Finally, the preseason will arrive for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Soccer Club after a longer than usual off season, beginning March 29.
This will provide Head Coach Bob Lilley and his staff and the players with six weeks of preparation for the coming season.
To Lilley, it’s all part of the process.
“We’re ready to go into preseason, and we are further along as we’ve ever been since I’ve been here,” Lilley said. “Players will start coming back in the next week. I like the schedule we have set-up for preseason. We need five or six weeks to get ready. The past year has been challenging, so we’re eager about getting started.”
Unlike the European domestic leagues, the NBA and NHL, the leagues that make up the American professional soccer landscape, including the second division USL Championship, have waited a little longer to get its 2021 season off the ground.
With added time to build a roster, Lilley, along with his assistant, Dan Visser, have methodically put together a roster which they believe will continue to put them in position to compete for a championship.
Some of teams the Hounds will be vying for supremacy in the Eastern Conference have begun preseason, even starting playing games against MLS and other USL Championship opponents. (Louisville City FC started camp in early March, has played twice, beating FC Cincinnati and losing to Nashville SC).
The Eastern Conference’s defending champs, Tampa Bay Rowdies have been back at it already too.
Good to be back ! 🔒 🔰💨 https://t.co/WZ60gPb0kB
— Sebastian Guenzatti (@seba9113) March 21, 2021
Despite some of these top clubs in the conference starting already, Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley is perfectly content with waiting a little longer, and having a six-week lead-up with six preseason matches to prepare.
Preseason officially starts March 29
The opponents in preseason matches include:
April 1: Gannon Univ
April 6 Detroit City FC
April 10: at FC Cincinnati
April 16: at Louisville City FC
April 24: at Indy Eleven
May 1: Union II https://t.co/vjlOpzoFPW
— John Krysinsky (@JohnKrysinsky) March 15, 2021
Going back a few years, if there was one lesson that may have been learned for the Riverhounds’ franchise and its fan base, was that sometimes its best not to get too excited, too soon,
Each professional season is a marathon, not a sprint. At one time, in the earlier years of second and third division pro soccer in the U.S., teams could wait, sometimes just two or three weeks prior to seasons to bring a full squad together for preseason.
Since the expansion of USL Championship in the past six or seven years, with much longer schedules (in some cases going from 18 or 20 game seasons to 32 or 34 game seasons), things have drastically changed.
The Hounds have routinely been starting preseason training camps during the Highmark Stadium era somewhere around early-to-mid February.
Once during this era, under coach Dave Brandt, who would be entering his first full season after being hired during a messy campaign the year before, the Riverhounds began an unprecedented, even earlier than that — in mid-January.
Brandt, a long-time successful college coach but no prior experience coaching on the pro level, put together a squad and signed 23 players by early January and also had an idea of what a rotation of players from then MLS affiliate, Columbus Crew, would look like.
Brandt desperately wanted more time to build team chemistry and get the group to buy into what he wanted to do. The squad appeared to have a lot of camaraderie, there was a certain sense of excitement within the club and among the loyal fan base that the Hounds would turn things around after a terrible season in 2016.
Things seemed to be going swimmingly early in that preseason.
If preseason games were any indication, the Hounds were coming together pretty well, winning three and playing to two draws in scrimmages against college teams.
The first real test for that squad came when they visited Rochester, to take on Bob Lilley’s Rhinos, the Hounds got a real wake-up call, losing that match by a score of 5-1 They followed that up with a spirited effort in losing to Columbus Crew, 3-2.
That result against Lilley’s Rhinos though, was a clear indicator that Brandt and the Riverhounds, who had about a month-plus head start on their preseason than the Rhinos and a lot of other USL teams, were given a harsh wake-up call.
While they played Rochester well enough that season (a pair of draws and a loss), the Riverhounds still fell short and as a club, had trouble navigating through the course of a full season.
Lilley has always had a process in building teams through the preseason. In that off season with Rochester, he brought back a core group of seven or eight players from the previous couple seasons that helped the Rhinos win the USL Cup in 2015 and fall in a penalty kick shootout to the 2016 champs, NY Red Bulls II.
At the end of the 2017 season, the Hounds, who were competitive for stretches, and headed into September with a near .500 record and in position to battle for a playoff spot, would eventually hit the wall.
They would finish its last seven matches without a win, including two disappointing results in the final stretch against Lilley’s Rhinos, when, after Kevin Kerr’s goal gave them the lead, but they allowed a 90th minute goal in a 1-1 draw and would also lose in the finale to Rochester.
After that season ended, even Brandt acknowledged that he pushed his team too hard, as they started preseason too soon, eventually burnt out without a win in the most important stretch of the season.
Two months later, Brandt was gone on a stipulation that he didn’t have USSF coaching license, and Lilley would be introduced as the new Head Coach of the Riverhounds.
In his first three seasons in Pittsburgh, Lilley’s worked within specific time frames and parameters in building his rosters through the off season and in the preseason. Looking back. each year, the Hounds began camp in the first week of February with 13 (2018), 15 (2019) and 14 (2020) players signed to their rosters, with a bunch of players being brought in on trial.
This year, with the Hounds starting preseason in late March, for the start of the season (projected to be Saturday, May 8), the Hounds feel they’re ahead of schedule.
“We’ve typically carried 27, 28 guys on our preseason camp rosters if you include trialists,” Lilley said. “This year, we anticipate heading into camp with 19-20 players signed and we don’t expect to have as many players brought in on trial.”
“We’ll be more focused, specific about what we can do with this group,” Lilley added “I like where our roster is at right now. Compared to past years, we’re way ahead of schedule and we’ll have a good core group to work with from the beginning of camp.”
Lilley’s also fully aware that other clubs have already started preseason and have been playing scrimmages against various clubs.
“That’s where we are as a league now. Some of these clubs have started already,” Lilley said. “Look, we have six working weeks. We definitely need that time, and we still have (COVID) protocols that we have to follow.
What this will provide Lilley with is an opportunity to allow the signed players to play together in preseason games for longer stretches while building match fitness properly (he typically rotates them in 60/30 minute increments in each scrimmage, eventually building up to some guys getting 90 minutes toward the end of preseason).
As of Friday’s last player signing announcement of Casey Bartlett-Scott, the Hounds have 18 players signed to the roster.
Look for a few more to potentially come this week, but either way, Bob Lilley will have most of the parts in place to start building another winner. The players will start to leave their respective homes and places where they are, and start heading to Pittsburgh for another season.
And with that comes a certain sense of excitement for those who have signed pro contracts for the first time to those who’ve been through this drill before.
The brothers said farewell to Louis yesterday as he leaves for @RiverhoundsSC
— UCF Men's Soccer (@UCF_MSoccer) March 20, 2021
— Preston Kilwien (@preston_kilwien) March 21, 2021
It’s a process, and it will begin in earnest for the 2021 season, on Monday, March 29 for the Riverhounds.
RIVERHOUNDS ROSTER & PROJECTED DEPTH CHART (2021)