While this may come as great disappointment to some, Lionel Messi is not coming to play for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC anytime soon, despite what some hopeful fans (and even the Riverhounds SC playing along) are touting on social media platforms on Thursday afternoon.
— Brandon Sofranko (@YouMeAndDupuis) August 5, 2021
Hounds fans: 🇦🇷, ⚽️ or 🍻?
If you could only pick one of these three, which would it be? 🤔
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) August 5, 2021
Being that the Hounds, led by veteran head coach Bob Lilley, are starting to enter the conversation as a legit USL Championship title contender is something Pittsburgh soccer fans should really be excited about.
Heading into the season, the Hounds brought back seven players from the 2021 roster.
This was partly by design and partly due to some familiar faces signing elsewhere.
While they were hoping to re-sign some key contributors from the past few years, notably Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Ryan James and Robbie Mertz, the reality was that the Hounds were left little choice but to retool much of its roster.
The Hounds brought back one forward (Albert Dikwa), three midfielders (Kenardo Forbes, Danny Griffin, Anthony Velarde), two wingers/outside backs (Jordan Dover, Dani Rovira) and one goalkeeper (Danny Vitiello).
The rest of the roster was filled with newcomers, as Lilley sought to rebuild with a new crop of high-line attackers, while strategically adding a veteran and a rookie addition to the midfield and completely overhauling with all new center backs.
Part of the Hounds early season struggles were directly correlated to two primary things: 1.) change in tactical approach 2.) roster overhaul
The results weren’t good in the first six matches as they started with a 2-3-1 record. Danny Vitiello, Danny Griffin, Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon showed individual brilliance at times, but the squad as a whole had not figured out how to connect the dots with regularity.
However, as the first half progressed, you could start to see that they were figuring things out.
The Hounds’ defense also had a lot of rotation, as from game-to-game they were tinkering between three-man center back alignments to four-man back lines. And many times, this would change within the flow of each game.
These are quintessential elements of Lilleyball which many of the newer players needed some time to adjust.
As pointed out in the midseason review piece earlier this week, they’re still very much a work-in-progress.
The good news for Pittsburgh soccer fans is that they’re only going to get better.
Position-By-Position Analysis & Player Grades:
Here’s a deeper look at the squad by position, and possibly what to expect in the second half of the season:
Albert Dikwa (C+)
key stats: 14 appearances (11 starts); 959 minutes; 2 goals, 3 assists; won 29 fouls; won 80 of 176 duels; 13 of 23 shots have been on target.
He did miss the first two games of the season, so it probably took him a little longer to get in sync. While he’s not scoring a lot of goals and he’s below his expected goals rate, Dikwa has been a reliable two-way starting top forward for this group who has played better of late. There have been some nights where he’s been drawing defenders to him, making efficient runs, drawing fouls and redistributing the ball effectively (has three assists). If he can improve on his conversation rate, Dikwa can play a key part in making the attack truly dynamic.
Russell Cicerone (A-)
key stats: 7 goals (team leading); 16 appearances (14 starts); 1,163 minutes; 14 of 24 shots have been on target
It’s been a monumental season through 16 games for Cicerone in terms of taking his goal scoring ability to another level. With his work-rate and ability to make effective runs behind defenders and fearlessness in taking on defenders, Cicerone has thrived under the current system scoring an impressive repetoire of goals as he’s no one-trick pony. While Dikwa has underachieved with his conversion rate, Cicerone has overachieved thus far this season. These things tends to even out through the course of a long season, but a double digit goal scoring output from Cicerone is looking good at this point.
Alex Dixon (A-)
key stats: 4 goals, 4 assists; 16 appearances (14 starts); 1,163 minutes; 14 of 24 shots have been on target; 27 crosses
While it’s been a breakout season for Cicerone, this has been one where Dixon, who was Hartford’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2020, added a savvy, veteran presence who’s become a valuable two-way player who can interchange between the midfield and higher spots as well as be efficient centrally as he is on the width.
This flexibility has allowed Dixon to be a dangerous presence from various places on the field both as a facilitator (tied as team leader with Kenardo Forbes with four assists and second in crosses with 27) and finisher (second on team with four goals). He’s also been the best on this team in winning balls back and in recoveries.
Dixon would have my vote for the team’s most valuable player due to his high-level of play, versatility, ability to win balls back and as a key connector (both as a creator and finisher). One player shouldn’t make a big difference, but he’s a big reason why they’re in first place in the Atlantic Division at midseason.
Tommy Williamson (B)
key stats: 2 goals, 2 assists; 12 appearances (4 starts)
It’s been a fairly impressive pro debut for Williamson, who was thrown into the fire, starting the Hounds first match of the season on the road at defending Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay, where he was arguably the Hounds brightest spot in the attack that night. Since then, he’s primarily come off the bench where he’s had some moments of impact. Williamson’s also made the most of his starts (scoring the game’s lone goal in road win at Indy Eleven). He’s also playing well enough to be pushing Albert Dikwa for the top spot on the depth chart.
Josh Gatt (D-)
key stats: 6 appearances (1 starts); two yellow cards
Gatt appeared in six matches, playing a total of 125 minutes while 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. Last week, the news came that Gatt was having surgery and would be out for the season.
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. That was his bright spot in an otherwise disappointing stint with the Hounds for the former U.S. National Team player.
Danny Griffin (B)
key stats: 16 appearances; 16 starts; team high 1,427 minutes; 2 goals; 78.5% passing accuracy; 29 interceptions, 21 tackles, 77 duels won
Griffin’s become the workhorse of this team. He’s played and started in each of the club’s 16 matches. His production has been steady, but not spectactular.
His consistency has been his forte, playing all but 13 minutes of the first half of the season. In the box-to-box midfield role, he’s done little bit of everything. His defensive credentials include 29 interceptions, 21 tackles won and 77 of 152 duels won, all among the top three on the team.
Mainly due to his extended playing time he leads the team in passes and passes completed. With a 72.2 percent completion rate on passes in the opponents half, also third on the team, he’s been efficient enough. His passing accuracy (78.5%) is behind Kenardo Forbes and Todd Wharton, but he’s being asked to do more of the dirty work this year and tends to send more longer passes than those two.
As PSN’s Jordan Smith pointed out in our Riverhounds Roundtable a few weeks ago, he suggested seeing Griffin get more involved in a playmaking role in the final third. The second-year pro from Providence has yet to register an assist this season and has just four key passes. That’s really the final piece of the puzzle to what would make him a more complete player.
Kenardo Forbes (B)
key stats: 4 assists; 15 appearances; 13 starts; 81.3% passing accuracy (678 passes); team high and 4th in USL Championship with 33 key passes; 6th in USLC w/ 77 crosses
Forbes, already the USL Championship’s all-time assists leader, became tops with the Riverhounds SC with 29 total helpers this season. This is pretty impressive number in four seasons in Pittsburgh. Things started off a bit slow for Forbes as he stuggled more than usual early in 2021. He’s really getting back to his usual top form in the past four or five games. His quality continues to show as he’s also become more important piece as he’s been more involved in the final third, playing higher up at times. Lilley will likely manage his minutes, especially during a busy August, but if Forbes brings his A-game he’s displayed much of his career and he stays healthy, he will be essential piece for the Hounds to make series noise in the postseason.
Todd Wharton (B)
key stats: 1 goal; 16 appearances; 11 starts; team high 82.3% passing accuracy (418 passes); Won 57 of 90 duels
As the season began, Wharton was coming off the bench in the first few games, but it became apparent the USL veteran would need to become a regular starter. He’s been versatile, starting both as a holding midfielder, but also at times switched over to a wing spot and as an outside back when needed. Wharton is an essential glue guy, who’s scored one goal and has been infrequently involved in getting forward — but extremely reliable when it comes to making the right decisions and extending possession, primarily from deeper positions.
Louis Perez (C+)
key stats: 2 goals; 11 appearances; 3 starts; 143 passes; 71.3% passing accuracy; won 25/43 duels
Another newer player who had a slow start, but with more playing time has gained more confidence. Scored two goals — and while he hasn’t registered an assist — has showed his creative ability and willingness to take chances to break down and out work defenders. This was evident when he kept ball alive on the end line and adding to pressure that resulted in Tommy Williamson’s late equalizer at Charleston.
Anthony Velarde (C+)
key stats: 2 goals; 1 assist; 15 appearances; 6 starts; won 22 of 63 duels; 4 of 7 shots on target; 218 passes; 75.7% passing accuracy
In this his third year with the Hounds, Velarde has become a reliable option to plug into the midfield or one of the attacking spots, mostly off the bench but also as a spot starter who makes the most of his chances (scoring twice, with four of his seven shots on frame). We’ll continue to see him as part of the rotation and as the Hounds push toward the postseason. It’s nice to have players like Velarde, who has experience and can provide quality contributions as a starter or to come off the bench for a spark.
Outside Backs / Wingers
Jordan Dover (INC)
key stats: 8 appearances; 5 starts; 484 minutes; 24 crosses; 9 key passes; 209 total passes (67.9% passing accuracy)
Even though he’s missed half the season, he’s still second on the team in crosses, which speaks volumes. When Dover’s on the field, he adds a solid two-way element on the width.
Dani Rovira (B-)
key stats: 14 appearances; 11 starts; 935 minutes; 1 assist; 426 passes (69% passing accuracy); 9 key passes; 24 crosses; 38 tackles’ won 67 of 145 duels
Much like Anthony Velarde, Rovira’s a third-year Hound who has become a reliable option on the width and has become extra valuable this season with Dover only getting five starts. His two-way work rate has been nothing short of solid, as he’s second on the club in tackles and has been involved by creating nine chances. Sitting on four yellow cards (one game away from automatic suspension).
Ezra Armstrong (INC)
key stats: 3 appearances; 23 minutes
Only three appearances, each time off the bench late in matches has not provided us with enough of a look at what Armstrong can do. He’ll have to be ready and prepared to shine if/when he gets his chances in the second half of the season.
Shane Wiedt (B+)
key stats: 16 appearances; 14 starts; 1,312 minutes (second on team); 4th in USL Championship & team high 62 clearances; 27 interceptions; won 64 of 111 duels
Despite a lot of movement on the back line, it’s been Wiedt, a former Pitt and Akron center back who played his first two pro seasons with Loudoun United, who’s become the constant for the Hounds defending group this season. He’s second lowest conceded goals per 90 minutes among Hounds’ defensive players (0.82 per 90 minutes),
His 62 clearances are more than the next two players combined — and is second on the team with 27 interceptions. He is third overall in aerial duels won with 38, but his 64.4 percent win rate is best on the team among players with more than 40 total aerial contests. We’ll see if he can continue to be one of the primary anchors for the Hounds defense as they hit the second half of the season.
Preston Kilwein (B-)
Key stats: 16 appearances; 12 starts; 18 clearances; 20 interceptions; 20 tackles; won 52 of 89 duels; 2 chances created; 7 crosses
After a few years with NY Red Bulls II, Kilwein has become a constant in Pittsburgh defense for Bob Lilley, flucuating between playing outside back and center back. He’s been effective in winning aeral duels (24 wins in 37 duels). While he’s been defending more, he’s also served up seven crosses and created two chances in his role as an outside back. Wondering if with his height and few times he’s come close, if he’s one of the defenders that can help more on set peices? His steady play and versatility will be counted on through the second half and into the postseason.
Mekeil Williams (B-)
Key stats: 14 appearances; 12 starts; 38 clearances; 18 interceptions; 18 tackles; won 60 of 109 duels
Williams probably would be right up there in overall team appearances and minutes if not for his absence during his experience playing with Trinidad and Tobago at the Gold Cup. The experienced former MLS defender has been steady in the back, but hasn’t stood out, and that’s probably fine. What the Hounds are missing, is having a center back who can come up and be a dangerous threat on set pieces. Sitting on four yellow cards, so he’ll have to be a little more cautious in the second half of the season.
Jelani Peters (C-)
Key Stats: 7 appearances; 5 starts; won 22 of 34 duels; 20 clearances; 15 interceptions
Peters didn’t get a lot of playing time, but when he did, he was both a strong, physical presence but also tainted by his red card he picked up for two reckless fouls in a short span in the win against Indy Eleven.
Jalen Robinson (B-)
Key stats: 12 appearances; 8 starts; 17 clearances; won 35 of 51 duels;
Picked up after the season began, the former DC United homegrown product was slow to get involved and become a contributor. With more starts and appearances, he’s begun to emerge as a potential key option in the back for Lilley.
Danny Vitiello (B+)
Key stats: 13 appearances; 13 starts; 12 goals allowed; 32 saves; 72.7% save percentage
The Hounds brought back Viitello because he had a strong short season in 2020 when given a chance to become the starter. He has not disappointed thus far in 2021 either. Lilley has said numerous times that the Hounds goalkeepers have bailed out mistakes made — as Vitiello has made some big saves this season (total of 32 saves good for 14th in USLC). There are a few goals he probably would like to have back, but overall he’s been solid. With a strong second half, he could very well be in the running for the Gold Glove Award for the second straight season.
Jake Leeker (C)
Key stats: 3 appearances; 3 starts; 4 goals allowed; 8 saves; 66.7% saves percentage
Leeker provided the Hounds first clean sheet of the season. Loss against Loudoun, probably would like to have back
Player Stats (2021 – through 16 games)
Riverhounds SC 2021 Schedule
|Date||Time||Opponent||Broadcast/Stream||Hounds||Opp||Man of Match||Goals|
|Sat., May 8||7:30 pm||at Tampa Bay Rowdies||22 The Point / ESPN+||0||3||Danny Vitiello|
|Sat., May 15||7 pm||at Hartford Athletic||22 The Point / ESPN+||1||1||Russell Cicerone||CIcerone, R|
|Sat., May 22||7 pm||Charlotte Independence||22 The Point / ESPN+||0||1||Danny Vitiello|
|Fri., May 28||7 pm||at New York Red Bulls II||ESPN+||3||0||Alex Dixon||Dixon, A; Cicerone (2); Griffin|
|Wed., June 2||7 pm||at Loudoun United FC||ESPN+||3||2||Alex Dixon||Velarde, A; Cicerone (3); Own Goal|
|Sun., June 6||6 pm||Austin Bold FC||22 The Point / ESPN+||0||1||Tommy Williamson|
|Sat., June 12||7 pm||Miami FC||22 The Point / ESPN+||1||1||Alex Dixon||Russell Cicerone (4)|
|Tues., June 15||8 pm||at Indy Eleven||ESPN Deportes / ESPN+||1||0||Danny Griffin||Tommy Williamson|
|Sat., June 19||7:30 pm||at Tampa Bay Rowdies||22 The Point||2||1||Russell Cicerone||Danny Griffin (2), Russell Cicerone (5)|
|Fri., June 25||7 pm||New York Red Bulls II||ESPN+||2||1||Todd Wharton||Todd Wharton, Albert Dikwa|
|Wed., June 30||7 pm||at Loudoun United FC||ESPN+||1||2||Louis Perez||Louis Perez|
|Sat., July 3||7 pm||Charlotte Independence||22 The Point||1||0||Albert Dikwa||Anthony Velarde (2)|
|Wed., July 7||7:30 pm||at Charleston Battery||ESPN+||1||1||Tommy WIlliamson||Tommy Williamson|
|Sat., July 17||7 pm||Loudoun United FC||22 The Point||1||0||Russell Cicerone||Russell Cicerone (6)|
|Fri., July 23||7 pm||at New York Red Bulls II||ESPN+||3||1||Alex Dixon||Alex Dixon (2), Albert Dikwa (2), Russell Cicerone (7)|
|Sat., July 31||7 pm||Hartford Athletic||22 The Point / ESPN+||3||1||Alex Dixon||Alex Dixon (3, 4); Louis Perez (2)|
|Fri., Aug. 6||7 pm||at Charleston Battery||ESPN+|
|Wed., Aug. 11||6 pm||Miami FC||ESPN+|
|Sat., Aug. 14||7 pm||at Charlotte Independence||22 The Point / ESPN+|
|Wed., Aug. 18||6 pm||Tampa Bay Rowdies||ESPN+|
|Sun., Aug. 22||6 pm||Atlanta United 2||22 The Point / ESPN+|
|Sat., Aug. 28||7 pm||at Hartford Athletic||22 The Point / ESPN+|
|Wed., Sept. 1||6 pm||New York Red Bulls II||ESPN+|
|Sat., Sept. 4||8:30 pm||at San Antonio FC||22 The Point / ESPN+|
|Sat., Sept. 11||7 pm||Loudoun United FC||22 The Point / ESPN+|
|Sat., Sept. 18||7 pm||at Charlotte Independence||22 The Point / ESPN+|
|Sat., Sept. 25||7 pm||Charleston Battery||22 The Point / ESPN+|
|Sat., Oct. 2||7:30 pm||at Miami FC||22 The Point / ESPN+|
|Sun., Oct. 10||TBD||Tampa Bay Rowdies||22 The Point / ESPN+|
|Sun., Oct. 17||7:30 pm||at Miami FC||22 The Point / ESPN+|
|Sat., Oct. 23||7 pm||Charleston Battery||22 The Point / ESPN+|
|Sat., Oct. 30||7 pm||Hartford Athletic||22 The Point / ESPN+|
|TBD||USL Cup Final|