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Analysis & Player Grades: Cicerone, Dixon stay hot as Hounds add more points in the bank

Most soccer fans attending or tuning into the Riverhounds SC-Charleston Battery match on Friday night were treated to a contest that had a little bit of everything.

  • An early free kick goal.
  • A penalty in the box — followed up by a conversion from the spot by one of the USL Championship’s top goal scorers.
  • A goal in 1st half stoppage time coming from deft one-two touch passing, excellent off the ball movement and terrific spacing that led to clinical finish.
  • An early second half goal  following a hairy sequence in the box to equalize the match again.
  • A brilliant strike by one of the league’s hottest players for the game-winner.
  • A red card

And for good measure, the game’s last sequence featured a goalie-on-goalie foul, as the Hounds held on for an eventful 3-2 win at Patriots Point Soccer Complex.

Final: Riverhounds 3, Charleston Battery 2

This win keeps the Riverhounds SC (10-4-3, 33 points) atop the USL Championship’s Atlantic Division standings — as they’re three points clear of Tampa Bay who also won on Saturday.  The Hounds have now won four matches in a row and they extended their unbeaten streak to six games.

It was just the fourth-ever win for the club at Charleston (6-6-3, 21 points) in a series that dates back to 1999, the Hounds’ inaugural season.

The Hounds’ seized and made the most of their chances, and once again, it was Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon adding to their impressive goal-scoring resumes for the season.

It was a win for the Hounds, but Head Coach Bob Lilley had valid reasons for not being happy with his team, once again keeping his players on the field for a long period of time after the match.

From LIlley’s perspective, his team struggled to dictate terms of the match allowing for it to be more open-ended and a back-and-forth, tense affair than the veteran coach wanted against a shorthanded Charleston squad.

“I think we were poor in a lot of areas,” Lilley said after the match. “We were fortunate. We scored three goals, but we didn’t create a lot of chances outside of the goals, and we gave up some soft goals.”

Tactics and Formation 

As we’ve come to expect from Lilley, the Hounds added a bunch of wrinkles to the starting lineup and formation.

Getting the start included two first-year players: Louis Perez and Tom Judge.

Perez lined up at the top of the 4-4-2 along with Cicerone, as Albert Dikwa wasn’t available for selection (and wasn’t on the Hounds injury report either — maybe a question for Coach Lilley this coming week?).

On the other side, Charleston were missing six players, with some of them out due to COVID-19 protocols, as Lilley clarified that in his postgame comments.

Unfortunately for Judge, in making his first start with the Riverhounds, he had to come off early in the match after suffering a head injury, forcing the Hounds to bring Dani Rovira to take his place.

The Hounds began their sub rotations with Shane Wiedt and Anthony Velarde coming on in the 71st minute (for Rovira, who picked up a yellow card early in the match, and Louis Perez).  Ezra Armstrong and Jelani Peters also were brought into the match in the 79th minute for Mekeil Williams and Russell Cicerone.

Because Judge came out with a head injury, the Hounds did have an extra substitution, but they didn’t use it as they closed out the match playing with a man-advantage, as Charleston’s Stavros Zarokostas was sent off for his second yellow card.

Match Takeaways

Things started off a bit rocky for Pittsburgh, even before surrendering the first goal of the match.

They created a terrific early chance on a build-up through the right side, which ended with a low, lining cross from Alex Dixon, but Louis Perez and a Charleston defender were tangled up and couldn’t get to it at the far post.  Perez pleaded for a foul, but the official wouldn’t comply.

As mentioned above, Judge, a second round MLS Draft selection of Nashville SC who was brought over on loan, took an early knock and was bloodied, needing assistance from the Hounds training staff.  He continued on intially, but would have to come off after a second collision.

The Hounds had a shaky moment when center back Mekeil Williams, under pressure, played the ball back with his feet to Danny Vitiello with Nicque Daley closing in.  Vitiello had no choice but to attempt to clear the ball away with his head, which he was able to do, but Daley collided with the Hounds keeper, and was correctly called for a foul.  Still, it was too close for comfort.

Rovira was immediately compromised when Dionysius Harmon got behind him on the edge of the box in the 17th minute, drawing foul and a yellow car booking.

This set up a dangerous free kick for Charleston, as Logan Gdula was on the receiving end of a well-placed Zeiko Lewis free kick to deliver a header goal that gave Charleston an early 1-0 edge.

It was a well-executed and hard-lining free kick to the near post area. The Hounds were caught a bit flat-footed and they were too slow to react.  Man-marking of Gdula should have been better as he got loose, but it was a nice effort by him to get to the ball before goalkeeper Danny Vitiello.

Ironically, in his last media zoom call, Lilley praised his defense for defending well on set pieces this year.  That wasn’t the case in this sequence.

Once again, as they have in three of the previous six matches, found an equalizer after surrendering a first half goal. This time the response was immediate.

Russell Cicerone’s penalty kick goal was a result of the Hounds prescise passing in a fairly crowded box. Todd Wharton won a ball back, then from the right edge of the box, sent a low pass through to Dixon in the center area.  Cicerone quickly played a very short pass to Kenardo Forbes, who was making a run to the spot in front of the goal box.  Forbes was taken down by Gdula to set up the penalty.

Pittsburgh owned possession for the remainder of the first half, but they couldn’t capitalize until stoppage time when they did a nice job of picking apart Charleston, using precise one-two touch passing, excellent spacing, movement off the ball and a clinical finish.

It started with Perez on the left sideline, who played a simple ball back to Kenardo Forbes, who was unmarked about 28 yards from goal.

Forbes had enough time and space to do this thing. Here’s what he saw as he turned his head up and looked to find an opening behind the three defenders that stood about 10 yards in front of him.

With Charleston reacting too slow to pressure Forbes, the USL’s all-time assist leader fed a nice ball to the left side of Rovira, so he could advance into an open space while shifting the defensive shape away from the box a bit more.

Sure enough, Rovira, with a few touches, took the ball to the end line, then found a seam where he could cut the ball back to the middle, while Russell Cicerone made his run to the near post, drawing another defender away from the middle.  This created an opening for Alex Dixon, who would waltz right into the middle of the box without any resistance and a big opening in front of the net.

Dixon kept proper spacing between the last defender on his side and midfielder Stavros Zarokostas while Todd Wharton was also trailing the play from the central midfield.

Again, the Hounds were let down by suspect defending as Charleston responded after the second half started with a goal that could have easily been prevented.

A wild scramble in the box ended with Romario Piggott applying the final touch right at the goal line after the ball trickled behind Hounds goalie Danny Vitiello.

The Hounds let Charleston penatrate through the middle of the box, then all kinds of chaos ensued.  Williams and Kilwein each tried to step in to deny Nicque Daley.  They squeezed him but the ball came to Stavros Zarokostas who reacted by trying to tap it through, but it was partially stopped by Vitiello.  Piggott was there though to make sure the ball made it over the end line.

“We gave up some soft goals,” Lilley conceded after the match. “We gave up a free kick that nobody marked the man, and then we had a center back dribbling through the box against us. The game was played in a manner that was beneficial to Charleston, not so much us.”

Four goals for each side in a span of 47 minutes wasn’t exactly the type of match that made Lilley comfortable.  He would let his players hear about it after the match, with another long postgame talk.

Once again, the Hounds responded with heavy bouts of possession and a couple of additional chances coming from Perez and Cicerone.

In the 65th minute, it was Dixon who put the Hounds ahead for good.

Cicerone, playing in a higher, more central spot on this night, was redistributing more balls to both sides at times.  In this case, he played an accurate switch to the right side for Dixon, who found some room to get into the edge of the box, then fired a laser into the upper part of the net.

It wasn’t an easy angle as the defender forced Dixon to take a wider approach. Still, the veteran found just enough room to bury the shot.

For Dixon, who’s been in the running for USL Player of the Week the previous two weeks for his continued stellar play, tallied his sixth goal of the season and fifth in the past three games to stay on an impressive hot steak.

The quick, diagonal ball in the final third from Cicerone to Dixon brought back flashes of how former Kevin Kerr and Rob Vincent would constantly find each other on either side of the field during their magnificient season in 2015.

Together, thus far this season, Cicerone and Dixon have combined for 14 goals and eight assists after 17 games.  Other than Kerr and Vincent’s torrid campaign, which saw the duo bag a combined 28 goals and 15 assists in league play, the other dynamic duos have included Kerr and Corey Hertzog in 2016-2017 and Jose Angulo and Matt Dallman, who led the USL in goals and assists in 2013 during a shorter season.

Following Dixon’s goal, the Hounds managed to protect a precarious one-goal lead, despite some nervy moments.

Battery finished the game playing with 10 men after Zarokostas was issued a second yellow card in the 79th minute. Still, Charleston continued to push.

Vitiello made a tough save on a Geobel Pérez header in the 86th minute, and the match ended after Vitiello was fouled by opposing keeper Lewis on a late corner kick, as the Battery threw all 11 players forward in the waning moments.

“I don’t think we completed passes well enough, and we missed (Albert) Dikwa. We didn’t hold on to the ball like we should up top, and that was part of it. Look, this was one game, and we have four more in short order. This game isn’t something to read too much into, but it’s points in the bank. Now, we have to get ready for Miami, because some of the explosiveness Charleston has up front, Miami has it in spades.”

Player Grades 

(out of 10)
Key Stats / Notes 
Danny Vitiello 6 Nearly injured early in the match, Vitiello held his own, making a few saves. Made initial stop on the second goal but he was compromised. It was tough to fault him on the free kick too.
Tom Judge Incomplete  Injured early in the match. Tough break in his first pro start.  Had to be subbed out in 15th minute.
Dani Rovira 5.5  ASSIST. An up-and-down appearance.  Thrown into the mix in the 15th minute — and immediately picked up yellow card on foul that led to first, free kick goal in dangerous spot. Also had a very clever assist to find Dixon for the goal at the end of the 1st half.  Will have to sit out the next match as he’s accumulated five yellow cards.
Preston Kilwien  4 Couple goals allowed according to Lilley were soft, so back line will take brundt of the responsibility thus each will see points deducted here.  Won 5 of 9 duels; 60 passes; two interceptions; earned one foul
Jalen Robinson 5 Team high three interceptions. 86% passing (highest among starting backline players); won 4 of 5 duels
Mekiel Williams 4 See Kilwein re: tough night for back line. Also, wasn’t sure what he was trying to do in the early sequence in game.  Won 3 of 5 duels and 81% passing.
Jelani Peters n/r First appearance with Hounds since playing in Gold Cup
Shane Wiedt  n/r rare appearance as a sub
Danny Griffin 6 stayed in the middle of the field for much of the night as the deepest of the four midfielders in what looked like a diamond 4-4-2.  He was very accurate (90% passing), as he kept it simple and short, with the most passes on the team (64).  One clearance, two interceptions and Yellow Card.
Todd Wharton  6 Spent more time tucking back, came up intermittenly. Had 42 passes, most short. One cross attempt.  85% passing. One tackle, two clearances and one interception.  Won 4 of 5 duels.
Kenardo Forbes 6.5 Created a chance. Was tripped up on play that led to the PK. His pass in to Rovira led to the second goal.  87% passing accuracy.  Won 5 of 8 duels.
Alex Dixon  7 2 GOALS; created one chance, 1 of 4 successful crosses; won 2 of 8 duels; one tackle, one interception and one clearance
Ezra Armstrong (79′) n/r  little more than minutes than in previous appearances won 2 of 4 duels, had 10 passes (60% accuracy) and picked up a yellow card
Louis Perez   5.5  Had shot on frame early in 2nd half. Won 5 of 9 duels.  Conceded two fouls but also drew two fouls.
Russell Ciccerone 7 GOAL; ASSIST; Won 5 of 7 duels.  Nailed the PK (barely getting it under Lewis, who guessed correctly.
Anthony Velarde (71′) 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).

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