The Riverhounds SC are heading into its final match of the 2020 regular season this Saturday against Philadelphia Union II with a sudden and heightened sense of urgency.
In addition, I also felt the need and some sense of urgency myself to get back to sharing a Hounds notebook after a bit of a hiatus in the midst of all the craziness that has included more soccer getting started in the past few weeks with WPIAL, Pitt’s teams and more.
In this week’s Hounds Notebook we’ll take a look at the following, with plenty of Bob Lilley quotes along the way:
- Like it or not, the Hounds have to deal with the tables being turned in the Group F playoff race, as it will come down to final weekend and they need help
- Kenardo Forbes is back
- A closer look at what the Hounds lineup will look like this week, and for the playoffs
GROUP F RACE FOR TOP SPOT, HOME PLAYOFF GAME COMES DOWN TO FINAL WEEKEND
On Saturday, not only did the Hartford Athletic come to Highmark Stadium and steal a 1-0 win from the Hounds, but the second-year USL Championship club now control the race to finish atop USL Championship’s Group F standings heading into the final matches of the season for both clubs.
To add salt to the Hounds’ wound, in Hartford’s ‘game at hand while trailing Pittsburgh by two points’ midweek clash at Phily Union on Wednesday, they were knotted up 2-2 going into the 90th minute.
Then this happened.
— Nicholas Murray (@NJEMurray) October 1, 2020
Soccer can be strange, strange game sometimes.
And in a strange year, weird things are bound to happen.
Despite these sudden bad bounces, the Hounds still have to pick themselves up, and move on.
“We’ve given up one goal, in eight games,” Riverhounds Head Coach Bob Lilley said in his weekly press conference on Wednesday.
By accumulating three early season losses coupled with Saturday night’s hiccup against Hartford, despite appearing in control of things in Group F for much of September, Bob Lilley’s men are now in a precarious spot which could have them starting the postseason on the road against the same team that beat them in the USL Playoffs last year, Louisville City FC. After a slow start which included a 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh in its home opener, the defending Eastern Division champions have surged back to the top of Group E, and are arguably the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference playoffs again.
Saturday’s result against Hartford was a stunning turn of events, especially if you watched the first two matches played between the teams this year. The Hounds completely controlled possession in the first two matches and took advantage of numerous Hartford mistakes.
“It was a disappointing loss. I think we were the better team, but having said that I don’t think we were particularly great or as sharp as we would’ve liked to have been. We played at a mediocre level on the night, but still could’ve won that game if we had a little more urgency. It’s disappointing, but looking at the big picture, we’ve grown a lot. We’ve bounced back from some tough spots and we’ll have to do it again. We have to get back to scoring some goals and continue to defend well. Hopefully we’ll be able to build momentum going into the playoffs.”
Lilley wasn’t happy after the match. So much so, that for the first time in a long time, he kept his players on the field after the match to let them know about it.
“I was not pleased right after the game, so I got on them pretty good right after the game,” LIlley acknowledged, but also was quick to turn the page too.
“We got back together Monday in terms of training. I think they trained pretty well, which was nice to see. I think we all knew that we gave something back. We desperately didn’t want to open the door for them (Hartford). There’s a recognition that we have important games coming up. There’s a desire to make things right.”
Adding to the strangeness of the season and when the ball doesn’t bounce your way sometimes, Lilley added some words of wisdom.
“If we had converted early the other night, the game could’ve been completely different. That’s why it’s such an interesting sport. The frustration comes from one goal deciding it, and we were caught out on the wrong end,” Lilley said.
“We have to grow from that and take accountability. I still think, after we were down 1-0, I would’ve liked to have seen a little more urgency to get back into the game. The last 15 minutes, we clearly put a ton of pressure on them.”
FORBES IS BACK
When Kenardo Forbes went down with a quad/hip related injury in the Hounds first match at Hartford in late August, the initial prognosis was that Forbes would be out 4 to 6 weeks. The USL Championship’s all-time leading assist maker worked his way back to the point where he was in the lineup on Saturday against Hartford, and made an appearance in the second half.
“We knew Kenardo would come into that game if we needed him. Bringing in him and Albert (Dikwa) made sense,” Lilley stated.
“We’re trying to gauge his fitness level in training. I thought he did well with the minutes. We had all of the ball and we put him in the back. I don’t think he had to go into any full-out sprints. He got through it and played more minutes than we initially anticipated. We’re optimistic for it, but that’ll be a decision made in the next couple of days, whether he’s in the starting lineup. When he came in, he was pretty calm. He was getting the ball into some dangerous areas when we were probing.”
SQUAD ROTATION / LINEUP
When asking Lilley about the Hounds lineup heading into the final match of the regular season and as he prepares his team for the playoffs, he acknowledged not to expect many changes.
“I don’t anticipate a lot of changes for Saturday. When he’s ready Kenardo (Forbes) will be in the starting lineup but I don’t think there’s going to be a ton of changes because of the result last week. We know what guys can do, and there might be moments where one player gives us something that another player doesn’t. Those are some questions, but do I see a lot of squad rotation through the playoffs? Not really. If we need to make those kinds of changes we won’t be around very long anyway.”
Here’s how the Hounds’ lined up on Saturday against Hartford.
If Forbes is healthy enough to start, look for him to slide into his usual spot which Ryan James’ has primarily been occupying in the middle. This will push James back to wing. Lilley also acknowledged that Jordan Dover, who’s played as many minutes as any Hound this season, was taken out of the Hartford match because he ‘tweaked his hamstring’ — giving way for Dani Rovira. If for some reason, Dover can’t go this week, look for Ray Lee to continue to fill in either of the winger/outside back spots.
The real question for the Hounds is, when and how will Lilley use his 12th, 13th, 14th — and even 15th and 16th players off the bench in do-or-die playoff games?
Obviously, managing substitutions will be situational.
Last year, against Louisville City FC, Lilley chose to ride into a playoff overtime battle by mostly going with one sub, while John Hackworth went to his bench, using veteran subs that helped tilt the match in Lou City’s favor.
This year, the Hounds add the Albert Dikwa factor. The forward from Cameroon has mostly come off the bench since joining the team in early September, and adds another dimension to the attack with combination of speed and finishing ability. This gives Lilley some options at forward between Dikwa, Steevan Dos Santos and Ropapa Mensah. Lilley has a central midfield he is set on, but having second year players with more experience in Dani Rovira, Anthony Velarde and Mark Forrest, may give him more situational options in the second half and if they do play into extra time in playoff games
By having five substitutions in games this time around, I am sure Lilley feels he’s more prepared to use more subs this season.
The addition of Ray Lee, Lilley may be able to deeper into his bench this time around when things get tight or players are gassed.
Another question to ponder, is come Saturday, after riding Danny Vitiello in goal during the club’s impressive shutout streak, will the Hounds go back to veteran keeper, Tomas Gomez or will they stick with Vitiello? Overall, Gomez’s had eight starts this year, while Vitiello has now had seven.
It appears that Patrick Bunk-Andersen has become the guy who has been slotted in the starting spot along the back line with Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Skylar Thomas. Lilley could slide in Mark Lindstrom as the results have mostly been the same, as both earned most of the starts during the team’s impressive shutout streak. As Lilley indicated, competition for some spots was pretty fierce through September. This was one of the positions where that was clearly the case.
The differences between Bunk-Andersen and Lindstrom are subtle to the average fan, but I am sure more noticeable to Lilley. In my eyeball test saw that Bunk-Andersen was a little stronger in his one-on-one and battles in the final third, while Lindstrom was a bit sharper in passing and on the ball..
However, the statistical analysis bears that out as the two have played identical minutes this season:
- 6 games, 3 starts (last three games), 306 minutes
- 3 clearances, 2 blocks, 3 interceptions
- Passing Accuracy: 79%
- Tackles: 80%
- Duels: 88%
- 2 fouls created
- 8 games, 4 starts, 331 minutes
- 11 clearances, 2 blocks, 3 interceptions
- Passing Accuracy 84%
- Tackles 60%
- Duels 41%
- 7 fouls conceded, 1 foul created, 2 yellow cards
ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION: #PITvPHI PREVIEW
Look for a special Zoom Roundtable discussion to drop soon, as I participated Matt Ralph and Chris Bratton (Brotherly Game.com) and Nick Noble (yes — that Nick Noble — former Harrisburg City Islanders keeper) ahead of Pittsburgh-Philly Union II. We also discussed more about my book, Miracle on the Mon, and the Pittsburgh-Harrisburg City Islanders rivalry.