It’s been a few weeks now since the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s season ended abruptly and unexpectly ahead of its USL Championship Eastern Conference Quarterfinal round match at Birmingham Legion due to the team having too many positive COVID-19 cases, so as the organization looks to turn the page heading into the offseason, we can start to look at the next steps for Head Coach Bob Lilley and his staff as they begin to prepare for 2022.
Despite much hard work put in through the course of the 2021 season, with a pretty confident team headng into the postseason, there was no way for anyone involved to sugarcoat the way things ended.
Truly gutted after all of the hard work we’ve put in this season 💔 thank you to everyone for all of your support. 💛🖤 https://t.co/crhvoSvBc3
— Preston Kilwien (@preston_kilwien) November 6, 2021
“It was pretty disappointing to put nine months in, and not have the opportunity come playoff time,” Lilley said when he finally caught up with the media more than a week after the team had to forfeit its playoff match at Birmingham.
“It’s one of the tough pills to swallow, that we don’t get to make that run this year.”
Lilley’s Focus: Winning a Championship in Pittsburgh
Always focused on the next task at hand, Lilley has already been meticulously gearing up for his 2022 roster build with a simple mission.
“How do we give ourselves a better chance next year?” the Hounds gaffer shared a few weeks ago.
In fact, when asked by PSN’s Mark Goodman if there have been anyone from MLS landscape reach out to him about any of the multiple open coaching vacancies, Lilley dismissed that pretty quickly, reaffirming his desire to see things through here in Pittsburgh.
“I know where my heart and mind is at,” Lilley stated.
“And, it’s here in Pittsburgh.”
“I’m excited. Where we are headed is to solidify this team and this market.”
Goodman added in his article that managing the Pittsburgh Riverhounds is clearly a project Lilley is intent to see through. While the veteran coach might certainly be capable of helping lead an MLS team from mediocrity to success, he’d rather take the Hounds from good to great, and from small, to medium, and finally to large, at least in terms of their soccer presence in Pittsburgh.
After four seasons which have included a playoff berth each year, one regular season Eastern Conference top-of-the-table finish (2019) but just one postseason win, Lilley is hell-bent on taking the Pittsburgh Riverhounds to the promised land.
The veteran coach has amassed 20 seasons of professional head-coaching experience, following the 2021 season (17-7-8 record), he now holds an all-time record of 317-149-131, and he has logged at least a .500 winning percentage during each regular season and has led his team into the postseason every year.
He also has won two league titles (with Rochester Rhinos and Vancouver Whitecaps), earned Coach of the Year honors five times, and in 2010, he was inducted into the USL Hall of Fame as a coach.
“Everywhere I’ve been, we’ve built a strong team. We’ve gone further. And I’m determined to get this over the line here.”
Who Returns in 2022?
The first step as Lillley and his primary assistant Dan Visser prepare for their fifth season in Pittsburgh, will come when addressing the team’s roster as the deadline with all 2021 player contracts expiring early next week, on November 30.
One of the biggest developments relating to player contracts has come recently as the newly ratified Collective Bargaining Agreement CBA was finalized in early November. Among some of the highlights of this unprecedented deal, the new standard player agreement (SPA) may be the most significant. Even this past season, players’ contract lengths ranged from just seven months to a full-year term, depending on the club. Teams will still be encouraged to offer twelve-month contracts, but the newly-imposed minimum of ten months will give players more financial stability while establishing a base league calendar of February 1 to November 30.
“This has been a positive step,” the veteran coach, who once played second division and indoor pro soccer in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the U.S. “This raises the profile for the league. The players are our biggest asset. It’s a growing league. The players are important.”
How does this affect the Hounds as they approach this year’s deadline?
Not very much.
While the players will have added benefits within their contracts, for Lilley and his staff with the support of the team’s owner Tuffy Shallenberger, will do what they can to compete for a Championship in the coming years, while operating within the parameters of the collective bargaining agreement and the team’s budget.
That means that as they begin to look at the 2022 season, they are not committed to any player contracts beyond one-full season, but hold contract options for many players.
It could be possible that some players could be signed to a 12-month contract, but the majority will still likely fall into the ten month contract timeframe.
The veteran coach has autonomy on personnel decisions, will continue to walk the line in going about the delicate business of roster management by trying to establish continuity while not overspending, looking out for players and the team’s best interests and most importantly, trying to build a championship caliber team.
The biggest challenges in recent years the the club have come in seeing players who achived success in the Riverhounds’ black and gold, only to be lured away for a variety of reasons: bigger contracts; find better pathways to higher levels; simply make a move closer to their roots and homes. or decide it’s time to not pursue playing professionally any longer.
There have been a few notable departures that have been tough blows to the team’s small, but loyal fanbase.
Following the 2019 season, Pittsburgh weren’t able to re-sign Defensive Player of the Year Joe Greenspan, its leading scorer Neco Brett, center back Tobi Adewole and Mohammad Dabo, then following the 2020 campaign, Ryan James, Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Robbie Mertz signed elsewhere after their contracts expired in Pittsburgh.
Players Riverhounds Hold 2022 Contract Options
One of the good things for the Hounds is they’ve kept some core players who re-signed contracts after the playing through their option years in Pittsburgh, each remaining with the club in 2021. Those four include: Kenardo Forbes (the USL Championship’s All-Time assists leader has been with the club since Lilley arrived in 2018, but his now 33 years old), Jordan Dover (also has been with the club since 2018), Dani Rovira (been with team since 2019) and Anthony Velarde (with team since 2019).
The Hounds hold the contract option for all four of these players for 2022.
However, one of those four, Anthony Velarde, confirmed he is not returning.
In addition, players who were signed to one-year contacts with a club option for 2022: Jake Leeker (GK), Ezra Armstrong (winger/outside back), Mekeil Williams (center back), Jalen Robinson (hybrid defender/center back/outside back), Preston Kilwien (hybrid defender/center back/outside back), Shane Wiedt (center back), Jelani Peters (center back), Casey Bartlett-Scott (center back), Todd Wharton (midfielder), Louis Perez (midfielder/winger), Alex Dixon (winger/midfielder), Josh Gatt (winger) and Russell Cicerone (winger/forward).
It’s likely the Lilley could opt to bring back a lot of these players to maintain more significant continuity and build upon the momentum and chemistry they created as a team this past season.
In 2021, the Hounds caught lightning in the bottle as Dixon and Cicerone provided a dynamic one-two attacking punch and keeping that tandem intact will be a priority, along with Todd Wharton, who was a versatile player and a key contributor to the midfield, who could either sit deeper or get forward when needed.
All three played in each of the team’s 32 games. Dixon came awful close to becoming the first Riverhounds SC player to amass double-digit goals (9) and assists (9), while Cicerone was the team’s cold-blooded finisher, with 16 goals.
The next pressing question will the bulk of center backs and defenders return next season?
If you recall, Lilley completely started from scratch with a whole new back line in 2021.
As the season came to a close, despite inconsistencies throughout the season and a lot of lineup rotation among the center backs, Pittsburgh ended up allowing the third fewest goals in the USL Championship, as this group started to come together and play better. Having Wiedt, Williams, Kilwien, Peters and even Robinson in the back for another season would provide some much needed stability and a deep, seasoned group.
The question remains, was Lilley satisfied enough with this group to bring back most of these players?
In addition, Louis Perez and Ezra Armstrong may have shown enough promise to bring back to Pittsburgh for another season.
The 2022 season could be the opportunity for Leeker to ascend into the starting keeper role if the Hounds have confidence in bringing him back and they choose or are unable to re-sign Danny Vitiello (which if you read below, is a real possiblity).
The three players who may appear least likely to return are Josh Gatt (knee injury), Casey Bartlett-Scott and Chris Morrish.
After having another knee surgery after seven games, Gatt stayed in Pittsburgh thorugh the season despite his set back. Bartlett-Scott only made one short (7 minute) appearance in 2022 after not getting to Pittsburgh from native England due to travel/Visa restrictions in May after the season kicked off. Morrish was the team’s third string keeper, who didn’t see any playing time. There have been some years where Lilley has opted to keep his previous third string keeper.
Players With Expiring Contracts: Danny Griffin, Danny Vitiello and Albert Dikwa
This year’s team only has three players who played through a contract option season in 2021, after signing with the club in 2020.
But, these three were pretty significant contributors: Goalkeeper Danny Vitiello, midfielder Danny Griffin, who led the team in minutes played in 2021, and forward Albert Dikwa, who was hampered by a nagging groin injury for the latter half of the 2021 season.
Lilley has indicated in the past that he really wanted to try to sign players like Robbie Mertz, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Ryan James, but those players were intent on pursuing other options.
Of these three, simply based on the way Lilley has operated in the past with goalkeepers, not having signed a single keeper who has played beyond his contract option in Pittsburgh, Vitiello, who has developed into an outstanding goalkeeper in his two seasons in Pittsburgh, will likely be pursuing other opportunities.
— Danny Vitiello (@dannyvitiello_) November 23, 2021
Dikwa was acknowledged as a valuable player as part of the core attacking group in 2021, however, as he underachived in hitting the mark as a goal scorer (just two goals and three assists) but Lilley did recognize his contributions as a center forward to do a lot of the dirty work. Unfortunately for Dikwa, for the second consecutive year, we never really had a chance to see his full potential, as he was injured for much of the second half of the season with a nagging groin issue.
The toughest call from this group is Danny Griffin, who firmly established himself as the team’s invaluable workhorse in the middle of the pitch, leading the team in minutes played (2,868) and appearances/starts (32), and only being subbed out one time the entire season.
Much like other players before him who had outstanding seasons in Pittsburgh, Griffin will likely have options in the offseason now that his contract has expired in Pittsburgh.
The question is, will Griffin pursue those opportunities, or will he become one of Lilley’s guys? Will he become part of that core group to join Forbes, Dover, Velarde and Rovira to give the Hounds continued durable and stabilizing presence in the middle of the field. Or will the Springfield, Mass and former Providence Friar test the free agent waters — and who knows — look to return closer to home or see if there’s a pathway to MLS that might open up for him?
The Loanees: Tommy Williamson and Tom Judge; Academy Product: Wyatt Borso
The three remaining players from this past season’s roster included Tommy Williamson, Tom Judge and Wyatt Borso.
Wiilliamson (San Jose) and Judge (Nashville) were loanees from MLS clubs and Borso comes from the Hounds Academy, and will be playing in college, set to enroll at Notre Dame in Fall 2022.
Of these three, Williamson had the most significant impact, making appearances in 27 matches (with 13 starts), with an impressive six goals and four assists in just 1,098 minutes. It will be interesting to see how he develops with the San Jose Earthquakes early next season.
— Tommy Williamson (@t_will999) November 10, 2021
It will be interesting to monitor what happens and if the Riverhounds Development Academy (RDA) would produce, or in Borso’s case, recruit another player from outside Pittsburgh to be a part of the Academy and possibly earn a roster spot with the senior team.
At this rate, Lilley acknowledged recently that all of the players currently in RDA would be best served by pursuing college soccer opportunities.
If the Hounds choose to bring back a large portion of last year’s roster, and after the success they had this year with the Williamson loan, it will be interesting to see if Lilley has his eyes on some other potential MLS high picks (and has attention of MLS coaches/player personnel staff) who could see another win-win scenario as a potential loan in 2022.
Riverhounds 2021 Roster with PSN’s 2022 Contract Option Projections
When the season ended so quickly, Lilley and Visser had to wait over a week to make sure all of the players were through COVID-19 protocols, then they finally had a team meeting and then one-on-one meetings to talk about the team’s plans for each as they begin to look ahead.
In taking a deeper look and projecting what the Hounds roster may look like, and which contract options they currently hold for each player from the 2021 roster, we also provide our projections (14 returning!) for which players the Hounds decide to pick-up contract options for 2022.