It was a longer than usual off season, but the Riverhounds SC will be kicking off the season facing a pretty tough challenge against the defending USL Championship Eastern Conference winners, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. kickoff at Al Lang Stadium in St. Pete’s).
As he usually is, Head Coach Bob Lilley provided his accommodating and honest assessments on his team in this week’s Zoom conference call with the media.
With the season ready to get started, here are five things to ponder as we’ll be watching closely how this team develops in the early portions of the campaign.
How will Hounds use new group of forwards this season?
Lilley made it clear that he wanted to mostly start over at the forward position, by bringing in a different group of high line attackers. The only hold-over from last year will be Albert Dikwa, who joined the team halfway through the abbreviated season. Dikwa will be joined by a trio of strikers and high wide attacking players who play with plenty of pace.
“We wanted to become more mobile. It was a difficult decision,” LIlley said on Tuesday. “We made a decision to shift in what we want to do. With players like Josh Gatt, Alex Dixon, Russell Cicerone, even adding Tommy Williamson (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.”
When asked on Tuesday if the Hounds would insert three forwards in the lineup this year, Lilley didn’t rule it out.
“You could see it,” Lilley, who has mostly gone with one or two forwards in his lineups since coming to Pittsburgh, responded. “It’s doable with this group. We could be doing different things. We have plenty of options higher up, but we like our midfield depth as well. The best part of this, is there’s plenty of room for growth with this group.”
With various midfield options, where will Todd Wharton fit into the equation?
We haven’t talked much the central midfield during the preseason, and that’s probably because it’s anchored by the USL Championship’s all-time assist leader, Kenardo Forbes, who the Hounds will still look to help set the tempo and build possession through the middle of the field.
With the loss of Robbie Mertz, Lilley went out and found an experienced USL Championship veteran, Todd Wharton, who was a big part of Saint Louis FC’s playoff clinching squad. Wharton provides an additional veteran presence. In addition, the Hounds return Danny Griffin, who had a solid rookie season and Anthony Velarde, who’s now in his third year with the club. Like the other field positions, Lilley also added a first-year pro to the midfield group in Louis Perez, a playmaker who excelled at Central Florida and has been making a positive impression in the preseason.
Bottom line here is that Lilley has options, and can be comfortable spreading out minutes as needed, especially in managing the workload of the soon-to-be 33-year old Forbes. Last year, we saw that the Hounds could manage without Forbes when he went down with an injury, as they kept winning until the late season hiccup against Hartford.
With wholesale turnover at center back, can the Hounds continue to be top-level USL defensive team?
The proof is in the pudding.
Even when managing teams with a fair amount of turnover, Bob Lilley’s teams always are near the top of the league in limiting chances, allowing shots and goals — and often among tops in shutouts. Since 2014, Lilley has coached four USL Championship goalkeepers who’ve earned the league’s Gold Glove award.
Heading into preseason camp, the center back position was one that had a lot of questions and unknowns. There were off season signings of experienced players including Preston Kilwien and Mekiel Williams. With the club’s final two signings being Shane Wiedt and Jelani Peters, the Hounds have assembled a fairly battle-tested group of center backs.
Who will start and what this rotation will look like will be interesting to see as the season progresses. Tactics may also play a role, especially if Lilley expands away from his three center-back pairing that he likes to use. Having an underrated and experienced outside back like Jordan Dover, who can be effective at tucking back and defending, but also often can carry the load of touches up and down the flank in helping the Hounds get forward, will be a valuable asset for a team that will be building chemistry out of the back early in the season.
Based on experience and with how the team has looked in the past few preseason matches, it appears Kilwien and Williams are pretty solid bets to be regular starters at center back, while Wiedt and Peters will battle for the additional, third center back starting spot in the early part of the season.
How tough will the Atlantic Division slate be?
The Hounds will get a taste of how tough the competition will be early on when they face two Group winners (Tampa Bay and Hartford) from 2020 on the road in their first two weeks of the season.
“I’m anxious to get our players up against (the Rowdies) because the sooner we know where we are, the sooner we can go to work,” Lilley said. “It’s a process, and we’re gonna go down there and do everything we can to win the game. We’re certainly not going to back off, and our mentality is every game is winnable and we have to approach it that way.”
Charlotte, who the Hounds will face in their home opener, was also a playoff team last year, then they close out the month at NY Red Bulls II and Loudoun United. WIth only one of those games at Highmark Stadium, the Hounds will being to have an idea of how the divisional competition will be by early June.
The Hounds will face each divisional opponent four times this year. That’s 28 games against the same seven opponents.
They’ll get to know each other very quickly.
For a complete look at the Atlantic Division, be sure to check out our preview posted prior to last weekend’s games.
COVID Factors: What will Highmark Stadium atmosphere be like and how will COVID protocols affect club?
Outside of the last few games which were played with a limit of 100 fans, the Hounds played in a very different atmosphere in most games played at Highmark Stadium.
“Felt like practices. We played a lot of games without fans,” Lilley said. “There was no energy in the stadium.”
Based on current guidelines 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.”
If all goes well, and Pennsylvania’s adult population can reach 70% COVID-19 vaccination mark, additional restrictions will be lifted and larger crowds can start filling Highmark Stadium as the season continues.
Lilley spoke to Pittsburgh Soccer Now prior to preseason about the Hounds requesting to have more home games on the back end of the schedule. For the most part, the Hounds got their wish, as they only play two of their first six games at home, then things begin to even out for the rest of the schedule.
In the first two full weeks of the season, there’s only been one COVID-19 case across the entire USL Championship. Things were progressing well for much of last season, but when it came time for the USL Cup Final, the league had no choice but to cancel the big game due to numerous cases within the Rowdies organization.
The 2021 season will proceed as things continue to open up more and more, but there’s little doubt that COVID-19 continues to linger and it isn’t going away.
Thus, the Championship and its clubs will continue to be take the necessary precautions.
Riverhounds 2021 Schedule Page
Riverhounds Roster & Depth Chart (2021)