There’s a historical narrative of a Bob Lilley team that they play a certain type of cautious, defensive, buttoned up match. That Bob wants to grind you into dust, make it impossible to advance the ball, nick a goal, park the bus, and win 1-0 every week.
On a cool Saturday night at Highmark Stadium, the Riverhounds played the Charleston Battery in a back-and-forth see-saw battle that ended in a 3-3 draw in front of 3,529 fans. It was the ninth Hounds game of 2021 with four or more goals in it. So perhaps the idea that Bob Lilley plays it safe should be permanently retired.
After a 2-0 lead, Charleston would claw a goal back right before the half, then get two more in the second half to hold a 3-2 lead in the 81st. The Riverhounds surged forward in waves for the final 14 minutes, time and time again, getting the tying goal in the 88th minute from a sharply volleyed shot from Alex Dixon on a pass from Tommy Williamson which leveled the match at 3-3. Despite a few late chances from Alex Dixon and Tom Judge, that’s the way it would end.
Despite the leaky defense, Coach Bob Lilley pleased overall with the fight in his team. “I love the response from our guys at the end of the game. That’s the positive, for sure.”
At the matches outset, Pittsburgh jumped out to a 1-0 lead only 6 minutes in. On a break down the right wing, Alex Dixon laid off a ball to the right side for Russell Cicerone, who laced a one-time ground cross sharply across the 18-yard box for midfielder Todd Wharton who was lurking at the far post. Wharton rifled it home perfectly for his 3rd goal of 2021 and 15th career goal in USL.
The Hounds stayed on top, controlling possession for the following twenty minutes, and scored again on 27 minutes. On a corner, the ball swung in to the far post. Russell Cicerone was there to head it down across goal, and defender Shane Weidt was there to to smash it home on the hop with his forehead. With a 2-0 lead, the Hounds were cruising. But Charleston would come back. And the Hounds, protecting their lead a little, would pay the price.
Coach Bob Lilley was pleased with the aggressive style his team demonstrated. “We played well, first half especially. Second half we started a little bit slow. They put a lot of pressure on and we didn’t give them a lot of clean looks. Instead of continuing to try to make forward runs, we tried to possess in our half and we lost balls.”
“You gotta stretch ’em, you gotta make ’em defend and move your lines up. I think we were a little too safe.”
Charleston got a goal back in the 35th minute on a corner kick. Defender Leland Archer headed the ball home from around the near post on a perfect ball low and inside the reach of Hounds keeper Danny Vitiello to make it 2-1.
In the 68th minute, the Battery did it again – another corner kick, another headed goal – this time from striker Claudio Repetto – to make it 2-2.
It was something that the Hounds were prepared for, but they still couldn’t stop it. Midfielder Todd Wharton told us, “I think we earned the two goal lead. We talked before the game that Charleston were really dangerous on set pieces, they have a lot of big tall guys that like to attack the ball.”
In the 81st, off a restart, Charleston got the go-ahead goal from Claudio Repetto before Dixon’s equalizer in the 88th.
Lilley had some second thoughts about how his team might have inadvertently let the opponent back into the game after the 2-0 lead.
“If don’t make their forwards defend … and the only way to make them defend is to get forward and to play in behind them, and we tried to hold the ball in the middle third.”
The Riverhounds have just five regular season matches to go before the playoffs. Currently in second, Pittsburgh has an outside chance at finishing first in the Eastern Conference, but would require first place Tampa Bay to stumble severely. The Rowdies have a seven-point lead for first, and also hold two games in hand over the Hounds.
Pittsburgh, on 47 points, leads third place Miami and fourth place Charlotte, who are on 42 and 40 points, respectively. So they will need to continue strong performances for the final month of the season to hold on to home field advantage through the playoffs first two rounds.
Lilley’s isn’t think a month a head though. He’s just focused on the task from week to week.
“It’s tough. Right now, Miami, Charlotte and us, average points per game, we’re right about even. A dead heat. It’s just about the next game. Let’s just worry about Miami.”
Bob Lilley told PSN that Albert Dikwa, out for the past few months with a groin injury, should be back in the next two weeks. Mekeil Williams, who was unavailable for this match, will also be back next week against Miami. Williams was back in his home country Trinidad, where he and his partner gave birth to a baby.
Todd Wharton normally plays as a defensive midfielder, providing defensive cover to the back line and freeing Kenardo Forbes up to get forward a bit. Against Charleston, he was mostly acting as attacking midfielder, a role he really enjoyed.
Wharton said, “I like the freedom of being a little higher up on the field. It’s always fun to play a role like that, I’m allowed to press forward, I can help back, I can obviously get in the box for the goals. Yeah, it’s a fun position to play, and I hope to get to do it a little more.”