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Takeaways & Player Grades: Cicerone-Dixon combo pull Hounds out of funk

Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

After three straight losses and enduring a winless streak of six games, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC picked up a much needed 3-0 road victory at NY Red Bulls II on Friday.

FINAL: Riverhounds SC 3, NY Red Bulls II 0

This was an essential three points for the Hounds to pick up, who finally didn’t lose any further ground in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference standings. The teams in the top portion of the standings continue to rack up points, with Louisville City FC, Tampa Bay and Detroit adding three points over the weekend.

Currently Pittsburgh (8-6-3, 27 points) sit in fifth place in a crowded and competitive top half of the standings.  It was their first road win since early April. Despite owning a 5-1-1 record at home, the Hounds are just 3-6-2 in league road matches this season.

Beating the NY Red Bulls II in convincing fashion has become the expectation. The Hounds have now won seven straight matches in the series dating back to 2019, outscoring the Major League Soccer organization’s second team by a total of 19-3 during this span.

The Hounds did it once again by riding the coattails of their dynamic attacking duo, Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon, with the veteran Kenardo Forbes orchestrating things in the middle like a maestro.  They took a pretty straightforward approach, playing even more direct then they have all season, all while getting back to the basics with a spirited, physical (they took 17 fouls and had four yellow cards) and a relentless 90-minute team performance.

Can’t say it was the prettiest 3-0 win you’ll see, but it was effective, thanks especially to the dynamic duo of Cicerone and Dixon.

As the Hounds’ turn the page, and look to build off the momentum from this win which capped the first half of the league season, they’ll have to improve in other areas and be more consistent, but for thier hopes to regain status as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, they took a positive step forward.

Formation, Tactics and Personnel

True to form, the Hounds changed up their formation yet again, this time resorting to a 3-5-2 (also morphing into a 5-2-1-2 at times), which officially put Cicerone on the top line.  Even as a wide attacking midfielder and forward at different times in a variety of formations, when looking at the average positions of all Hounds players this year, Cicerone has conisistenly been at the highest spots each match.

On Friday, Cicerone and Albert Dikwa started as the two forwards, with a fluid central midfield trio that included Danny Griffin, who is by far (once again) the team leader in minutes, Kenardo Forbes and Dani Rovira.  Out wider included Dixon and Toby Sims, making his first USL Championship start.

The three man center back grouping included the three defenders who’ve played the most minutes this season thus far: Arturo Ordonez, Shane Wiedt and Jelani Peters, backed up by Jahmali Waite in goal.

In the second half, the Hounds used their full allotment of subs, including veterans Mekeil Williams and Dane Kelly coming on in the 67th minute (for Rovira and Peters).  Luke Biasi and Jesse Williams joined the fun in the 75th minute (for Toby Sims and Albert Dikwa).

Angelo Kelly-Rosales made his 100th USL Championship appearance when he entered as the Hounds’ final sub in the 84th minute, for Kenardo Forbes.

Cicerone-Dixon combo strikes again

The Hounds were on the front foot for most of the match, even if it meant they were conceding possession to the Red Bulls (which is unusual because the Red Bulls system is based on playing quick tempo and counter-attacking style).

Even through the Hounds’ most difficult stretch of play through June, Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon remained in solid form, providing the most constant pressure on opposing defenders.  Even with Dixon missing some time away with the birth of his new born child, he’s been able to jump back into the mix without missing a beat.

Eventually they were bound to contribute to a winning effort again.

They did that on Friday.

The Hounds’ countered NYRBII’s possession looking to play direct and get into quick scoring opportunities into spaces and when they could get into 1v1, 2v1 chances with both Cicerone and Dixon breaking behind into open spaces.

On a night when Danny Griffin and Kenardo Forbes combined for 54 passes, with both uncharacteristic passing accuracy totals under 70%, they took their chances with longer balls and playing through wider channels.  And from the width, Toby Sims and Dixon also sent a bunch of longer passes forward (15 of 39 total passes were of the longer variety).  More bombs came from the back line too, with Shane Wiedt in particular, standing out by sending 9 long balls from his total of 15 passes.

Dixon scored early in the 12th minute when Forbes played him a fabulous (longer) ball over to the left side.  With all kinds of New Jersey real estate at his disposal, Dix made his way into the box for a terrific right footed finish.

It was Forbes’ 50th career USL Championship assist, increasing his league-record total.

The guy who was really busy on Friday was Cicerone.

Once again, proving that he’s the engine that never stops, involved in 21 duels (won just five), but made the most of his moments, with three shots on frame, converting twice and creating two chances.

The Hounds landed the one-two, Dixon-then-Cicerone punches with Forbes setting the table again in the 19th minute (though for the second goal, Forbes did not get credited with the assist) as Baby Bulls’ keeper AJ Marcucci got a touch on the ball to deny an initial attempt, but Cicerone’s persistence paid dividends again, as he was able to turn the corner and finish from a sharp angle.

Then, in the second half, after Pittsburgh really stepped up its physical presence against the younger side, as they picked up three yellow cards in an 11-minute span, and a fourth one in the 64th minute.

Meanwhile, Cicerone, always lurking, continued to find the seams in the Red Bulls II’s stretched back line, breaking through a few times when things opened up, and put the match out of reach with a highlight reel, power shot that blew past Carrucci, and into the upper 90 on the tight side.  The Hounds combined with some nice passing from the side, and through the midfield leading to the goal too, ending with a deft touch from Dani Rovira to set it up.

Overall, Pittsburgh held a 15-7 edge in shots,

At the halfway point of the season, Cicerone has catapulted into the team lead with seven goals after his brace on Friday, while Dixon is the team leader with six assists.

The duo are on pace to come close or even surpass last season’s impressive totals, when Dixon had nine goals and nine assists, while Cicerone led the team with 16 goals and also had eight assists.

Whatever the tactical approach is from game-to-game, it will be essential for the Hounds to make sure that Dixon and Cicerone constantly have ball at their feet in and around the box.

When they do, good things happen.

Player Grades 

# Player Position Grade Notes
26 Waite GK 5.5 Only needed to make one save
27 Peters DF 5.5 Yellow Card; won 7/11 duels (including 6/8 in the air)
15 Ordoñez DF 6 Team’s most accurate passer (81%) on 25 passes; won 2/5 duels
3 Wiedt DF 6 also won 7/11 duels
4 Rovira 67‎’‎ MF 6.5 Assist; Yellow Card; showed why Bob Lilley has moved him into CMF spot this season at times. Terrific ball into space for Cicerone’s 2nd goal
16 Sims MF 6.5 Thought he brought more physical presence to the wing spot opposite Dixon. Created chance & had two unsuccessful crosses.
12 Griffin MF 7 Yellow Card
11 Forbes (C) 74‎’‎ MF 7 rare under 70% passing accuracy on just 23 passes, but picked his spots, had 5 interceptions.
7 Dixon MF 7.5 GOAL: Three of four shots on target
9 Dikwa FW 6 Another solid, not spectacular appearance. Work rate solid and doing dirty work. Won 4/7 duels.
10 Cicerone 74‎’‎ FW 7.5 TWO GOALS; leave him on the field for 90 minutes, and good things generally happen
Substitutes
1 Silva DNP
29 D. Kelly 67′ n/r minutes logged the last four matches for USLC’s all time goal scorer: 20, 45, 24, 24.  Clear indication of load management in middle of long season.
13 Biasi 75′ n/r
6 A. Kelly-Rosales 84′
18 Ybarra DNP n/r
9 Mekeil Williams 67′ n/r
23 Jesse Williams 75′ Nice to see 20-yr old get some playing time

 

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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