For the second consecutive year, the Riverhounds SC ended its season with a disappointing playoff loss to Louisville City FC in a highly anticipated, heavyweight match-up of two clubs many thought were more worthy of meeting in the Eastern Conference finals.
This time around they would meet in the league’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal. That’s because the USL Championship’s 2020 hybrid tournament format mirrored a World Cup set-up. In the Hounds’ case, for finishing second in Group F, they had to face the first place team from Group E (Louisville).
Having to start the playoffs on the road for the first time in the Bob Lilley era, the Hounds took a confident and somewhat daring approach.
Unfortunately for the Hounds and Pittsburgh soccer fans, initiative could only take them so far in this game and in this wacky season.
Tactics & Formation
Pittsburgh opted to begin the match in a 4-4-2 which switched back to a more familiar 3-5-2 at times, depending on what they did with Jordan Dover and Ryan James. Albert Dikwa made only his second start as a Hound, pairing him up with Steevan Dos Santos at the top of the attack. Lilley also opted to go with the veteran Ray Lee on the back line.
Hounds coach Bob Lilley’s always looking to mix things up by adding a tactical adjustment or a new wrinkle to throw off his opponents. Louisville City’s John Hackworth is much the same.
As he said leading up to the match, Lilley was intent on making sure that the Hounds would try to match possession against one of the best possession clubs at this level of U.S. Soccer. At the outset of the match, both teams were a little shaky, giving balls away, but each were pushing the tempo. The Hounds were showing a willingness to take chances. Louisville were ambitious too, but appeared to be a bit more patient than Pittsburgh.
MAKING THE HOUNDS PAY
The battle-tested and experienced club were also more prepared to play with composure and confidence in weathering Pittsburgh’s high press this time around. In the season opener, Louisville looked real shaky playing the ball out of the back and the Hounds took advantage of every one of those mistakes, scoring three unanswered goals in a 3-1 win.
This match would play out a lot differently.
Early on, it was the Hounds who had the first legitimate opportunity when Robbie Mertz’s pinpoint pass to Steeven Dos Santos initiated a scoring chance in the 13th minute. Somehow, Dos Santos took a splendid touch to evade and get behind a pair of Louisville defenders, then found Albert Dikwa who also broke into the box with only Louisville’s keeper Ben Lundt to beat. Dikwa’s low shot attempt didn’t fool Lundt, who made a nice stop, then Dos Santos couldn’t get a clean shot attempt off on the follow-up to the loose ball.
Throwing numbers forward, the Hounds continued to force the issue. Moments later, Robbie Mertz found his way into the box, where on the corner edge, he tried evading a pair of defenders, but as the ball left his foot, he also was knocked to the ground. It wasn’t enough for referee to call a foul in the box.
Immediately after that, Louisville quickly advanced forward for a few dangerous moments into the box.
Brian Ownby forced Hounds keeper Danny Vitiello into making a diving save in the 15th minute.
On its next advance into the final third, Louisville’s Cam Lancaster connected with Oscar Jimenez’s low diagonal cross finding the seam between Skylar Thomas and Ray Lee, as the Hounds stood flat-footed in the box and didn’t react or do anything to prevent the one-time, redirected shot that blew past Vitiello inside the left post for the 1-0 Louisville lead.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) October 11, 2020
Here’s another look at Lancaster’s positioning as he found the right spot and caught the Hounds standing around in the box and off-guard for an instant. Thomas was marking another Louisville player, and the closest Hound to Lancaster, Ray Lee, didn’t react quick enough to close down the space during this quick sequence.
Weathering a Storm
The Hounds continued to struggle to disrupt Louisville’s advances in key moments, and were giving up way too much space in the midfield for much of the rest of the first half. This led to a few more nervy moments, and quite frankly, Louisville should have added another goal or two.
Vitiello kept them in it with two more big saves.
Lancaster nearly had a quick brace, as he easily shrugged aside Ray Lee after receiving a long ball on a counter, then made a move to get into the box to set up a left footed finish from 14 yards. Again, Vitiello turned away the shot attempt to keep the score 1-0.
25' | SAVE! @dannyvitiello_ stops a Louisville opportunity!
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) October 11, 2020
In a moment that was indicative of how things were going for the Hounds, in the 40th minute, Louisville’s back line was under significant pressure from Pittsburgh’s forwards and attacking midfielders. Still, the Purple and Gold managed to craftily play the ball out of the back with absolute precision, and building up possession past midfield where the Hounds were caught with only a pair of defenders back who were already out of position and completely stretched out.
Miraculously for the Hounds, Louisville couldn’t take advantage of this breakaway opportunity, as Skylar Thomas’ lunging effort steered Cam Lancaster’s shot wide of goal.
Vitiello’s next big save came in first half stoppage time.
This time, the Hounds’ keeper robbed Corben Bone’s left footed shot from the center of the box by diving to the right corner.
Despite being outplayed throughout the first half, Pittsburgh was only trailing by a goal and could still swing the momentum of the match with one special moment. Pittsburgh weathered the storm in the first half, but couldn’t bring enough thunder and lightning of its own in the second half.
Even coming out with some positive energy in the second half, making a few adjustments which included reverting to three-man back line and bringing Jordan Dover forward more, trying to play with some sense of urgency, the Hounds started to seize the possession battle (and they would eventually own the overall edge in the match 52/48).
Still, Louisville were a tough nut to crack.
Most of the Hounds’ advances into the attacking third failed to generate any legitimate scoring chances. Ryan James and Jordan Dover combined for 14 crosses with only one connecting. Kenardo Forbes was accurate with his passing, but he wasn’t taking too many chances as the USL Championship’s all-time assist leader probably knew that he wasn’t going to be able to fool the Louisville City FC back line and fellow Jamaican holding midfielder Devon “Speedy” Williams.
The Hounds went to the bench to pull Thomas, who was racking up fouls and picked up a first half yellow card, as Patrick Bunk-Andersen came on in the 63rd minute. They also pulled Lee and Dos Santos in favor of fresh legs and attack-minded hopes with Ropapa Mensah and Anthony Velarde.
No Miracle in Butchertown
Lynn Family Stadium is located in the revived Butchertown neighborhood just east of Downtown Louisville. The Hounds may have spoiled the first-game ever in the stadium for the hosts, but playoff mode version of Lou City FC proved to be too tough to solve.
They weren’t dominant in the second half, but like all championship-caliber teams, they showed how tough they are to beat in the postseason.
Still, as the match reached the 82nd minute, an errant handball near the edge of the box gifted the Hounds with an opportunity for a free kick in close range. This set the stage for Kenardo Forbes to create some late game magic.
82' | CLOSE! Kenardo Forbes' free kick goes just over the bar.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) October 11, 2020
Unable to make the most of that chance, Louisville quickly made the Hounds pay a few minutes later to seal the deal as Corben Bone was off to the races after Bunk-Andersen was caught out of position. Vitiello, who earned USL Championship’s Gold Glove Award this week as the league’s top statistical goalkeeper, had his only gaffe of the season, as he couldn’t corral Bone’s shot, and it trickled into goal.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) October 11, 2020
Shortcomings Caught Up with Hounds
In a shortened season with little room for error, it was pretty remarkable how the Hounds fortunes changed in just a few weeks.
After they beat Hartford 5-0 in mid-September, they were in a very good spot. I wrote that they were clearly the class of their group.
But one loss to Hartford two weeks later, coupled with a 1-2-1 record against other Group E opponents led to a second place finish, as Hartford did what it had to do to take care of its business to win the group. Having to play Louisville City FC on the road in the first round is a tall task for any team. Credit to the Hounds for trying to play toe-to-toe with them.
This match proved that when stepping up in competition in 2020, some of the Hounds’ shortcomings came to light. Most glaringly, was their inability to break down and generate enough doses of pressure against a quality, well-organized opponent.
They feasted on mistakes in scoring a lot of goals (39 in 16 regular season matches — good for third in USL Championship), and they deserve all kinds of credit for being able to do that at a remarkable conversion rate — one that was the highest in league history (27%).
If you look back at some of the big wins they experienced, it was almost consistently the Hounds capitalizing on mistake prone teams. The Louisville City FC week one win, the romps in the first two Philly matches and the 5-0 wis at Hartford were perfect cases in point.
One of the things Louisville did on Saturday was let the Hounds play as they were willing to concede possession in the midfield, but made things difficult for them beyond central midfield, where they doubled the Hounds in clearances on the night (25-12) and also had 15 interceptions.
Louisville’s coach John Hackworth could have very well taken a lot from the game tape of the Hounds loss at Indy, their 2-0 win at Loudoun United FC in mid-August and then its 1-0 loss against Hartford — all matches where the Hounds were playing up a man — to get noticeable look at the Hounds inability to punish teams when they were playing with a clear possession advantage. Playing more than 100 minutes up a man this season, Pittsburgh didn’t score a goal. (**)
Pittsburgh took some initiative on Saturday to get on the front foot, but they ultimately came up short against Louisville when it mattered most.
(** Interesting to note: The lone exception this season when Pittsburgh really dominated from start to finish in a match with the possession advantage was in its first match — a 3-0 win at Hartford, when Forbes went down with an injury, they played with an extra midfielder, a lone striker and Dover/James were utilized and very effective in creating chances deeper into the final third)
All Is Not Lost
Riverhounds fans should not let this loss and the way this season played out at the end discourage them too much.
The 2020 season was unique. While this column certainly can nitpick many things that happened on the field, this club handled a myriad of challenges with tremendous professionalism, and continue to set a positive example. Whether it was dealing with COVID-19 (no cases reported) and working with its medical support team (Allegheny Health Network Sports Medicine professionals) or working together in its response to tumultuous social justice issues that have been very divisive, they remained, by all indications, a unified group that made Pittsburgh and its soccer community proud.
The franchise is poised and positioned to be a legitimate contender in the USL Championship in the foreseeable future, especially with Bob Lilley at the helm. In addition, while roster turnover is always to be expected at this level and as Lilley re-evaluates his roster, I don’t think we’re going to see as many departures as we saw after the 2019 season, when they didn’t have contract options on the likes of Neco Brett, Joe Greenspan and Tobi Adewole. Only Kenardo Forbes and Steevan Dos Santos are over 30 years of age. Louisville are a great example of a club that has continued success with a veteran heavy roster, less turnover and willingness to spend in the offseason to pick up a few key free agents.
I would really like to see what Lilley could’ve done with this group in a 34-game season, and if he intends to ensure continuity, he could have that chance in 2021 to see that through.
For soccer fans in Pittsburgh, 2021 can’t come soon enough.
Riverhounds SC Player Grades (Eastern Conference Quarterfinal)
|Player / Position||Grade||Comments||Key Stats|
|Danny Vitiello||6||Made a few really big saves to keep it to within one goal in 1st half. That last goal was a tough one to let in though. His first glaring mistake of 2020 for him in an otherwise solid campaign.||2 goals, 3 saves, 3 clearances, 1 error leading to goal|
|Ray Lee||4||Lancaster, a tough assignment in 50/50 battles had his way a few times with Lee, but the veteran held his own at times too.||2 tackles, three clearances, won 6 of 10 duels|
|Thomas Vancaeyezeele||5.5||Good things happen for the Hounds when Tommy V is finding ways to get involved, on set pieces and in other ways. He was more stretched and busy defending than usual and made for tougher night for him.||2 clearances, 1 interception, 80% passing accuracy (51 passes)|
|Skylar Thomas||4.5||Rough night for Thomas, but not all his fault, as he was left in compromising spots a few times. He also prevented a goal from going in that would have made it 2-0 before halftime.||Conceded 3 fouls, 1 yellow card. 2 clearances, 1 tackle, lost 5 of 7 duels|
|Jordan Dover||4.5||Won his share of battles but struggled in attacking third. Maybe injury or fitness was a factor, but didn’t have an impact in final third. Only 42 passes (there were some games this year where he had 70 to 80 passes).||7 unsuccessful crosses, won 5 fouls, 7 of 9 duels, 64 % passing accuracy)|
|Ryan James||5||Same as Dover, not as effective in final third. Handled his business in defending and midfield (team high 77 touches) for most of night, but both he and Dover, who the Hounds played through a lot this year, weren’t as involved enough in creating quality chances except for that cross to Mertz in the late moments when they were already down 2-0. Look at the touch map — he barely ever made it anywhere beyond the left width.||6 of 7 crosses were unsuccessful, won 4 of 7 duels (66% passing accuracy), 2 clearances, 1 interception|
|Kenardo Forbes||6||It was a tough night for the Hounds’ captain. The central midfield battled hard, and showed initiative in moving forward — and he was most accurate passer on the field. But, they couldn’t break down Louisville the way they did in the first game and not sure Kenny had enough touches (only 50 passes). So either credit to Louisville for minimizing his impact or shame on Hounds for not playing through him a little more. No way I would have thought Forbes would go through entire 16 gm regular season and one playoff game without a goal. He had one last shot on the free kick in 78th minute, but hit it too high.||Created 2 chances, 96% passing accuracy, won 4 of 9 duels|
|Robbie Mertz||5.5||Work rate and initiative in getting forward was there — but wasn’t as efficient in making that extra pass in the final third and missed on his header chance late that could’ve made things interesting.||Team high three chances created, 76% passing accuracy, won 4 of 9 duels|
|Danny Griffin||5||Thought he struggled in the first half but had a better second half to make up for it. Still, like Forbes and Mertz, much of his positive activity came in central part of the field — and didn’t really have an impact as he sat deeper than Forbes and Mertz for most stretches. Looked at the touch map, and didn’t have any touches anywhere near the box.||84% passing accuracy, 48 passes, won 4 of 9 duels.|
|Albert Dikwa||5.5||Only his second start. Had two touches inside the box — and one was the Hounds only shot on frame. If he tucks that one a foot over to the right — it might have been a different game.||one shot (on frame), won 9 of 19 duels, won 4 fouls and had one successful cross|
|Steevan Dos Santos||5||Only involved in 12 duels, low for him. Clearly wasn’t involved that much, but part of that was Louisville’s midfielders ability to clog lanes and make things more difficult. Looking at touch map, only had 4 of 42 touches inside the box. Lilley pulled him for Mensah.||3 shots all off target, won 9 of 12 duels. 34 total passes|
|Ropapa Mensah||75’| 5.5||Thought he did some positive things and brought some positive energy off the bench, but wasn’t able to create or get on the end of any chances.||won 3 of 3 duels, 80% passing, 2 unsuccessful crosses|
|Patrick Bunk-Andersen||63′ | 4.5||Came in for Thomas in 63′ Caught out of position on the play that led to the Corben Bone goal.|
|Anthony Velarde||75′ | 4||When Hounds needed additional spark and creativity when pushing for equalizer, he didn’t have enough chances to do much.||1 unsuccessful cross, 1 foul conceded|
|Mark Forrest||87′ | NG|
|Players not used||Position|
|Dani Rovira||MF / Winger|
🗣️ "I feel good about a lot of players coming back for the opportunity of a 34-game season."@JohnKrysinsky & I assessed the @RiverhoundsSC's loss to @loucityfc and the path forward from an odd 2020 on @PGHSportsLive!https://t.co/PHmCG36bzD@SteelArmy @mongoals @pghsoccernow
— Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) (@MattGajtka) October 11, 2020