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Lilley ‘impressed’ with Riverhounds’ growth despite first-round playoff exit

Steevan Dos Santos fights Paolo DelPiccolo for the ball Saturday in Louisville. (LOUISVILLE CITY FC)

Lilley ‘impressed’ with Riverhounds’ growth despite first-round playoff exit

Judging strictly by the scoresheet or the playoff bracket, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC took a step back in their latest postseason matchup with Louisville City FC.

After all, last October the Hounds lost by one, in extra time, to the two-time USL Cup champs in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and on Saturday they fell 2-0 in the East quarters, ending their pandemic-shortened 2020 season where it began, in northern Kentucky.

Bob Lilley sees the situation differently, though. Even in the aftermath of a defeat he called both “gut-wrenching” and “brutal,” one that dropped the Hounds to 1-3 in the playoffs over the past three years, Lilley struck an overall positive tone … about everything but the result.

“I’m impressed with the group and how they grew this year,” Lilley said over the phone from Lynn Family Stadium. “It was a group that deserved more, but that’s part of the game.

“We lost so there’s no consolation in it, but we played with composure and poise.”

Prior to the match, Lilley told reporters he wanted the Hounds to go toe-to-toe with Lou City on the attack and not concede possession. The mission was accomplished in the latter category, as the final possession count was close to 50-50, but Louisville had the majority of the clean-cut chances Saturday night, in addition to a 5-1 edge in shots on goal.

If not for a strong first-half performance by keeper Danny Vitiello, the Hounds could’ve been down two or three goals at intermission, instead of the one they trailed by due to Cameron Lancaster’s 17th-minute redirection. Pittsburgh remained a shot away from equalizing until Corben Bone blasted a shot through a fallen Vitiello in the 86th minute.

Lilley noted that, unlike last year’s loss to Louisville at Highmark Stadium, he felt his team didn’t shrink from the challenge of controlling the ball as the game wore on. The Hounds struggled at the finishing end, but they did generate nine of their 11 shot attempts after halftime.

“In terms of attitude to play and go at them, we managed the 90 minutes well,” Lilley said. “You can see their danger on the counter, but … we had some good moments to get the equalizer. If we did that, we were in a good spot to win the game.”

In that way, it was a cruel ending for a team that set the USL Championship’s single-season record with a 27 percent conversion rate, albeit in just 16 games instead of the usual 30-plus.

The Hounds also established a new franchise high with 2.44 goals per game in the regular season, but an early missed chance defined their short playoff run. Sent in by a Robbie Mertz through-ball in the 13th minute, Albert Dikwa was denied by the outstretched left toe of Louisville keeper Ben Lundt. For a team that hasn’t had a road playoff win in 16 years, that game-changing moment was served on a golden platter.

Four minutes later, Lancaster swept an Oscar Jimenez cross to the top of the Hounds’ box into the right-side netting. Just like that, a productive start was erased and the Hounds were playing from behind.

At that point, maybe the Hounds opened things up a bit too much, too soon, as Louisville had plenty of space to work with, despite being wasteful in front of goal. However, Lilley said he preferred seeing the aggression to the alternative.

“I wanted us to play instead of banging long balls,” he said. “We played through lines, got behind and created some moments. There were some good balls into the box that didn’t connect and maybe we forced some stuff down the middle, but I think we did enough to warrant at least a goal.”

In perhaps a hint as to the team’s plans in the upcoming offseason, Lilley singled out a handful of younger players for praise: Midfielder Danny Griffin, forwards Dikwa and Ropapa Mensah, and Golden Glove-winning keeper Vitiello. All competed in their first seasons for the Hounds and all have contract options for 2021.

On the other hand, contracts are up on veterans like Kenardo Forbes, Steevan Dos Santos, Ryan James, Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Pittsburgh’s own Mertz.

“In a short season, they came a long way,” Lilley said, speaking of the team in general. “Guys did a good job to get to this level.”

Before hanging up, I asked Lilley about his big-picture vision for the franchise, which has made the playoffs three times in a row for the first time in its 20 years of existence and has finished third, first and third in the East since his arrival in 2018.

The coach turned back to what he saw in his team Saturday.

“They played like a top-tier team,” he said. “I don’t think the guys were tentative. They’ve grown and that will help us into next year.”

Matt Gajtka (pronounced GITE-kah) is a columnist, analyst and reporter for Pittsburgh Soccer Now. In addition to his four-year role as play-by-play broadcaster for Riverhounds SC, he has experience covering pro and amateur sports for over a decade. Matt got his start in soccer while calling games for the Marshall University men's and women's Division I teams. He fondly remembers attending Hounds matches at Bethel Park High School, although he lapsed during the Moon and Chartiers Valley years. Like many, the construction of Highmark Stadium in 2013 rekindled his passion for the club and local soccer in general.

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