As the Riverhounds SC began its tenth season playing in their scenic stadium on the Monongahela River on Saturday, they picked up a gritty 2-1 win against the Hartford Athletic, overcoming a disjointed performance in its home opener before 2,776 fans thanks in large part to its venerable leader, Kenardo Forbes.
The win gave the Hounds a 2-0-0 start for only the second time in the club’s 23-year history.
With the match deadlocked at 1-1 early in the second half, the Hounds were playing a man up for the second consecutive week, but they needed a lift.
Often when the Hounds attack works its way into the box, it’s Forbes who often sits back on the outskirts. He’ll often find spacing near the top of the arc, as he’s there for support, looking to extend possession and primarily operates effectively from this spot to use his vision to make an extra pass when finding openings to exploit in the defense.
The numbers alude to the fact that he’s been a pass-first player, who’s become the USL Championship’s all-time assists leader after three seasons in Rochester (2015-17) and now five in Pittsburgh (2018-present), all while playing under Head Coach Bob Lilley.
When it comes to scoring goals, Forbes has picked his spots. In his three seasons in Rochester, he scored three goals each season. Then in his first two campaigns with the Riverhounds, in 2018 and 2019, he scored four times each of those seasons.
Most importantly, when he scores goals, they always seem to come in the most opportune moments, when his team needs them most.
Kenardo Forbes puts the @RiverhoundsSC up 1-0 late in the 2nd half!💥
— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) May 30, 2019
A little later that season in the Annual July 4th match, again, it was Forbes who delivered a deadly free kick that proved to be the difference against Bethlehelm Steel FC.
— Bob Pompeani (@KDPomp) July 5, 2019
In the shortened 2020 season, Forbes didn’t score a single goal while playing in only ten games, suffering a leg injury which kept him out for an extended stretch. Still, he took the USL Championship’s all-time assist leader championship belt that season by adding seven helpers.
He began the 2021 season in the same vein, unable to score a goal.
Seeing that Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon were emerging as the team’s most dangerous players higher up in the attack, and with the emergence of Danny Griffin holding down deeper midfield duties, Lilley unleashed Forbes higher up into the formation to allow him to link up even more with these talented attackers who were already flourishing.
He finally got his first goal in August. By season’s end, Forbes, in taking a more aggressive approach, scored a career high five goals in 2021.
At the start of 2022, Forbes has continued to play higher up in the formation. On Saturday, he was positioned centrally most of the time underneath the target forward, Dane Kelly and with Cicerone and Dixon working the channels on either side of him.
With defenders being occupied by the dangerous presence of his fellow attackers, especially with the added presence of Dane Kelly, Forbes is going to have more opportunities to take a run at getting more shots on target in the run of play.
In the first half, he had a chance, but pushed his shot too far over the bar.
“I was mad at myself in the first half for one I put over the top, so I just hit that one as hard as I could and tried to keep on target,” Forbes said.
“Bob was yelling at me, ‘Get it on target!’”
Sure enough, the Jamaican mdifielder who has become the longest tenured Hound, was provided a lay off pass from one of those teammates who’s also been pushing him to shoot, last week’s hero, fellow countryman Kelly.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) March 20, 2022
Of course, the irony of the moment was that Kelly and Forbes reversed roles. Kelly is the all-time leading goal scorer in USL Championship history, and Forbes is the all-time assist leader.
It was Kelly’s second assist in two games, and if Lilley has his way, we might be seeing a lot more distribution from his top notch target forward.
“I thought it was a good goal,” Lilley said. “We’d like to see Dane connect those balls more. I thought it was a tough day at the office for him holding up the ball. But on that particular play, he went to get a hold of it, played a perfectly weighted ball. It was a big play and a big assist and a great goal by Kenny.”
Forbes is glad that he could help lure his fellow Reggae Boy to Pittsburgh.
“It’s a good connection,” Forbes said. “We know how to play off each other even though it’s our first time playing together. I think Kelly, Russ (Cicerone), (Albert) Dikwa and myself have a good understanding up top. We know to rotate defensively. (Kelly) is getting up to speed. We still have a lot of work to do as a team.”
Forbes has really become an extension of his coach, and it came through in his post match comments on Saturday.
At this level of professional soccer, it’s extremely rare to see many players stay in the same place for a long time and play for the same coach. There have been some fantastic coach-player combinations in major pro U.S. sports as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and Greg Popovich and Tim Duncan immediately come to mind.
The USL Championship’s (and now Pittsburgh’s) best version of this might be Lilley and Forbes, who’ve been together like peas and carrots since 2015.
It’s hard to argue with the success that Lilley and Forbes have had together. In their second season in Rochester, they lifted the USL Cup. They’ve never failed to make the playoffs and after five years together in Pittsburgh, they’ve helped build a winning culture to the Riverhounds SC organization.
On Saturday night, in the first home opener win since 2019, Forbes added another contribution to his legacy as a player and one of the most important players in the franchise’s history.
And if Forbes continues to help add another dimension to the Hounds’ attack, and he has room to shoot — as his coaches and teammates continue to egg him on to shoot more — the Hounds have a pretty good chance to get to the promised land.
Tactics and Formation
Hounds lineup (5-1-3-1)
Once again, the Hounds opted to go with three center backs along the back line, but Robby Dambrot and Toby Sims also served as two-way wingers, and also tucked back into the last line at times throughout the match.
Danny Griffin served as the steady holding midfielder, although there were times when — ironically — Forbes rotated deeper, primarily early in the match and then in the late stages when the Hounds were possessing and trying to hold on with a one-goal lead.
With Sims getting the start, this pushed Alex Dixon into a higher, attacking midfield, winger spot
— John Krysinsky (@JohnKrysinsky) March 19, 2022
Lilley noted that he has a lot of confidence and has four center backs who can be part of the regular starting rotation. He once again went with three center backs. This time, he felt it would be important to get Mekeil Williams a start in the middle, with Arturo Ordonez on the right and Jelani Peters on the left.
The Hounds gaffer mentioned that the Hounds will be without Mekeil Williams and Jesse Williams, who will be on international duty with Trinidad and Tobago for next week’s match at Detroit.City FC.
Lilley also mentioned that Dani Rovira, who had an excellent preseason and will definitely be another player who was expected to have a more prominent role, has been dealing with visa issues, and they’re not sure when he’ll be back in the mix.
Early Goal, Physical Play and Disjointed Officiating?
While the early part of the match, there seemed to be some promise that both teams would be able to get up and down in an open ended affair, things changed quickly, especially after the Hounds got the go-ahead goal from Robby Dambrot.
The Hounds were possessing the ball well, eventually leading to breaking down Hartford when Griffin’s diagonal ball into the box was slightly deflected, and landed at Dambrot’s feet.
As the far side winger, it was important for Dambrot to be in that spot.
“It’s funny because the play before, Bob was yelling at me to get into the box,” Dambrot explained. “The ball bounced its way, found me at the back post, and I was able to find it in the far corner.”
“That’s why he gets paid the big bucks, I guess.”
Trailing on the road, Hartford started to play even more physical and direct. Much like it did in last year’s scoreless, foul-filled finale at Highmark Stadium last season, the Athletic started to do every thing it could to disrupt the Hounds possession and rhythm.
They attacked the Hounds with longer balls that put pressure on Griffin and the back line. The Hounds got caught up in the moment, taking a few fouls that led to a few free kick chances.
In the 39th minute, another foul on the Hounds, this one being dished out by center back Mekeil Williams at midfield led to Hartford playing a quick restart, which led to a long ball that got behind the unprepared Pittsburgh back line. Juan Carlos Obregón made a timely run into the box, sending a right footed shot from very close range to the bottom right corner, after a nice feed from the speedy Prince Saydee. It was Saydee who blew past the Hounds defense to track down the free kick.
“I don’t think our defending has been good enough,” Lilley exclaimed. “Not tonight, not last week at Memphis.”
By the same token, Lilley pointed to the fact that they have not allowed many chances (goalkeeper Chase Vosvick didn’t have to make a single save on Saturday), but he feels they’re easy to play against, with his defense lacking the support and second defenders getting in to stop opponents from creating attacking moments.
He was especially frustrated with Saydee getting behind the back line on the goal.
“They’re getting behind us with one ball,” Lilley said. “We should be recognizing that, and dropping. I don’t think we’re connected. We’re defending in spurts rather than collectively closing space together. You get away with that when a team has to work harder, and play 10 men. That’s not going to happen every week.”
Eventually this effort by Hartford to slow down the Hounds, which included five yellow cards being handed out in the first half, would come back to haunt Hartford.
A second yellow card and subsequent ejection was issued to Peter-Lee Vassell after a hard challenge at midfield forcing Hartford to play a man down for the remainder of the game.
“I don’t think either side was pleased with the calls. Not every time there’s contact, it is a foul. Players can hold their positions. They can go down easy. Sometimes the fouls are tactical. Sometimes they’re with extra force. I’ll have to take “a look at the tape and see. Obviously we got the better chances and got some ticky tack fouls early,” Lilley explained.
“I felt their fouls were a little more intense, so it didn’t surprise me that he (referee John Matto) was giving a lot of yellows. There was talking too. It’s tough. Until I see the tape, I really don’t have a lot to go on. But it certainly helps to play the second half, it’s a 1-1 game, so we’re going to have the advantage, more of the ball and going to generate some good scoring chances, of which we got one. I would like to be a little more prolific.”
After the match, in the meet-up with the media, Lilley was asked an interesting question if he had more restraint than usual with confronting the officials.
“My players will tell anyone that I yell more at them than anyone,” Lilley retorted.
“I don’t generally, because I don’t affect the refs, Sometimes I can’t affect my own players, but the refs, I am not going to be able to, so I don’t until I watch the tape, I’ll reserve judgement on the referee.”
Thus far, through two games, the Hounds have seen an opposing player get sent off late in the first half each time.
It’s not a coincidence that both opponents this season had to resort to physical play in the open field.
“If we’re dangerous enough through the midfield, and teams are taking fouls in open space, which is the same as Memphis took last week, That’s a strength of ours. Teams have to take us down in transition or maybe we have a goal scoring chance,” Lilley further explained.
“Both weeks, there were multiple yellows on the same player. That changes the game, and you still have to take advantage of the man advantage. You still have to find the goals to win the game. Fortunately we were able to do that today.”
The Hounds still need to get better on the ball in being more dangeroous in the final third, especially when playing with a man advantage and despite good flashes early in the match. The Hounds did outpossess Hartford considerably owning 62 percent of possession battle (nearly 200 more passes: 587-385), but it wasn’t enough to create more quality chances.
It’s the defensive lapses and lack of organization as a unit that have Lilley most preturbed, and his players heard that message loud and clear immediately after the match.
“I thought we made some progress with regards to our possession, especially when it was 11v11. I thought we were able to move the ball a lot better than we did against Memphis. As the guys get to know each other more, and see each others strengths and weeknesses, and the team continues to gel, we’ll become even more lethal in the attack. This team will score a lot of goals this year.” Dambrot said.
“We still have a ways to go on that side, and defensively. We have to keep chipping away, but its nice to learn these lessons while getting three points, than the opposite.”
Chase Vosvick – 5.5 – first goal allowed as Hound. Didn’t face any shots on frame.
Back Line and Wingers/Outside Backs
Robby Dambrot – 6.5 – another solid performance cemented by goal when getting forward. 43 passes (89% passing accuracy). Three unsuccessful crosses and won 2 of 5 duels.
Nate Dossantos (89’) – NR – very late sub again.
Jelani Peters – 5 – there were two bad giveaways at the end of the first half that were glaring. He did lead the team with 94 passes as once again he’s the guy getting the most touches out of the back early this season and won 5 of 8 duels (4 in the air so shows his value there). Hartford opted not to press much, so center backs all passed rather efficiently (90% for Peters).
Mekeil Williams – 5 – always good to have veteran presence in the middle. Won 1 of 3 duels and team high three clearances.
Shane Wiedt (75’) – NR – after a Team of the Week performance in week one, Wiedt spelled Mekiel Williams for the final 15 minutes here to help close out the win.
Arturo Ordóñez – 5.5 – another decent outing for Ordonez in his progression with this club as supplemented himself into the mix of the starting center backs as he won 3 of 5 duels and had two clearances, this time playing on the right side of the three man line.
Toby Sims – 4.5 – first start as a Hound on the right wing. Only 37 passes (77% passing accuracy). Won six of 10 duels and conceded two fouls while earning one foul.
Angelo Kelly (75’) – NR – another late sub entry, as he helped with Hounds keeping shape and defending late in match. Conceded two fouls and had a yellow card. Hasn’t scored a USL Championship goal in four seasons, but took a run at one from outside the box, but it went over the bar.
Danny Griffin – 6 – Typical Danny Griffin performance. Steady and efficient. Created two chances. Won 5 of 8 duels. Conceded three fouls and earned two fouls. Played a lot through him, with 78 passes (92% passing accuracy).
Russell Cicerone – 5.5 – one shot that was off target. Created a couple chances. Won 2 of 7 duels. Two-way play included a tackle and blocked shot.
Kenardo Forbes – 7.5 – the difference maker with the second half goal. Won 3 of 7 duels with 82% passing (61 passes). Had three successful crosses and created one chance.
Marc Ybarra (90’) – NR – late appearance, after start last week.
Alex Dixon – 5 – playing higher up with Forbes and Cicerone, had a few successful crosses, created a chance with 77% passing accuracy. Won 5 of 11 duels, team high four tackles and conceded a foul.
Dane Kelly – 5.5 – Lilley said it was a rough night for him as he drew plenty of attention from Hartford’s back line and didn’t register a shot. Yet managed to get a key assist (his second his year), created two chances, drew two fouls and won 2 of 7 duels.
Albert Dikwa (75’) – NR – Another decent showing off the bench to relieve Kelly especially in pressing Hartford as they tried to push for late equalizer. Won 2 of 4 duels, had few tackles and an interception.