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Analysis & Player Grades: Hounds rookies provide late spark at Charleston

Photo courtesy Charleston Battery / USL Championship

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds salvaged its first trip to the Low Country this season on Wednesday afternoon, in a match that was moved up due to the impending Tropical Storm Elsa when Tommy Williamson scored in the 85th minute, as the match ended in a 1-1 draw against Old Guard Shield rival Charleston Battery at Patriots Point Soccer Complex in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

Hounds Notebook: Old Guard Shield rivalry lives on

The match started at 4 p.m. instead of the originally scheduled 7:30 because of the approaching Tropical Storm Elsa.

Playing in the late afternoon in South Carolina in July is not exactly the most ideal of circumstances, but the teams got after it in what proved to be a pretty intense match between two teams coached by USL legends who know each other all-to-well.

“I think it was 86 degrees at kickoff, but it was super-humid, and they said it felt like 97. (Charleston is) used to it, but they were missing some guys today, and they sat back a lot and countered,” Riverhounds Head Coach Bob Lilley said.

Despite allowing an early goal to The Battery in the ninth minute when Geobel Pérez scored after breaking in behind the Hounds’ defense, the Hounds (now 6-4-3, remaining in second place behind Tampa Bay Rowdies) controlled play with 69 percent of possession, mounting a huge advantage in connecting 596 passes to 277 for the Battery.

With the draw, the Hounds complete a hectic stretch of 10 matches in 40 days with a 6-2-2 record.

And for the first time this season, they found an equalizing goal that held up trailing in a match.

Tactics & Formation

One of the game announcers mentioned the Hounds came out in a 3-6-1, but it really was more of a 4-2-3-1, as Kenardo Forbes was in the attacking central midfield spot.  Charleston, wtih five players on the injury report, came out in a 3-5-2, that wasn’t intent on pressuring Pittsburgh’s backs or midfielders, but instead would look to hit back on counter chances.

Much like the last time they started in the same lineup with Forbes, Danny Griffin and Todd Wharton dropped into deeper spots as the holding midfield pairing, allowing for the senior member of the group, Forbes, to have more freedom to connect and work with Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon to give the Hounds a dynamic trio final third.

With this starting group on the field, Pittsburgh played a strong possession game — but especially early — weren’t as opportunistic as they should have been.

Pittsburgh’s central midfield controlled the middle of the field — as Forbes (80) and Griffin (76) combined for an astounding156 passes — while Todd Wharton (37 passes) stayed the deepest of the three.  In addition, Forbes and Wharton had over 90% passing accuracy.

Here’s a touch map for the three central mids in this match — as you can see they worked mostly from box-to-box.

The Hounds started with backline for this match consisted of Mekiel Williams and Jalen Robinson flanked by Dani Rovira and Preston Kilwien, who would be replaced by Shane Wiedt in the 64th minute.

First-year pro Louis Perez, who started in the previous two matches and has been starting to build confidence in his game, came off the bench in the 64th minute for Rovira, as the Hounds moved to adding more attacking options and a three-man back line for the latter part of the match.

In addition, Hounds brought in Anthony Velarde (for Wharton) and San Jose Earthquakes 2021 First-Round SuperDraft selection and loanee Tommy Williamson (for Robinson) in the 81st minute — to help fuel the push for the equalizer.

Match Breakdown & Takeaways

First half

The Hounds last line of defense got caught napping early as Nicque Daley won possession just inside his own half of the field.

Daley sent a long pass forward to hit Geobel Pérez in stride — as Dani Rovira turned out to be the nearest Hounds defender.  Pérez slipped through behind the left side of the Hounds defense, as he had room to get in a one-on-one situation with Hounds keeper Danny Vitiello.

Vitiello came off his line to get a touch on Pérez’s first shot, but the rebound dropped right back into the Battery player’s path for an easy finish.

The Hounds as a unit were not quick enough to stay in front of the ball as Daley forced everyone wearing a white shirt into retreat mode as they were already behind the play.  Seeing this, Vitiello must have felt as if he had no choice but to come way off his line to deny a shot chance, but even as he got a hand on the first shot attempt, he got caught in an awkward position where he couldn’t possibly recover.

For the most part, the Hounds shook it off and were dictating tempo and keeping the ball without much pressure, but Charleston continued to get forward on more counter chances despite being outpossessed.

The Battery ended the first half with 7-4 (4-1 on target) shots advantage even though it still felt as if Pittsburgh were controlling the match.

The Hounds’ back line players all were passing at an accuracy rate of over 86%!

The Hounds couldn’t take advantage of its first half opportunities.

They almost tied the match on Mekeil Williams’ header from a corner kick that came from Kenardo Forbes in the 16th minute, only to have the goal scorer, Pérez, head it off the goal line.

Alex Dixon came close for the Hounds a minute before halftime, as his left-footed volley from a sharp angle struck the crossbar and bounded away, leaving the Hounds trailing 1-0 at half.

Second half

The Hounds began the second half with a sense of urgency, which I am sure pleased Head Coach Bob Lilley, who had his concerns a few times about playing with lack of urgency, especially when they’ve fallen behind.

“It’s easy to pass the ball around in front of them, but at some point you have to get behind them. We didn’t push through enough to bother them in the first half, but we talked about it at halftime and did a much better job of it in the second half.

Russell Cicerone forced a close-range save by Battery goalkeeper Joe Kuzminsky on a low feed from Dixon.

As the half progressed, and the Hounds were controling things through the middle (they held the ball for 72 percent of the time) they appeared to be on path to another match where they couldn’t overcome a deficit.,

In each of their four losses (Tampa debacle in the opener, 1-0 to Charlotte, 1-0 to Austin and 2-1 at Loudoun United FC), the only time they found an equalizer all season after trailing was at Loudoun, when Louis Perez scored in the 48th minute.

For most of the match, Pittsburgh couldn’t get one past Kuzminsky (who was solid with five saves). They brought more attacking options off the bench, as Lilley turned to a few younger, first-year pros to give his team a spark.

Perez was added as an attacking option on the wing, while after coming on in the 81st minute, Williamson and Velarde had an immediate impact.

In the 85th minute, WIlliamson did some excellent work in the left corner to maintain possession with two defenders on him before finally clipping the ball to Louis Pérez in space.

Pérez carried the ball toward the goal line and sent a cross toward goal, but the Battery defense was there to block the pass. Williamson, staying with the play, recovered the ball after it had been blocked away and struck a powerful right-footed shot into the top right corner of the net.

The goal was Williamson’s second of the season, and boy was it a laser.

Williamson did a nice job to keep the play alive, then had the confidence and swagger to play the back heel through the defenders which found its way to Perez in the open area.  By taking the ball to the end line, then attempting a cross, Perez’s effort allowed Williamson to follow the play effectively.  The former Cal-Berkley star was Tommy on the spot — and showed his finishing ability with a fabulous one-time strike.

“We had some good chances and got one goal,” Lilley added. “It’s not one point we wanted, we wanted all three, but to get something from the game was important. … We were in that situation (against a team sitting back) against Austin and again when we tied Miami, and we didn’t get a goal then, so that’s progress for me.”

Lilley has seen some of his youngest, attacking players continue to get better and grow as players in his system over the course of first part of the 2021 season. The is a positive sign for a team that will need options, depth and creativity when it matters most.  The Hounds have struggled to break through when trailing in matches early this season (or when playing up a man) when teams would stack the box. Last year that was a problem too. Twice now in the past three matches when trailing, they’ve come up with equalizers.

“(Williamson) came in and was lively, and he took his chance well. At that point in the game, it was scramble mode, and we knew a goal would probably be a scramble play. We did well to keep pressure on the ball. … Louis (Pérez) came on and did well giving us service from the left side, and Anthony (Velarde) came in and moved the ball well,” Lilley said.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and we thought we deserved a few free kicks around the box, maybe a penalty, but Tommy, after he released the ball, he continued with play into the box and hit a good shot.”

What’s next?

After a grueling stretch, the Hounds will get 10 days off between games before hosting Loudoun United FC at 7 p.m. July 17 at Highmark Stadium. Loudoun (2-8-0) remains at the bottom of the Atlantic Division but got the better of the Hounds in their last meeting, 2-1, on June 30 in Virginia.

Player Grades 

Player Grade

 (out of 10)

Key Stats / Notes 
Danny Vitiello 5 Had four saves.  The goal he may have misjudged and then over-run the play a bit as he had so much momentum coming out.
Mekiel Williams   6.5 Was up there in pass attempts (second only to Forbes with 79) — as Hounds comfortably played the ball out of the back without a lot of pressure.  Had three clearances and nearly scored on corner kick in from Forbes in first half.  The central back line could have reacted quicker to tighten things up in the back on Charleston’s counter chances especially on the goal.
Jalen Robinson 6 Won 10 of 13 duels.  Same as above re: tightening things in the back on the counter chances for Charleston.
Dani Rovira  5 One of two crosses were successful.  It was Rovira who tried to chase down Perez on Charleston’s goal as the Hounds back line as a unit struggled to react to Charleston’s counter chance and long pass.  Two tackles.
Preston Kilwien  6 57 passes. Won 4 of 9 duels. Kilwien got forward a few times, but didn’t have an impact in attack (only one unsuccessful cross). Two tackles, one interception.
 Shane Wiedt 5 One tackle, one interception. Hounds went to 3 man back line after the subs.
Central Midfield
Kenardo Forbes  9 One of, if not his most influential game of the season. He completed 69 of 76 passes (90.8 percent), 54 of which came in the Charleston half of the field, and he led the team with seven crosses (four that connected) and 96 total touches.
Danny Griffin 7.5 78 passing accuracy. Logged a lot of the dirty work (as usual) and completed 76 passes, 3 tackles and won 7 of 11 duels
Todd Wharton  6.5 played right in front of back line most of match — doesn’t make a lot of bad decision. Of 37 passes — 36 were short and mostly worked through Forbes and Griffin.
Anthony Velarde (78′) 6 added much needed energy, accurate passing late when needed
Louis Perez (64′) 7.5 Continues solid form — after two starts he shows he can come off the bench and be part of providing spark for late equalizer.
Attacking MF/Forwards
Albert Dikwa  5 Won only one of eight duels, but kept battling.
Alex Dixon  6.5  The quality of play was there.  2 of 4 successful crosses.  Won five of seven duels, created three chances and had one shot (or cross??) off the bar.
Russell Ciccerone 5.5 Two shots, one on target that forced a nice save in early 2nd half.  Felt like Hounds leading goal scorer wasn’t involved enough though.
Tommy Williamson  8 GOAL — talk about making the most of his chance.  Hounds needed that goal.

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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