Analysis & Player Grades – FINAL: Pittsburgh Riverhounds 3, NY Red Bulls II 1
Beating any team three times in the same season is never an easy task.
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC took care of business — but needed a strong second half to seal the deal in beating the NY Red Bulls II, 3-1, with goals from Alex Dixon, Russell Cicerone and Albert Dikwa at MSU Soccer Park on Friday evening.
In addtiion to each of their regular top line attackers scoring a goal, Kenardo Forbes added two assists to bring his USL Championship all-time leading total up to 43 helpers. With those two assists, he also became the Riverhounds SC’s all-time assists leader, with 29, surpassing Kevin Kerr.
Maybe more importantly, Forbes’ continued presence higher up in the attack may be the missing piece that helped get everyone else involved.
On Saturday, Tampa Bay Rowdies picked up another three points, beating Loudoun United FC, 3-1, to move back into a tie with the Hounds atop the USL Championship’s Atlantic Division, as both teams sit at 27 points. Pittsburgh has a 8-4-3 overall record, as Tampa has played one less match.
With wins against Loudoun and NY Red Bulls II in the past two matches, the Hounds are doing their part, but the schedule will be getting tougher.
On Friday, they were tested after taking the early lead, and coming out with a strong second half, they clearly were up to the challenge in beating a team on the road that has been on a three game unbeaten string.
Tactics & Formation
Pittsburgh came out in a 3-5-1-1 with three center backs and a crowded midfield that included a rotation of five players alternating spots at times.
It was yet another match where Forbes spent a lot of time higher up in the formation, but underneath Dikwa, while the rest of the midfielders and wingers rotating heavily throughout the match, with Danny Griffin and Todd Wharton playing deeper than Forbes in the center of the field — focusing on the box-to-box workload.
Maybe it was fitting that Forbes, who spent a lot of time playing deeper in the central midfield for much of his four-year run in Pittsburgh, has been playing in a role similiar to what Kevin Kerr did later in his career, a bit higher up as a savvy innovator and connector.
As the Hounds pushed forward for opportunities, it was, as expected, Cicerone and Dixon, with the most touches in and around the box among those starting out in the midfield rotation.
When things opened up and the match was played at a faster pace preferred by the Red Bulls, Wharton, Griffin and the wingers were pushed too far up field, as Pittsburgh left a bit too much room for the Sugar Free Red Bulls to take advantage of countering opportunities against the three-man back line of Wiedt, Robinson and Kilwien.
In the second half, the Hounds were more organized, as the Red Bulls had one good opportunity early when Jake LaCava slipped behind Wiedt, but VItiello came off his line effectively to make a nice save. Other than that, the Red Bulls were not able to muster another shot on frame.
The Hounds waited until later in the second half to use its subs, first bringing on Louis Perez, Anthony Velarde and Mekeil Williams in the 77th minute, then also brougth Tommy WIlliamson in the 82nd minute, then Erza Armstong for his second appearance with the club in the 87th minute.
Match Breakdown & Takeaways
A week ago Tuesday, Bob Lilley was asked about his key attacking players, particularly Albert Dikwa, Russell Ciceron and Alex Dixon. Despite flashes and signs of dynamic play to that point in the season, he still felt they weren’t doing enough.
‘In my opinion, none of them have nailed it yet,” Lilley exclaimed.
“They’ve worked hard. Overall, our personnel movement has been better. It wasn’t early in the first few games, but it’s been better of late. The standard that they have and that we have on them is very high. We’re pushing them. It’s go to be better. We keep pushing. We can pass through the lines better.”
Fast forward to Friday night — and the Hounds top line attackers found their groove in the Garden State.
In the early going, Dixon was the first to improve on his goal scoring numbers, notching his second of the season.
His tally came after quick build-up out of the back from the left side — through the middle to Forbes — and ended with the veteran forward using his creative talents in the final third to unleash a shot in the space provided against a team he’s had a lot of success against over the years.
.@alexdixon19 has now scored five goals in his career against the Red Bulls II, tied for the most against a single club alongside Real Monarchs SLC.
— Nicholas Murray (@NJEMurray) July 23, 2021
The Hounds started the match brightly, advancing into the final third a number of times in the first 10 minutes. They created the game’s opening goal after quickly building out of the back from their left side — then playing it through the center of the field to Kenardo Forbes, the USL Championship’s all-time assist leader. From there, Forbes didn’t waste any time to sent a ball to the right side for Alex Dixon, who then did all the work himself to score his second goal of the season.
While Pittsburgh had the edge and more scoring chances in the first 25 minutes, the Red Bulls kept trying to play their hectic style, pushing every chance they could get to get into the final third to create dangerous moments.
In the 27th minute, they broke through when midfielder Jake La Cava had too much room to advance into space, then sent a diagonal thru ball to split the Hounds backs to find Omar Sowe on the right edge toward the end line. Hounds keeper Danny Vitiello came out to cut Sowe’s angle, but Sowe managed to find enough space to deliver a perfectly placed shot that barely rolled into the goal, just inside the left post.
That goal was a combination of the three-man back line and Vitiello being compromised and getting stretched as the Hounds midfield didn’t get back behind the ball quick enough (always tough against RBII).
Despite his stellar play in the central midfield, Forbes hadn’t scored a goal since the 2019 season, but he was sniffing a few in this match.
In the 43rd minute, he came close, but his finish after a nice, low cross from Dixon was waved off, as the flag was up.
The Hounds were outplayed on the stat sheet in the first half, conceding the possession battle (52%/48%), shots (6-5, 2-2 on target) and corners (2-0), but despite this, a team that’s been growing in confidence on both sides of the ball, did what they had to do to sieze the match in the second half, pushing for the go-ahead goal.
Cicerone had a nice individual effort to create a shot opporutnity in box despite a bunch of defenders in front of him in the 48th minute.
The Hounds took the lead in the 52nd minute on another assist from Forbes, who left the creative work again to the finisher. In this case it was Cicerone, who made a nice move to his left to get around a defender and the Red Bulls II keeper A.J. Marcucci for his career high and team leading seventh goal of the season.
The Hounds completed the scoring when Dikwa made a well-timed run into the goal box to get to a cross from Dixon, from the right side, after a quick build up.
Heading into the match, Dikwa had only scored once this season, despite an expected goals rate of nearly four (as pointed out by PSN’s Mark Goodman in the Riverhounds Roundtable on Pittsburgh Sports Live a few weeks ago). It was the second goal of season Dikwa, which had to be a big confidence boost for the 23-year old from Cameroon. His work-rate continues to keep him in the line-up (in this match he won 10 of 14 duels and earned a team-high five fouls).
Dixon tacked on his fourth assist of the season, and with 53 total passes, it’s clear that the Hounds are still looking to play through him in the final third. They’ll need to keep getting the ball to Dixon and Forbes more and more — and good things will happen.
Viitello also made a nice save on LaCava that could have equalized the match in the middle of the second half, and made things a lot more interesting.
Despite allowing things to open up a bit in the last part of the first half, the Hounds completely controlled the tempo of the match in the second half, which had to make its veteran, Hall of Fame coach pretty happy.
“I thought in the second half, we did better managing the game,” said Lilley. “We got quality looks, we were more connected, we defended better, and we connected passes better. … We cleaned things up and were a lot tighter. We connected when we won balls, we found outlets and used the wide areas. We ran into problem losing little balls in the middle of the field in the first half, and sometimes you just have to hit the ball out wide and trust that someone is going to be out there where they’re supposed to be.”
It wasn’t pretty. They could have had more possession, set up more corners, had more accurate passing, still need to be more dangerous on set pieces and play a more complete match defensively. But, they conceded some of those things to exploit the openings that came and they capitalized on those moments. Pittsburgh showed plenty of resolve in generating more dynamic play from the guys who they’re counting on to score and create goals, but also closed out this match very effectively.
While Lilley will always find plenty to nit-pick and things to point to where the Hounds can get better, unlike the previous week’s result against Loudoun United FC, there wasn’t much hallow about earning these three points.
(out of 10)
Key Stats / Notes
|Danny Vitiello||6||Conceded one that he probably would like to have back, but also made three saves and was solid as usual. He’s back in contention for the golden glove too.|
|Shane Wiedt||7||Another steady performance. Won 3 of 5 duels. Three clearances, two interceptions. Most passes out of the back (key against NYRBII) — with 44 (66%).|
|Preston Kilwien||6.5||Against former team had two tackles, three interceptions and three clearances. Won 3 of 3 duels. 27 passes (66%)|
|Jalen Robinson||6||Making his case for regular starting role? 2 tackles, team high 5 clearances and 3 interceptions. Won 4 of 7 duels.|
|Mekiel Williams||n/r||First appearance since returning from Gold Cup action with Trinidad and Tobago|
|Ezra Armstrong||n/r||Only his second appareance this season. Came on late.|
|Danny Griffin||5||Won 3 of 5 duels. Passing accuracy down (71%), 9 of 42 passes were longer (diagonal attempts to width mostly). Yellow Card.|
|Todd Wharton||8||Quietly had a very good game as steady presence in the middle. Won 8 of 8 duels. Had team-high seven interceptions. Created one chance, one successful cross, 82% passing. Was valuable in a match when Hounds needed efficient passing and win battles to deny offset RBII press and counter chances.|
|Dani Rovira||4.5||Won 2 of 7 duels. Stayed mostly on the left side — but not involved too much in final third of attack. Only 57% passing accuracy. and conceded three fouls — including a Yellow Card booking.|
|Louis Perez (78′)||n/r|
|Anthony Velarde (78′)||n/r|
|Kenardo Forbes||7.5||2 ASSISTS. Created four chances. Won 8 of 15 duels. Rare lower passing accuracy night — for him (72%) — but in higher spot taking more chances. 41 of 42 passes were short. Nearly had first goal since 2019, but called off side.|
|Russell Ciccerone||7||GOAL 3 shots on target. Won 10 of 15 duels.|
|Albert Dikwa||7.5||GOAL Created one chance. Won 10 of 14 duels — including winning five fouls.|
|Alex Dixon||8.5||GOAL/ASSIST Very involved on right side exploiting space provided by RBII. Created two chances. Won 7 of 11 duels. Team high 53 passes. On goal, he didn’t show any hesitation to find spot to deliver quality shot.|
|Tommy WIlliamson (82′)||n/r|