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Hounds Notebook: Three cornerstones of Lilleyball put to the test with start of new season

The Riverhounds SC finally will take the field in 2021 to play a meaningful match on Saturday night, when they visit Al Lang Stadium in Saint Petersburg, FL, to take on the defending USL Championship Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Rowdies.

For this first game week of the season, the Hounds will be training Monday, Tuesday and Thursday in Pittsburgh, then travel to Florida on Friday.

On Tuesday, Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley met with the media via Zoom.

As always, Lilley provided plenty of insights not only about his current squad, this season ahead, expectations, but he also shared some personal thoughts on dealing with gameday nerves plus provided his thoughts on Pitt men’s soccer team and the potential changing landscape of college soccer if they would go to a fall-spring schedule permanently.

Lilley also dropped the three cornerstones of what he looks for in building a successful team.  Thus, we now have in print and not just on a dry erase board in a locker room or scribbled notes on the coaches desk…    the Three Cornerstones of Lilleyball.

Let’s get this packed edition of Hounds Notebook started with a look at the opponent this week, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, as they’ll certainly put the Cornerstones of Lilleyball to the test.

The First Opponent: Tampa Bay Rowdies

The Rowdies are coming off a 3-0 opening night win against the hapless Charlotte Independence on Saturday.

Most of PSN’s contributors in our predictions (as well as many USL Championship observers) have picked Tampa to be the team once again to beat in the Atlantic Division and in the Eastern Conference and for good reason, as they return 15 players from last year’s squad.

Bob Lilley knows that Tampa will be a tough, opening test.

“Big challenge. They have experience. Quality. They’re probably a little further along. It’s a good test,” Bob Lilley, Riverhounds SC Head Coach said. “Hopefully we have fitness. This is the reason why we scheduled Louisville (City FC), (FC) Cincinnati and Indy in the preseason. Hopefully we learned a little bit more about ourselves this preseason and we’ll be ready.”

Tampa’s opening goal in its win vs Charlotte came from Sebastian Guenzatti, whose confidently taken penalty kick settled the hosts down in attack at Al Lang Stadium. The Rowdies’ captain went on to add another goal and an assist on Tampa Bay’s third goal of the night, which saw the Rowdies at their decisive best as former Riverhounds SC forward Steevan Dos Santos fed Guenzatti inside the penalty area.

“When motivated,” Lilley started when assessing his former player, Dos Santos. “He he can be a handful.  He’s a big, strong presence in the box that we’ll have to deal with.”

Lilley spoke about Guenzatti being a dangerous player in the box that the Hounds will have to account for, as he earned USL Team of the Week honors leading Rowdies to that opening-night victory with two goals and one assist in the side’s 3-0 victory against the Charlotte Independence on Saturday night.

Even the team most think will be at or near the top of the Atlantic Division in 2021, still had to work through some opening night nerves.

“I think as a player you have so much time off, you’re so eager, you’re out in front of fans. There can be a lot of nervous energy leading up to that,” Head Coach Neill Collins said after the game. “You can end up being a little flat. It took a little bit of the anxiety away to get that first goal and Charlotte had to change their game plan. First game – win, lose or draw – you know you’re going to come away thinking there’s lots to work on. I’m just glad we got the result.”

Highlights from Bob Lilley’s First Media Zoom Conference Call of 2021

When asked about playing games in the past year without many fans. 

“Felt like practices. We played a lot of games without fans. There was no energy in the stadium.”

On the return of fans to Highmark Stadium this year? 

Editor’s Note:  Riverhounds Director of Media Relations, Matt Grubba, confirmed that — as of now — based on current restrictions in PA — the Hounds will be able to have 1,100 fans at Highmark Stadium for the home opener on May 22.  

“I am no expert on that stuff.  Look last year was a difficult year. The players did well to adapt.  I am excited about welcoming back the fans this year.  They’ll definitely bring energy and enthusiasm that’s been missing.

On personnel changes, particularly at top of the attack

“We wanted to become more mobile.  It was a difficult decision.  We made a decision to shift in what we want to do. With players like Josh Gatt, Alex Dixon, Russell Cicerone, even adding Tommy Williams (on loan from San Jose Earthquakes), we’re already seeing the positives.  They’re dynamic and hopefully they’ll continue to be gelling through the season.

“We scouted Williamson at the Kansas City combine, which was basically held in place of the MLS combine this winter.  It was a mixed bag.  There were some college players.  He stood out. We were in touch with his agent, and talked about different scenarios, and even if he was drafted, if he’d be available by loan. So far, he’s come to compete.  Has been bright.”

How the team has been meshing so far. 

“We’ve been making progress. We have a pretty clear intention with how we want to play.”

Then, after discussing a bit more about they need to put forth the effort and need to be more attacking minded and creative in the final third, Lilley shared what he feels are three cornerstones for each team he coaches to be successful.

“Don’t give anything away”

“Dictate the game”

“Be Dynamic”

“We can try to do things differently. Change things up, but these have to be consistent.”

“When you look at the Louisville game (playoff loss, 2-0 in October 2020) we had more of the ball.  We were playing with a lot of confidence, but we were just not good enough in the final third.  This was one reason why we made some of the changes we made this off season.”

“We’re making progress in the three areas, but we’re ready to play the games.”

When asked about USL Championship carrying over five substitution rule from 2020 to 2021, plus two additional concussion subs

“I am happy with the sub rule, as I’ve said before, having five subs is better than three. I have no problem with it.  It doesn’t take away anything away. It keeps the energy of the game high.”

“Look, I want to use my roster, get more players involved.”

“The concussion rule, that’s a positive step. I also like how they’ll let the opposition have a chance to use a sub too. Hopefully won’t be too much gamesmanship. No one will use this to ‘manufacture’ a sub.”

So substitutes will work like this in the USL Championship in 2021:

Still Five Regular Subs – The five regular subs can be used in a maximum of three windows during game play, like in 2020, so coaches can’t stop play five times to bring in a player to waste maximum time. Subs made at halftime or before or between extra time periods don’t count in that three game window rule.

Concussion Subs – Then, teams can make concussion substitutes up to two times per game, outside of the five regular subs, anytime they suspect a head injury warrants a player leave the game. Those subs can be made immediately when a player is injured, after receiving medical attention, or even after a player has returned to play but still looks affected by a head injury.

If one team makes a concussion substitute, the other team will be permitted an additional substitute in the game. So if one team makes a concussion sub, the other team will be given an additional substitute slot if they choose, and can sub in six players in total.

Addressing keeper situation, confirming Danny Vitiello will be starter 

“I don’t always come out and do this, but Danny (Vitiello) will be our starter.  He’s coming off a strong season. We like him a lot.  He understands what we want and what we’re doing.  It’s a good group, (other keepers are Jake Leeker and Chris Morrish) they’ve been training hard, and the others will be ready when called this season.”

Does Lilley still deal with nerves before games 

“I still get them. In the preseason, the earlier games fix that. But the regular season, games are later in the evening, the days are longer. We’re waiting around all day. But that’s good.  That means (I) care a lot.  There’s a lot of meaning.  If I lose that, then I am not sure how fully invested.  But I still am.  It’s definitely a good thing to have nervous energy leading up to a game.”

“Sports are great. If you work hard. Push yourself.  In many other things, you don’t always get your report card. We have our preparation for the game.  Then we get graded. We have a desire to be a winning franchise.  That keeps me motivated.”

Thoughts on college soccer switching to what Pitt coach Jay Vidovoch has calls 21st Century model schedule (Fall-Spring season) which is building momentum, how that will affect scouting players

“We will adapt to it, if they go to a fall-spring schedule. I think it will self-correct itself.  When players are freshman, sophomore, juniors, they’re going to have more opportunities to develop as players. They’ll be able to duplicate professional environment.  We could see, after sophomore, junior years, some players may make decisions to pursue pro opportunities. College soccer has produced players making it over to Europe, the (U.S. and other) National Team. There are excellent coaches in the college ranks, including Jay Vidovich.  Not every 17-year old is ready to play at the professional level.  College provides a unique platform.  I am not opposed  to this. The top programs do it right.  They’ve had a three-month season, but playing six-to-seven months is more realistic. There are academy players playing year-round, but with college players, it’s a three month season, then they have to play in PDL over the summer. We had (former Pitt star forward) train with us so he could stay sharp during the off season.  There are more scouts than ever. With the internet, everything has changed. For me, we know when players are ready (to play at this level).”

On Pitt men’s soccer rise to national prominence and thoughts on how they play 

“I like them. They’re a very well coached team.  They hang on the ball. They have attacking options and have shown they can be dangerous in the final third.  They’ve been building this up. They impressed me after losing (Edward) Kizza in the fall, and they didn’t miss a beat.  Now have a great chance to go very far (in NCAA tournament).  I like their chances.”

Full Capacity at Highmark? 

Chances are Highmark Stadium could be filled to capacity if PA’s masking order will continue to be further receded in the coming months.

As of now, the current restrictions in place will limit the Hounds to allow up to 25 percent capacity at Highmark Stadium, which, as indicated in Tuesday’s media conference call, would be 1,100 fans.

PSN’s Riverhounds SC coverage in 2021

Once again, we plan to resume the most comprehensive Riverhounds SC coverage throughout the season.

Most weeks, you can find the following:

  • Hounds Notebook
  • Recaps/transcripts/video Bob Lilley’s mid-week media conference (sometimes we’ll tie those in with Hounds Notebook
  • Look for columns from Matt Gajtka
  • Scouting report on the Hounds’ opponent will come from Mark Goodman prior to each first meeting (one day prior or on gameday) ,
  • Gameday: to include live-gameday blog, post-game reaction and recap for each match. On-site coverage for all home matches and some road games too.
  • Analysis and/or player grades (1-2 days after games).
  • Look for features plus, as always, we’ll be keeping up-to-date with the latest Riverhounds SC news stories throughout the season







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).

Riverhounds MF Danny Griffin

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