward and attacking midfield positions, as Lukas Fernandes, Mark Forrest and Velarde continue to be used as second half subs. Even with another near 90 minute match, Ropapa Mensah seemed like he provided an underwhelming effort. Only one shot on frame, conceding a foul and only getting 19 touches and 11 passes.
Now that Dos Santos appears to be healthy, I am sure Lilley wants additional players from that group to step up, be more involved and most importantly: be more dangerous and productive. In light of the five substitution rule, Lilley is pushing and maximizing his forward rotation.
Dos Santos no longer has Neco Brett in front of him. Mensah’s supposed to be the guy to produce, but other than his two assists at Louisville, and his one goal in the first Philly match, he’s been fairly quiet. Maybe a change might do Mensah some good. One way he could potentially find his way back into the score sheet, would be for him to be used as he was in Nashville, by being a spark off the bench in the second half. This might change some things up tactically. If Mensah starts on the bench for a game or two, Fernandes or Forrest could start at the top, but Lilley could also leave Dos Santos alone at the top with some combination of Velarde, Griffin, Mertz and Forbes in the central and attacking midfield spots.
We know this much, playing time will be up for grabs for numerous guys on a week-to-week basis, and how they perform in training will go a long way to seeing who’s in the line-up against the New York Red Bulls II this coming Saturday.
Tomas Gomez – 7 – tested in second half, and made three saves.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 7 – a goal, 87 percent passing out of the back, a tackle and numerous clearances: was one of the men taming the Union II boys.
Skylar Thomas – 7 – much like Tommy V, a man amongst boys most of night.
Jordan Dover – 6.5 – continues to lead team in touches and passes per game (a whopping 119 touches and 75 passes)
Ryan James – 7 – nice volley goal. Added reliability and accurate passing in the center back spot. Has been most versatile player for the club this season.
Robbie Mertz -6.5 – most accurate Hounds passer (92%). Continues to do a lot of work from box-to-box.
Kenardo Forbes © – 10 – All-time USL Championship assist leader provides two workmanlike passes that showed his world-class ability to make pinpoint passes in the biggest moments. Box-to-box he’s still the man too — with team high six tackle. Continues play at league MVP level.
Dani Rovira – 5.5 – played the ball well out of tight spots on the left side, but would like to see him getting forward more.
Danny Griffin – 6.5 – went the full 90, with a lot more touches and passes (68/50) and passing accuracy was also up (85%).
Steevan Dos Santos – 7 – first match with extended minutes, and showed why he’s going to need to be in the line-up regularly with his ability to hold up the ball and connect with Forbes.
Ropapa Mensah – 4 – Just not involved much in the attack. Philly’s big, physical center backs seemed to do a good job of frustrating him most of the night.
Anthonly Velarde – 6 – volley assist was nice, and was proactive on ball.
Lukas Fernandes – NR
Mark Forrest – NR – won a few fouls. He can be reliable sub for Dos Santos the rest of the way.
Dakota Barnathan – NR
Unused subs: Danny Vitiello, Anthony Mwembia, Hunter Ashworth