It’s been a quiet preseason, hasn’t it?
Another week has gone by, and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC are going about their business.
Even as other clubs begin regular season games (Louisville City beat ATL2 and Tulsa defeated OKC this weekend and more teams kickoff this coming weekend), the Riverhounds and Head Coach Bob Lilley are more than happy to use the extra time to get things in order before the season officially kicks off on Saturday, May 8 against the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg.
As of today, we’re left with a few lingering questions about the club as they put in another full week of training leading up to the final preseason game this Saturday afternoon against Philadelphia Union II at Highmark Stadium (when some of us in the media will finally get our first look at this year’s edition of the Hounds).
Until then, here are a couple of questions to ponder.
What will the center back rotation look like?
In this level of professional soccer where turnover is constant and commonplace, teams who are able to keep some semblance of its core pieces together are often the ones able to find the most success.
Roster continuity from year-to-year is always a challenge, but one position where the Riverhounds have developed some continuity since Bob Lilley’s arrival in 2018 has been at center back.
For some perspective, here’s a list below that includes all Riverhounds SC’s center backs who’ve made 15 or more appearances per season (including last year’s shortened season) during the Highmark Stadium era
- 2013: Andrew Marshall (26) **
- 2014: Andrew Marshall (19), Anthony Arena (16)
- 2015: Anthony Arena (26), Willie Hunt (27) *
- 2016: Willie Hunt (29), Sergio Campbell (26)
- 2017: Jamal Jack (28), Tobi Adewole (15)
- 2018: Joe Greenspan (23) **, Hugh Roberts (26), Tobi Adewole (24), Thomas Vancaeyezeele (33) *
- 2019: Thomas Vancaeyezeele (33)**, Tobi Adewole (33), Joe Greenspan (31) ** ^
- 2020: Thomas Vancaeyezeele (17)**, Skylar Thomas (17)
* started in other positions that season besides center back
** All-USL Championship / All-USL Pro
^ USL Defender of the Year
It’s pretty clear that when the Hounds had the most stability at the center back position and players who would go on to become All-USL Championship first-and-second team selections, they also had their most successful seasons (2018 and 2019). The only other playoff seasons for the club came in 2013 (when Andrew Marshall had established himself as an all-league player) and 2015 (when Anthony Arena returned from playing the previous year in Pittsburgh).
This will be the first season since 2017, when the Hounds will not have a center back returning from the previous season.
Even last season, after losing Joe Greenspan, with Thomas Vancaeyezeele in place in the middle of the back line, the Hounds continued on with a sense of stability on the back line.
Now, it’s back to the drawing board. And under Lilley, that’s not exactly a bad thing. When he assembled his first club in Pittsburgh, he started off with impressive results in 2018 (they began that season without giving up a goal in its first five matches). Although at that time, he had the benefit of working with Tobi Adewole and Joe Greenspan, who intermittently played together in Pittsburgh at the end of the 2017 season when Greenspan was on loan from Minnesota United and Adewole was a rookie who joined the team in late May.
Although they’re rebuilding with new center backs this year, the additional good news is that the Hounds return veterans Jordan Dover and Dani Rovira on the flank/outside back spots to complement the group, along with last year’s USL Championship Gold Glove winner in goal, Danny Vitiello.
Preston Kilwien, who was with NY Red Bulls II the past few years, appears to be one of the team’s building blocks at the position along with Meikel Williams, a MLS/USL veteran.
Williams has played his share of left back as a pro, but it appears that Lilley will be relying on the Trinidad and Tobago International to solidify the central defense.
“He is comfortable on the ball and is a seasoned pro who will add composure and leadership to our roster, Lilley mentioned at the time the Hounds announced the signing of Williams. “Mekeil is a quality defender who can play anywhere across the back line.”
The additional signed player slotted as a center back on this roster is Casey Bartlett-Scott, who has missed the preseason as he remains in England due to work visa delays.
This still leaves a few openings on the roster.
In addition, the only two players who’ve remained with the club as trialists for much of the preseason through Saturday’s 1-1 draw vs Indy Eleven were experienced pro center backs at this level: Jelani Peters, who was previously with Toronto FC II, and former Pitt and Loudoun United FC defender Shane Wiedt. (please note — as of this post the Hounds have not released its Week 5 Preseason Roster).
On Saturday, the Hounds started Kilwien, Wiedt and Williams, but also flanked by Dani Rovira and Jordan Dover.
A few questions linger…
- Will the Hounds sign one of the trialists?
- Are they open to signing additional players even after the season begins?
- With NCAA tournament starting this week, there are also some possible players out there still playing collegiately who may also be on Lilley’s radar? (Lilley mentioned to Pittsburgh Soccer Now during the off season that might be a possibility if there’s a player he really likes)
One final note, in 2018, when things were still coming together at the end of the preseason, the Hounds found Hugh Roberts and signed the USL veteran defender to solidify its center back corps a week prior to the season starting. That signing provided the Hounds with one of the strongest groups of center backs in team history.
All we can say is stay tuned, as it will be very interesting to see how the roster finally takes full shape in the next couple of weeks.
With an influx of forwards, will Hounds change tactical approach in 2021?
On the flip side, the Hounds have no shortage of forwards on its roster, after the announcements last week of the signing of 18-year old Wyatt Borso, to a USL Academy contract and the addition of Tommy Williamson, on loan from San Jose Earthquakes first-round MLS SuperDraft selection.
This brings the Hounds total number of forwards on its roster to six, including the return of Albert Dikwa and additions of Russell Cicerone, Josh Gatt and Alex Dixon along with the two aforementioned youngsters.
With a long season ahead, having a regular rotation of forwards is always advantageous, especially if the Hounds want to be more dynamic in the final third this season.
Lilley went on the record to share with Pittsburgh Soccer Now that while he found reasons and value in potentially re-signing the likes of Ropapa Mensah and Steevan Dos Santos, he chose to go in a new direction.
Lilley instead has turned to a new core group of strikers, looking to reshape their attack.
“We knew we’d have to make some hard decisions to get better,” Lilley told Pittsburgh Soccer Now in February and reiterated again on Mon Goals Podcast earlier in April. “And in reshaping what we want to do, to be more mobile and creative.”
Could the Hounds start utilizing three forwards?
It’s certainly possible.
Dixon, Cicernone and Josh Gatt are proven, experienced wingers and attackers who bring a lot of energy, and along with Albert Dikwa, who Lilley believes after four seasons in USL Championship, still has a lot of upside as a player.
In addition, midfielders Anthony Velarde and Danny Griffin played pretty high at times last year too, so how will they figure into the equation along with promising rookie play maker Louis Perez, too, remains to be seen?
Based on Lilley’s track record, the Hounds are almost a sure bet to continue to lineup with three center backs and even a five-man back line at times. Lilley though will put in different wrinkles for different opponents, so he’s never truly predictable or singular in his approach.
However, with a deeper forward pool, its possible that we could see the Hounds lineup with three forwards at times.
Here are a few possibilities:
3-5-2 (two forwards)
This is similar to what the Hounds have done under Lilley in recent seasons. You could flip the outside backs/wingers either way, making it either a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2. Still, with that abundance of talent at forward, this could be used for a strong, steady rotation, but it would be more tempting to go with the three forward line-up.
4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1
I can’t say that I’ve ever seen Lilley go with a 4-3-3 since he’s been in Pittsburgh, but this is an intriguing possibility. It would potentially get Williams into the attack more as a left back, while incorporating three of the forwards into starting group. Lilley will want to make sure defensive responsibilities are set and the group is organized. He likes making sure Forbes has other midfielders who are alongside him in the center of the field to do additional dirty work (think Mo Dabo in 2018 and 2019).
3-4-3 (three forwards)
This could potentially put both Gatt and Dover on the flanks with solid creators and possession players in the middle — and a line of dangerous attackers at the top of the attack. Possession will be the key. If Lilley feels like this group can keep the ball, sustain possession to minimize pressure on the back line, then he could have the confidence to pencil in lineups like this more often.
There are actually all kinds of possibilities, and that’s what makes this a lot of fun to speculate at this point in the preseason.
One thing that we know, is that guessing what the lineups Lilley and his coaching staff will be assembling this season will be less predictable than ever.
Riverhounds Roster and Projected Depth Chart (Preseason Week 5)