As heard during this week’s media conference for Riverhounds SC manager Bob Lilley, with the team preparing for Saturday’s USL Championship playoff opener at Louisville City FC …
On whether several close calls and offside calls indicates the attacking effort was better vs. Philadelphia:
“I think our intentions were good on those (offside calls). We pressed and we definitely put more energy. Little disappointed we didn’t execute and get the second goal. When they got that tying goal, they were dangerous. We had to make some big defensive plays in our box. We had to weather a few moments and we got the goal. I think it’s important to be in another tight game, like it was in Loudoun and against Hartford. We’re going to need to execute in those attacking spaces better this week, with the final pass or hitting the target. I thought Philly was good, but we would’ve liked to have built on (the first goal) and put that game away sooner. But it’s a step in the right direction and we’re back at work. I expect with our group, it’s a big game and I think we’ll be ready to play Saturday.”
On his general thoughts about another playoff matchup with Louisville:
“We’ve grown a lot during the year. We’re a different team now than when we played Louisville in our first game, and they are as well. It’s just us getting the tactics right and executing. It’ll be a good game. I think we’ll have two heavyweights slugging it out. I just think we need to be positive. We dug a little bit of a hole there the first time. They’ll be sharper and not gift us some of the chances we had earlier in the year. We’re better in a lot of the phases of the game right now. We just have to bring the right approach to the game.”
On how Albert Dikwa has adjusted successfully, despite joining late in the season:
“It’s familiarity with your teammates and your systems as well. We’re changing tactics a lot, so every week there are adjustments players have to make. In terms of getting in the right spots when we’re pressuring or building out of the back, there are certain release points and it’s hard to get that when you haven’t experienced it during training camp and a full season. Sometimes you’re a little bit late to recognize those situations, but I think he has adjusted to those situations quickly. He’s been effective for us in not a ton of minutes. He has a good engine, works hard, but also has pace to get in behind. Great goal the other night. I see him growing every week with our guys. I would expect he’ll play a big part as we go forward in the playoffs.”
On whether he’s more comfortable going to the bench this year, compared to last year:
“I think we’re better equipped this year. Last year there was certainly some pieces that were good off the bench for us, but this year it’s even more critical with five subs. The game could go 90 minutes or 120. I think we have more options if the game changes. I don’t want to shortchange last year’s group. It was a super-talented starting 11, but we didn’t have a lot of versatility (off the bench). As the game wears on we’ll look to utilize some players who can make a difference off the bench. I just think we’re better equipped this year with better options and more options.”
On the biggest factor in giving themselves the best chance to beat Louisville:
“We want to balance possession at times. I think last year (in the Eastern Conference semifinal loss) our pressure really caused them problems in the first half of the game. I think we were dangerous off of those moments and we got our noses in front. It would’ve been nice to keep the ball, but we kept the game open. We tired a little bit and didn’t have enough of the ball. They started to get more of the ball and more attacks and eventually tied the game. Picking our spots to keep the ball is going to be important.
“They’ve tightened defensively (since the first meeting of the season), but I think you have to go forward. I think you can’t let them keep the ball in the attacking third; you’ve got to be aggressive. In the second half we got rewarded for it. We talked about if we’re going into Louisville, we have to give as much as we get. We have to stay on the front foot in getting numbers forward and making runs in the box. We want the players to be free in those (attacking) moments and we’ve scored a lot of goals. The game can’t just be played by stopping Louisville. Possession’s the first thing I brought up with the team this week. We don’t want to get into a situation where we have 30 percent of the ball and they have 70. We’re looking to get 40, 45 percent of the ball at a minimum. I think that’ll be important for us.”
On whether losing in the playoffs to Louisville last year adds any motivation:
“I guess it’s crossed my mind. It’s a new team; it’s a new situation. You want to win the game because you want to win a championship and you want to get to the next round. Every time it’s a big game against Louisville. I’m guessing some of the players haven’t forgotten that since a lot of guys are back. But I don’t think that’s an extra fuel point. We can take more out of the first game this year than we can from last year. The makeups of both teams are different and it’s a little bit of a new system. I don’t think it’s an extra motivation.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve beaten them three times, lost once and tied twice. We’ve matched up well but every one of those games have ended up tight. We’ve shown over the past three years that we’re consistently one of the top three teams in the East and we’re still trying to get to the top of the league. We’re trying to go for that every year. When you do that, there’s going to be some ‘neighbors’ who are always going to be around. I like this group because of how much we’ve grown. Louisville has changed the dynamic of their season and they’re in good form right now. We have the challenge of going on the road, but we’ve had success (in Louisville) the last three years.”
On what the team can take from the 3-1 win at Louisville back in the season opener:
“I think the most important information is what they did the first 30 minutes. We were tentative and they spaced the field and created chances. They got a 1-0 lead and it could’ve been 2-0 or 3-0. They got around and behind us. Got dangerous service into the box. Some was us, some was the spacing and design of their play. As sloppy as they were the last 60 minutes of the game, they looked like they were in midseason form. When they’re humming on all cylinders, they can be quite explosive and dangerous. We don’t get opened up a lot generally as a defending team. Louisville has that ability. If you’re not collectively defending and there’s gaps, they’re going to find them. It’s about keeping the concentration levels high on the defensive side of the ball. We need to make them chase when we get the ball and use our strengths.”
On how Louisville has had similar levels of success under original coach James O’Connor and John Hackworth:
Both are excellent coaches. I have a lot of respect for both of them. To get them off the ground as an expansion franchise in ’15 and be one of the best teams in the East, then go to the conference final in ’16, (O’Connor) really set the standard and pulled a strong group of players together. When Hackworth took over in ’18, it was a good group that already kind of stabilized. Obviously it’s not easy with the bar being so high and having to come in, but the players, I think had the quality. He was able to make a connection with the players, tweak some things and give them some different ideas and attributes. I think that them winning in ’18 gave him a platform last year. He introduced a few new players, but it’s still a strong nucleus that originated in the time with O’Connor. They were very specific under him with tactics; they generally were playing similar most games and there weren’t a lot of adjustments.
“John (Hackworth) makes a few more adjustments and can give them a few more looks. They haven’t missed a beat. It’s hard to answer this questions. To win that consistently, both of those coaches have done a good job keeping that standard and level of success. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with that. It’s a credit not just to the coaches and players, but the organization has created a lot of that success, with their academy and their training facilities. Ultimately that stuff goes hand in hand and we’re excited here in Pittsburgh about Coraopolis. We’re pushing in all these areas as well. Maybe that’s why they’ve been successful in that area. That gives us as much credibility as being in contention for championships.”
On whether home-field advantage matters as much in a year with limited (or zero) fans in venues:
“I still think everyone would prefer to be at home. Not just everything that goes with the travel and meals and that. We’re used to playing on turf; they play on grass. Even the size of the field is different. But when it’s two big teams at this time of year, I don’t think a lot separates. Does your probability to win increase at home? Yeah, probably a few percentage points. If we were playing at home every week, any team is still going to have a lot of hurdles and good opponents (in the playoffs). You’re going to have to play well. It’s about getting guys in the mindset of ‘it’s a game, it’s two teams and we have to put out our best performance.’ We want to make sure we get the best performance we can. If we’re able to move on, there’s a good chance we could have some home games moving forward. We still think there could be a lot of soccer left for us.”
On the progress of keeper Danny Vitiello, who won the league’s Golden Glove for best goals-against average:
“He’s been good. I think he’s grown a lot. He’s been kind of emerging. He’s been able to be consistent the back end of the season. He’s earned his way into that top spot. Made a couple of big saves and a couple of penalty kicks. This is another opportunity for him to grow. I’ve made it clear all year that this group of players have pushed each other, and that’s allowed Danny to thrive in our system. Hopefully this isn’t the game where he has to stand on his head. Hopefully we’re doing the things that are necessary, but I’m expecting he’ll have to make a few big saves for us to win. Hopefully we’re making their keeper work harder than they make ours work.”