When the Riverhounds SC face Hartford Athletic this Saturday evening, they’ll reach the halfway point in the 32-game season.
Coming off back-to-back wins against Loudoun United and NY Red Bulls II, one that Head Coach Bob LIlley wasn’t pleased with, and the other which he had more positive things to say, the Hounds are currently tied atop the Atlantic Division with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, with Hartford sitting in third, just four points off the lead.
“We’re looking at a big game versus Hartford this week. They’re playing well and they’re right behind us in the standings,” Lilley said.
The Hounds have trained this week on Monday and Tuesday, while taking a break on Wednesday, then they’re back at it on Thursday and Friday to prepare for Hartford, who they played to a disappointing 1-1 draw back in week two.
Coming out of Lilley’s weekly Zoom call with the media, the news for Hounds fans from Lilley about his club’s injury report was a mixed bag.
Gatt Out For the Season; Dover Training Again With Team
Lilley shared initially that Jordan Dover, who made his 100th appearance with the club in June, but has been out of the lineup for much of the season, took part in training with the team in two sessions this week.
“He got through a few sessions. He looked more confident. We hope to get him back soon. He’ll provide another option for us, hopefully get him to make contributions.”
Lilley said that we’ll likely see Dover in a substitute role when he’s ready to get on the field in games.
The rough news came when Lilley followed up his update on Dover’s status by sharing that Josh Gatt had surgery and would be out for the season.
Gatt, who formerly played with Minnesota and Colorado in Major League Soccer, came back to the U.S. this year following sporadic appearances for clubs in Austria and Ireland while determined to prolong career.
He was hoping for a fresh start with the Riverhounds.
Through the first half of 2021 season in Pittsburgh, Gatt battled to get acclimated with his new club.
“It was tough for him. He’s had so many injuries. It was also a period of adjustment for him,” Lilley said. “He’s a lively player. Our hopes, were that he could be a player who could stretch defenses with his pace. Score goals. Do the unexpected.”
Gatt appeared in six matches, starting once in the Hounds 2-1 win at Indy Eleven — but ultimately didn’t make a splash that the Hounds had hoped either as a starter or an impact player off the bench.
In the Indy match, when the Hounds were counting on using more squad rotation during a busy stretch of games, Gatt showed his quality, versatility and experience, starting at right back/wing, as he delivered five crosses, created one chance and had 83% passing accuracy.
In total, Gatt played 125 total minutes with the Hounds this season.
Prior to coming to the Hounds, the former U.S. National team player endured three knee surgeries.
With another surgery to recover from, the 29-year old’s pro soccer future is uncertain.
Three Hounds Earn Team of the Week Honors
While the Hounds haven’t made a big splash thus far this season with making appearances on the USL Championship’s Team of the Week, three players were recognized for last week’s performances against NY Red Bulls II: Alex Dixon, Kenardo Forbes and Todd Wharton.
Forbes recorded a pair of assists — tacking on to his USL Championship-leading all-time total to 43 and surpassing Kevin Kerr’s top mark in club history, reaching 29 with the Riverhounds. The veteran from Jamaica also had six key passes overall in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 victory against the New York Red Bulls II on Friday night while also winning 3 of 4 tackles.
Among the candidates for Player of the Week, Dixon had a goal and assist and also won 7 of 11 duels and made 13 recoveries defensively in a fine two-way performance. Dixon had a team high 53 passes. On his goal, he didn’t show any hesitation to get to and find the opening to deliver quality shot from just inside the 18.
In addition, Todd Wharton, earned a spot on the Team of the Week bench as steady presence alternating between midfield spots on the width and as a holding midfielder. Wharton 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.
More From Lilley’s Press Conference
Following rumblings from last week’s USL Mid-Summer meetings in San Antonio, LIlley was asked about his thoughts about promotion/relegation system, which league officials proposed as something they could bring to a vote as early as next year, with potential implementation in the years ahead.
“I’ve been aware that the league’s looking into it. Honestly, I haven’t put any real thought into it. There are certain positives. It’s great for the teams could have an opportunity to be promoted. I am not sure if it’s in our best interests. I’ll have to look at it more, but as of now, I am looking at a big game against Hartford on Saturday.”
On the upcoming schedule…
“We’re looking at, after we play Hartford, an eight-game stretch between August 6 and early September, which will make up our third quarter of the season. It’s important that we get a result against Hartford. We’ll only have a small break after that game, then we have an important stretch. We are going to have to grind out results. If we have a strong showing, we can do our part to secure home field advantages for the playoffs.
What have been the most pleasant developments to this point of the season?
“Some players are starting to get more confidence as they become more familiar with our system.”
“Jalen Robinson has played more of late. He reads the game well. Has been more consistent. Louis Perez, Tommy Williamson are starting to adjust and grow. They’re starting to make more of an impact.”
“We’re getting stronger as a group. The performances are getting better. We won some games with average performances. We hung on. Against New York (Red Bulls II, on Friday), we started well, then fell off, but it was the first time this season, we reasserted ourselves as the game went on. (I was) really happy with the second half. We managed the game well. That’s a good sign. Especially on the road. If we don’t show up in that second half, we don’t win.”
“Look we had a poor performance the week before (in 1-0 win) against Loudoun. But we rebounded against New York. We stepped up. They were in good form. We knew it was never going to be easy.”
“We want to keep the momentup going against Hartford. We will put out a strong side against Hartford. We’re going to need to get contributions from everyone on our roster. We’ll need to go 18, 19 players deep as we approach this stretch of games in August. It’s a big challenge for us. If we do well, it will set us up for success in our final stretch.”
Kenardo Forbes playing higher up on the pitch, is that something we’ll see more of?
“Yes and no.”
“The good thing is that he’s versatile. We can play him high, wide, deeper. When he plays deeper he still has moments in helping create dangerous chances. Sometimes he’s more of an extra defender, but we lose the attacking moments from him. What we’ve tried to get from him when he plays higher, to help in those moments when we get in the box, add that quality. But he also can help with playing it out of the back too. He’s given a lot of respect on both ends of the field. When he’s next to Danny Griffin, he can push higher, take a gamble.”
“Earlier in the year, he was tentative. He wasn’t quite there yet. We’ve put him in different positions. He’s in a good rhythm now.”
On making adjustments in NY Red Bulls II match
“The other day, Todd (Wharton) started out as a wing back, but by the second half, we flipped him and Dani Rovira. New York crowds the middle of the field. We needed more possession, and Todd helped us with that.”
“Dixon played out wide. It worked well. He had a goal and an assist. We want players to interchange. When we get into this busy stretch in August it’s going to be important to be good in possession. We’ll have to have a lot of the ball.”
“Kenny is the conduit for us. We’ll have to slow the tempo down at times, to dictate terms of the match. He really helps us in that way.”
Addressing team’s lack of productivity on set pieces — have the Hounds under performed in execution or not generated enough chances?
“That’s on us. I’ve got to do a better job. I don’t know if we’ve spent enough time on this. We definitely need to work on this. We continue to address this in training. But we have to be better. We’ve been pretty good in defending against set pieces, but we want to be more dangerous.”
“It’s a work in progress.”
What other areas you’d like to see improvement?
“We need to get better defensively. With our decision making. We have to hold on to the ball. We’ve picked too many low percentage passes too frequently. We have a lot of work to do in this area. Don’t think the guys aren’t surprised either.”
“I am not happy with the conversion rate either. We’re working on it. Some of the (defensive) breakdowns, are not happening as frequently. It’s been nice to see the goalkeepers have come up with some big saves when we need them. We’ve seen some good performances. We’re still getting beat behind. We’ve got to tighten up. We have to be more mindful. If we’re sitting still, we’re falling behind.”
“We want to be a top-level team. We have to manage situations better. We were exposed a lot early on (in the season). We’ve grown a lot since then.”
“When there’s a 60-yard straight ball over the top, we are sometimes slow to recognize at times. We have to react quicker. There are moments where we diagnose them quickly. But we’ll continue to look at video, see what we have to clean up.”
“Every team is improving. Hartford comes in here with a very high conversion rate. They’ve scored big goals in big moments this year. They scored late in our match and it cost us a win. We have to be able to manage that. Defend well. Limit chances. And grow the lead.”
“As difficult as August is going to be, it will be a good barometer for our group. It’s going to take everyone. Everyone is going to have to deliver. To me, this is the next step. We have to get results. If we do, it sets us up for a strong finish.”
Exploring the Hounds Current Depth Chart
Lilley emphasized the importance for his club’s roster depth as he’s expecting a grind to the third quarter of the season, with an eight-game span that will be sandwiched in a one-month period between early August and early September.
With Jelani Peters and Mekeil Williams back from Gold Cup, the Hounds have lots of options at center back, but also numerous players who have been used in multiple roles.
Here’s a look at the Hounds most up-to-date roster and where (according to our unofficial calculations) players appear to fit on the team’s depth chart.
|F1||Russell Cicerone (M)|
|F3||Alex Dixon (M)|
|F6||Josh Gatt (out for season)|
|M- also have played in midfield|
|MF1||Kenardo Forbes (F)|
|MF3||Todd Wharton (D/OB)|
|MF4||Anthony Velarde (F)|
|MF5||Louis Perez (F)|
|F- also played at forward|
|D- also played as defender|
|OB- also played as outside back|
|OB1||Dani Rovira (M)|
|OB3||Jordan Dover (injury)|
|(M) also played midfield|
|CB3||Preston Kilwien (OB)|
|OB- also played at outside back|