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Analysis & Player Grades: Hounds serve notice to front-running Rowdies

Photo courtesy Tampa Bay Rowdies

Analysis & Player Grades: Hounds serve notice to front-running Rowdies

In each of his four seasons at the head coach of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, Bob Lilley’s teams have produced an impressive road win early in the season.

Last year they dismantled the Hartford Athletic in a showdown of teams at the top of the group, and in the previous two seasons, Pittsburgh walked away with road wins at Louisville City FC.

This past week, culminating on Saturday evening in St. Petersburg, Lilley’s club capped off two impressive road wins in a five-day span with a 2-1 victory against the Atlantic Division front-running Tampa Bay Rowdies, which followed a 1-0 win at Indy Eleven.

Final: Riverhounds SC 2, Tampa Bay Rowdies 1

Once again, LIlley and the Hounds served notice to the Rowdies and the rest of the Atlantic Division that as they’ve begun to figure things out, they’re going to be a tough team to beat.

It was clear in its season opening night loss to the Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium that the Hounds were still trying to figure things out.  While they did have six weeks of preseason to begin the process of bringing a team together that had seven returnees to its roster from 2020, they clearly weren’t prepared to take on a Rowdies club that returned more players, had a much longer preseason, and were brimming with confidence coming off a season which they won the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference.

This win by the Hounds (4-3-2) was the first time the Rowdies (6-2-0) failed to win at home this season and only their second loss in the past 19 home matches. It also was the Hounds’ first win over Tampa Bay since 2017 and first-ever win at Al Lang Stadium.

Most importantly for Pittsburgh, it catapulted them in contention for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.

Still, it’s a long season. The Rowdies were missing some key attacking players. That being said, Pittsburgh has been mostly healthy this season, but they’re also starting to show signs that this could very well be the deepest and most versatile roster they’ve had in the Bob Lilley era. It’s taken them longer to gel and come together, but we’re just starting to see what their potential is after two impressive road wins.

On Saturday, the Riverhounds SC reminded the Rowdies that they can make the proper adjustments and ready to go the distance this season in what should be an exciting Atlantic Division race for supremacy. With four points now separating the Rowdies and the Riverhounds, and two more games to be played between the two sides, this should shape up as a very exciting series of matches between the two teams.

Formation & Tactics 

Heading into a three-game in seven day stretch, Bob Lilley often will map out his anticipated squad rotation in advance, as he has a pretty good idea of what his starting lineups will look like, barring injuries and potential suspensions, for that three-game stretch.  In the past off season, Lilley and his assistant coach Dan Visser were intent on building a roster that would be deep enough to sustain the rigors of a season which would have games with quick turnaround between matches.

As noted in Analysis & Player Grades in Tuesday’s win, the Hounds opted not to start some regular starters including Kenardo Forbes, Todd Wharton, Jordan Dover, Albert Dikwa, Alex Dixon, Mekiel Williams and goalkeeper Danny Vitiello.

On Saturday night, with all but one of those players back in the starting lineup, they came out in different formation, 4-2-3-1, to counter Tampa Bay’s 3-4-3.

In this lineup, the back line consisted of Shane Wiedt and Mekiel Williams as the featured center backs, flanked by Dani Rovira on the left and Jalen Robinson on the right.  This allowed the Hounds to use midfielders Wharton and Danny Griffin in deeper, holding role, while Kenardo Forbes had more freedom to use his creativity to connect with Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon, while Alex Dikwa was at the top of the alignment.

In the second half, after taking 2-0 lead, Lilley’s calculated subs in the 62nd minute were Jordan Dover and Preston Kilwien for Cicerone and Williams, arguably two of the best players on the pitch through the first hour of the match.  This shifted the Hounds to a 5-4-1 formation for the rest of the match.  Additionally, the Hounds brought Anthony Velarde and Tommy Williamson (for Dikwa and Rovira), while Josh Gatt came on late in the 86th minute for Dixon.

Takeaways

The Hounds were intent on making Tampa Bay work harder for their goal scoring chances throughout the night, but even as they conceded possession for most of the night they weren’t going to sit back either.

They wanted to be dangerous when pushing forward. This has been an ongoing theme in every Bob Lilley interview this season is to make sure his team is dynamic when getting forward.

Things started off with the Rowdies getting a golden opportunity, but a solid clearance on the goal line by Mekiel Williams kept the match scoreless as a shot from the top edge of the box from Tampa Bay’s Leo Fernandes evaded Hounds keeper Danny Vitiello’s fingertips.

The Hounds made the most of the space that Tampa’s midfield was giving away on the counter, as the central midfielders, Griffin and Forbes, were finding room to navigate ahead and find both Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon.  While the Hounds opted to build up through short passes, there were a few occasions where they were also effective in playing longer balls to Albert Dikwa, who drew four fouls throughout the evening.

The Hounds payoff came in the 21st minute when Griffin accelerated toward the attacking third without much resistance.  He found Cicerone on the left side.  As my colleague Jordan Smith pointed out, it looked as though Cicerone, the Hounds leading goal scorer, could have taken a shot as he moved into the left edge of the box.  Instead, he opted to play a low ball through the box to the far post side.  The ball played past Dikwa who made a run to the center/near post area, while Griffin, much like he did in his goal against NY Red Bulls II found a channel by the far post where unmarked he delivered the clinical finish into the goal.

It was outstanding execution by the Hounds attackers who were looking good when getting forward with pinpoint passing.

Tampa Bay may have been without some key players in its attack, but players like Zach Steinberger and Fernandes are always dangerous when they get opportunities.  VItiello came up big when needed early in the second half.

Again, with Tampa Bay owning most of the possession, the Hounds were patient and waited for its next chance.

When it came, they made it count.

This time it was initiated by a long, diagonal ball played to Cicerone, who’s header attempt bounced back toward the central midfield, where Danny Griffin made a nice play to get a touch to control the ball, then poked it forward to Kenardo Forbes.  The USL Championship’s leading assist man immediately saw an opportunity to play a through ball forward in a tight spot for Cicerone, between a pair of Rowdies defenders.

No problem for Cicerone, who somehow found the composure to beat both defenders to the ball then deliver a quick shot past Tampa keeper Evan Louro.

The Hounds nearly made it 3-0 on one of the most exciting sequences of the season when Jordan Dover came forward, then played a ball to Forbes to his right. The Hounds captain then delivered a cross to the far side which connected with Dixon, who delivered a hard, one-time shot that was saved by Louro.  As the ball came down in the center of the box, Dover headed it on frame, but it bounced off the lower part of the woodwork, then off Tampa defender Aaron Guillén and off the leg of Dikwa, who couldn’t react quick enough to redirect it in goal.

On their home turf, it was clear that the Rowdies weren’t going to go down without a fight.  They held 69/31 possession edge on the night, but only could muster one more shot than Pittsburgh (11-10, 4-5 on target).

Dayonn Harris put a header on target off a cross by Wyke that was saved by Vitiello. Sebastian Guenzatti, who was quiet most of the night, then fired a first-time shot crisply from 25 yards that Vitiello punched away with five minutes to go.

The Hounds started to absorb too much pressure. They eventually caved in the second minute of stoppage time when Guenzatti converted after Harris beat two defenders on the right side and slotted a pass back for the Argentine forward to tuck home.

The Hounds defenders didn’t react to stop Harris initially, then left Guenzatti unmarked in the center of the box.  As coach Norman Dale warned his team in Hoosiers, ‘don’t get caught watching the paint dry’.  In this case, the Hounds defenders were caught off guard — and as a result they lost the clean sheet and nearly allowed Tampa to get the equalizer shortly after.

Harris then had a chance to pull the hosts level a minute later as Matthew Srbely found him in the right side of the penalty area, only for his shot to flash across the face of goal and go wide of the left post.

That would be the final chance for the Rowdies to level, however, as the Hounds held on, walking away with the full three points.

They also complete a three-games-in-seven day stretch with seven of possible nine points, and now sit just four points behind the Rowdies, in second place in the Atlantic Division.

This team has been healthy and by rotating players in and out of the lineup seamlessly, they’re getting a lot of contributions across the board and not reliant on a smaller rotation. The Hounds used 19 players in the last two matches, with 17 different players starting in the last two matches.  Players are starting to understand their roles, along with Lilley’s tactics and nuances with each day.

Next up, the Hounds, who have figured out how to win big road matches, will look to get its first home win of the season in front of its fans when they face NY Red Bulls II at home on Friday. The Hounds are 0-2-1 at home thus far in 2021.

The Hounds left Florida winning round two with an impressive counter-punch against the Rowdies and by serving notice that this is just the beginning of what could be a very interesting and competitive season between the two sides.

Player Grades 

Player Grade

 (out of 10)

Key Stats / Notes 
Goalkeeper
Danny Vitiello 6 Had two saves, had some help on another and lost clean sheet in late moments, but was strong again coming off line and working with back line
Defenders
Shane Wiedt 6 four tackles, three clearances, two interceptions, won 6 of 7 duels. Good night in the middle until the end of the match.
Mekiel Williams   7 What a play to save an early Tampa goal chance by clearing ball heading into goal that looked to be getting past VItiello’s fingertips.
Jalen Robinson 5.5 Second straight start at right outside back. Not as active on his side or in getting forward as part of 4-man back line to start the match. Two clearances. 0/1 in duels and only 15 passes.
Dani Rovira   6 Showing he can be a versatilie, reliable starter, either as an outside/central mid or outside back. Won 9 of 16 duels. One clearance but three fouls conceded. Been the Hounds’ most improved player this season, and starting to do things that we saw Ryan James do last season in playing multiple positions.
Preston Kilwien (62′)    5.5 Two clearances coming off bench
Jordan Dover (62′)  5.5 Clearance and interception, one cross and one shot off target.  Answered the question to see if Lilley would use both him and Robinson in the lineup at the same time.
 
Central Midfield
Kenardo Forbes  7 ASSIST: I am sure Kenny is happy to add another assist to his all-time USL Championship total, and his first of the season, but his presence a bit higher in the formation worked well on this night. Won 3 of 8 duels, a tackle, clearance and interception with 83% passing accuracy (only 29 passes).
Danny Griffin 8 GOAL: Similar to his first goal of the season after lay off to Cicerone, he makes well angled run to far post area and is there to slide the clinical finish.  Also kept possession alive with nice effort at midfield to get the ball to Forbes on the second goal.
Todd Wharton  7.5 While Griffin and Forbes moved higher up and produced goals and assists, Wharton did a lot of the dirty work and was key cog in the middle — making Tampa think twice about trying to attack Pittsburgh through the middle (only had three duels, winning 2 of 3).  Two tackles, clearance, blocked shot and interception and team high 88% passing accuracy (24 passes).
Anthony Velarde (78′)   N/R When Hounds shifted formations, he was tucking in with the central midfield. 0/2 in duels and conceded a foul.
Attacking MF/Forwards
Albert Dikwa  7 When you’re the designated central forward and you draw four fouls (and won 6 of 12 duels), you must be doing something right. Also, doing a lot of the ‘dirty work’ at the top for the Hounds. Not picking up goals/assists at high rate but he’s definitely contributing and drawing defenders. One of two shots were on target.
Alex Dixon  7 Hounds were active on the left side, as he had 30 passes and was involved winning 5 of 12 duels. One of two shots on target. Created one chance.  Two interceptions and drew one foul.
Russell Ciccerone 8 GOAL & ASSIST: Created a pair of chances; won 2 of 5 duels; relatively quieter night than usual for Hounds leading goal
Tommy Williamson (78′)  N/R
Josh Gatt (86′)  N/R
  

 

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).

Pittsburgh Division I College Soccer Schedule (Spring 2021)

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