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Analysis & Player Grades: Finding outlets on the counter, Hounds roll to victory

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC cruised to a 4-1 victory against Atlanta United 2, led by Russell Cicerone’s hat trick which spoiled the homecoming match for Upper St. Clair native Robbie Mertz on Sunday evening at Highmark Stadium.

Final: Riverhounds SC 4, Atlanta United 1

It was an eventful night and especially in the first half — a fairly entertaining, open-ended game with lots of scoring.

They defeated Atlanta United 2 following a similar path as they have against other MLS second teams. Absorbing some pressure, riding through early chaotic moments, then punishing its opponent on its mistakes and on the counter.

This was also an important win for the Riverhounds, if anything, to pick up a full three points for the first time in four games.  Still, Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley already turned the page once his postgame interview session with the media began.

“This game means nothing now,” Lilley said. “We’ve got to put this behind us. We will focus our attention on Hartford. When we play Hartford, Charlotte, MIami, Tampa, those are potential six-point swing games.”

While Lilley’s ready to move on, we’ll take one more look back at Sunday’s performance.

Tactics, Formation and Personnel

The Hounds came out in a 3-4-3 formation, with Alex Dixon for the second straight game along with Louis Perez, lined up as wingers who dropped along the backline when the Hounds filled into their defensive shape which looked more like a 5-2-3.

Tommy Williamson was at the top of the formation, with Russell Cierone and Kenardo Forbes just below him.  The two central midfielders Danny Griffin and Todd Wharton provided a solid duo to help extend possessions who were looking to redistribute the ball quicker and more direct than in recent games.

The Hounds made a few changes earlier than usual, with intent to tighten up the lines for the remainder of the game, bringing on Tom Judge for Tommy Williamson and Dani Rovira for Louis Perez.  This pushed Cicerone to the top center forward spot, while  Rovira dropped into the position where Perez was on the left flank. In the 72nd minute, Dixon was given a well-deserved shorter night, as Anthony Velarde replaced him.  The Hounds also saved the legs of Kenardo Forbes and Cicerone by bringing on Jelani Peters and Wyatt Borso to replace them.

After the match, Lilley said that he may be looking for an additional forward, as the Hounds are still uncertain about the return of Albert Dikwa this season.

Key Moments and Takeaways

The Hounds exploited and attacked Atlanta throughout the night, but that also meant they left the door open and were vulnerable early in the match.

Pittsburgh started off very well, as Russell Cicerone drew a foul just inside the edge of the box two minutes into the match. Cicerone, however, missed on his penalty kick opportunity, as his shot attempt headed to the left side was saved by a diving Rocco Rios Novo.

Unable to convert the PK chance, Cicerone hed plenty of opportunities to redeem himself and he came through each time.

Only a minute later, Cicerone was provided a terrific, longer ball which sliced through a fairly decent sized gap in space leading to the final third from Alex Dixon, who was playing on the right wing spot.  Cicerone took advantage of room on the left side, beating his man and slotting home a clinical finish into the lower left side of the goal.

“(The first goal) definitely took a lot of weight off my shoulders after missing that. What an unbelievable pass from (Alex) Dixon to put me through, and to get an opportunity like that a few minutes later just built my confidence back up a little bit, and that was important for me.”

Atlanta responded quickly to level the match when Darwin Matheus took advantage of a nice pass from Aiden McFadden by volleying home a shot off the bounce to level the match at 1-1.

Lilley warned his team that they were playing with fire.

“They could’ve had three goals in a span of 10 minutes. The game got wide open, and we knew that they were unbeaten in their last three and scored 12 goals. So we knew they were explosive, and we had to slow them down. If you slow them down, you’ll get chances, because they’re pretty wide-open. They make the field really big, they’re very direct, and they throw a lot of guys forward,” Lilley explained after the match. “You’ve got to be able to slow them, but if you find outlets, there’s a lot of space. I was disappointed that every time in the first half, it was a trade-off. They’re fresher.”

In the 26th minute, as my colleague Jordan Smith pointed out, Danny Griffin picked up the trash off the corner, playing a high ball into the corner onto the feet of Forbes and the veteran didn’t waste any time.  He smashed a low cross to Tommy Williamson for the rookie loanee’s fourth goal of the season.

It was Forbes’ fifth assist of the season too.

Williamson continues to show he can fit into the equation with this group, as he has been efficent in his role in the top spot to keep possessions alive, but also make those runs and getting in the right spot for those goal scoring chances set up by pinpoint passes.

The Hounds weren’t done there.

In the 30th minute, Cicerone found himself in a one-on-one situation with former Pitt standout Bryce Washington after a well-placed direct ball in from Griffin.

With a few nifty moves, delivered his second goal of the night.

“We knew they were a very possession-based team, but sometimes they can turn the ball over in not-great areas, and we could create chances to counter. With the passers we have in midfield and people like Tommy Williamson and myself making runs forward, we’re going to be dangerous on the counter,” Cicerone explained.

“I think we proved that tonight.”

In the second half, Dixon found his way to a ball to beat an Atlanta defender in space on the edge of the final third.  Pushing his way to the right side, Dixon laid a pass to the near post area — and it was Cicerone who was there to bang home his third goal on the night.

And once again, it was Dixon to Cicerone.  And we’ve seen a few times this season, it’s been Cicerone to Dixon.

“It’s awesome, and like I’ve been saying all year, the chemistry between us is getting better and better. We’re pretty experienced in this league, and I know what kind of runs he likes to make, he knows what kind of runs I like to make, and we’re obviously communicating on the pitch. Even on that third goal, I was going to stay  back and let the defense go past me, but he told me to keep running hard because he must have seen a line. So I kept running hard, and that’s how that final goal turned out.”

What’s interesting about the past two games, is that Dixon, who started the season and played mostly as an attacking midfielder and forward, has lined up as a true winger with significant defensive responsibilities. Both he and Perez were clearly along the back line when the Hounds were keeping their defensive shape.

Cicerone certainly did his part to score goals and was happy to finally break through with his first pro hat trick, but he’s also spot on when sharing praise for his teammates and benefiting from a system built on pinpoint passing which unlocks its opponents.

“It’s amazing. I’ve scored two goals in a game a lot of times, but I was never able to get over that hump. Of course, I did it the hard way tonight by missing that penalty, too. But when we’ve got passers — that pass that Danny Griffin gave me, the two that Dixon gave me, Kenny (Forbes) has given me passes — it’s amazing playing with these guys.”

This came from Lilley’s vision in the off season to revamp the Hounds attack, finding the personnel to execute this system.

That should not understated either.

Player Grades 

# Grade Player Pos Notes
(out of 10)
1 6 Danny Vitiello GK Made a great stop early on ATL corner; otherwise pretty quiet night as most shots were off target.
23 6.5 Preston Kilwien DF Most passes out of the back (38); 2 tackles, interception, conceded a few fouls; won 5 of 7 duels.
17 6.5 Mekeil Williams DF 2 clearances; steady presence in middle of back line;
16 6.5 Shane Wiedt DF Showed he wouldn’t back down at times. Didn’t have as many touches (34 passes compared to 101 game before); Won 5 of 8 duels (3 of 4 in the air); team high 4 clearances. Would’ve liked that ATL goal back as ball made way in between him and Dixon.
7 7.5 Alex Dixon 72‎’‎ MF 2 ASSISTS: continues to show how valuable he’s been to this team  by contributing as a winger and two-way player, but was caught on the ATL goal leaving Mathas open on back side.
20 6 Louis Pérez 59‎’‎ MF Won 7 of 12 duels; just 48% passing accuracy (25 passes); had three successful crosses and created one chance. Conceded two fouls and Yellow Card booking.
12 7 Danny Griffin MF Very efficient (81% passing) with almost all short passes (34 of 37) while covering a lot of ground from box-to-box.
14 6.5 Todd Wharton MF First time I’ve seen him lose his composure in some of those battles with ATL’s young midfielders when things were getting chippy.  Late yellow card in stoppage time.
8 7 Tommy Williamson ‎59‎’‎ FW GOAL; Continues to provide support for the attack by holding ball up and being there when needed to finish on chances
11 7 Kenardo Forbes (C) 83‎’‎ FW ASSIST; Solid night for Forbes, who didn’t waste any time and smashed that ball to the near post on that assist!
10 9.5 Russell Cicerone ‎83‎’ 3 GOALS; also, as Lilley spoke about, was effective playing both ways and coming back for ball.
13 N/R Tom Judge 59‎’‎ Sub Made appearances in past two matches after initial injury. Becoming a regular part of the rotation now. Won 2 of 6 duels; had a tackle and interception
27 N/R Jelani Peters 83‎’‎ Sub Won both duels
4 N/R Dani Rovira 59‎’ Sub Rovira moved out wide; continues to be part of rotation either as starter one one of the key subs off bench
5 N/R Anthony Velarde 72‎’‎ Sub Velarde continues to be reliable part of rotation whether he starts or comes off bench
19 N/R Wyatt Borso 83‎’‎ Sub More minutes for the Hounds Academy product; won some headers
Players not used:
Jake Leeker
Ezra Armstrong

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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