The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC didn’t leave anything to chance on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.
The Hounds came out firing on all cylinders, and made one of their early shots on frame count in defeating the Birmingham Legion FC, 1-0, before 3,479 fans on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium.
Hounds’ ironman Danny Griffin scored the lone goal in the fourth minute of the match, while goalkeeper Kevin Silva posted his second clean sheet of the season while playing effectively in coming off his line to grab numerous crosses and long balls.
With the win, the Hounds improved to 6-2-1 (19 points) in league play, while BIrmingham drops to 3-4-3 (12 points). Pittsburgh ended the match with 57/43 possession edge (497-374 passes), more than doubled the number of crosses (22-10) and outshot Birmingham 18-10, with a huge 8-0 edge in shots on frame. They also held a 9-4 advantage on corner kicks.
Head Coach Bob Lilley called it his team’s best overall effort of the season, following a disappointing loss on the road to first-place Louisville City FC, last week.
“Really happy with the performance. They (Birmingham) are a good team. Starting to build momentum. We were ready to play,” Lilley said. “We’ve done a good job here, when bouncing back after tough losses. We were able to do that again tonight. We’re glad to come away with the three points,”
Really though, why was Lilley especially pleased with this performance?
It doesn’t take an overindulged, soccer stats geek or looking too deep in to the advanced metrics to figure it out.
The Hounds controlled possession, dictated tempo and were on the front foot in the attack from beginning to end while they defended very well as a unit, not allowing a single shot on goal.
It wasn’t pretty at times, especially in the second half, but from my perspective, this had all the ingredients of a classic ‘Lilley Special’ victory and one of the most dominant 1-0 wins for the Hounds since the veteran coach took over in Pittsburgh in 2018.
Tactics / Formation / Lineups
Pittsburgh came out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a few typical strategical tweaks in the lineup that had a match plan designed to make heavy-legged Birmingham chase the match.
With this aggressive mindset, the Hounds attacked early and often in the first half, with precise passing after winning balls at midfield, including multiple advances from the left side, with rookie left outside back Nathan Dosssantos creating a bunch of those service opportunities.
The Hounds gaffer was especially pleased with this group’s execution and how well they played together to keep their defensive shape, especially after getting stretched in the previous week against Louisville City FC.
Average Positions (for Hounds starters in gray)
“I try not to overthink things too much,” Lilley added. “We were playing really well, so I kept the same group out there.”
It wasn’t until the 78th minute, with Birmingham starting to bring more pressure, did Lilley eventually go to his bench. And he did so with four substitutions at the same time.
These eight fresh legs from replacements Luis Argudo, Dani Rovira, Jelani Peters and Shane Wiedt, reinforced a changed defensive shape (to a 5-4-1), and even created a few additional counter chances which got the team to the finish line.
Silva did well to come off his line and collect a few late, long balls forward, and the Hounds almost had a two-on-none break toward goal in the final minute, but Dikwa’s clearing pass struck the referee, ending the chance.
Lilley praised the four subs for doing an execellent job in focusing on the task at hand to close out the match without a missing a beat, which he cited could sometimes be tough when there are that many changes at the same time.
A final point, and Lilley brought this up in his post match comments, there were five first-year players in the starting eleven, as most notably, he’s showing a lot of faith in his young players.
Not one, but two of these young players, Ybarra (11) and Biasi (10), each had double-digit duel wins as they were a combined 21/29 in all duels.
The young players are starting to really grasp the concepts of Lilleyball.
Griffin’s First Goal at Highmark
In the 4th minute, Dossantos received a pass from Forbes, then after taking a few touches on the left side, found Griffin breaking into the box, making a run along with Russell Cicerone.
Griffin and Cicerone were on the same page.
“It was a great ball in by Nate (Dossantos). I saw the run, Russ was coming behind me,” Griffin explained. “He was obviously talking to me. I took the touch. Saw that they didn’t step out toward me, so I hit the target low.”
The third-year pro from Providence took it from there with his first-ever goal in Highmark Stadium.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) May 7, 2022
“That was an amazing feeling,” Griffin added. “Yeah, that’s the first one too. I got to do it in front of the Steel Army.”
Among the tweaks in the lineup, saw Griffin move up into an attacking central midfield spot, after playing for much of this and last season in a deeper, holding role, while veteran Kenardo Forbes and first-year pro Marc Ybarra played deeper in the formation.
“It was a position I am familiar with and one of the best parts about the guys on this team is that multiple guys can play multiple positions,” Griffin said. “Everyone knows their role wherever they are. I enjoy playing higher in the formation and I also enjoy playing lower, whatever I can do to help the team get the win.”
Lilley did point out that he will used Griffin on occasion higher up in the formation when he’s looking for the attacking midfielder to expend a lot of energy pressing.
“We wanted to activate him higher to help with the press,” Lilley said. “We dropped Marc Ybarra, who is a good passer, and Kenny (Forbes) a bit deeper to get possession. We were able to possess and move through the lines. I think Danny’s mobility allows him to do a lot of things. He was in the middle of a lot of good moments we had tonight. The next game it may be something else that we see, but he did a good job for what we asked of him tonight.”
Lots of Quality Despite Missed Chances
For much of the first half, the Hounds never took their foot off the gas, but they couldn’t find the back of the net either.
The chances kept coming.
Albert Dikwa was on the receiving end of numerous pinpoint crosses and opportunities in and around the goal box. Each time he came up short.
In the 22nd minute, the Hounds’ forward had a left-footed chance after a Cicerone through ball.
Then in the 31st minute, in definitive Danny Griffin fashion, the midfielder hustled to win a ball, then somehow poked it over to Forbes with significant pace on the left side. The Hounds captain then perfectly placed a low cross connecting with Dikwa who delivered a stinging left-footed one-timer which was saved by a quick reaction save by Matt VanOekel.
.@MVOextreme with a Save of the Week candidate in the first half!
— Birmingham Legion FC (@bhmlegion) May 8, 2022
In the 37th minute, Dikwa went 0-for-3 in his close chance opportunities when a short cross from Alex Dixon made its way into the goal box, only for Dikwa to miss the ball by a hair.
The Hounds were playing without its leading scorer, Dane Kelly, who was suspended from the match due to a red card picked up late against Louisville City.
It’s easy to say that Kelly would have finished some of these chances. Sure, maybe Dikwa keeps the ball on the ground in the 31st minute sequence instead of going up higher, but Dikwa’s production and work rate was solid, especially since he put in a 94-plus minute performance while covering a ton of ground.
Those three shots would be his only chances, as he did put two on frame. Dikwa’s second half consisted of picking his spots, filling into the team’s overall shape and continued to press when the opportunities were there.
Though the Hounds couldn’t convert on all chances, in a match where they put eight of 18 shots on frame, Lilley was pleased that his team seized the match from the outset, and always stayed in control.
“I thought we were really dominant,” Lilley said. “The last 15 minutes, it gets a bit scary when you haven’t put the game away yet because you don’t want to drop points on a night like tonight.”
Late Appearances for Tommy V and Ryan James
Birmingham’s Head Coach Tom Soehn opted to bring Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Ryan James, two former Riverhounds’ stand out performers under Lilley, off the bench in the late stages of the match.
The Legion were playing their second game in four days. Both former Hounds are part of the Legion’s back line rotation. It was the eighth appearance of the season for both players, but it was odd to some Hounds fans to see both come off the bench, especially since they started so many matches and played so many minutes when they were with the Black and Gold.
Nonetheless, it was nice to see two former Hounds, who were instrumental contributors from 2018-2020, back at Highmark Stadium on Saturday.
The only thing wrong with this picture is the kits being worn!!@RiverhoundsSC 🤭 pic.twitter.com/UCG0HQJ9bA
— Tuffy Shallenberger (@Tuffy_Shall) May 8, 2022
Kevin Silva – 6 – Didn’t face any shots on goal, but especially late in the match, was very effective coming off his line on long balls and crosses into the box.
Shane Wiedt – NR – came off bench, conceded one foul
Mekeil Williams – 7.5 – at 85% passing rate, handled most of distribution out of back and was solid all the way around. Won 5 of 9 duels.
Arturo Ordonez – 7 – team high five clearances, won six of seven duels.
Jelani Peters – NR – came off bench
Luke Biasi – 6 – won 10 duels (of 15); winning three fouls along the way.
Nathan Dossantos – 6.5 – ASSIST; very active early in match in getting forward, sending crosses. Only won one of six duels.
Midfield / Wingers
Kenardo Forbes – 6 – sitting back deeper, Kenny still created four chances and was present in the attack.
Danny Griffin – 7.5 – GOAL: doesn’t play attacking mid much, but when he does, he makes the most of his opportunity.
Marc Ybarra – 7 – probably his best performance in his early pro career. Nothing spectacular, but won team high 11 of 14 duels, had 53 passes, created a chance, four interceptions and partnered well with Forbes as the duel holding mids.
Luis Argudo – NR – came off the bench
Alex Dixon – 7 – perfect example of doing what needs to be done. Despite playing higher up in formation, his two-way play stood out. Had four blocked shots, two shots on target, three successful crosses and won seven of 10 duels.
Russell Cicerone – 7 – between Cicerone and Dikwas, they may have covered enough miles to run the Pittsburgh Marathon in this game. CIcerone was effective
Albert Dikwa – 6 – while it could be easy to tack off more points for not converting in first half opportunities (two of his three shot were on frame and he was definitely robbed on one if not both of those), without another target among the selections in the 18, Dikwa put in an excellent performance in covering a lot of ground, drawing two fouls, and winning half of his aerial duels (3/6) in 90-plus minutes.