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It’s back to the drawing board for Riverhounds SC in building roster for 2021

File Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

It’s back to the drawing board for Riverhounds SC in building roster for 2021

And so it goes, again.   It’s back to the drawing board, as the roster-building process for the 2021 season is just beginning for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

As of today, contracts for every player on the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 2020 roster have expired.

In fact, all 2020 USL Championship player contracts expire on November 30.

This is traditionally a big news day for USL Championship clubs to reveal which players will see contract options exercised and which won’t be returning. While there have been some announcements made, it seems a bit quieter than in recent years year on the first of December.

With the next USL Championship season not expected to start until early May 2021, at the earliest, Riverhounds SC fans shouldn’t be holding their breath anticipating announcements regarding new signings anytime soon, but the club’s announcements of which player contract options for 2021 that they’ll pick up should come sometime soon.

As the Riverhounds SC, and many clubs in the league head into an uncertain and longer than usual off season, signings and roster updates will likely be made at a much slower pace than usual.

Last year at this time the Hounds learned that numerous key players from its 2019 squad would not be returning, including Neco Brett, Joe Greenspan, Tobi Adewole and Mohammad Dabo.

A few weeks ago, we learned that two key players from the past few years, Thomas Vancayezeele and Robbie Mertz, will not be returning to the club in 2021, as they announced through social media.

First Thomas Vancaeyezeele, now Robbie Mertz will move on from Riverhounds SC

Both Vanacayezeele and Mertz were top commodities on the market, and the fact that they were in demand shows how much they were coveted by other teams.  It would not be a surprise to learn where both Vancaeyezeele and Mertz have landed in the next few days.

In fact, one former Riverhound, Tobi Adewole, has landed with one of the top teams in the Western Conference, Phoenix Rising FC, after a season with lame-duck Saint Louis FC.

With all of its 2020 player contracts expiring, Riverhounds Head Coach Bob Lilley and his coaching staff, have a good idea from the remaining group of players who they’ll exercise contract options for to bring back to Pittsburgh for another season.

Now, as to when we’ll learn about this — is anyone’s guess.

Some may point to Pittsburgh’s rivals in the Eastern Conference, Louisville City FC (13 players) or Tampa Bay Rowdies (9 players) who have already announced who they’ve picked up contract options for in 2021.

In addition, other Eastern Conference clubs, Indy Eleven, Sporting KC II and NY Red Bulls II announced the players who they were bringing back.

With other teams making moves and sharing announcement signings, there’s no doubt the Steel Army and Hounds fans are feeling a little frustrated.

Bob Lilley’s been here before, and is pretty confident in building up a new roster each year. Unable to re-sign Vancaeyezeele and Mertz, Lilley still anticipates he’ll be able bring a core group of returning players back in 2021.

“There’s no doubt we’ll have to replace two very good players. Two originals,” Lilley said. “We’re confident that we’ll be able to do that. We’ve done a good job of doing it before. We’ll do it by finding solutions that fit.”

Looking at the current group of players, numerous who have contract options for 2021, Lilley has plenty to work with, but will have lot of work to do.

“We already have a core that includes a lot of guys who’ve been part of our success, and know how to win,” Lilley added.

With the USL Championship having lots of turnover, with some clubs folding and ceasing operations (Reno, Saint Louis FC), there are going to be some experienced players out there for the taking. The Hounds can be more methodical and won’t be in a hurry to sign too many players in the open market right now.

Lilley and assistant Dan Visser attended a player combine in Kansas City in early November, which included some current college players. They’re targeting hosting open tryouts in January (in the past they held the first open tryouts in December).  With the collegiate seasons pushed to the spring, there will be limits on when and how college players will be available.

Below is a complete look at the Riverhounds SC players from the 2020 season, along with our assessment for each player along with our predictions of which players will be returning.

HOUNDS ROSTER UPDATES (AS OF 12/3/2020)

Not Returning:
  • Ryan James – Signed with Birmingham Legion
  • Robbie Mertz – announced via social media (club destination TBA)
  • Thomas Vancaeyezeele – announced via social media he’s not returning (club destination TBA)
Hounds hold Contract Option for 2021 (Hounds have yet to announce if they’ve picked up or not)
  • Xhelil Asani
  • Hunter Ashworth
  • Dakota Barnathan
  • Patrick Bunk-Andersen
  • Albert Dikwa
  • Jordan Dover
  • Lukas Fernandes
  • Tomás Gómez
  • Danny Griffin
  • Ropapa Mensah
  • Anthony Mwembia
  • Skylar Thomas
  • Tony Walls
  • Danny Vitiello
Contract Expired (Hounds don’t hold contract option for 2021)
  • Steevan Dos Santos
  • Kenardo Forbes
  • Mark Forrest
  • Ray Lee
  • Dani Rovira
  • Anthony Velarde

By our projections, we’re going to go out on the limb to predict the Hounds will exercise contract options for nine players to return in 2021. They also have a few key veteran players who, according to all reports, have contracts that have expired and will require renegotiation.

Player
Age
PSN Assessment / Contract Option status’
Goalkeepers
Tomás Gómez 27
Started 8 matches, Hounds may look for a few young keepers instead to play behind Vitiello.
Prediction: Hounds won’t exercise option
Danny Vitiello 24
Seized starting job halfway through 2020 season. Played well — made only mistake late in playoff loss at Lou City FC.
Prediction: Hounds exercise option for 2021. The only keeper who has returned in Lilley’s tenure from one year to the next was Kyle Morton. My hunch is Vitiello returns for second year w/ Pittsburgh.
Anthony Mwembia 24
Did not play in 2020. Slight chance he could be re-signed to compete for GK spot.
Prediction: Hounds won’t exercise option
Center Backs
Thomas Vancaeyezeele 26
Announced he won’t be returning, as his contract options were up. One of the more coveted players in USL Championship market.
NOT RETURNING
Patrick Bunk-Andersen 25
Joined the club halfway through 2020 season. Was a starter at center back for the last few regular season games, but when it came time for playoff match at Louisville City FC, Lilley turned to his veteran mid-season pick-up, Ray Lee to start. Bunk-Andersen did come on in the second half, and a misstep in the back led to Lou City’s second goal.
Prediction: Hounds exercise option for 2021
Dakota Barnathan 26
Veterans that don’t play a lot previous year, based on recent history in Pittsburgh, Lilley tends not to re-sign the following year.
Prediction: Hounds won’t exercise option
Skylar Thomas 27
With the departure of Vancayezeele, Thomas’ leadership on the back line could be essential in 2021 if the Hounds choose to exercise his contract option.
Prediction: Hounds exercise option for 2021
Hunter Ashworth 22
The youngster saw more playing time early in the season, but then fell out of favor toward the end of the season, as Bunk-Anderson and Lindstrom took on the bulk of playing time along with Vancaeyezeele and Thomas on the back line.
Prediction: Hounds won’t exercise option
Mark Lindström 24
For the sake of continuity, the Hounds could benefit by bringing back Lindström, along with Bunk-Andersen and Thomas. But if Lilley believes he find some free agent gems at center back or build depth through college players available, then they’ll opt to not bring him back. It could go either way.
Prediction: Hounds won’t exercise option
Tony Walls 30
Walls also never saw the field in 2020. There were some personal reasons which took him back home to Wisconsin, then the veteran, who captained Lilley’s USL Cup winning Rochester club in 2015, returned late in the season but was never utilized. If Lilley believes that Walls can return a high level of play after not playing for a year to help this team, especially when the Hounds will be losing Thomas Vancayezeele, who Kenardo Forbes raved about as a teammate and compared him to Tommy V repeatedly, there could be a place for Walls to become a key contributor, especially since the Hounds hold his contract option.
Prediction: Hounds exercise option for 2021.
Outside Backs / Wingers
Xhelil Asani 25
Lilley repeatedly talked about Asani’s unfortunate luck with injuries and struggling to get in and out of the rotation. Asani never made it on the field in 2020 for the Hounds, and one has to wonder if his window to break in with the Hounds has closed.
Prediction: Hounds won’t exercise option
Ryan James 26
With the departure of Mertz, along with Kenardo Forbes/Steevan Dos Santos only getting older, it feels more and more like the Hounds may be leaning to James as a key veteran leader. Wearing the captain’s armband, James had an excellent campaign in 2020, even scoring five goals, more than his entire career total prior to the season.
Prediction: Hounds exercised option in 2020, will work very hard to renegotiate contract and bring him back to the fold, much like they did with Jordan Dover in 2020.
Raymond Lee 27
Lee was a nice veteran addition to the roster when the Hounds needed depth — and started the playoff match vs Louisville City. Still, Lilley doesn’t tend to re-sign mid-season pick-ups the following season.
Did not have contract option as he was signed for the remainder of 2020 season.
Dani Rovira 23
Still a young player who did a decent job when filling in outside back and on the wing — and in one very interesting start when he marked Tyler Pasher the entire game. Stayed behind Dover and James in the rotation, and never really broke through. Might find a home elsewhere to become a regular starter?
Prediction: Hounds picked up his contract option for 2020, and will likely not negotiate a new contract for him in 2021.
Jordan Dover 25
Dover’s been an instrumental piece for this club since 2018. By bringing him back, the Hounds would return one of its most dependable and durable players who will be just 26 next year. Hounds re-signed him in 2020, with club option for 2021.
Prediction: Hounds exercise option for 2021
Midfielders
Kenardo Forbes 32
Bottom line here is if Forbes can still step on the field and play at a high level, he can remain as the primary man in the middle for the Hounds. Father time almost always wins but until last year, Forbes has almost always stayed injury-free.
Prediction: Hounds try to negotiate and bring him back for 2021, with contract option for 2022.
Danny Griffin 22
Griffin emerged in 2020 as a regular starter alongside Mertz and Forbes, and now, with Mertz gone, the Hounds can turn to Griffin as the young midfielder who can continue to grow, pick-up more wisdom alongside the veteran (Forbes) in the middle.
Prediction: Hounds exercise option for 2021
Anthony Velarde 24
You have to wonder if Velarde’s window as a Hounds is up, or Lilley will want to have more continuity by bringing Velarde back for another year? The attacking midfielder was fairly productive, scoring five goals, but when push-came-to-shove, he wasn’t in the starting line-up in the playoff match, but did come on in the 75th minute making little impact and unable to provide any attacking spark.
Prediction: Hounds picked up his contract option for 2020, and will likely not negotiate a new contract for him in 2021.
Robbie Mertz 23
Like Vancaeyezeele, the always ambitious Mertz is moving on from his hometown club with aspirations to try to find a pathway to the MLS. Having been drafted by Colorado Rapids, and with two years of USL productivity under his belt, Mertz’s window to get the next level is still within reach.
NOT RETURNING
Forwards
Steevan Dos Santos 31
Like Forbes, the question is, how much mileage does the 31-year old Dos Santos have remaining? Can the big fella — playing the way he does — continue to play at a high level and with the physical pounding for another 28 or so games next season? With the emergence of Albert Dikwa and Ropapa Mensah, maybe there’s a place for him to continue to be part of this rotation of forwards as a guy brings a dimension as a hold-up, extending possessions in the final third player who can draw fouls and frustrate/wear down defenders.
Prediction: It appears that the Hounds would have to negotiate a new contract for Dos Santos for 2021, with a potential option for 2022. With the emergence of Mensah and Dikwa, who both have contract options, it might be difficult to also be able to re-sign Dos Santos, so our hunch is that based on the numbers game, he doesn’t return.
Ropapa Mensah 23
Unable to sign Neco Brett after the 2019 season, the Hounds went out and made a few decent free agent pick-ups to fill the forward spot with younger players. One of those was Mensah, who was given a chance to play regularly in Pittsburgh, where he contributed a team-leading six goals in a shortened season. Mensah is a good high-energy guy who fits well in Lilley’s high pressing tactics who also can be a playmaker when needed and a solid finisher in the box. He can continue to develop and still has lots of upside to become a productive USL Championship forward for years to come.
Prediction: Hounds exercise option for 2021
Albert Dikwa 22
Dikwa joined the Hounds halfway through the 2020 season. He added another element to the Hounds attack with his speed and finishing in and around the box. Like Mensah, another young player who has plenty of upside. Would be a no-brainer to bring him back to see what he could do with full season as part of a rotation with Mensah and Dos Santos.
Prediction: Hounds exercise option for 2021
Mark Forrest 23
Like the other guys who played two full seasons in Pittsburgh and never broke through into becoming regular starters, if Forrest’s window in Pittsburgh has also closed? He was a pretty solid back-up for Dos Santos, but not sure if he would be better off somewhere else where he could battle for a starting position, especially if Dikwa and Mensah return. However, if Dos Santos doesn’t come back, then may Forrest could be someone who fits better into the rotation?
Prediction: Hounds picked up his contract option for 2020, and will likely not negotiate a new contract for him in 2021.
Lukas Fernandes 22
Fernandes had his moments in 2020 in his rookie year that showed he could contribute and bring some energy off the bench. Lilley showed last year he was willing to bring younger players back after their first season to see if they can continue to grow and develop.
Prediction: Hounds exercise option for 2021

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

Pittsburgh Division I College Soccer Schedule (Spring 2021)

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