You could say that both Ryan James and Thomas Vancaeyezeele were key glue guys when they played for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. Every team needs players who are talented and skilled, but also fit like pieces to a puzzle.
On Saturday, for the first time since the 2020 season, both players, now playing for the Birmingham Legion FC, will return to Highmark Stadium to take on their former team.
In this edition of the Hounds Notebook, we’ll take a deeper dive into the meaning of ‘glue guys’ and why the most successful teams and coaches often find those guys who help with a team’s cohesion.
Meanwhile, the Riverhounds need to pick themselves up after a humbling defeat at Louisville City, where they were outplayed from start to finish in a 2-0 loss at Lynn Family Stadium.
While the Hounds have lost two of its last three matches, both on the road, Detroit City FC has roared ahead of them by a point, thanks to four staight wins.
Suddenly Pittsburgh (16 points) is sitting in third place in the standings behind Louisville City FC (21 points) and Detroit City FC (17 points)
It will be important for the Hounds to keep pace to stay among the top portion of the standings. They’ve picked a good time to be home for consecutive league matches for the first time this season when they face Birmingham and then a first-ever meeting vs El Paso.
Lessons from Louisville
The important thing for the Hounds is to put the loss to Lou City behind them, as they look to stay at the top of the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference.
The Hounds started a pretty strong lineup, but struggled in a variety of areas.
The needed more possession, though they weren’t completely outclassed in the middle of the field. They had enough moments where they carried the ball effectively into the final third, but from there, they couldn’t create much.
Both Bob Lilley and Russell Cicerone shared their takeaways with Dan Angell after the match on Saturday.
“There were some moments where we got balls in transition and had even numbers or chances, but we never got the final pass or shot on frame,” Lilley said. “I think there was probably a moment to get a goal in there to change the complexion of the game, but unfortunately, we weren’t good enough on the ball”
The Hounds weren’t sharp out of the back either and it cost them. There were some match-up problems that were causing fits for the back line, which forced Head Coach Bob Lilley to shuffle some things around a few times.
Here’s how they started.
“We got ourselves in some decent situations, but the final ball just wasn’t there.” Cicerone added.
The best example of those ‘decent situations’ came in the 35th minute, when Albert Dikwa and Russell Cicerone found open space and charged the LouCity net with onlygoalkeeper Kyle Morton and defender Sean Totsch to beat. But that proved enough, as Totsch got a foot in Cicerone’s way, preventing him from ever getting a shot at goal.
Here’s a look at the starting group’s average positions as Forbes slid down into the middle, creating two chances on the evening, but neither materialized into a solid shot attempt.
“Despite some positive signs such as matching up in the middle of the field well enough with Louisville’s top level midfielders (winning 61% of duels, picking off 13 passes) the Hounds ended up with just one shot on frame in the entire match. Louisville still had a stronger night (with higher rate of passing (81% to the Hounds’ 75%) and ultimately created more dangerous chances (6 shots on frame to the Hounds’ 1).
Second half subs came on (Mekeil Williams and Nathan Dossantos) for Wiedt and Biasi, (then Kelly for Dixon and Luis Arguo for Rovira) but it wasn’t enough.
For a team that has been dynamic in the final third for most of the season, they didn’t have enough answers against the top team in the Eastern Conference that brings a nice mix of seasoned veterans and some dynamic young players.
Frustration boiled over at one point, when Dane Kelly, who came off the bench, was booked for a red card for a dangerous swing that connected with Ían Soler.
Goalkeeper Jahmali Waite made a mistake to allow Harris’ early marker, but he came up with two big saves in the second half on Harris, allowing the Riverhounds to keep the scoreline respectable.
Those were two point blank chances which really could have made the scoreline 4-0 Louisville.
One consolation for Lilley on a night when Pittsburgh was clearly second-best, as Dan Angell pointed out in his match report: the Riverhounds never lost their fight.
Pittsburgh was reduced to 10 men in the 80th minute after a harsh decision against Kelly, but still created a scoring chance and won a corner while playing a man down.
Already down, 2-0, against one of the best possession teams in the league, it was too little, too late.
“They’re clearly demonstrating that they have a good group together and are going to be dangerous moving forward,” Lilley said. “It’s up to us to try to close that gap when we play them back in Pittsburgh.”
And you know what, if last season taught us anything, Lilley and his crew are more than likely to close that gap.
In week one, the Hounds were completely outplayed by Tampa Bay Rowdies, losing 3-0, in St. Petersburg. A few months later, the Hounds returned to Al Lang Stadium to serve notice and return the favor against the then front-running Rowdies, with an impressive 2-0 win.
Hounds fans should have plenty of faith that Lilley and the troops can turn things around, and look to return the favor when Louisville comes to Highmark Stadium in early September.
“If there’s a positive, it’s that this is a good alert for us to understand that we’ve got to improve in some areas if we’re going to be able to compete against a team like Louisville,” Lilley added.
All-Time Hounds’ Highmark Era Glue Guys
The return of Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Ryan James, two players who had key roles — but didn’t necessarily get all of the accolades — had me thinking, who are some of the most unsung players over the years for the Hounds, who didn’t necessarily light up the stats sheet, but were so influential on the field and were important to the team’s chemistry.
Starting with the early Highmark Stadium era teams, the two guys that come to mind are Andrew Marshall and Rich Costanzo, who both, conicidentially have been appointed to new college soccer coaching positions recently, as Costanzo was hired to be the next head coach at George Mason (Bob Lilley’s alma mater by the way) and Marshall will now be an assistant at Duquense as part of Chase Brooks’ staff.
A Thomas Jefferson High School grad, Costanzo finished his professional career with the Hounds in 2012 and 2013, as he was counted on as the team’s most reliable and veteran presence in the back line. Marshall was also there during those years, as the enforcer of that back group.
Of course, the Steel Army knew what Costanzo meant to the 2013 squad, as he was honored as the Steel Army Player of the Year that season, even when Jose Angulo and Matt Dallman were leading the league in goals and assists, respectively.
If you keep glue guys around long enough, they’ll also eventually make some big plays when needed.
In Marshall’s case, he came through with a big goal in the Hounds’ 4th of July win against Bob Lilley’s Rochester Rhinos in 2014. It was a win that sparked a streak that included winning eight of 11 games. It was kind of retribution game for Marshall, as the previous 4th of July his own goal was the difference (in a loss to Charlotte Eagles). But on July 4, 2014, he scored and helped anchor a defense that shut out Rochester.
On the 2015 team that made the playoffs, and gave Pittsburgh soccer fans plenty of thrills, the honors for the glue guy could go to Danny Earls, who, again, didn’t score many goals, but did all of the dirty work and had great chemistry with Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr, who really lit up the league that season. Earls did rise to the occasion though, scoring two of the goals that led to the Hounds ‘Miracle on the Mon’ comeback against Harrisburg that has been written about here and in my book ‘Miracle on the Mon’.
Another player on the 2015 and also 2016 teams that fit this mold was Willie Hunt. You could say he was a bit of an undersized center back, but Hunt picked a great time to score two goals in a game, both on headers in the 2015 playoff against NY Red Bulls II. Hunt was a model of consistency in the back for those teams.
It’s hard to write this piece and not also consider the contributions that Mike Green made to the club from 2012 through 2017, where he played a variety of positions from defender to forward — and everything in between. Green ended up making 128 appearances for the club.
In 2017, the Hounds brought in a lot of new faces, but that team managed to compete hard, and while they came up short, there were a number of young players, like Victor Souto, Taylor Washington, Trey Mitchell, who became a close knit group on and off the field, but it was Green and Earls, in his last hurrah with the club, who were the team’s heart and soul that season.
Ironically, it was Costanzo who Green credited with helping him learn the ropes in Pittsburgh.
“[Costanzo] helped me be a hard-working guy,” Green said in 2017. “Soccer came naturally to me and he always worked hard in practice. You need to win every day in practice and each game.”
In the Bob Lilley era, the Hounds’ tradition of having invaluable, unsung heroes has continued.
There are many that we can include from these teams including Mo Dabo, Tobi Adewole, Jordan Dover and even in his latter years, Kevin Kerr became a guy who was unsung in some ways.
But the two guys that really made the Hounds click from 2018 to 2020 were Vancaeyezeele and James.
Tommy V began his pro career coming to Pittsburgh fresh off being the NCAA Division II Player of the Year for University of Charleston’s National Championship team, but somehow flew under the radar with MLS scouts.
LIlley immediately threw him into the fire, having his start in the team’s opener at Nashville with 20,000-plus fans.
Despite his skill level and play making capabilities, Vancaeyezeele eventually slid into the back line for the Hounds, often playing between some of the big, traditional center backs like Joe Greenspan and Tobi Adewole.
Ryan James came to Pittsburgh in 2019, and for a good part of his run wearing the Black and Gold, he was a catalyst for the team’s attack from the left width.
The Canadian native played in 55 of Pittsburgh’s 56 matches across all competitions in 2019 and 2020. In his first year in Pittsburgh, he hit his career high in assists (6) and then followed that statistical milestone up with a career high in goals (5) in an abbreviated 2020 campaign. A two-goal performance against Hartford Athletic to go along with a shutout earned the fullback the USL Championship Player of the Week Award in Week 10 this past season.
It was James’ ability to interchange and play multiple positions that season which made him so valuable. When Kenardo Forbes went down with an injury, James moved into the central midfield.
Ultimately, glue guys like Vancaeyezeele and James, and now players like Dani Rovira and Alex Dixon, allow Lilley to have a lot of tactical flexibility and provide teammates with someone who can be relied upon no matter where they are on the field or in the locker room.
Another thing a lot of these players have in common, is that their contributions didn’t go unnoticed by the Hounds’ most loyal fans, as Costanzo, Earls, Hunt and James were all honored as the Steel Army’s Player of the Year.
Now, both James and Vancaeyezeele will be returning to Pittsburgh on Saturday, as members of the Legion.
Ryan James goes 45 minutes. Tommy doesn't come off the bench.
Their roles in Saturday's game will be a fun subplot. https://t.co/tyGEa6GxsW
— Steel Army (@SteelArmy) May 5, 2022
Both have been part of the Legion now for the past year plus, even though both have taken different paths to get to this point. James signed with Birmingham in the 2020 off season, while Vancaeyzeele, who was honored as All-USL Second Team Player in 2020, signed with San Diego. But after his international duty with French Guiana in 2021, Vancaeyezeele was moved to Birmingham.
The Hounds were supposed to face The Legion in the first round of the playoffs last year, but that didn’t happen due to Pittsburgh having too many COVID-19 positive cases on the squad.
Now, in 2022, both Tommy V and RJ will be back. Each are playing roles as ‘glue guys’ once again, but for the opponents. Each have made seven appearances, as James has started four times and Vancaeyezeele has made three starts.