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Young guns: Core of first-and-second year pros pick up the slack for Hounds

Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Young guns: Core of first-and-second year pros pick up the slack for Hounds

In December, when Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC head coach Bob Lilley exercised contract options for a core group of young players including Robbie Mertz, Dani Rovira, Anthony Velarde and Mark Forrest, he challenged each to take their games to another level in 2020.

In addition, Lilley and his coaching staff made a point to sign numerous first-and-second year players to supplement the club’s roster.

With the Hounds navigating through an anything but ordinary 2020 season, the club’s young core has been put to the test.

When All-USL Championship veteran midfielder Kenardo Forbes went down with a quad and hip injury early in the match at Hartford on August 28, it was a wake-up call for the scions of ‘Lilley Ball’ who would have to step up and play an even bigger role in that match and the rest of the season.

Not only did Forbes miss most of the match at Hartford, but it was learned a few days later he would be sidelined for 4 to 8 weeks.

At the outset of the season, Forbes continued to be the focal player the Hounds relied on to lead the way, set the pace and take most of the crucial touches and passes. The Jamaican native became the USL Championship’s all-time assists leader as he got off to a torrid start this season, with seven assists in his first five matches.

In the first half of the season, it looked like Mertz and rookie Danny Griffin were mere sidekicks to Forbes in the central midfield. The veterans were carrying the bulk of the load, as Forbes along with Jordan Dover and Ryan James on the wings, were leading the club in total touches and passes.

The early season performance was a mixed bag for the central midfield. As PSN’s Mark Goodman pointed out after the second loss to Indy Eleven: “At times, the midfield of Kenardo Forbes, Robbie Mertz, and Danny Griffin look positively electric. At others, they look clueless and aimless.” 

Together the young players seized the moment in Hartford, along with Anthony Velarde who made the start that night.

Without their veteran leader in the midfield, Mertz, Griffin and Velarde stepped up, as the Hounds took an early lead then owned the possession edge for the remainder of the evening.

Pittsburgh took a different tactical approach than what many may have expected, with short and accurate passing (more than 90% passing accuracy) — as they showed more patience, opting to play through and connect with their experienced wingers, James and Dover, instead of playing longer balls and more direct through hold-up strikers Ropapa Mensah and Steeven Dos Santos.

“Lot of credit goes to the midfield three.,” Lilley said after that match. “Those are three young players, a rookie (Danny Griffin) and two second year players (Velarde and Robbie Mertz) and who did a good job for us. Everyone knew we had to be solid. It helped to get a goal shortly after that to calm us down. It was a big moment for us as a team.”

Prior to the Hartford game, Griffin was limited in getting touches and passes (only 22 passes in his previous start vs Saint Louis in 90 minutes), although he was exhibiting confidence and earned his spot in the starting lineup.  It was in his return to his Nutmeg State home when he took his game to another level as a two-way midfielder.  Griffin played his best match of the season in Forbes’ absence, as he paired with Mertz to share the load equally (58 passes each and both nearly had 90% passing accuracy).

In the off season Lilley cited Mertz, who played collegiately at Michigan, as someone who “definitely knocked the door down” when he got his chance in 2019, scoring seven goals, with four assists in 28 appearances.

“(Mertz) worked so hard before, and in every game. He was ready from the beginning,” Lilley said. “He kept doing the work. Kept the mentality. Did the simple things well. Played through difficult situations. In those instances all it took was a little bit of reassurance, and he was more than ready.”

After last season’s success, Lilley spoke during the off season about a building a case for Mertz’ to become a foundational player to build around. The veteran coach spoke about how Mertz should look over every day in training, as he plays alongside his veteran captain, Kenardo Forbes, as someone not just to play with, but to chase.

If Mertz knocked down the door in 2019, in the 2020, once inserted into a major role, he’s been a table setter for the rest of his team, and pointing the way as the Hounds’ version of ‘Billy the Kid’ leading the Young Guns.

The Upper St. Clair native is only second to Thomas Vancaeyezeele in minutes played this season, as he’s been the Hounds most productive player in both his role as a key link in the central midfield but also in making the most of his opportunities in the final third. Mertz is now tied for the team lead with Steevan Dos Santos with five goals each. Mertz has also been the poster child for the Hounds’ remarkable, league-leading conversion rate (32%**), as he’s had eight shot attempts, with seven on frame, scoring on five of those chances.

(**By comparison, the second-best team in USL Championship in conversation rate is Birmingham, at 25%. In addition, the Hounds are tied with Phoenix for USL Championship lead in goals scored (31), but they’ve only attempted 124 shots {24th overall in USLC), whereas Phoenix leads the league with 200 shots)

Mertz’s versatility has also shined as a two-way player. He started the season taking too many fouls, but that number has decreased (total of 13 fouls conceded this season and 23 tackles). His two yellow cards came in the first four matches. Many observers will immediately point to Mertz’s work rate, as his relentless energy helps set the tone for his club and has enamoured him with Hounds fans. But he’s also a very accurate passer who tends to keep things simple when playing deeper, (only attempted 53 of 536 passes of the longer variety), however, when he gets into the final third, Mertz has emerged as a player who will be in the right place as the right time, picking up his share of goals on making the extra run or reacting to a deflection.

When in practice last year, Mr. Riverhound himself, Kevin Kerr often joked with Mertz about taking his spot. If there was one player that did all the intangibles better than any player in a Riverhounds uniform during the past seven years, it was Kerr.

And if one player has replaced Kerr’s knack for coming up with big plays in big moments, it’s been Mertz.

More than halfway through his second season, Mertz is showing that the success that came in his rookie year was no fluke, as he’s responded to Lilley’s call to become productive and efficient while playing a ton of minutes.

But Mertz is just just a part of the equation.

Lilley has built a squad with a solid balance of young players along side veteran players (Ryan James, Jordan Dover, Steevan Dos Santos, Forbes, Tony Walls).

Every player on the roster over the age of 26 (except for Skylar Thomas) has played previously for Lilley either with the Hounds or in Rochester.

These guys fully understand ‘The Lilley Way’.

The way Lilley has crafted this year’s Hounds roster, it’s like he has a veteran for each young player to chase at most every position.

For Mertz, Griffin and Velarde, it’s Forbes.

For Forrest and rookie Lukas Fernandes along with Ropapa Mensah and Albert Dikwa it’s Steevan Dos Santos.

For Rovira, it’s Ryan James and Jordan Dover.

“I don’t want them to take anything for granted. Plenty of players that come in their second year, have a drop off. Don’t think as a player you can ever let your guard down,” Lilley said during the preseason. “There’s other players out there, that come in.  I trust these players that I’ve signed, but they have to prove themselves again.”

Video: 1-v-1 with Riverhounds SC Rookie Midfielder Danny Griffin

The crazy 2020 season started four months after it was supposed to, but it’s clear this season, the young core are not just playing secondary roles. They’ve become essential pieces to a team that has championship aspirations. While this analysis has prominently featured the midfield and attacking players, Lilley has also thrust first-year players Mark Lindstrom and Patrick Bunk-Andersen into back line roles as they’ve returned from injury, Danny Vitiello at goalkeeper and a stable of attackers, Ropapa Mensah, Lukas Fernandes and now Albert Dikwa  who collectively give Pittsburgh an exciting core of young players all 23 years of age and younger.

Following that big win at Hartford, James and Dover were both named to the USL Championship’s Team of the Week (and James earned Player of the Week honors) for their performances, but Lilley exhibited enormous confidence in this group to change tactics — remaining steadfast in playing through a very young central midfield trio who executed a game plan which saw the Hounds dictate the terms of that match, and its ensuing wins against Loudoun United and NY Red Bulls II.

HOUNDS YOUNG GUNS 2020 STATS 

Player Games Minutes Played Goals Assists Passing % Passes
Mertz 12 1045 5 2 85.1 536
Griffin 12 848 2 2 79.4 359
Velarde 11 481 4 2 84.9 172
Forrest 9 247 1 0 69.5 95
Mensah 12 801 4 2 70.1 204
Fernandes 11 273 2 0 59.8 92
Rovira 7 320 0 1 69.1 162

“Hopefully its a reminder that we play as a team. We can get the results we need as long as we stick together. It’s great to see the response as a team, to come up with a win like that on the road,” Lilley said after the win at Hartford.”

With Forbes not expected back until playoff time, the Hounds, who are in the drivers seat as far as playoff positioning, will continue to keep striving to get better as a unit. They’ll face Hartford two more times including this Saturday. With one more win vs Hartford, the Hounds will essentially claim the top spot in Group F.

Lilley believes that his group has learned a lot through the season. They’ve lost two tough, close games to Indy Eleven, but made amends for its lone Group F setback, by returning to Red Bull Arena last week to defeat NY Red Bulls II handily.

“Managing the game is probably the biggest thing. Understanding how to create space. When to play faster. When to play slower. Understanding different situations in the game. I think we’re calmer as a group,” Lilley explained in his meet-up with the media this week. “We’ve done a lot of the hard work and learned some lessons early in the year. Hopefully we’ve addressed those problems. ”

With four matches left, each these hungry young players are now battling for playing time to give Lilley a deeper and more battle-tested line-up than he’s ever had before in his three-years in Pittsburgh.

“There’s massive competition within the team right now for those starting spots,” Lilley said. “These last four weeks we want to really hone in on our lineup and have a clear picture of what our lineup can do as we head into the playoffs.”

What’s become more and more evident as this season has evolved, if the Hounds are going to make a deep run in the USL Championship Cup tournament, they’ll be doing it with a solid core young and suddenly battled-tested players playing key roles in an attempt at their blaze of glory.

 

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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