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Hounds Notebook: As preseason winds down, time for some ‘fine tuning’

One of the unique things about soccer in the United States, is that every now and then, amateur clubs have opportunities to compete against professional teams.

The most formal version of this comes when the U.S. Open Cup, the oldest running National Cup soccer tournament in the United States, provides lower division clubs with an opportunity to compete against the teams at the highest levels.

Professional clubs, including the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, will also schedule friendly preseason matches against college teams as they train in preparation for the regular season.

The Riverhounds SC regularly schedule men’s soccer programs from in and around the region in February and March.

This week, the schedule provides the Hounds with two final tune-up matches prior to the start of the regular season against Pitt and West Virginia, two college programs who have risen to national promenence, each advancing to the NCAA men’s soccer tournament’s Elite Eight in early December.

In Tuesday’s 7-1 lopsided scoreline against Pitt at Ambrose Urbanic Field, the Hounds took care of business, eventually dismantling and wearing down a shorthanded Panthers squad just gearing up for the Spring season.

“You know, Pitt has some quality players and they’re always going to be dangerous,” Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley said. “Once it got to 3-1, the bench emptied for both teams, so it’s tough to read too much in to the score.”

Fair enough, Bob.

The preseason is never about the results, as it is about using competition for player evaluation and the opportunity to build team chemistry.

PSN’s Mark Goodman reported from the Hounds scrimmage vs Louisville City FC on Saturday (which ended in a 1-1 draw), that quality of play wasn’t exactly stellar, as a group, the Hounds appear to be still finding their footing and getting comfortable with each other.

In the scrimmage vs Pitt, in taking care of business, the Hounds flexed their muscles while coverting on many of their chances as they continue to strive to reach a higher level.

Hounds Starting Lineup vs Pitt

With its long, grueling season only a little more than a week away from kicking off, the Hounds took the pitch at Ambrose Urbanic Field with a bit more of a sense of urgency. They featured a starting eleven that included all players who have been signed and are on the roster.

In front of newly signed Chase Vosvick in goal were the center back trio of Shane Wiedt, Arturo Ordonez, Jelani Peters. On the wings, included another new signee, Toby Sims on the left with the dynamic Alex Dixon wide right. The trio of Kenardo Forbes, Danny Griffin and Dani Rovira roamed the central midfield, keeping their shape mostly in a triangle, while Russell Cicerone worked continuiously to find lines and channels in the Pitt defense while Albert Dikwa held the highest line as the target striker.

With the exception of Robby Dambrot entering the match for Dixon for a brief period, this group stayed on the field for the entire first half, and early second half.

Essentially every other player on the roster was used in the second half for the Hounds in the final 20 minutes.  It’s likely that for the West Virginia final scrimmage, some of the starting roles may be flip-flopped, especially for guys still competing for starting positions or that Lilley will want to get a longer look.

One trialist did play for the Hounds, Luis Argudo. who played with MLS’ Columbus Crew in 2018 and 2019, making 16 starts for the MLS side.  He also was with Hartford in 2019 and Inter Miami in 2020, then featured for Norrby, in Sweden in 2021, where he scored three goals and had three assists.

The Panthers brought out a lineup that included numerous returning players from last Fall’s squad, including the left side of the back line remaining intact with Raphael Crivello and Mohammad Abualdani, holding midfield combo of Jackson Waltri and Filip Mirkovic. Other than Valentin Noel at the top and Bertin Jacquesson, on the right side, the Panthers had numerous players on the field who were role players and back-ups for the most part of 2020 and 2021.

Goalkeeper Joe Van Der Sar, who backed up Nico Campuzano last year, was under steady pressure from the Hounds for much of the match.

Who and What Stood Out? 

In the match of pros vs college kids, a few match-ups and players stood out:

  • On the right side of Pitt’s attack, Bertin Jacquesson would normally find room to manuever, create chances and blow past defenders.  Jacquesson ended the 2021 Fall season in excellent form and was a solid contributor to Pitt’s dynamic attack in the NCAA tournament.  In fact, he earned himself a chance to go to the MLS SuperDraft combine, which was held during the College Cup weekend.  On Tuesday, it appeared that almost every time he touched the ball, he was under constant pressure, either with Alex Dixon breathing down his neck or 6-foot-5 Jelani Peters winning just about every 50-50 ball in the vicinity.
  • Speaking of Peters, he scored the match’s first goal in the 13th minute by completely towering over the pack in the box to get a header on a Kenardo Forbes corner kick.  In fact, Peters should have scored later in the first half, but his second header on target from another corner from the Assist King was saved brilliantly by Pitt goalkeeper Joe van der Sar.
  • The Hounds central midfield trio of Forbes, Danny Griffin and Dani Rovira completely stifiled most of Pitt’s attempts to play quickly through the middle of the field. One of Pitt’s strengths is to play through its experienced (at the college level) holding mids, Walti and Mirkovic, who were sharp on the ball, but they had a lot of difficulty figuring out how to unlock the Hounds.
  • The player who stood out to me on Tuesday was Rovira. Sure, it would be easy to point to his two goals. Watching the former Vermont University standout now entering his fourth season with the Hounds work cohesively as part of the central midfield in the first half was noticable. His maturation and evolution as a player was further evident watching him outmuscle Pitt midfielders and defenders to win possessions. And then there was his decision-making and confidence in pushing forward into the final third.  This confidence carried over with two pinpoint, one-time shots that he put in the back of the net.  In the remaining minutes he played in the second half, he rotated over to the outside back position he’s played quite a bit in Pittsburgh.

Three Hounds face former College team 

The Hounds now have three former Pitt players, and each got the opportunity to shine at the place where they once honed their craft under the tutelage of Jay Vidovich. Arturo Ordonez played in the center of the Hounds three man back line. Although the Hounds back line wasn’t too busy on the day, he worked well with Wiedt on his right and Peters on the left.  Dambrot had an assist on Kelly’s goal, then scored the Hounds’ fifth goal in the 75th minute after a nice 1-2 with Angelo Kelly.

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“I like the relationship we have with their program, their staff,” Lilley said of Pitt’s program.  “They’re going to produce players for the next level. Whether it’s USL (Championship) or MLS. We’ve had some of their guys train with us, and we will in the future too. Whether is a guy like (Edward) Kizza, who’s in MLS.  To get a guy like Arturo, is a big signing for us.  He wasn’t going to stick in Houston, we wanted to have him. It’s good to push our programs forward. They’re trying to win an NCAA Championship and we’re trying to win a USL Championship.”

Wiedt and Dambrot have shared their journey from Akron to Pitt, then to Loudoun United for two seasons.  Now, after a year apart, they’ve reunited with the Riverhounds SC.

“It’s like I never left,” Wiedt said after the scrimmage.  “Always good to come back. I was even training with some of them prior to the preseason to get ready.

WPIAL Soccer Alums Hook Up for Pitt’s Lone Goal 

A positive takeaway on the Pitt side, they responded after falling behind 3-0 when Eben McIntyre delivered a nice ball from the left side that found Valentin Noel breaking behind the Hounds back line.  Noel quickly found Michael Sullivan breaking toward the far post.  The former Deer Lakes High School standout completed the sequence with a clinical finish to deny the Hounds’ shutout. Despite the rough result, it was a cool moment for two WPIAL products to hook-up on the Pitt goal.  This spring provide an excellent opportunity for both Sullivan, in his second full year at Pitt, and McIntyre, a freshman who graduated early from Charleroi High School to enroll at Pitt, to develop and grow with Jay Vidovich’s program.

Rolling Forward into the Regular Season

As Lilley pointed out, substitutions for both teams picked up after the hour mark, and things really opened up, making it difficult to get a good reading on both sides.

While the Hounds gear up for the regular season, Vidovich and his staff are trying to get his team to round into form as they head into a Spring season that will include participating in a Spring College Cup tournament.

Kelly got his third goal of the preseason with a header on the end of a Dambrot cross in the 72nd minute.

The Hounds added two more goals in the final three minutes. as trialist Luis Argudo pounced on a Panthers turnover to convert his first goal since joining the Hounds in camp as an invited player on trial, and Eyang netted his second of the preseason with a well-placed finish into the bottom right corner of the net.

Bottom line for the Hounds, it was another step forward in what’s been a preseason where Lilley and his staff have carefully constructed a roster to what appears to be their liking.

“When you are, what, five games into the preseason, you want to start to get on a roll, heading into the season.” Wiedt said. “Hopefully we can keep it going against West Virginia and into the season opener.”

And for the most part, the Hounds arer healthy and ready to go.

“Knock-on-wood. We’ve tried to share the minutes,” Lilley said. “Obviously today, some guys went 60-65-70 (minutes). We played Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday.  We’ve got one more.  Then we’ve got a week before (regular season opener).  We’ll just need to fine tune heading to Memphis.”

PSN Hounds Coverage 

Look for more in the coming week here and on Pittsburgh Sports Live as we will preview the season, take a closer look at the Hounds roster and more, as the Hounds season opener is nearly a week away.

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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