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Hounds Notebook: In building a deeper roster, Bob Lilley feeling optimistic about 2022

Photo courtesy The Miami FC / USL Championship

It’s 2022 and Bob Lilley is optimistic.

“It’s been exciting.  We have a good group here. We have a lot of guys back. We’re happy with signings. We still have work to do to finish our roster, but we’re ahead of where we’ve been in recent years,” the veteran coach who enters his fifth season at the helm with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, said when assessing his team early in the preseason.

As the Hounds enter the second week of camp, they currently have 14 players on its current roster, with 12 who’ve been able to report/train while an additional 14 hopeful trialists have joined the team on trial, including four goalkeepers.  Some of the returning players are just getting back to the mix, as Albert Dikwa and Danny Griffin rejoined the team this week.

On Monday, the roster was trimmed, following the announcement that the Hounds sold Ezra Armstrong to Major League Soccer’s St. Louis City FC.

Also, at the week’s outset on Monday, Lilley was so impressed with his squad’s sharp training session that he ended the session after 90 minutes.

Hounds die-hard fans shouldn’t ever worry too much about Bob Lilley ever becoming too overconfident or losing his competitive edge.

Lilley continued to burn the midnight oil through the winter months, and now early in the preseason he continues to look for every advantage in completing the 2022 roster build, intent on securing the best possible players who are still out there and will fit into this system in Pittsburgh.

“Look, work has to be done,” LIlley proclaimed. “There are so many good teams out there trying to win too.”

The Hounds gaffer then added.

“We’ll have to see how this group performs. We still have a lot of work to do, but we could have the deepest team since I’ve been here.  Most years, we’ve been able to count on about 13 to 15 guys who can realistically start for us without any significant dropoff. This year, we could be looking at 18 to 20 guys, possibly, who can be part of that rotation.”

As the Hounds added an undisclosed fee in the Armstrong sale, they also were dealt with Todd Wharton’s retirement announcement in January,

This means that two players who were expected to be part of the roster for 2022 are now gone.  Lilley and his staff have some additional spots to fill as they proceed ahead of the earliest season opener in club history in March.

Bob the Builder also acknowledged he’s not done yet with making moves.

“We’re dialed in on a few MLS guys,” Lilley said.  “We’ve done our homework on them, and hopefully we’ll be able to land.”

Strong Returning Core

With nine players in the current group from last year’s roster, the Hounds essentally have almost every field position already lined up with a returning starter, Lilley has reason to be feeling good about his core roster for 2022.

This is a changed narrative from the previous three offseasons in Pittsburgh.  Following the 2018, 2019 and 2020 campaigns, the Houndshad numerous key players sign elsewhere, forcing Lilley to replenish the roster in large numbers.

Heading into 2022, the only key position they’ll have to start over is goalkeeper.

The USL Hall of Fame coach also acknowledged that while he does have a history of successfully reloading new goalkeepers, the club did make an offer and wanted to re-sign Danny Vitiello, who was the starting keeper for much of 2020 and all of 2021, but signed with Sacramento Republic FC in the off season.

“He was the one player we wanted to bring back who signed elsewhere,” Lilley acknowledged.  “Right now, that’s the one area where we’re locked in, focused on adding players that are with us on trial.”

The Hounds have four keepers in camp (trialist list has not been released by the club), who will be competing to fill at least a minimum of two, but more likely three spots on its roster for the season.

Roster Depth To Match Top USL Championship Clubs

Heading into the 2022 season Lilley believes that the USL Championshihip right out of the gate, there’s 12 teams, maybe more, who are at a high level that can compete for a championship.

“There isn’t just one or two teams that are ahead of everyone else.  When you look at 30 teams, there’s at least 12 right off the top of my head that could very well be in the mix for a championship,” Lilley explained.

“There are a good players all over. There are a number of teams that have popped up, who are very aggressive. who we have to keep pace with that are loading up with talented players.”

LIlley wants to be able to match the roster depth with teams like Louisville City FC, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Miami FC.

“We did a good job in 2019, when we finished on top (of the table in the Regular Season Eastern Conference) of the standings. In 2020, we did good, but didn’t have a lot of depth. Then, on top of that, after 2020, we lost key players, like Steevan Dos Santos, Robbie Mertz, Ryan James, so we had to rebuild last year,” Lilley acknowledged.

“Looking back, we set a new foundation last year.  I thought we did a good job. Did really well rebuilding last year. Now, we’re building upon that.

USL All-Time Leading Scorer Dane Kelly’s Role With This Club 

There were numerous times over the past few years when Lilley acknowledged to Pittsburgh Soccer Now there were marquee, proven high-level USL Championship players who nearly signed with the Hounds, but opted to go elsewhere.

When the Charlotte Independence 2021 season came to a halt, due to Major League Soccer’s presence in the Queen City and other factors, a number of top level players from this playoff team suddenly became available this Winter as they relegated down to USL League One ahead of 2022 season.

Among the players who became available as the USL Championship’s all-time leading goal scorer, 30 year-old Dane Kelly.

Lilley, with a nudge and some assistance from his chief field lieutenant, Kenardo Forbes, who has a relationship with his fellow Jamaican countryman Kelly, the Hounds were able to sign one of the most proven scorers in American pro soccer history.

Back to the Drawing Board: A New Year to bring more Riverhounds SC player signings

“He provides great value.  A scorer who is dangerous around the box,” Lilley said.  “Knowing Kenardo (Forbes) helped, added value.  But most importantly, he wanted to win a championship.”

Lilley said that he was more than happy to add a player who will help create more quality depth on his roster and add another dangerous attacking option at the top of the attack which was already among the league’s best in 2021.

“He didn’t play a full season in 2021. He got to Charlotte a little later after the season began.  He did have a hamstring issue, but when healthy, he’s going to score goals, as long as he has space.  He’s so good in the box.”

Lilley added that with Kelly, Albert Dikwa, Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon together, he’s hoping that the level never drops off for the Hounds’ attack this coming season.  He is hoping that a strong rotation will keep them fresher, continue to be explosive and be better on the back end of the season.

Bottom line, is the Hounds want to keep a high standard and always keep an aggressive mindset regardless of who is scoring the goals.

“It’s possible Russell (Cicerone) could end up with more assists.  Or maybe he scores 10 goals this year, but (Dane) Kelly also scores 10, and (Alex) Dixon adds 8 and Dikwa scores a bunch too.  That’s a lot more than being dependent on Dixon and Cicerone, like we were last year.  If we do it right, it won’t be the Dane Kelly show. Or Russell Cicerone, or Alex Dixon.  It’s never been the Kenardo Forbes show.”

Lilley added: “The reward is, for all of them, being part of a winning team.”

More on Ezra Armstrong to St. Louis City FC

Lilley also added that the move to sell Ezra Armstrong’s contract to St. Louis City FC made a lot of sense for both parties.

“He progressed with us last year.  But we didn’t necessarily see him as a clear-cut starter here,” Lilley said. “There was interest there (with St. Louis), and he would get more minutes with them.  It won’t surprise me if he continues to grow. He has a lot of upside.”

The former Sporting KC Academy product, who played as a youngester with its USL club, Swope Park Rangers, then played in Germany and Denmark, appeared in 14 matches last season for the Riverhounds with 11 of those appearances coming in the second half of the season.

He recorded two assists during his time in Pittsburgh, both in a 5-0 win over Loudoun United FC on Sept. 11. The Hounds picked up the team option on his contract for a second season in a roster move announced Dec. 8.

Open Cup 2nd Round Pairings Coming This Week

We will continue to monitor the U.S. Soccer and Lamar Hunt Open Cup updates as the Hounds will be learning who their second round opponent will be in the National Soccer Championship tournament this week.

Still, as of today, U.S. Soccer has not revealed the pairings.  There are some issues that they’re working through, primarily with Third Division National Independent Soccer Association (NISA)’s internal squabbles which are best outlined in this article in Once A Metro. 

Preseason Schedule Update / Potential Change 

Lilley hinted that the schedule might see a tweak as it’s possible they may now only play one match this Saturday, as West Chester United is dealing with some injuries.

Once this is confirmed, the Hounds should be posting more information.

 

Riverhounds SC Preseason Schedule

Date Opponent Time
12-Feb Villanova University 11 a.m.
12-Feb West Chester United 3 p.m.
16-Feb Loudoun United 2 p.m.
19-Feb Pitt 1 p.m. 
22-Feb Indy Eleven 12:30 p.m.
26-Feb Louisville City FC 2 p.m.
5-Mar West Virginia Univ 6 p.m.

all matches at Highmark Stadium except for match vs Pitt (Ambrose Urbanic Field at Peterson Sports Complex) 

Riverhounds SC Roster (as of February 8, 2022) 

  • Goalkeepers (0) — None
  • Defenders (6) — Robby Dambrot, Jelani Peters, Dani Rovira, Shane Wiedt, Jesse Williams, Mekeil Williams
  • Midfielders (3) — Kenardo Forbes, Danny Griffin, Angelo Kelly-Rosales
  • Forwards/Wingers (5) — Russell Cicerone, Albert Dikwa, Alex Dixon, William Eyang, Dane Kelly

Bold – returning from 2021


Look for more Hounds coverage this week including of this weekend’s preseason match(s) and a feature on Russell Cicerone.

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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