The Riverhounds SC picked up an all-important ‘six-point’ swing victory in beating Group F opponents NY Red Bulls II, 4-1 on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.
The two coaches, Bob Lilley of the Riverhounds SC and John Wolynac, have been matching wits against each other since 2015, and every time they face each other, regardless of personnel or what the uniforms look like, it always proves to be a fascinating tactical battle.
By comparison to Philadelphila Union II, who the Hounds have pummeled in two matches thus far this year by a combined score of 10-0, the Baby Bulls, even with a lot of turnover, always reload its roster to put a very competitive USL Championship squad on the field. They also don’t sit back very much — always pushing forward quickly. Lilley always wants to make sure that the Hounds execute soundly when they do get chances against the Red Bulls II.
In first half on Saturday, the Hounds got an early goal much like they did in the first match, but even as they were creating more chances, their execution in the final third wasn’t that great.
Lilley talked during the week leading up to the match about hoping to see goals that aren’t always the prettiest. Those scores that are generated from pressure and hard work. He even said he doesn’t mind forcing a team into an ‘own goal’ every now and then.
Robbie Mertz and Ropapa Mensah, who each had solid outings, delivered those type of goals on Saturday, leading an second half charge that now puts the Hounds in solid position ahead of the Red Bulls II in the Group F standings.
“We weren’t good enough with the game plan in the first half. I think in the second half, we were able to find escape balls, our movement was better, and we got good runs out of the midfield from guys like Danny Griffin and Robbie Mertz,” Lilley said. We knew if we could get the ball out of pressure, we could get opportunities. The difference in the second half was that we were still battling well, but we were executing better.”
Mark Goodman’s post-game report in the Live Gameday Blog pretty much provides the breakdown of the match tactics and the goals.
The Hounds now have the league’s best goal differential, with a plus 13. Yes, you read that correctly. What really should make Lilley (somewhat)happy, is that they continue to score with a balanced attack and contributions coming from numerous players.
The Hounds have 18 goals, which is tops in the Eastern Conference, and just one less than Phoenix. Goals have come from the following players: Steevan Dos Santos (4), Anthony Velarde (3), Robbie Mertz (3), Ropapa Mensah (2), Danny Griffin, Jordan Dover, Lukas Fernandes, Ryan James, Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Skylar Thomas. The irony here is the Hounds team leader, captain and best player, Kenardo Forbes hasn’t scored yet this year, but leads the team and the league with seven assists.
Of course, this includes the two win plus-10 goal differential against Philly Union, but they’re scoring aplenty and that can only help give this team a lot of confidence. In addition, having already lost on the road with heavy legs to the Red Bulls II a few weeks ago, the Hounds couldn’t afford anything less than three points if they wanted to stay in the top two spots in Group F.
These two teams will meet one more time in this 16-game regular season, again at Red Bull Arena. As of today, with both clubs having played six matches, the Hounds moved six points ahead in the standings — tied with Hartford as both have 12 points. Hartford, who the Hounds have yet to play, have a game at hand on Pittsburgh.
Before we look ahead to this coming week’s showdown and rematch with Group E’s front-runners, Indy Eleven, lets take one more look back at Saturday’s win.
Here’s how the Hounds and the Baby Bulls lined up on Saturday:
It was a slight surprise that Ray Lee made the start central midfield so shortly after the announcement of his re-signing with the club, but the veteran midfielder apparently has no issues with his match fitness, as he played 84 solid minutes with a lot of familiar faces around him. Already a club with lots of USL Championship level experience on the back line and wing — added another valuable veteran to the mix as they’re facing some injuries. The Players Unavailable for Selection list grew to five this week, so Lee’s addition helps stabilize things for Pittsburgh.
This was a solid defensive effort overall for Pittsburgh. The Red Bulls attack rarely had any chances or many touches in and around the box until later in the match, when they finally generated two of its nine shot attempts on frame.
“We knew we had the personnel to combat New York’s attack, and I felt like we showed that in the second half,: Lilley said after the match. “We slowed them down, and they didn’t have a ton of clear-cut chances. I would’ve liked to get the shutout on the night, but I felt like we defended well throughout the match.”
We could nit pick the late goal, as the ball should have never made it that deep into the box, as the Hounds to failed to get the clean sheet.
As was the case against Philly Union II when they started for the first time together, it appears that Lilley has the primary forward partnership he wants with Steevan Dos Santos and Ropapa Mensah.
I was pretty harsh on Mensah after the Union II win, primarily because he wasn’t involved and didn’t get a lot of touches. It’s pretty obvious they just need more time in these game situations playing off each other.
The one thing that Menash has consistently brought each game is his work rate — which is a critical component for the Hounds when they’re pressing high — they need him to be relentless at the top of the attack and always ready to make runs through the lines. He made the most of his chances (scored on one of three shots) and created a few too (created two chances, won eight of 14 duels and won three fouls including the early one that set up the first PK goal). Dos Santos will naturally be doing the dirty work in front of Mensah,as the ball is played through him as he locked up in 26 duels (only winning 11).
The midfield trio of Danny Griffin, Robbie Mertz and Kenny Forbes continue to build chemistry and look more and more comfortable with each game. Obviously Mertz was the most active of the three throughout the match, with most of the chances created coming from Mertz (2) and Forbes (4). This was clearly Mertz’s best match of the year. He was everywhere — and in addition to the two goals, also made a few nice tackles, had a clearance, won eight of his 12 clearances and against a NYRBII team that creates a frantic pace, his 80% passing accuracy was impressive and tops on the club for anyone who played significant minutes.
The key was Mertz had the green light to push up and create chances.
“He did a great job. We knew that if we could release those guys, that they could have an impact on the game,” Lilley said. “I think Robbie was spot on.”
The stats were even in some key categories like possession, but as my colleague Mark Goodman pointed out, this was a match where the Hounds executed in the final third pretty well, with the exception of when they were getting forward and created a few chances from the 30th minute through the end of the first half, but came up short with shots off the mark and a few errant passes.
Tomas Gomez – 6 – not tested all that much as the Hounds didn’t allow a shot on frame until two late in the contest, with just one save and one punch. Was terrific coming off the line and seems to have good connection with the back line.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – 7.5 – another solid, steady performance: 4 tackles, 6 clearances and 2 interceptions in middle of back line.
Skylar Thomas – 6.5 – same a Tommy V, with 7 clearances to go along with 3 tackles and 2 interceptions. Probably should have not tried to go for ball on the goal and stayed in front of the attacker.
Ray Lee – 6.5 – Welcome back to Pittsburgh. Lilley shows tons of faith in his veteran returnee, as Lee gets the start, and looked very comfortable with his former teammates Thomas Vancaeyezeele to his right, Kenardo Forbes in front of him and Ryan James to his left. Solid 84 minutes.
Jordan Dover – 7 – continues to be the guy with the most touches (85) and passes (49) as the Hounds continue to play through the flanks. Had four interceptions and a clearance to boot.
Ryan James – 7.5 – we’re always guessing from week-to-week where he’s going to be in the line-up. It was back to the left flank for James, and he had another solid outing, especially defending with 6 tackles, 3 blocked shots and 6 interceptions.
Robbie Mertz – 9 – as I pointed out above, Mertz was at his best in this match with two goals. He was opportunistic, accurate with his passing, made some solid runs, won his duels (8 of 12) — and defended well for the most part (still had three fouls).
Kenardo Forbes © – 7.5 – no assists, but still responsible for creating four chances.
Danny Griffin – 5 – of the three central midfielders, he wasn’t really involved too much (only 21 passes), but that could also be because the Hounds played a lot more through Mertz, Forbes and the wingers, and he was left tucking back on the opposite side and defending as he did have a tackle, blocked shot and a clearance.
Steevan Dos Santos – 6.5 – he’s back to playing a full 90 minutes, getting tons of duels (26) and touches (52). This is going to be key for the Hounds to have him healthy. This will open things up for Mensah to have games like this.
Ropapa Mensah – 8 – when he gets involved good things happen. His passing accuracy may not show it, but his patience and ability to make nice passes in the final third is such an asset for a young striker.
Subs (no grades):
For the first time this year, Lilley used all five substitutions allowed.
The two second-year guys, Rovira and Velarde, come together for the final goal — as they show they’re going to be key, reliable guys in this team’s rotation, coming off the bench most games but also as spot starters.
The Hounds gave up another late goal beyond the 90th minute. Three of the five goals they’ve surrendered this year have come past the 93rd minute of matches.
Hunter Ashworth (84′)
Dakota Barnathan (84′)
Anthony Velarde (78′)
Lukas Fernandes (84′)
Dani Rovira (78′)
Subs not used: Danny Vitiello, Mark Forrest
This Saturday the Hounds face Indy Eleven at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The game is set to kick off at 7 p.m., and will be broadcast locally on 22 The Point (WPNT).