With an opportunity to host a home playoff match to open the USL Championship’s playoffs next week, the Riverhounds failed to come through with a win against Hartford Athletic on a wet, cold Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.
In a match that never had any rhythm to it, with many direct balls leading to fouls (there were 39 fouls and nine yellow cards) and dead ball restarts that failed to create dangerous chances for either side, the Hounds ended its regular season on a whimper.
A lot could be made about the way the match was officiated, however, the Hounds have only themselves to blame for a lackluster performance on a night when they could have earned a home playoff match with a win (seeing that Charlotte ended up playing Austin to a draw later in the evening only adds more salt to the Hounds’ wound).
For a team that has been dynamic in the final third for much of the season, this was an uncharacteristic performance primarily as the Hounds failed to create enough dangerous moments throughout the night.
Pittsburgh, which controlled enough possession (57%) in the match to dictate terms, still couldn’t connect passes when they needed to in the attacking third and often settled to play many balls direct and over the top.
When they did connect, playing through center forward Tommy Williamson, the Hounds wide attackers who have been so productive this season, Alex Dixon and Russell Cicerone, misconnected on shots after getting behind the Hartford back line.
Then late in the match, substitute Anthony Velarde also missed on his prime chance.
At the end of the match, Pittsburgh outshot Hartford 17-7, along with a 9-2 edge on corner kicks but could only muster one shot on frame, and that one wasn’t all that impressive, a lofted redirect from center back Mekiel Williams on a second ball from one of the failed corners.
Odds are that Lilley will have his players get plenty of work on those shooting drills they do near the end of training sessions. This is not a good time for players to be lacking focus and sharpness in the final third. If that continues, they’ll have a short playoff experience once again.
The good news, was that the Hounds backline and goalkeeper Danny Vitiello are in solid form despite being exposed a few times, as Hartford did generate three of it seven shots on frame.
In a long season that has included some injuries and lineup reshuffling, Shane Wiedt, Mekiel Williams and Jelani Peters have emerged as the primary anchors of the backline, along with a rotation of Dani Rovira and Jordan Dover on the left side. Preston Kilwein is also another player who has been consistently part of the group, either as a starter or as a second half sub. It’s safe to say that Bob Lilley has found a roation in the back that he is comfortable with and is playing well.
In the past four matches, Pittsburgh has surrendered one goal, with three clean sheets.
One would have to wonder if Pittsburgh’s added travel this past week to replay the final 23-plus minutes of its match at Miami may have contributed to this team’s lethargic effort on this Halloween eve?
Either way, the Hounds lacked sharpness. The match became physical from the outset, and they fell into the trap and had to deal with an opponent that was willing to take fouls and slow the pace of the match down every chance they could get.
As a result, Pittsburgh will now be heading to Birmingham to start the playoffs on the road, to take on a club that has signed a few of its more prominent recent players: Ryan James and Neco Brett.
“We didn’t accomplish our task tonight of putting pressure on Charlotte, but we have to regroup quickly,” Bob Lilley, Riverhounds Head coach said.
“We are unbeaten in the last four, so we’re in good form. Hopefully we can shake this off and get back to playing the way we are capable of playing. It’s unlikely we’ll get a home playoff game now, so we’re going to have to go on the road and play our best soccer. If we play our best soccer, we are capable of beating anybody.”
Tactics and Formation
Heading into the final match of the regular season and into the playoffs, it appears that Lilley has a pretty good idea of what his 11-13 players who will likely be starting each and every game this point forward.
Once again, as has been the case in recent games, Lilley opted to keep his back line with four across, but has continued to use versatile outside back/wingers on the left side, while using the three natural center backs, Peters, Williams and Weidt in the other spots.
The midfield and attackers have also been pretty consistent too. Williamson has become the go-to center forward flanked by Cierone and Dixon with Wharton and Forbes in the mix with Danny Griffin sitting deepest.
Probably to keep legs fresh, Lilley made three subs at once in the 63rd minute, bringing on Anthony Velarde, Louis Perez and Jordan Dover, who have all been part of the rotation late in the season.
When Williamson came out, that pushed Cicerone to the top of the formation. Hounds probably would love to have Albert Dikwa in this scenario. They’ll have to hope he’s healthy for the playoff stretch, as that will help diversify the attack.
Ezra Armstrong also was brought in to help provide a spark on the right width in the 83rd minute as Pittsburgh attempted to bring numbers forward.
Danny Vitiello – 7.5 – another terrific night in command and made one sensational save on a Hartford counter
Dani Rovira – 4 – won 3 of 9 duels, had one (unsuccessful) cross attempt
Anthony Velarde (63’) – NR – late in match had a chance from the center of the box but pulled shot left. Was 0-4 in his duels.
Mekeil Williams – 7.5 – strong day in the center of the Hounds’ back line with two tackles, two clearances and wins on all four of his aerial duels, all while he completed 26 of 32 passes (81.3 percent), trailing only Kenardo Forbes. Williams also showed a willingness to get forward, recording three shots — tied for the team high — and the team’s only shot on goal.
Jelani Peters – 6.5 – very active out of the back — with 51 passes, won 11 of 14 duels (big reason why he’s acended into starting role)
Shane Wiedt – 7 – 2 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 clearances, won 8 of 11 duels. Another solid night when he played on right outside back slot.
Ezra Armstrong (83’) – NR – won both duels, had one shot that was off target and had a tackle.
Danny Griffin – 5.5 – another solid but not spectacular night; played all but 12 minutes this season. Won 6 of 8 duels. 41 total passes (only 68% accuracy).
Todd Wharton – 4.5 – a midfielder who had just 13 passes in 63 minutes, yet he won three fouls (and conceded another). Clear indication that Hounds weren’t playing through and connecting passes enough. Should have been more involved.
Louis Pérez (63’) – NR – 2 of 4 on duels, had one unsuccessful cross.
Russell Cicerone – 4 – rough night for Russell, as the two misses were mentioned above. Created a chance but had three total shots off target. Work rate is always there though — won 5 of 9 duels.
Kenardo Forbes – 5.5 – there were a few sloppy passes for the Hounds captain, but he was still passing at 85% accuracy mark (32 total passes), created four chances while sending 11 crosses (six were successful.
Alex Dixon – 5.5 – three fouls won; created a chance; one missed shot; won 4 of 9 duels; three clearances
Tommy Williamson – 6 – created two chances; won 5 of 9 duels; in a physical match with lot of 50/50 balls won 4 fouls (while conceding 3); done well in role as center forward and in defending moments too (had two blocked shots)
Jordan Dover (63’) – NR – one unsuccessful cross, one chance created; 14 passes; won 2 of 3 duels