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Hounds Notebook

Dani Rovira suits Hounds’ style of play, becoming the club’s latest ‘Swiss Army Knife’

Dani Rovira is all smiles after training on Thursday. Photo courtesy John Krysinsky

As the Riverhounds SC players wrapped up their training session on Thursday with work on a close range, one-time shooting drill, they were more than glad to be back in familiar surroundings.

Watching the team in the closing moments of practice, they were balancing a laser focus on the task at hand, while also mixing in some light hearted fun and banter.

After a day off Wednesday, the Hounds have been in recovery mode after a rigorous travel schedule which took them out west and back for bus trip to Cincinnati. while the trip was largely unsuccessful netting a pair of losses, it’s still clear that this is a determined, close-knit group that is putting in the work.

The Hounds are currently sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference standings, four points behind front-running Louisville City FC.

Pos. P W L T GD Pts Form
1

Louisville City FC

Louisville City FC 7 5 0 2 10 17

WDDWW

2

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 6 4 1 1 6 13

WDWWL

3

Tampa Bay Rowdies

Tampa Bay Rowdies 7 3 1 3 6 12

WDDLW

4

Detroit City FC

Detroit City FC 6 3 1 2 5 11

WDDWW

5

The Miami FC

The Miami FC 6 3 2 1 2 10

LDLWW

6

Memphis 901 FC

Memphis 901 FC 5 3 1 1 0 10

LWWDW

7

FC Tulsa

FC Tulsa 7 3 4 0 -1 9

WLWLL

8

Indy Eleven

Indy Eleven 6 2 2 2 -1 8

LDDWW

9

Loudoun United FC

Loudoun United FC 6 2 3 1 -3 7

WDLLL

10

Atlanta United 2

Atlanta United 2 7 2 5 0 -6 6

LWWLL

11

Birmingham Legion FC

Birmingham Legion FC 6 1 3 2 -4 5

LLDWL

12

Charleston Battery

Charleston Battery 5 1 4 0 -7 3

WLLLL

13

New York Red Bulls II

New York Red Bulls II 6 1 5 0 -8 3

WLLLL

14

Hartford Athletic

Hartford Athletic 5 0 4 1 -5 1

LDLLL

While a match with Louisville City looms on April 30th, the Hounds will be looking to bounce back against Atlanta United 2 on Saturday when they return to Highmark Stadium for their third home match of the season.

The Hounds are coming off a two-games-in-a-four-day stretch, as they were dealt losses for the first time this season, 1-0 at Las Vegas in league play on Saturday, then a 2-0 defeat in extra time to MLS side FC Cincinnati in the U.S. Open Cup’s third round.

“We didn’t get the results we wanted, but like everything, there’s positives and negatives,” midfielder Dani Rovira, who’s in his fourth season with the club, said after the training session. ” It’s something we’ve built here, we don’t lose two games in a row much, especially in league games. It’s nice to come back home. We have a point to prove.

After Thursday’s training, Head Coach Bob Lilley shared his thoughts from the weekend and I had a chance to interview Rovira, who has grown in his years with the club from sporadic starter to a main piece of the team’s puzzle.

The main theme coming out of the past weekend from talking to both Lilley and Rovira, was that the team didn’t play well enough in Vegas, but despite the loss at Cincinnati, they were pleased with their performance, especially in the first half when Lilley cited that they “didn’t have a lot of clear-cut chances, but held a lot of advantages” with their pressure and persistence.

The Hounds will be eager to turn that pressure back up again on Saturday when they face ATL 2 — and former Hounds midfielder and Robby Mertz, who’s been wearing the captain’s armband for the boys in black, red and gold.

Lilley’s biggest concerns with this upcoming match up is that ATL2 will be fresh, having a week between games.

“Our job is to get back to our winning ways,” Lilley added.

“We’ve go to grind. Guys are tired, beat up a little, but for the most part, we’re healthy. We’ll have to get rejuvenated and ready for Saturday.”

Hounds ‘Swiss-Army Knife’ Rovira

If Bob Lilley were an avid outdoorsman, he would probably have an avid collection of Swiss Army knives.

As a long time professional soccer coach, Lilley counts versatility as one of the primary assets that a player can bring to make them a valuable part of one of his squads.

After four seasons of playing in Pittsburgh under Lilley’s direction, Dani Rovira has become a player who has put in the work, biding his time and taking advantage of every chance he could get in training and when given playing time, to make the most of his opportunities.

The Bogotá, Colombia native, who played collegiately at a pair of schools in New England (Dean’s College in Massachusetts and University of Vermont) has become the latest example of a player who Lilley has utilized in multiple ways and in various positions.

In his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, Rovira made just 19 appearances, with eight starts. Most players who only break into the starting lineup and have occasional appearances, are more likely to move on to another club after one or two seasons.

However, Lilley saw something in Rovira that made him believe that he could become an even bigger contributor in his third and fourth professional seasons in Pittsburgh, becoming the evolutionary utility guy, much like Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Ryan James were for the Hounds in 2018-2020.

“He knows our system, which helps him a lot,” Lilley explained. “He’s more confident on the ball. He’s versatile but he’s sharp. He’s good technically. He’s good at (applying) pressure. He’s good at getting out of pressure. He can play with his left, he can play with his right, or on either side of the field. In the midfield too.”

Did we leave anything out Bob?

“In the back too,” Lilley added.

In 2021, Rovira’s versatility made him a critical piece in 2021, as he started 20 of the 29 games he appeared in while playing a variety of midfield and defensive roles. He led the team with 66 tackles and added two assists while playing a career-most 1,788 minutes.

“It’s about movement and energy, and (he) suits our style of play. He’s grown more comfortable with teammates around him, the coaching staff. That’s why his minutes have gone up every year, and he’s been a real solid piece for us this year.”

Actually taking a closer look at how Rovira’s been used, he’s clearly the newest, Swiss Army knife that has a variety of uses to benefit the team.

According to Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s calculations, looking closer at Rovira’s starts as a Riverhound, he’s featured as a left back nine times, left midfield seven times, in the central midfield five times, right back four, right midfield four, left winger twice, defensive midfielder twice and once as an attacking midfielder.

“I played midfield, mostly anywhere around the midfield in college, but since coming here, I just want to get out there, help the team get the points,” Rovira said.

In those early seasons in Pittsburgh, Rovira served mostly as a reserve as a left outside back, playing behind two veterans, Jordan Dover and Ryan James.

“They were established players. Playing with them, and learning from them, was enjoyable. I kept pushing. I put in the work, “Rovira stated. “I moved to the left, to the right, to the midfield. In the end, I just want to be in the starting 11, be in the 18, and ready to help the team.”

Rovira’s breakthrough in being used in a utility role under Lilley likely came early in the 2020 season, when in the home opener against Indy Eleven when Rovira was put in the starting lineup to essentially shadow and man-mark former Riverhound Tyler Pasher, who was tearing up the league with his combination of speed and finiishing ability.

Lilley decided to focus on keeping a close eye on Pasher in that game. He opted to not go with three center backs, but instead had Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Skylar Thomas paired up in the middle, with both Jordan Dover and Ryan James as the outside backs — with an additional wrinkle — Rovira was going to man-mark the dangerous Pasher, who came into this match with goals in five straight matches dating back to last season.

Lilley’s mindset — much like, say Bill Belichick — was not only focused on taking away Indy’s best player but also take away what they do best in the process. As Rovira stayed with Pasher, denying touches, the rest of the back line, mainly Vancayezeele and Thomas were still there in support to deny the short passes through the middle, and on alert when Indy started to play a bit more longer passes.

So, does Rovira have a favorite position?

“It’s hard to say,” Rovira said. “We’re playing a different formation all the time. To have that trust, more than anything, to be able to play in any position, have a mindset to help the team whereever, is the most important thing to help us get wins.”

Mertz Makes Another Return to Pittsburgh

In his second year with the Atlanta United organization, Upper St. Clair native and former Hound, Robby Mertz continues to take on a leadership role with the United 2, where he’s made seven starts (in seven games), as the team’s workhorse, box-to-box midfielder.

ATL2 picked up Mertz’ USL Championship contract option in the offseason for 2022.

In 2021, with ATL2, Mertz Mertz started 26 of his 28 appearances, tallying one goal and a team-high five assists while finishing second on the team with 43 chances created. Mertz has brought his high-energy and intense play that has helped him lead a very young squad with his leadership by example.

“We’re pleased to bring Robbie back after a productive season in which he was a key contributor to our squad,” Atlanta United 2 head coach Jack Collison said in the off season. “Robbie is a creative player who adds quality to our midfield and his leadership is invaluable to our young group.”

Rovira is looking forward to seeing his former teammate and friend back in Pittsburgh.

“Robby is a great player and a great person,” Rovira said. “I’ve always wished him the best. But he knows, when the game starts, it’s 11-v-11. It will be a good opposition. We have a point to prove. It should be a great game and we’ll be ready for it.”

LIlley On Goalkeepers, Squad Rotation and more

Being that the Hounds have three goalkeepers who have each started at least two matches this season, and coming off Jahmali Waite’s performance against FC Cincinnati on Tuesday, it seemed like the perfect time to ask Lilley his thoughts on his goalkeepers. The Hounds’ gaffer’s response shone some light on the current status of his keepers as it appear they very much are in competition for playing time and there is not a clear-cut starter in the trio.

Waite has started both Open Cup matches, while Kevin Silva has logged the league match workload of late, starting the last four matches, while it was Chase Vosvick who started the first two matches of the season.

Lilley provided a standard response to the question about the goalkeepers by indicating that they’re all young, growing and ‘nice to see the competition.’

As for the field players, where the Hounds have continued to roll out heavy rotation, Lilley said to expect more of the same, as he anticipated more ‘heavy rotation’ in the ATL2 match.

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).

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