When asked about why the Riverhounds SC have played so well against it’s next closest competitors in USL Championship’s Eastern Conference Group F in two matches this season, the team’s current field captain, Ryan James gave a few reasons, but ultimately pointed to the fact that they were ready for moment.
With the stakes of playing for and securing the top spot in its group, the Hounds completely dominated Hartford on Saturday night, rolling to a 5-0 win in the teams’ second meeting of the season and earning the club’s third straight playoff spot. With the win, Pittsburgh (28 points) now owns a nine point edge over Hartford (19 points).
Even with three games at hand (Hartford has six matches left, while the Hounds now have three), Hartford walked away from two games against Pittsburgh completely outplayed and outclassed.
The Hounds are in a class of their own in this Group.
“We want to be a top team, period,” Pittsburgh’s Head Coach Bob Lilley said after the match. “We’ve grown a lot. We’re 13 games in, and I am impressed with what we’ve done to get to this point. We’re in, no doubt in a good place as a team right now, but there’s no doubt on Monday (in training), there’ll be plenty of reminders that there’s plenty of work to do.”
Lilley said that his club, which had lots of success possessing the ball against Hartford in its previous meeting, a 3-0 win on Friday, August 28 and he sensed that Hartford would concede possession again in the return match at Highmark Stadium, saying after the match, “they give you a little more space to play.”
As a result, at the outset of the match, the Hounds exhibited plenty of patience, playing the ball through the middle of the field, with James sitting in a holding, deep midfield spot orchestrating things as the ball was being played from sideline-to-sideline without much pressure from Hartford.
Pittsburgh came out in a 3-5-2, with Patrick Bunk-Andersen earning his first start of the season as part of the three-man back line.
James, who has played three different positions this season, moved into the holding midfield spot, with Robbie Mertz and Danny Griffin a little higher up and to his sides.
With Steevan Dos Santos held out due to what was described as a minor injury, Anthony Velarde started again against Hartford, pairing up at the top of the formation with Ropapa Mensah
SCORING IN ALL VARIETIES
Boasting the league’s best conversation rate (32%) by a wide-margin heading into the match, the Hounds quickly took advantage of its first real pressure in the final third, as they scored on the second of consecutive corner kicks when James drilled a short, half volley from the center of the box when a deflected ball came his way.
The Hounds continued its sharp passing as Hartford continued to chase the match. Not only did the Hounds stay on the front foot, but they put their foot firmly on Hartford’s throats.
“Once we broke those lines, we were very aggressive,” Lilley added.
Early in the year, the Hounds struggled when given opportunities to control possession, namely in back-to-back matches when they played up a man in a 1-0 loss on the road to Indy Eleven and an underwhelming 2-0 win at Loudoun United.
“Previously, we did a lot of these things well, but the minute we got the ball into an area, we were trying to go for the home run ball,” Lilley explained. “And didn’t have any patience at all. Now, we’re showing a little bit more patience. This is also helping us with defending better. We’ve really grown these last four-five games, for sure.”
Pittsburgh also took advantage of Hartford mistakes, but again, this is something Lilley called for after the Hounds struggled previously to convert after games when they held lots of possession, but couldn’t manufacture goals.
On Saturday, twice, the Hounds’ constant pressure led to goals after Hartford defensive miscues. Ropapa Menash was the man on the spot in the 27th minute, after Ray Lee sent a long pass into the left side of the penalty area. After a collision between Hartford’s Arthur Rogers and Parfait Mandanda, Mensah tracked it down and sent the ball into the back of the net, giving the Hounds a two-goal lead.
Velarde was tripped up in the box in the 40th minute, and made his second penalty kick opportunity of the season count.
Then, in the second half, James scored his second goal after a failed clearance attempt by Hartford.
“We weren’t doing that previously,” Lilley acknowledged and then found something to nitpick. “I am happy we’re forcing teams into making mistakes that led to goals. I actually thought we weren’t really dangerous with our runs into the box. We were sloppy a little bit in those final moments. But, we created goals in play, created goals off restarts and we created goals off of pressure. We’ve done well, and everyone’s chipping in.”
For the third straight match, Lilley started rookie Danny Vitiello in goal as the Hounds extended its streak to 393 minutes without giving up a goal, as it was the club’s fourth straight shutout, and seventh of the season. Quite frankly, the Hounds back line spent more time passing the ball (each had 60 or more touches!) and weren’t really challenged much of the night.
|Player / Position||Grade||Comments||Key Stats|
|Danny Vitiello||7||Wasn’t really tested at all, but hey, third straight start, third straight shutout.||All donut holes — no saves, no punches, no clearances.|
|Patrick Bunk-Anderson||7||Solid in first start. Wasn’t really pressured. Had tons of touches and passing was sharp.||80 total passes — only 8 were long. 1 tackle, 1 clearance, 1 blocked shot|
|Thomas Vancaeyezeele||8||Quiet but efficient as always.||1 clearance, 2 interceptions, 94% passing (75 passes)|
|Skylar Thomas||8||Most accurate passer on back line (80%)||2 tackles, 2 clearances, 87% passing accuracy|
|Jordan Dover||7||Not as involved in final third, but didn’t have to be||84% passing accuracy, 2 tackles, 1 interception|
|Ray Lee||7||Another quality start from the veteran. Almost scored a goal on a bending shot from outside the box toward the end of 1st half.||3 tackles, 2 interceptions|
|Ryan James||9.5||What more can be said. He’s thrived in his Mr. Versatility role. When team needs him in central MF this year, he’s done very well. Four goals vs Hartford in two games.||TWO GOALS, two shots, 4 tackles, won 6/10 duels, 86% passing|
|Robbie Mertz||8.5||Continues to bring great combination of high energy, creativity and technical efficiency.||ASSIST, 2 chances created, 8 crosses (2 successful), 86% passing accuracy|
|Danny Griffin||7||Continues to match Mertz’s energy and is as reliable and efficient in navigating possessions through the middle of the park||82% passing accuracy, 64 passes, won ⅚ duels.|
|Ropapa Mensah||9||Continues to show outstanding hold-up ability with ball in box, nice finish on second goal & his energy leads to positive things.||TWO GOALS! Two shots. Two chances created. 75% passing accuracy.|
|Anthony Velarde||7.5||Making better decisions in final third. Taking chances and creative at right moments. Converted another PK.||GOAL
93% passing accuracy
|Players not used||Pos|