The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s 2021 campaign has hit a few early speed bumps, with the latest coming in a 1-0 loss to the Charlotte Independence on Saturday night as fans returned to Highmark Stadium.
The loss drops the Hounds record after three matches to 0-2-1, good for one point and a spot at the bottom of the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference standings.
Still, it’s early in the season, and definitely not time to panic.
Charlotte was clearly the better team in the first half, but the Hounds were able to turn up the pressure in the second half. There were signs of progress but also moments of frustration and it was clear that they still need to connect the dots better, make better decisions in the final third and create more solid, full chances when getting into position to score.
Head Coach Bob Lilley felt this was his team’s best 90 minute performance to this point in the early season. At first glance, especially seeing the Hounds outplayed in the first 45 minutes, it would be reasonable to question Lilley’s takeaway. But a second look at the match and seeing what the Hounds were able to do in the second half, despite not getting an equalizing goal, should give fans some optimism.
Formation & Tactics
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC lineup (4-3-1-2) — Danny Vitiello; Preston Kilwien (Jordan Dover 68’), Jelani Peters (Ezra Armstrong 86’), Shane Wiedt, Mekeil Williams; Danny Griffin, Todd Wharton (Louis Perez 68’), Anthony Velarde (Tommy Williamson 68’); Alex Dixon; Russell Cicerone, Albert Dikwa
With Kenardo Forbes out of the selections this week due to suspension from a red card against Hartford and Jordan Dover nursing a minor injury, the Hounds elected to go with a back line that included four natural center backs, with Preston Kilwien and Jalani Peters flanked in the outside back spots, while Shane Wiedt and Mekeil Williams anchoring the middle.
Sitting above the back line was USL veteran midfielder Todd Wharton, with additional central midfielders Danny Griffin and Anthony Velarde a little higher up.
Alex Dixon was moving in and out of the central midfield as well as a hybrid attacking midfielder but also getting higher up a times too. Russell Cicerone and Albert Dikwa were clearly the forwards in this formation, pressing Charlotte’s back line and doing the most work to get behind the defense.
Pittsburgh opted to use three subs at one time in the 68th minute, as Tommy Williamson (for Velarde), Jordan Dover (for Kilwien) and Louis Perez (for Wharton) gave a little bit more life and some additional creativity to the attack.
Making his debut with the Hounds, Ezra Armstrong came in for Jelani Peters in the 86th minute, and was immediately called for a yellow card for a late arriving challenge.
Under Mike Jeffries, Charlotte’s always been a quality possession team. Fully aware of this, the Hounds were doing a decent job of of disrupting their build-up out of the back and through the midfield.
When Pittsburgh broke forward into the final third after winning balls, they failed to capitalize. Some of the credit should go to Charlotte’s defense, which were physical and well-positioned as they were led by a few familiar faces, former Hound Hugh Roberts at center back and Brandon Miller in goal, by forcing the Hounds to work a little harder with each advance. The Independence had 21 clearances in the match, as they continuously thwarted the Hounds attempts to break through the lines.
The first half clearly belonged to Charlotte. They were on the front foot and threatened numerous times at a very dangerous rate — with six shots and five of them on target — forcing Riverhounds goalkeeper Danny Vitiello into making a few big saves in his first experence playing in front of the Steel Army.
One of those tests came on this sequence in the 15th minute.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) May 22, 2021
Vitiello had to come up big again, topping Kevin Riascos’ back-post header from a free kick along with the follow-up header in the 23rd minute.
It was a enough to frustrate Hounds fans as they were giving Charlotte too many quality chances.
Eventually, they would pay the piper.
In the 34th minute, play continued despite what may have appeared to be a foul committed near midfield. Charlotte’s Marcelo Palomino received a pass on the right side, as it appeared the Hounds froze for a split second. This created an opening for Palomino to loft a ball over to Clay Dimick, who broke behind the Hounds back line toward the right side of the end line. Dimick scrambled, but made a nice play to deliver a cross to the center of the box for Irvin Parra.
Parra found a spot between the Hounds center backs to deliver a well-placed header just inside the left, far post side, giving Charlotte the lead.
KEY STAT: For the third time in three games, the Hounds surrendered a goal from a header in the center of the box.
When was the last time that happened against a Bob Lilley coached team? One of the strengths that the Hounds have hung their hats on in recent years has been minimizing opponent shot opportunities in the box.
It’s pretty clear that Lilley brought this up at the half, as the Hounds tightened things up for the final 45 minutes, not allowing another shot from inside the box for the remainder of the match. The Independence held the shots edge, 6-5 (5-2 on target) at the end of the first half, but they would finish the match with two more shots, neither on target. Lilley also pointed out that the Hounds needed to be better at contesting and winning second balls (stats back it up as Charlotte won 53 percent of aerial duels and 51 percent of duels overall).
The Hounds turned things up a notch in the second half, but couldn’t break through for a game-changing tally.
Pushing for the equalizer, Pittsburgh owned the second half possession edge by a 60/40 margin (finishing the match with an overall 57/43 edge). They were clearly more patient and build-up play from the back as the center backs were tops on the team, combining for 131 passes.
They were knocking on the door all night long.
There were some moments where you could see the individual brilliance of some players.
One instance of chemistry and link-up play between midfield and forwards came between Russell Cicerone and Todd Wharton, who were previously teammates in Saint Louis.
In the 44th minute, Cicerone was played a terrific ball from from Wharton. Cicerone proceeded to make a brilliant effort to get into the box, then found room to unleash a left footed rocket that Miller made a quick reaction save. There was also a previous diagonal ball from the far left side that Wharton hit Cicerone in stride.
It’s clear, those two connect well together.
Sometimes when things aren’t going well in the run of play, a good team will manufacture goals from set pieces. The Hounds had a quality chance in 52nd minute on corner emanating from Cicerone which connected with Preston Kilwien, but Charlotte defender Bianco was in the right place at the right time to head the ball away as he was guarding the goal line.
One statistic that I would love to have the answer to, is while the Hounds were effective at building possession through the midfield, how many times did the last pass to get behind the last line of defense not connect because Charlotte were in good position or more importantly the timing or decision making was just off a bit.
My colleague Matt Gajtka provided his answer: “A lot” when I posted that question after the game.
To back up Lilley’s takeaway that they were better than the previous two matches — Pittsburgh did connect more passes 478), sent more crosses (24), took more shots (21 — with 18 coming inside the box) than in any other game this season.
A few more times in the 66th and 68th minutes, the Hounds had shots from inside the box which were blocked by well-positioned Charlotte defenders. In total, Charlotte blocked seven shots on the night!
With three subs coming on in the 68th minute, Pittsburgh added some fresh legs and creativity to the effort, but ultimately came up short.
In an emblematic conclusion, in playing his most significant minutes with the club, rookie Louis Perez delivered a perfect ball to the back post area in the dying moments of the match to Albert Dikwa. One more time, Miller was well-position to make his fourth and final save of the match just before the whistle blew.
Despite the Hounds coming up short again, some of the credit should go to Charlotte, as any team that faces 18 shots in the box and finds a way to only surrender five on frame, while also having a veteran goalkeeper (Miller) come up with four saves is a sign of a team that has resolve under pressure and does enough to walk away with a difficult road result.
They Said It
“There were five clear-cut chances, but there were another five-to-eight half-chances we missed the target or couldv’ve done better. Against better teams you’re not going to see enough clear-cut chances. Charlotte’s credit, they worked Danny (Vitiello) enough, and they found a goal. That something we have to get better at,” Riverhounds Head Coach Bob Lilley said.
|Player||Grade (out of 10)||Key Stats / Notes|
|Danny Vitiello||8||Made four saves — all in the first half when he was under repeated pressure. Was his best game of season.|
|Shane Wiedt||4.5||Picked up yellow card. Won 3 of 8 duels. First half marking needed to be better, too many clear cut chances for Charlotte, but they were much better in second half.|
|Mekiel Williams||5||won 8 of 13 50/50 balls. One defender I trust the most right now with this team to win the 50/50 balls.|
|Jelani Peters||5||First start. Won 3 of 4 duels. 2 clearances. 2 interceptions, 1 tackle and 1 blocked shot.|
|Jordan Dover (68′)||5.5||Didn’t start (minor injury); before his entry into match, Hounds outside backs didn’t send many crosses, but Dover accounted for four of them in the final 22 minutes. One of those, after receiving feed from Dikwa maybe could have been a shot when the Hounds needed a magical moment. He’s made that shot in the past when breaking into the top corner of the box with room to shoot.|
|Preston Kilwien||5||Won 3 of 8 duels. 1 tackle, 1 interception, 2 shots (one a header that was robbed) and 1 chance created.|
|Ezra Armstrong (86′)||N/R||Made Hounds debut. Had 11 passes in short period of time as he helped with trying to find equalizer.|
|Anthony Velarde||5.5||Created three chances. Had four crosses (two connected). Would like to see passing accuracy go up (just 75%) but he’s taking chances sometimes.|
|Danny Griffin||5||Two tackles, two shots off target. Won 5 of 12 duels. Just 71.4% passing accuracy on midfield high 49 passes.|
|Todd Wharton||6.5||Most accurate passer and it wasn’t even close (91.7%). Created three chances. Two shots (both off mark). Won 7 of 11 duels and team leading 3 tackles. Picked up Yellow Card.|
|Louis Perez (68′)||6.5||Unlike the previous week, when he came in the 90th minute, here Perez brought his skill set to the forefront creating three chances in just 22 minutes (plus stoppage time). There was a nice backheel-pass to Dixon on the edge of box that created a shot, then the well-documented ball into box for Dikwa at the very end of the match. Did pick-up yellow card late. Overall a positive. Can’t wait to see what he can do when he gets chance to start.|
|Russell Ciccerone||6.5||Continues to be super active. Created six chances, including nice individual effort when getting into box late in first half. Won two fouls. Won 4 of 12 duels. Had six crosses (three successful).|
|4||After starting first two games, came off bench.|
|Alex Dixon||5.5||Playing underneath Cicerone and Dikwa to start, won 5 of 12 duels. Rotated with central midfielders at times. Created once chance, had two shots blocked and two unsuccessful crosses. Had 3 tackles and 2 blocked shots.|
|Albert Dikwa||4.5||2 of 3 shots on target; Taking on the bulk of the target forward work — winning 3 fouls and 10 of 16 duels. But not enough touches, as he had just 18 total passes.|