Starting this week, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC will be back to playing just one game a week for the final eight week stretch of the season, and that’s just fine with Head Coach Bob Lilley.
“We’re right in the thick of it in our division,” Lilley said after practice on Wednesday. “Tampa (Bay Rowdies) and Miami (FC) are playing lights out. We have a lot of work in front of us.”
The Hounds currently sit two points behind Tampa Bay Rowdies (46 points) for the top spot in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference Atlantic Division as they hold an overall record of 13-6-5 (good for 44 points), having played 24 matches (the most in the entire league to this point in the season). The Rowdies though have only played 22 matches, giving them two games at hand. The two clubs will face each other one more time, in October at Highmark Stadium.
The Rowdies and third place Miami FC with 38 points, are both in excellent form.
Miami hasn’t lost since July 24 (2-0 at Hartford) while Tampa’s current run has featured an impressive defensive streak that’s included six straight clean sheets as they haven’t lost a match since July 31 (2-0 at Charlotte).
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Yes, @folasso, that is a new Rowdies record.
— Tampa Bay Rowdies (@TampaBayRowdies) September 8, 2021
When looking back on his team’s recent run of eight games in 28 days, which they came away with a 4-2-2 record, Lilley felt the biggest blemish was his team’s 3-2 loss to Miami FC at Highmark Stadium on August 11.
“That’s the one that got away,” Lilley said on Wednesday after practice. “It was an especially difficult stretch. We had some injuries, and with our rotation, a lot of guys played. We have a lot of work now in front of us.”
Lilley still is pleased his club is ‘right in the thick of it” and are positioned for the final stretch of eight games in the next eight weeks.
“We are getting healthier,” Lilley said. “I am optimistic about seeing some additional guys return.”
The Hounds veteran coach said that forward Albert Dikwa has made progress as he’s been working his way back from a groin injury, which he had addressed significant concerns a few weeks ago.
In addition, both Mekiel Williams and Jordan Dover both returned to play in the Hounds’ 1-1 draw at San Antonio on Saturday.
The only player who is out for the season is Josh Gatt. Lilley also said that Jalen Robinson is working his way back too from a lower leg injury and expects him to be training again soon with the team.
It’s helped that LIlley’s been able to rely on numerous versatile players on his roster who have moved around and played various positions.
“We’ve made strides in that area,” Lilley acknowledged. ‘Our best eleven may be different than it was in the first month of the season. I credit our group. There’s been good competition every day in training and in their performances in games. We have guys that have flexiblity. Can play in different systems.”
Lilley cited his long-time leader, Kenardo Forbes for setting this example, as he’s rotated into various spots depending on the formation, tactics and opponent, as the USL Championship’s all-time assist leader has moved from deep holding midfield spot he spent much of his first three seasons in Pittsburgh, to wider and higher positions.
As a result, Forbes has become a key connector between the worker bee and steady central midfielders Danny Griffin and Todd Wharton, and the dynamic attacking duo of Alex Dixon and Russell Cicerone.
Lilley also credited Dixon and Cicerone, who have been very productive, for their ability to move around into different spots. Cicerone, who’s second in the league in goals scored (13 goals on 32 shots), has said he’s most comfortable as a wider attacking wing position, has also moved to the central forward spot and even dropped into the central attacking midfielder when needed.
Dixon, who played previously with Lilley in Rochester, has tallied eight goals and seven assists all while moving around quite a bit. Dixon has featured in the wide attacking midfielder and forward, dropped into the central midfield at times and most recently, could be seen tucking deeper as an outside back when they’ve been in a 3-4-3 that morphs into a 5-2-3 defensive shape.
“We take a look at how we want to play him in every match,” Lilley said of Dixon. “We want to get his quality on a consistent basis. He’s been very productive for us and we’ll keep trying to put him where he can help us the most.”
Dani Rovira has been another player who has been all over the place. This season, Rovira, who has played in 21 matches and made 15 starts, has revolved from the wing spots — both as an outside back, attacker, as the central attacking midfielder and also was tabbed in a start vs Miami with man marking.the dangerous playmaker Ariel Martinez.
Lilley also cited some of his defenders’ ability to move from center back to outside back, particuarly Preston Kilwein and Jalen Robinson. While the Hounds have relied on a heavy rotation of center backs and outside backs throughout the season, with seemingly different combinations every game, Lilley is confident that it’s been a good thing.
“Sometimes its the opponent. The match-up. But, it’s been nice to keep guys fresh,” LIlley explained. “There are certain games, certain match-ups we’ll play certain guys.”
In total, Shane Wiedt, Mekeil Williams and Kilwien have seen the most time along the back line, but Jelani Peters had a strong showing last week, including scoring the lone goal in the Hounds midweek win vs NY Red Bulls, earning a spot on the USL Championship Team of the Week. Tom Judge, on loan from Nashville SC has also been another addition to the rotation, while Casey Bartlett-Scott, who joined the team after the season kicked off, has also been trying to knock the door down for minutes.
Lilley also acknowledged that while he’s used a heavy rotation of players, that for this final stretch, he may not go as deep into the bench as he did through the middle parts of the season when they were playing numerous mid-week games between weekend contests.
“We have a stronger bench. Some of the guys have done well with their minutes,” LIlley said. “Now, how they play with a little more at stake. With big games, big minutes, will determine a lot.”
Lilley cited younger players including Tommy Williamson, Louis Perez and Ezra Armstrong among those who’ve grown through the season and are no longer viewed as rookies, as they’ve played enough minutes and he expects to continue to progress to make key contributions
In this final quarter of the season, the Hounds will play five of its last eight games at home.
Despite a rough start this season, losing its first two matches at home, Pittsburgh has played better at Highmark Stadium of late, with the exception of the loss that frustrated Lilley the most — the Miami defeat — the two-time USL Championship winning coach feels his squad has been formidable at home. In their last nine matches at Highmark, the Hounds are 7-1-2.
Now, the Hounds are determined to add a few more home games come November for the USL Cup Playoffs.
“The players have responded. It was a rough start, but it’s been nice to have the fans come out (this year),” Lilley added. “I don’t know the (attendence) numbers, but it’s been good of late. We have to keep doing what we’re doing.”
The Hounds must face Loudoun United FC first at Highmark Stadium on Saturday, then will play seven games against teams in playoff contention, including Tampa once more and two road games at Miami in October.
And once again, Bob Lilley intends to have his team ready for a strong finish.
“It’s going to be more intense. We’re going to have to be more focused. Tampa has the edge in points and they have games in hand too,” Lilley said.
“We’re going to need some help, but we’re still in it. The challenge is there for us to win games with more pressure and expectations.”