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Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Analysis: Hounds’ winless streak exasperated by unusual stretch of defensive ineptitude

Riverhounds SC defender Mekeil Williams in a recent match. Photo courtesy Mark Goodman

When Bob Lilley was hired as the Head Coach of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, he was known for producing top defensive units year-in and year-out in the USL Championship.

That’s why this past Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, at home, was especially confounding.

FINAL: Tampa Bay Rowdies 5, Riverhounds SC 2

In his first season in Pittsburgh, he helped build a winning culture around a team that didn’t allow many goals.

In fact, he made an immediate first impression, in the first four matches in 2018, the Hounds did not surrender a goal.

Do you remember that?

Pittsburgh soccer fans immediately bought into ‘Lilleyball’ as the Hounds became one of the top clubs in the league, thanks mostly to rolling out a well-organized, cohesive unit that would swarm the ball every time an opponent would take a touch in the final third. The Houlds would be real difficult to score against.

That first season under Lilley, the Hounds only surrendered more than two goals in a game one time: a 3-1 loss to FC Cincinnati, in the US Open Cup.

In 2019, the season when they finished at the top of the USL Championship Eastern Conference standings, there was had aberration: a 5-0 loss on the road vs North Carolina FC.

In the shortened 2020 season, the Hounds never gave up more than two goals in a match, and in 2021, they surrendered three goals in a single match on three separate occasions.

It’s become an entirely different story this season, especially in the last six games.

Through the first five matches in 2022 (including Open Cup), the Hounds only surrendered just two goals.

Business as usual, right?

Then in the second half at Tulsa, they allowed three goals, but hung on for a 4-3 win to remain unbeaten early in the season.

Even after consecutive losses at Las Vegas and Cincinnati, the Hounds looked like they started to lock things down with three consecutive shutout wins at home (4-0 vs Atlanta and a pair of 1-0 wins vs Birmingham and El Paso).

Now, they’ve gone six matches without a win, having been outscored 15-6.

For the season, they have an overall goal differential of plus-1 (24 GF, 23 GD).

By comparison, the Hounds finished the entire 2021 season with a Goal Differential of plus-18 (52 goals scored, 34 goals allowed).

(2020 season they were a whopping plus-29 in a shortened season [39 GF, 10 GA], in 2019, the year they finished on top of the table, they were a plus-28 and in 2018, Bob Lilley’s first in Pittsburgh, they were a plus-21).

Add it all up, under Bob Lilley, the Riverhounds through the first four seasons boasted a plus-96 in goal differential.

This season, they’re a measly plus-1.

What has happened?

Saturday’s loss to Tampa Bay Rowdies exposed the Hounds back line and goalkeeping.

“It’s clear we made a lot of fundamental mistakes on the goals that we gave up,” Lilley stated after the match.

“A lot of basic stuff and multiple errors on some of those that obviously we’ve been doing more frequently, and today it seemed like an avalanche of mistakes on the defensive side of the ball.”

Through much of this season, the Hounds’ have rotated three goalkeepers, with Kevin Silva and Jahmali Waite alternating starts of late. Silva started the past two games, and had a disasterous night on Saturday.

Silva was chipped on Tampa’s first goal, then slipped when coming off his line, giving Leo Fernandes a golden opportunity to pass the ball into the net.

After taking an early 1-0 lead, just like that, the Hounds were trailing 2-1 thanks to preventable goals.

Things went from bad to worse in the second half with two more goals coming from the same spot on the left side, just on the edge of the box. Both were low shots which were well-placed but caught Silva slightly out of position, past his outstretched arm, hitting the post and bouncing in each time.

The Hounds came into the season with a seasoned group of center backs that includes Mekeil Williams, Jelani Peters and Shane Wiedt, and added former Pitt standout Arturo Ordonez, who was drafted by Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer, to the mix along with youngster, Jesse Williams, the third Trinidad & Tobago international from the group (joining M. Williams and Peters). Following two seasons as a regular left back with Loudoun United, Robby Dambrot signed on with the Hounds in the off season.

Cohesiveness would seem to be a strength of the group, especially since the elder Williams, Peters and Wiedt played a full season together in 2021, and an experienced back in Dambrot and a MLS SuperDraft selection, Ordonez, joining the group.

Their mistakes have been glaring of late and especially in the last match.

The most consistent issue has been closing space. This may be in part because the Hounds are playing more open-ended as a group, leaving more seams in the back line.

Either way, teams are starting to expose them. Talented attackers from Tampa did this every chance they had, literally, on Saturday, scoring five times on seven shots on frame (they had nine shots total!).

Here, one of the USL Championship’s most dangerous players in recent years, Leo Fernandes, scores a highlight reel goal that could have been prevented. He had time to take a touch then thread a needle to score this goal, with both Wiedt and Ordonez close by, but apparently not close enough.

The solutions can’t come with too much change in personnel. This is the group they have to go with this season. Lilley even admitted in his post-match comments on Saturday that he likes having bigger center backs, who also can serve in the outside back role.

Tactically, there has been a lot of moving around with this group from game-to-game, and within each match. They started the season with a three-man center back alignment, but of late, they’ve been going with a four-man back line. With the exeception of Mekeil Williams, every center back has been in an outside back spot at least once this year.

One area where the Hounds may be lacking is having dynamic two-way outside backs that can change the complexion of a match when getting forward, but also in being solid two-way players who can work well with the center backs, whether it’s a three man center back set-up, with two wingers, or a four-man back line. The only player who has fit this role on either side this season with any consistency has been rookie Nathan Dossantos. Going into the season, Robby Dambrot was also expected to play a bigger role, but has hardly played much. It seems like Lilley also can’t figure out to find a regular spot for Dani Rovira, who we’ve jokingly referred to as a swiss army knife because he can do many different things. There’s also Toby Sims, who has been coming off the bench more in recent games and Luke Biasi, who have also patrolled the wider spots.

Last year, Alex Dixon, played a few games deeper in the formation, and he was productive and could be an answer if the Hounds need a more dynamic outside back. However, that would take Dixon’s playmaking and attacking prowess out of the equation higher up in the attack, where Lilley has been emphasizing the importance of non-stop movement and making runs behind the defense.

There could be some changes coming ahead of Friday evening’s match at New York Red Bulls II as Lilley admits that he has work to do with his defensive unit.

“On the defensive side, we have to be able to manage games. Have to be tight. Right now, we’re giving up goals. It’s changing game complexion,” LIlley said. “While we need to get more consistent goal scoring, we got to get it right on both ends.”

When pressed about individual players, Lilley shot back with a need for this group, which he has a lot of faith in, to be better collectively.

“There have been lot of poor performances in the back,” Lilley proclaimed and repeated.

“In general, we’re not very good in the back.”

The previously mentioned 5-0 loss at North Carolina in 2019 happened on August 17.

That loss was so humiliating, that the Hounds would not lose another match that regular season, finishing its most successful campaign at the top of the table with eight wins and three draws.

Can this group turn things around too?

“The last stretch of games, we haven’t been at our best,” Danny Griffin, third-year midfielder, who continues to log the most minutes on the club, said after training this week.

“We’ll have to take the positives. We have to continue to create chances, be more clinical in the final third. Take that, and get a little cleaner defensively. Get hungry to get on a winning run. We know we haven’t been our best, but we haven’t played poorly either. There’s a lot we can improve on. We have to stay positive, work hard and push on.”

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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