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Analysis and Player Grades: Cicerone’s clutch performance keeps Hounds’ home playoff chances alive

Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Having a career season, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s Russell Cicerone picked a great time to deliver another terrific performance as he provided a few more important finishing touches to help lead his team past the Charleston Battery, 2-1, at Highmark Stadium on Saturday evening before more than 4,000 fans.

FINAL: Riverhounds SC 2, Charleston Battery 1

“It was an important win. We did enough, but we know we can do better,” Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley said. “But it was important to get the three points, and it’s nice to see when that momentum swings and it’s 1-1, we’re able to gather ourselves, create a winning moment and hang on to it pretty comfortably.”

Cicerone scored the game-winner in the 80th minute after receiving a terrific feed from the other half of the scoring tandem, Alex Dixon, who together have combined for more than two dozen goals.  In the first half, Cicerone’s alert play set up a Todd Wharton goal, with an assist from the end line.

“Jordan (Dover) comes on and makes an instant influence, a very important pass to pick out (Alex) Dixon, and Dix takes a great touch going forward,” Cicerone said. “I knew if I gave myself a half-yard falling off the defender, Dix would be able to fire a pass in there, and then it’s all about getting control of that pass and finding a corner.”

Though Cicerone scored a penalty kick against Tampa Bay two weeks ago, he was in a bit of a scoring drought. The strike was his first in the run of play since Sept. 11 against Loudoun. He also had a good passing day, connecting on 19 of 27 passes (70.4 percent).

The Hounds forward now has 16 goals for the season (his career high by a significant margin) and he’s now in elite company in the annuls of the club history as he’s now registered the third best single season goal socring mark, behind only Thiago Martins’ 23 in 2003 and Rob Vincent’s 21 in 2015..

Of most importance, the Hounds stayed in contention for second place in the USL Championship’s Atlantic Division standings which would secure at least one home playoff match.

The Hounds controlled the match for large stretches and had all of the advantages in possession, shots and corners.

Still, when Nique Daley scored in the 65th minute to level the match at 1-1, the Hounds found themselves in a precarious position.

Pittsburgh’s Old Guard Shield rivals proved they wouldn’t go away easily.

“They had a lot of good ball winners in the middle of the park, and we were a little loose with our passing sometimes, and they were all over that,” Cicerone said. “The space was a little bit wide, so we needed to exploit that a little bit more. When we actually did do that, that’s when we got our opportunities.”

Credit to the Battery for catching the Hounds off guard a bit.  Daley had enough room to pull the trigger from 22 yards, with the Hounds defenders in decent position lined up along the 18, but failing to react quick enough to step up to close out the space.

The Hounds didn’t panic, though, and found a few more chances, finally getting the game winner in the 80th minute with a familiar combination linking up.

Alex Dixon to Russell Cicerone, with a little help from a super sub, Jordan Dover.

With a season high 4,097 fans in attendance, Pittsburgh rode the energy from Cicerone’s game-winner to the finish line and didn’t allow Charleston to find an equalizer like they did in the previous meeting.

“I’m not sure we maximized what we could have done in the game. I think there was space there for us to create more,” Lilley added.

“But I’m relieved a little bit that we had a great crowd here. Even for momentum, not matter how the final table ends up, it’s important to end the season on the right note. Obviously, the expectation now is we can get three in Miami and put a little bit more pressure on Charlotte. If they drop any more points in the next two games, … we still have an opportunity to finish in second.”

Personnel, Tactics and Formation 

After the past two strong defensive performances against Tampa Bay and Miami (officially for 67 minutes!) using a four-man backline, the Hounds changed things up against Charleston a bit, using the three center backs who’ve been getting the most starts and minutes of late: Shane Wiedt on the right, Mekiel Williams in the middle and Jelani Peters on the left.

They may have showed a 4-1-4-1 when the line-ups were posted, but Dani Rovira, who slipped a few times back into the left outside back spot, spent most of the game playing opposite Alex Dixon, each as two-way wingers as the Hounds shape morphed more into a 3-4-3 (or 3-6-1 depending on how you look at it).  Rovira and Dixon were each instrumental in leading the Hounds’ charge up each side of the width, which Charleston were conceding, especially in the first half.  As a result, they combined for ten crosses, with four of those being successful and they created five chances throughout the match.

“I think we had some success early because we used the wide areas, and we got Dixon and (Dani) Rovira behind them,” Lilley pointed out after the match. “Even on the (first) goal, we got the ball to Kenny (Forbes) around the edge, and then it was a cross, the first one hit the post, and Russell dug out the next ball and found Todd Wharton.”

It was Rovira who delivered that cross.

Here’s a look at Rovira’s heat map.

Dixon was also there to add the assist for Cicerone’s goal, so again, the Hounds, who struggled at times early in the season to get its wide players more involved, found those solutions in this key match against Charleston late in the season.

With Danny Griffin (team high 73 passes) anchoring the midfield from the back, Kenardo Forbes roamed the attacking middle (and was very involved with 57 total passes — more he touches — the better it will be for the Hounds), with Russell Cicerone on his left and Todd Wharton on the right and Tommy Williamson did much of the two-way dirty work at the top of the formation, including drawing a couple of fouls in the attacking third, creating a few free kick opportunities.  The first-year pro has continued to show he can boldly step up and take the kicks, hitting one that forced a Joe Kuzminsky save on near post attempt to the right of the wall, and the other that hit the Battery wall.

Lilley didn’t make any subs until the 78th minute, but instantly, Jordan Dover, who came in for Tommy Williamson, showed his quality and he made an impact to help set up the game-winning goal sequence.  Anthony Velarde also came on for Wharton.  Louis Perez for Rovira.

This pushed Cicerone up to the top of the formation, Dover slipped back to outside back, while Perez took the wide, attacking left spot after Cicerone moved higher.

Preston Kilwien also came on later for Cicerone (88′) as the Hounds put more numbers behind the ball nursing a 2-1 lead late, and Jalen Robinson (92′) came on for Alex Dixon in stoppage time.

Player Grades:

Danny Vitiello – 6.5 – Shut-out streak stopped at two games, but came up with three saves. Had 27 passes. Really like how he accelerates to the ball when coming off his line.

Dani Rovira – 7 – Thought this was a solid performance from Rovira, who in his third season with Pittsburgh has continue to evolve into a key contributor.

Louis Pérez (78’) – NR – 4/5 passing, but 0-4 in duels against a strong ball winning team.

Shane Wiedt – 7 – won 8 of 10 duels, 2 tackles, 2 clearances, 1 blocked shot, 3 interceptions.

Mekeil Williams – 7 – led team with 5 clearances. 53 total passes. Won 4 of 4 duels and had 3 interceptions.

Jelani Peters – 5.5 — Won 5 of 9 duels, 53 total passes. Had a shot attempt (header on Forbes corner). Conceded a foul. Don’t think the goal was entirely his fault, but he was closest defender facing Daley when he took that shot. Peters has been getting a lot of minutes, and also

Alex Dixon – 6.5 – ASSIST; when he’s out wider, has less touches and less involved. Won 3 of 3 duels. But when Dover found him in the middle later in match, he showed his quality (again!) with team-leading ninth assist of season.

Jalen Robinson (90+2’) – NR – very, very late sub, but good sign for Hounds that he’s back healthy.

Danny Griffin – 7 – really doing the little things. 85% passing accuracy. Won 6 of 8 duels. Team high 73 passes.  Oh, and he also had team high 4 tackles.

Russell Cicerone – 8.5 – GOAL; ASSIST; should be up for USL Player of the Week honors for all reasons stated above.  Stats: 2 of 3 shots on target; 2 chances created; 71% passing accuracy (27 passes); won 3 of 8 duels.

Preston Kilwien (88’) – NR – late sub

Kenardo Forbes – 7.5 – as an attacking mid, still had 57 passes (at 88% accuracy rate), which showed that Hounds were keeping the ball a lot in the center and on edge of the attacking third.

Todd Wharton – 6 – GOAL – nice finish as he stuck with it after barely missing the first attempt. Like having him alongside Forbes. They complement each other well.

Anthony Velarde (78’) – NR – attempted a cross and made seven passes

Tommy Williamson – 5.5 – drew a couple fouls, boldly taking those free kicks. Won only 2 of 14 duels. Did a lot of dirty work too but only had 13 touches.

Jordan Dover 78’ – NR – Having Dover on the field, there’s always a chance for a terrific ball that will find the feet of one of the Hounds attacks. Happened again. Pi

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).

Riverhounds MF Danny Griffin

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