The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC came away with a hard-earned point in a top-of-the-table showdown with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, as the teams played to a scoreless draw at Highmark Stadium on Wednesday.
With the result, both sides remain tied atop the USL Championship’s Atlantic Division with 34 points each.
In the past few games, the Hounds are starting to rediscover their identity as a strong defensive club, with the clean sheet posted following another tightly contested match, a 1-0 loss at Charlotte on Saturday.
This result was not a huge surprise considering the strong defensive pedigree from both clubs.
Tampa Bay was one of the best defensive sides in USL Championship last season when they won the Eastern Conference, and have been the toughest to score on this season too in the Conference (conceding just 15 goals in 18 games with 7 clean sheets; only Phoenix and El Paso, in the West, have conceded less goals this season).
It appeared at first the Hounds were lining up in a 3-4-3 formation, but it really morphed as they took their defensive shape as a 5-1-3-1, with the wingers tucked deeper into the back line, while Danny Griffin consistently was positioned above the three center backs, while an additional line of attacking midfielders were effective in pressing Tampa, who came out in a 3-4-3.
Dani Rovira’s becoming a player to watch at the start of every match to see where he lands in the line-up. He’s lined up as an outside back/winger, central holding mid, and against Miami he was asked to man-mark. On this night, he was placed in the center of the attacking midfield trio.
Here’s Bob Lilley’s explanation for Rovira’s assignment against Tampa.
“Dani Rovira can play anywhere, but we knew we wanted his energy around Russell. Kenny (Forbes) and Anthony did a good job finding the game,” Lilley said after the match.
We’re starting to see Rovira taking on a simliar role that Ryan James took last year, and other players have under Lilley over the years who provide tactical flexibility.
Trying to add a spark for a second half push, the Hounds brought on Tommy Williamson and Todd Wharton first as subs in the 66th minute (for Ezra Armstrong and Anthony Velarde).
In addition, Louis Perez and Preston Kilwien also came on in the 83rd minute for Mekeil Williams and Jelani Peters to complete another evening that included a fair amount of squad rotation.
After the substitutions were made there was some shuffling going on with the Hounds lineup as the formation stayed mostly the same. Rovira moved to the wide spot to replace Armstrong, while Russell Cicerone dropped down from the top, target spot to make way for Williamson. Wharton was used initally in one of the attacking midfield spots (where Velarde roamed), but then dropped down to take a center back position for the final seven plus minutes after Jelani Peters was subbed out and Louis Perez came on. Got that? I know it took me a few minutes to figure it out.
Takeaways / Key Moments
It was Pittsburgh, coming out in a 3-4-3 formation, which morphed at times into a 5-1-3-1, using a lineup that featured some of its best players who can sustain and keep possesions alive who dominated time on the ball (owning 64 percent of possession).
However, it was Tampa, like many other teams facing the Hounds of late, who played more direct than usual to try to exploit the Hounds back line. They were successful in creating more scoring chances, with an 8-5 edge on shots (4 to 0 on frame for the entire match), but the Hounds were compact and well organized, keeping most of those shots from distance.
While Tampa tried to play through its target man, 6-foot-4 former Hound Steevan Dos Santos, the Hounds showed they wouldn’t be pushed around. Shane Wiedt took a few early fouls on the Cape Verde native, but also didn’t back down from the challenge throughout the night. In this match, it was poetic, that is was Wiedt who was at the top of his game.
With 6-foot-4 Jelani Peters in the starting back line along with fellow Soca Warrior Mekiel Williams, Bob Lilley was intent on having a very athletic trio that could match Tampa’s forwards. By the end of the night, the three center backs combined for a total of 14 of the team’s 18 clearances.
An aside… It was fun to see the Hounds players embrace their former teammate, Dos Santos, before and after the match, as there appeared to be no hostility, but just good, clean competitiveness once the game got going.
“Yeah, he was talking to me about my boots, and teasing me and stuff. It was good to see him,” Danny Griffin said. “You know, on the field, we’re not friends, but after the match we’re certainly good friends.”
Tampa created the lone two shots on frame in the first half, as Connor Antley’s one-time shot in the 37th minute, and former Riverhound Steevan Dos Santos’ redirected header were both saved by goalkeeper Danny Vitilello.
Pittsburgh owned the possession battle in the first half, keeping the ball at a 63-37 advantage, while setting up a pair of corner kicks, but they were lacking the ability to create any dangerous moments in the final third.
They started to tease its fans early in the 2nd half with build-up that was deeper into the final third and creating a few shot opportunities. The first came from Alex Dixon, who broke loose, getting forward on the far right side in the 51st minute. He only had one man to beat — outside back Aarón Guillén, but the defender did a nice job of forcing Dixon toward the end line. This prompted Dixon to take a difficult angle shot — which was tipped away for a corner.
Hounds can’t create much on corner attempt — as the case on most set pieces a lot of physical activity in the box favored the teams defending in their box on this night.
After Tommy Williamson came into the match, trying to give the Hounds a spark by bringing some energy to the target forward position, he was stopped cold in a one-v-one opportunity against periennial All-USL Championship and former league Defender of the Year winner Forest Lasso, who held his ground, then forced Williamson to take a heavy touch which saw the ball out past endline.
The Hounds best opportunity may have come in the 84th minute, shortly after Louis Perez entered as a substitute, when he delivered a shot that banged off the crossbar.
Hounds goalkeeper Danny Vitiello made four saves to preserve his fourth clean sheet of the season. In front of him, the Hounds back line and Danny Griffin in front of them, worked well to prevent Tampa Bay from having any clear-cut, dangerous opportunities.
Both Bob Lilley and Danny Griffin acknowledged after the match that they’ll have to brace themselves for more matches like this as the season hits the homestretch.
“I thought we did well to press them and make them uncomfortable,” Griffin said.
“The first half, they were hitting a lot of long balls, so for me it’s just picking up second balls, and doing my part of keeping the ball and helping build a rhythm. Doing work on the defensive end and the offensive end are equally important.”
Pittsburgh will return to action Sunday when they host Atlanta United 2 on Sunday night at 6 p.m. at Highmark Stadium.
(out of 10)
Key Stats / Notes
|Danny Vitiello||8||Made four half saves. Did a good job coming off his line, epecially on corners. In a tight game, with a few chances created by the Rowdies, he was solid when he needed to be.|
|Mekeil Williams||6.5||Steady holding things up in the middle of the back line on the night the Hounds kept solid defensive shape. Won 4 of 7 duels. Four clearances.|
|Shane Wiedt||8||One of his best performances. Wasn’t afraid early in match to challenge Steevan Dos Santos a few times. Against big, physical forwards, held his own, winning 7 of 17 duels but had team high five clearances and four interceptions. Key in helping Hounds extend possessions with team leading 101 passes (84.2% accuracy).|
|Jelani Peters||5.5||May have ventured too far out a few times but having his physical presence was helpful in marking and defending against Tampa’s bigger forward and on set peices. 93% passing accuracy (65 passes). won 2 of 8 duels. Five clearances.|
|Preston Kilwien||n/r||13 passes in limited duty|
|Ezra Armstrong||6||In second start as a Hound brought positive energy at times. Shown flashes and moments where he could be dangerous. Coach Lilley said he wanted to see him take more chances. Go figure. Won 3 of 5 duels. 31 total passes.|
|Alex Dixon||5.5||Quiet on wing for much of the first half and the night compared to recent performances. Still had a decent chance when found space early in the 2nd half, but shot was wide of the mark. Only 38 passes. Won 3 of 6 duels. Had three interceptions. Coach Lilley remarked after the match, he wished he had four Alex Dixon’s — obvious high praise.|
|Dani Rovira||7||Again in different position — more of an attacking mid – showing his versatility and how valuable he is to this year’s team (thinking similiar contributions made by players like Mo Dabo and Ryan James in recent years). Was instrumental in getting Hounds in position a few times with getting the ball in good positions past the midfield. But the Hounds didn’t do a good enough job in the final third. Later in game went back out to wide spot after Armstrong was subbed out. 82% passing accuracy (33 passes — seemed like he had more!) Won 6 of 10 duels. Two tackles. Two interceptions and won two fouls while conceding one.|
|Anthony Velarde||6||Liked his work rate. Won 2 of 6 duels and connecting well in midfield passes at times — key to helping Hounds in a game where they needed to keep possession (and save legs!). 74% passing accuracy (31 total passes). Yellow card and conceded 3 fouls.|
|Kenardo Forbes||6||A few good moves here and there, but also misconnected on some key sequences in final third where Hounds were lacking. Still, 88% passing accuracy (72 total passes); won 4 of 13 duels.|
|Danny Griffin||8||Solid in the back, keeping things organized and extending possessions on a night when Pittsburgh held 64% of the ball. Won 8 of 10 duels. 87 total passes (team 92% accuracy!).|
|Tommy Williamson||n/r||Came on to bring more presence at top of attack; best option for Hounds now as target forward. Still, in his one-on-one showdown with Forest Lasso, he was turned away.|
|Todd Wharton||n/r||Won 3 of 4 duels. Continued versatility. Shifted from MF to backline later after coming in as sub.|
|Russell Ciccerone||5.5||Didn’t touches in first half. In second half, that improved — and work rate was decent all night. Came back for ball more as game played out then when he moved back more. Won 5 of 8 duels, but still wasn’t able to impact the match enough.|