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Hounds Notebook: Eight reasons to look on the bright side

Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

The Riverhounds have yet to win a match or even score a goal at Highmark Stadium this season.

In the Bob Lilley era, for this to be the case by the second week of June is unprecedented.  The Hounds are six games in, posting an overall record of 2-3-1 in what has already been a unique season.

In Lilley’s weekly media Zoom call earlier in the week, he continued to address some of the issues that plagued his team a few days after the latest home loss on Sunday, a 1-0 defeat against Western Conference’s Austin Bold.

It’s easy to get caught up in dwelling on the negatives or spending an exorbitant amount of time over analyzing and picking the team apart on this forum.

This week, I’ve decided, despite the Riverhounds SC’s 2-3-1 overall record, to compile a list of eight reasons Pittsburgh soccer fans should be looking on the bright side, as the season hits another busy stretch through June.

1.) It’s still early in the season

A six game sample size has brought five points (out of a possible 18). Not good. The Hounds still have 26 games awaiting with a maximum of 78 points still sitting out there.

Most likely, finishing somewhere between 55 and 62 points should get them safely above the playoff line.  They’ll have to finish in the realm of 16 wins to reach that.  Finishing the final 26 matches with 14-6-6 record would produce an overall 16-9-7 mark, for example. This would get them right to the 55-point mark.

While it’s early and there’s still plenty of time and season to play (that’s the good news), the margin for error is starting to get smaller.

We know Lilley and the Riverhounds have started off slow before, and unlike last season, when a good start was necessary and when occasional hiccups were less forgiving in a shortened season, there’s still plenty of time for the Hounds to get into top-form.  With three games in seven days coming up, now would be an opportune time to come away with a six, seven or nine point swing.

Pittsburgh soccer fans have an opportunity to get behind this team as the summer stretch begins with a schedule that will have more home games on the back end (14 of last 26 games will be at home), including two more in June and three in July.  While this team is much different than the 2019 squad, that group really turned things up a notch with an impressive finish to take the top spot in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference.

2.) Not That Far Behind

Currently, the Hounds are sitting right in the middle of the Atlantic Division standings and hovering just below the playoff line.  With a win against Miami FC on Saturday, they’ll jump into position to be above the playoff line.  

Pos. P W L T GD Pts Form
Tampa Bay Rowdies
Tampa Bay Rowdies 6 5 1 0 8 15
Hartford Athletic
Hartford Athletic 4 3 0 1 9 10
Charlotte Independence
Charlotte Independence 5 3 2 0 1 9
The Miami FC
The Miami FC 6 3 3 0 -1 9
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 6 2 3 1 -1 7
Charleston Battery
Charleston Battery 4 1 1 2 -2 5
New York Red Bulls II
New York Red Bulls II 8 1 5 2 -12 5
Loudoun United FC
Loudoun United FC 5 1 4 0 -3 3

The other positive is that Pittsburgh will play each team in the Atlantic Division four times each. With a Hall of Fame coach, they will continue to grow as a team and be better prepared with each match-up.

3.) Back line cohesion is coming along

The three main stalwarts along the back line this season have been Preston Kilwien, Mekiel Williams and Shane Wiedt.  The team’s last roster addition, Jalen Robinson has played at MLS level and he looked pretty impressive in his Hounds debut against Loudoun United FC last Wednesday.  Jelani Peters offers another versatile player who can play in any spot along the back.

Wiedt, a former standout at Pitt, has played every minute of every match thus far and he’s tied for fourth in the USL Championship in clearances with 30.  Williams is 10th with 26 clearances.

This group still needs more time to develop even stronger chemistry and they will get better as the season progresses. The bright spot here is that after giving up three goals at Tampa in the opener, they’ve surrendered five goals in the past five matches.

4.) Alex Dixon and Russell Cicerone: quality signings   

Lilley overhauled his attacking tactics to feature players who are astute in getting behind defenders, can get forward quickly, have excellent vision and play making ability. Two of the players added to the roster in the off season, Alex Dixon and Russell Cicerone, have been the club’s most dynamic players and primary catalysts for the Hounds attack this season.

Cicerone is the team’s leading scorer, with three goals. What stands out the most when watching the Michigan native who attended the University of Buffalo, is his relentless work-rate and boundless energy. His aggressive style suits Lilley’s revamp of the attacking unit.  If his five-year USL Championship career is any indication, Cicerone durability will be an asset through the course of a long season.

Sunday’s match was the first without Cicerone in the starting line-up, and there was a drop off. The Hounds attack wasn’t as dangerous and lacked ambition when they needed a response.  In the second half, Cicerone was brought on, and even though he created a few positive moments, the Hounds came up short in trying to find the equalizer. Lilley was frustrated with his team’s inability to respond immediately and play with urgency after giving up a goal so early in the first half. It’s extremely rare that he would bring a sub on at the half, but without that fire and energy in the first 45 minutes, the first player he called on to help deliver a spark was Cicerone.

Lilley said after signing Cicerone that he was going to be a big part of their plans in 2021, he wasn’t kidding.

Dixon’s been a workhorse too (starting in all six matches) and key connector between the midfield and forwards, accounting for two assists, drawing a foul that led to a Cicerone penalty kick goal, sent a cross that led to an own goal and also scored a goal.  When he was acquired, we’ve seen him be a nuisance to the Hounds in the past, constantly in creating dangerous moments in the final third. We knew he was speedy and could score. But watching Dixon on a regular basis in Pittsburgh thus far, what’s been impressive is his overall game which brings versatility, decision making, his movement off the ball and play making ability. He’s not a one-trick pony, as he has been effective out wide, in tight spots and breaking through the lines at the top of the attack.

Sure, the Hounds have struggled when falling behind at home against teams determined to park the bus.

In his Zoom call on Tuesday Lilley pledged: “This will be solved.”

With Cicerone and Dixon leading the way, they’ll find a way to reverse that trend.

5.) Riverhounds mainstays in Lilley era, Kenardo Forbes and Jordan Dover, lead by example  

In the Bob Lilley era, the two constants on the roster have been Kenardo Forbes and Jordan Dover.  In Dover’s case, he’s approaching his 100th appearance in USL play, with 73 appearances with the Riverhounds.  Dover’s spent his first two pro seasons playing for Bob Lilley, with the Rochester Rhinos and he’s been with Lilley.  Dover has led the team

Forbes turned 33 years of age earlier this spring, but the level of play of the USL Championship’s all-time assists leader hasn’t dropped as he remains among the team leaders in passing accuracy at 85% (Only Todd Wharton is higher at 88%).

Considering how the season has started, the most valuable attributes Dover and Forbes bring in addition to their talents and technical ability is that they’ve become two of the most reliable and consistent performers in club history who lead by example.  Despite the tough loss on Sunday, they’ll pick themselves up and lead the way as the team gets ready for Miami FC on Saturday.

“We just have to wake up tomorrow. Come here, work harder, ” Forbes said after Sunday’s loss. “We have to learn from tonight. That’s was veteran players on this team will do — pull guys along.”

6.) Other Top Level Teams Are Struggling Too

When looking around the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division, the Hounds are not alone in their struggles. This year’s schedule will be a grind for everyone involved.

Even top-running Tampa Bay faltered for the first time this past weekend, losing against Charlotte Independence, 1-0, while NY Red Bulls crumbled in the second half to Hartford, losing by a 7-0 score line.

Much like the Hounds, Miami FC, the next team to visit Highmark Stadium (this Saturday, 7 p.m.) also suffered a setback to a Western Conference foe, losing 4-2 to Rio Grande Valley FC this past weekend.

Meanwhile, over in the Central Division, after starting off 2-0-1, Louisville City FC has also cooled down to the tune of losing its past two matches, 2-1 to Indy Eleven and 1-0 to Atlanta United 2, as former Hound Robbie Mertz got his second start with his new club.

7.) No Major Injuries

After practice last week, after completing player interviews, as I proceeded to leave Highmark Stadium, there were a number of players sitting in tubs of ice getting post-training treatment with the training staff right there making sure they were in good hands.

The Hounds injury report, posted prior to each game, have been without a single player listing this season.  Some players have been included on the team’s gameday selections who have been nursing minor injuries. However, thus far, the Hounds have been fortunate to remain a healthy group.

Hats off to the Hounds training staff for the work they’re doing with this club.

8.) The Steel Army 

Even after Lilley kept this players on the field after Sunday’s loss for more than 40 minutes, as he said, he was still fuming, he couldn’t help but acknowledge the team’s supporters group, who had some of its die-hard members stick around to wait to greet the players nearly an hour after the match.

Despite tough results in the first two home games, the Army has been loud and organized.

They’re already in mid-season form and I would expect to see even bigger and louder contingent in the Paul Child Stand as the season moves on.

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ZOOM INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS: Lilley, Hounds Players Ready To Turn the Page 

Here are some of the highlights from Lilley’s Zoom call on Tuesday:

Will there be any personnel changes/adjustments in wake of another disappointing home loss?  

“Not a lot.”

“We’ve already met with numerous players on Monday, and got back into training today (Tuesday).  We discussed a lot of things.  We worked on a lot — talked about what we need to do if a team gets a lead on us.  We’ve moved on from the game (on Sunday).”

“Still, we had 74% of the ball.  We didn’t get pegged, but we clearly have to create chances. Have to be better at pushing the game. We did talk about and have looked at how we have to use personnel.”

“We have to push the game in the first half. We can’t wait.  We want to play faster.  When teams sit back, we need to play at a faster tempo.  Move the ball quicker. ZIp it around.”

“There are things to diagnose.  We looked specifically at certain things, but the bottom line, is we have to get to work We played three games in nine days, and came out with six points. Now we have three games coming up in seven days.  It’s going to be very demanding.”

On use of Todd Wharton on the back line. 

“We were trailing. It was something I wanted to try.  He understands how to get into the gaps.  He’s a good player. He’s versatile. He can play multiple positions. In the second half, still down a goal, at that point, we had to gamble. Preston (KIlwien) was dealing with a little bit of an injury, but we were still going to make a move.  I thought he did a good job.”

What to expect from Miami FC?  

“From what I’ve seen, they’re the only team to take it to Tampa and play well against them. They have a lot of quality players.  Paco Craig, Speedy Williams, Christiano (Francois).  We’re going to have to play well.  Miami is very explosive. They’re very capable.  They have our full attention this week.”

“They have pace. Quality. They’re good on set pieces. They’re going to, I believe, they’re going to come here to play. We have to be prepared and if they get ahead, we have to be prepared to respond this time.  I am tired of dropping points we shouldn’t.  Those games are done and overwith.  If there are any perceived problems, now’s the time to fix them. Now’s the time to get it done.”

“We want to have more shutouts.  We need to be good on both ends of the field.  We have some big tests coming up. MIami, then Indy and Tampa again on the road. We’re at a point where we’ve played enough games.  Every game is a challenge.”

What inspiration, if any, could be drawn from U.S. Men’s National Team’s win vs Mexico on Sunday? 

“Their response was good.  That was really impressive.  They bounced back. Competed hard.  They were down a goal a few times, and found moments.”

“This week, we’ve taken the time to go over key points.  It’s good to have a perspective (from USMNT on how to play from behind).  We can’t wait around for something to happen. We have to put the onus on the team to take more risks.  I’ve seen soccer for many, many years. There’s not a hidden secret when trying to figure out how to solve a tough opponent.  We have to do all the little things right.  It may come into play this weekend. There’s always another challenge. The question is, can you create enough opportunities.  But looking at the US. That perspective was quite good.  When you give up a goal, especially early in the match, the sense of urgency should start at that moment. Can’t wait until the end of the match. We have to get higher. Take chances.”

“We responded well after losing to Charlotte. Now, we’ve hit another bump in the road.  We were flat vs Austin.  We know we have to be better. There’s a list of things we have to.  It’s one thing to be technically good. To play with quality. To have solid tactics, but it’s the blue collar things that we have to do that will make a difference.  We have to push the tempo. Close spaces. Bring more pressure.  Both at home and on the road.”

“Its the nitty-gritty things we have to do.”

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).

PItt MF Michael Sullivan

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