Every so often in professional sports, we get an early round playoff match-up that feels like it should come in the later rounds, pitting two teams who many view as legitimate championship contenders.
This unpredictable 2020 USL Championship season has gifted us with one of those high-powered first-round match-ups, providing the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC with the toughest challenge possible as they begin their quest to win its first-ever USL Cup Playoff tournament by visiting Louisville City FC on Saturday in the Derby City.
“Pittsburgh is the other team in the Eastern Conference that nobody wants to play,” LouCity Head Coach John Hackworth told the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Jonathan Saxon. “You can say if teams were going to try and avoid a first-round matchup against Louisville or Pittsburgh, that would be their choice. Now we have the first-round game between potentially the two best teams here.”
As all USL Championship’s Eastern Conference contenders have learned during the previous five years, the road through the playoffs goes through Louisville.
Last year, the Hounds, after a top of the table regular season finish, were the latest club to be dealt a devastating, season-ending blow from the boys in purple and gold.
The last team to prevent Louisville City FC from making it to the USL Championship game was the New York Red Bulls II in 2016. And the previous year, Bob Lilley’s Rochester Rhinos knocked off Louisville City in the Eastern Conference Final. In 2017, a month before Lilley came to Pittsburgh, Lilley’s Rochester Rhinos played its last game ever, losing at none other than Slugger Field
There’s plenty of history between Lilley and Louisville City, whether they’ve been coached by James O’Connor or now John Hackworth.
“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,” Lilley said. “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.”
Under Hackworth, Lilley added the Louisville City make more adjustments and can give them a few more looks.
Last year in the thrilling playoff encounter at Highmark Stadium, the Hounds controlled much of the first half and early portions of the second half, but they didn’t have enough to deliver the decisive knock-out punch.
Hackworth went to his bench, bringing on veteran subs like Brian Ownby, George Davis IV and Abideu Thiem who each had been through some of these battles before.
The experienced visitors weathered the early Pittsburgh storm, erased a 1-0 deficit, and dictated tempo for large portions of the second half and especially into overtime to walk away with a 2-1 victory that ended Pittsburgh’s impressive season, halting all of the Hounds impressive streaks in 2019.
“It’s disappointing. They had a great season. Didn’t play well tonight in any phase,” Lilley said after that match last November. “We said we have to be able to pressure them and disrupt their rhythm, which we did a good job for most of the game. I think we ran out of gas at the end.”
In the off season the Hounds brought back many key players, but Lilley also started to add more building blocks in putting a team together that could provide more depth and options. It didn’t always seem that way, especially when Pittsburgh reached the halfway point of the 16-game schedule without two international players dealing with work visa issues who would end up being key contributors at the end of the season: Patrick Bunk-Andersen and Albert Dikwa.
With the game substitution rule expanded from three to five players, Lilley has made the most of using his bench this season.
“I think we’re better equipped this year,” Lilley exclaimed during his meet-up with the media on Wednesday. “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.”
As outlined in last week’s Hounds Notebook feature, the Hounds starting eleven looks pretty well set. Steevan Dos Santos and Ropapa Mensah are going to at the top of the attack. The central, attacking midfielders will include Robbie Mertz, Danny Griffin and Kenardo Forbes, with Ryan James and Jordan Dover on the wings.
In the back, Thomas Vancaeyezeele will be in the middle of Skylar Thomas and Bunk-Andersen.
Through the course of the shortened season, Lilley did his best to spread the minutes around beyond the seven or eight core veterans the team is built around, by fostering competition going way back to preseason, through the quarantine and up until the final weeks of the season.
The forward position is the one area that Lilley has been rotating subs consistently all season. With the newest addition, Dikwa, bringing an added element to the attack with his ability to separate from defenders with speed, the Hounds can add different wrinkles at different times. Mensah has been starting, playing with a lot of high energy, leads the Hounds with six goals, but in numerous instances, he hasn’t finished many games because he’s covering a lot of space. Mensah was instrumental in causing havoc leading the Hounds’ high press that turned the tables of the match at Louisville in the season opener (a 3-1 Pittsburgh win).
That’s where bringing on Dikwa late in matches provides the Hounds with another element that we haven’t seen in past seasons, even as the Cameroon native is still learning the Lilley way.
“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,” Lilley explained. “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.”
Bunk Andersen and goalkeeper Danny Vitiello, the Hounds go-to keeper in the second half of the 2020 sprint and narrow winner of the USL Championship’s Golden Glove award, have emerged as starters and they have solid back-up options with Tomas Gomez and additional defender Mark Lindstrom. Ray Lee is another veteran player who is a very versatile option who could go in on the wing or the backline if needed. Even if they don’t start, second-year pros Anthony Velarde, Dani Rovira and Mark Forrest are more battle-tested, and Lilley could go to any one of them too.
Hackworth is well aware that the Hounds will be bringing a new deck of cards to the table for this high-stakes playoff rematch as one of the league’s best clubs might be going home after round one.
“It’ll be an interesting game,” said Hackworth. “We’re going to catch one of the best teams in the first round. We know they’re going to come here and do something we’ve probably never seen before. It’ll be tight, extremely hard (and) it’s going to go down to the last whistle.”
Look for Mark Goodman’s updated Scouting Report of Louisville City FC and his match preview to drop late Friday or early Saturday.
In addition, Matt Gajtka and I will be providing live gameday updates and have plenty of postgame reaction on Saturday.