Even after a few days, with his club putting in a few positive early week training sessions in the books, Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley was still feeling the fresh wounds from his club’s latest result from the past weekend, a 3-0 loss to longtime, Old Guard USL Championship rival, the Charleston Battery.
“I wish I could say I’m feeling great, but it’s been tough,” LIlley admitted on Tuesday. “We’ve got to get ourselves playing better.”
The Hounds have been without a win, since defeating El Paso Locomotive, 1-0, at Highmark Stadium on May 14.
Since that victory, the Hounds (7-4-3, 24 points) lost at Tampa Bay (3-1), endured a match with multiple delays at Miami, which ended in a 2-2 draw, battled Detroit City FC to a 1-1 draw at home, then had the bottom fall out with a disasterous first half at Charleston, en route to the three-goal loss.
“When you go through those three games, couple draws then dropping one, it adds pressure,” Lilley said. “We would like to have seen a better response in Charleston.”
A true devil of detail, the veteran coach had a lot to unpack when talking about his team’s performance which he felt was littered with a lot of poor decision making at Charleston.
“We gave up a critical goal to start the game. The response wasn’t great. We didn’t create a lot. We fought back. But we were down 3-0 a half,” Lilley said.
“The game was lost in the first half.”
After watching more tape from the match, Lilley picked apart many things from his team’s uncharacteristic performance, leaving very few stones unturned.
Lilley was continuously frustrated watching his team settle for playing long, direct balls, when there were opportunities to build up more efficient possession into the final third, dribble at defenders and play through the lines.”
“We could have played five games (against Charleston) and not solved them with that type of play. We didn’t get to the end line entire first half. Everything was try to hit over the top,” Lilley said.
He equated the Hounds to an (American) football team trying to go for the big pass on every possession. The previous week, the Hounds had some success playing that way against Detroit, and felt they resorted to some of the same tactics at Charleston, when they should have read their opponent better.
“We created very little that bothered their defenders,” Lilley added while pointing out that Charleston’s back line shifted further backward as the match evolved.
“When you play through lines. You can travel. You can get numbers forward and be dangerous. When you go right away to the long ball. You strand your attack. Not playing through them. You’re making it a long ball game.”
Yet, despite things not going well for much of the first half, the Hounds were trailing 1-0 in the late stages before things got away.
“I don’t think we were out of it,” Lilley said “We’re hoping that we can get to the break down a goal, then we have a good chance to get back in the second half. Then we allowed a goal on a set piece, which was troubling.”
The real salt in the wound came when the Hounds gave up the third goal in first half stoppage time. Still, Lilley kept coming back to his team not doing enough when they had the ball, despite the scoreline, the teams were fairly even in possession.
“A lot of time the first pass is not the money ball,” LIlley pointed out.
When you get in the gap, the first pass you see, is generally the first thing the defense takes away. We want to see the first run drag defender. Sometimes when get little bit tight, you hit the cross in too soon. We need to let the play mature a little bit longer.”
Like a seasoned maestro, Lilley wants his orchestra to be hitting all the notes perfectly.
And when they don’t, it bothers him to no end.
“If we are sharp offensively, players make those reads more confidently. When they see it. Those moments will come, and the ability make better decisions will come. When on song, we’re very tough. It will be like a dam bursting. When we start picking teams apart, we’re as dangerous as any team in our league. (On Saturday vs Charleston) we never got on track.”
Lilley was confident in the starting eleven he penciled in this match, but pointed out there were too many subpar performances and he was most concerned with his team’s lack of response to falling behind.
“Their standards haven’t been great. That’s why we’ve been inconsistent,” Lilley stated. “Key guys had struggles. We had too many subpar performances. We weren’t good enough.”
The losses and patch of substandard play is tougher to bear with the Hounds boasting a roster that includes the USL Championship’s top all time goal scorer, this off season’s big pick-up for the Hounds, Dane Kelly, and the league’s assist king, Kenardo Forbes, who’s been playing for Lilley for the last nine seasons, the last five in Pittsburgh.
While Forbes had an uncharacteristic giveaway early in the match that led directly to Charleston’s first goal, and Kelly has been without a goal in his last seven matches, Lilley has plenty of faith that they’ll work through this rough patch.
“Our record will tell you we’re not bad team. We’ve had quality wins. We’re capable. But, we’ve given points back. Been pedestrian in front of the goal. It happens. Its our job to work our way through it. I don’t think good players lose form overnight.”
While he harbored disappointment in Saturday’s performance, Lilley understands the value of his veteran leaders on the field.
“Kenny’s been here five years. You can count the number of mistakes he’s made on one hand during this time.” Lilley pointed out.
“You move on. Get everything you can to get Dane (Kelly) and (Albert) Dikwa scoring goals.”
When the match was still there for the taking, Kelly flinched on his one scoring chance at Charleston.
“That miss – was almost unexplainable, Lilley said. “Don’t think he’ll do that again. As half wore on. Dane started to show a few times that he had to come back for the ball, and found some good outlets to him, but it wasn’t enough.”
The Hounds were also without a key catalyst in their attack, Alex Dixon, who was expecting the birth of his first child during the weekend.
“He’s a pretty big weapon for us,” Lilley added. “He provides quality getting forward. Gives great service. But, not just his service. He’ll cut inside. Gets to endline more frequently.”
Lilley pointed to having success many different times in his five year tenure in Pittsburgh when having key players out of the lineup.
On Saturday, Lilley didn’t think one player would have made a difference.
“Maybe if we had Lionel Messi, it wouldn’t have be enough,” Lilley quipped.
“I know in season can’t read too much into one game. Look, we have to have a better response. It’s been as frustrating as anything. I know everyone asking questions including (Riverhounds owner) Tuffy (Shallenberger). We need to get better in some areas and know how to respond. There are many different problems to solve, and we’re working thorugh them.”
In the second half at Charleston, Lilley brought on three substitutions, then also added a few more players in the 74th minute, getting a good look at a number of players who provide the Hounds with much needed depth on its roster.
“Some of the changes shook up group in positive way,” Lilley said, while he also admitted if he could have brought on more players, he probably would have done so.
“We have to think about other solutions. Because performance against Charleston was pretty stale, It was pretty predictable. We dIdn’t cause a lot of problems. There were some guys who had an opportunity to play in the second half, who showed some positive things.”
The Hounds will look to turn the page, but they’ll have to go back on the road first again, with another challenging trip, this time deep in the heart of Texas again, to face Rio Grande Valley in the first ever match-up with the Western Conference side.
“It’s going to be hot. It’s going to be tough,” Lilley said, but he’s ready for what will come next.
“We’ll have good personnel on field in RGV. Look, I am more a process guy. We’re getting back to work. Experienced players generally play way out of than young. When team struggles. Lot of guys drop a little bit, but I have to trust our players. Also have to trust your depth. We’ve changed lineup enough. Tactics enough. I know everyone is capable. The minute experienced guys start to find their rhythm, we’ll turn the corner. We’re not only team an experienced, deep roster to hit their (rough) patches. It’s happened to Tampa. To Louisville. The question is, what are going to do collectively. How can we tweak it? We have to go compete. Hope response comes a lot sooner.”
Lilley wrapped up his extended interview session by keeping things in perspective.
“Sometimes in life, when people get a bad deal, they try right away to fix things, but then give up and don’t bother. Other people stay determined. Keep after it,” Lilley explained.
“As a coach, that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. You can’t be fragile the minute something happens or goes wrong.”