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Hounds Notebook

Hounds Notebook: No rest for the weary

Photo courtesy Mark Goodman

The Riverhounds SC are in the midst of a three-games-in-nine day stretch, which means there’s little time for rest for a team that’s itching to move up higher in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference standings.

Thus far, they’ve used this past week to get refocused and back in contention for a top spot, picking up all six possible points.

They’ll be hoping to nail down another win on Saturday when The Miami FC make their only appearance at Highmark Stadium this season. After enduring a six-match winless streak, the Hounds have begun to tighten things up defensively, posting consecutive shutouts against the NY Red Bulls II (3-0 on Friday) and Indy Eleven (1-0 on Wednesday evening).

“As many goals as we were giving up, it’s nice to get back to protecting our goal,” Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley commented after Wednesday’s win.

Thanks to Albert Dikwa making the most of his one chance when coming off the bench on Wednesday, the Hounds had enough in the tank to outlast and close out Indy when rainy conditions didn’t allow for the most attractive soccer.

It’s hard to believe that was also the first time this season the Hounds had a mid-week league match. In April, they did have to play midweek, but those were Open Cup matches.

On Saturday, they’ll face a fairly well-rested Miami FC squad that hasn’t played since last Saturday, when conincidentally, they also beat Indy Eleven, 1-0.

The Miami FC have been a nemesis for the Hounds, as the clubs have played five times since the start of the 2021 season, with a 1-2-2 record overall against the boys from South Florida.

It seems as if nothing ordinary happens when these two teams clash. The last time out, in May, the Hounds battled through multiple weather delays and a pair of deficits, to earn a 2-2 draw in a match that ended past Midnight.

FINAL: Riverhounds SC 2, The Miami FC 2

It’s a match that the Hounds really felt like they should have won, but a few careless defensive errors and Alex Dixon, who’s having a stellar season, came up short on his penalty kick chance in the first half.

Now, maybe it’s an added omen that Miami rolls into Highmark Stadium sporting an ominous 6-6-6 record.

Or could the Hounds finally unleash the demons that come with playing The Miami FC this time around, with a decisive victory to get a leg up on the series between the two clubs?

Following Saturday’s showdown vs Miami, the Hounds will have a relatively ordinary schedule, with matches every Saturday through the remainder of July and August, until they host another midweeker, when the Charleston Battery come to Highmark Stadium on Wednesday, August 31.

Looking even further down the road, the schedule likely also favors the Hounds, who will complete the season with five of its last eight matches at home, where they currently post a 6-1-1 record. (7-1-1 if you count the Open Cup win vs Maryland Bobcats).

Big Dikwa Energy

Albert Dikwa celebrates his first half goal scored in Detroit earlier this season (Photo courtesy Detroit City FC)

After starting four of the past five matches, Albert Dikwa earned some rest in the Hounds midweek tilt against Indy, starting the match on the bench.

The Cameroonian forward has showed his value to the club progressively in his time in Pittsburgh with a relentless work rate, knack for helping extend possession in the final third and showing remarkable durability to log in many 90-plus minute matches through the course of the first half of the season,

This has been an especially good sign considering that Dikwa didn’t have a chance to fully shine and reach his potential in his first two seasons in Pittsburgh. In year one (2020), due to international travel restrictions, he didn’t join the club until September. Before he could really get into a groove with the club, the season ended quickly with a first-round playoff exit that October. In 2021, a leg injury and inconsistent play early in the season, cut down on his chance to make an impact with the club, though he did end the season with two goals and three assists.

With just four goals in two previous seasons, it seemed like the Hounds were taking a chance by bringing back Dikwa. After all, what’s the point of having a target forward playing big minutes if they’re not going to produce goals, right?

Bob Lilley has always been a big believer in Dikwa’s ‘big energy’ and his abilities to be an impact player when fully healthy. When re-signing Dikwa this past offseason, Lilley felt that the 24-year old, who is in his fifth season in the USL Championship (played his first two with St. Louis FC), has his best years in front of him.

In addition, by signing the USL Championship’s all-time leading goal scorer, Dane Kelly, in the offseason, provided an opportunity for Dikwa to train and be pushed along side one of the best while also being provided chance to progress in a key role as a part of an important two-man rotation at the central forward position.

“Albert brings energy and intelligent movement to our attack. He continues to grow as a striker, works hard every day, and is well respected by his teammates,”Lilley said.

This combination was extremely effective early in the season, when Kelly raced out to six-goal output and Dikwas wasn’t too far behind with four goals by mid-April.

Dikwa’s most valuable contribution this season has been his steady presence and durability. Since April 30, Dikwa has logged five-matches with 90-plus minutes, which is pretty remarkable for a central forward who is asked to cover a lot of ground every time he steps out on the pitch.

After taking the back seat for a stretch of matches, Kelly finally got the start on Wednesday and played into the second half for the first time since mid-May.

This allowed Lilley to be able to use Dikwa to bring his ‘big energy’ off the bench.

And he made the most of his scoring chance.

“I think this one was special because we have been struggling scoring first,” said Dikwa,

“But this game we did a good job. It’s all about what we’ve learned. We learned from Tampa, we learned from Detroit. That’s why this time when we scored, we had to keep the clean sheet.”

Lilley’s hope heading into the season was that with Kelly, Dikwa, along with Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon together, that the level never drops off for the Hounds’ attack through the season, and having a strong rotation would keep them fresher, continue to be explosive and be better on the back end of the season.

Bottom line, is the Hounds want to keep a high standard and always keep an aggressive mindset regardless of who is scoring the goals.

Lilley was hoping for a balanced attack at the start of the season.

“It’s possible Russell (Cicerone) could end up with more assists. Or maybe he scores 10 goals this year, but (Dane) Kelly also scores 10, and (Alex) Dixon adds 8 and Dikwa scores a bunch too. That’s a lot more than being dependent on Dixon and Cicerone, like we were last year. If we do it right, it won’t be the Dane Kelly show. Or Russell Cicerone, or Alex Dixon. It’s never been the Kenardo Forbes show.”

Lilley added: “The reward is, for all of them, being part of a winning team.”

And through the first half of the season, despite some ebbs and flows and inconsistencies (right now Kelly’s been without a goal since April), the team’s goal scoring output has been fairly balanced.

Cicerone leads with seven, with both Kelly and Dikwa right behind him with six apiece, and Dixon has four. Beyond that, there’s a scattered group of five players with a goal each.

On Wednesday, it was Dikwa’s turn to make the big contribution.

“We’re here to win, [especially when] we’re at home,” said coach Bob Lilley. “We needed three points desperately, and fortunately we got the one clear chance and Dikwa took it. Really important goal at this stage of the season for us.”

Revolving Door on the Left Width

While Alex Dixon’s been a solid bet to be patrolling the right side for the Hounds, it’s been a revolving door over on the left width for the Hounds this season.

Depending on what formation they are playing, they could be a more traditional outside back in a four-man back line, or on the wing in the 3-5-2 formation, we’ve seen the likes of Nathan Dossantos, Dani Rovira, Luke Biasi and Robby Dambrot patrolling the wide left side of the pitch this season. Toby Sims has also been an option, but has played mostly on the right side this season.

After former Pitt standout Dambrot began the season with two straight starts. Then, it appeared that Dossantos became the answer, with seven straight starts.

Following the Hounds 5-2 loss to Tampa, Lilley changed things up for the Red Bulls II match, moving Alex Dixon over to the left side, while going back to the 3-5-2, after using a four man back line the previous two matches against Tampa and previously at Rio Grande. It was a clear change-up that worked for the NYRBII match, as Dixon’s speed and playmaking ability in open spaces they found on the left side against the Baby Bulls did damage in that match.

On Wednesday, when the Hounds didn’t take as many chances, but did send in a lot more crosses than Indy (by a 22-7 margin), Biasi and his replacement, Dossantos, combined for four crosses (one successful). Their average positions were in line with the Hounds defensive shape most of the night, which was tight until the late stages. While Biasi was a lot more compact (see first diagram), when Dossantos came in (see second diagram), he was asked to cover more ground in dealing with Indy’s effort to try to stretch the Hounds out looking for the equalizer.

In the second diagram, you can see the difference between Dossantos’ (2) wider, more stretched positioning vs a more tucked in Biasi (13).

“In the back, I thought the players were honest. At times they got stretched [out] and they had to do extra running, and I think we were prepared to do it, and that was the difference.”

Chances are, Lilley will look at each match up carefully, as it seems as if he has created some serious competition for playing time for this role.

Here’s a closer look below (according to our unofficial charting from starting lineups) of who has started either as a left back or wide left midfield position this season for the Hounds.

  • Dambrot (3 starts)
  • Dossantos (9 starts)
  • Rovira (2 starts)
  • Biasi (2 starts)
  • Dixon (2 starts)

There are a number of a factors that will likely decide how the Hounds line-up in the coming weeks and into the final stretch of the season on the left wing.

What is certain is they have a veteran, speedy presence in Dixon, who often will end up on the high line as an attacking midfielder or forward, but has been a valuable two-way player a lot with the Hounds.

Rovira has shown in the last two matches that he’s been a solid holding midfielder, playing alongside the ultra-durable Danny Griffin, but can be thrown into one of the wing spots if the coaching staff deems it necessary.

What is intruiging is they have a mix of young players, including Dossantos, Biasi, Toby Sims and Dambrot, who are all in the mix and are battling for playing time.

It doesn’t appear that has been settled and will be fun to watch how this plays out.

Let the Race (Really) Begin

Buckle up Pittsburgh soccer fans!

Now that the Hounds have now entered the second half of the season, things should be heating up in the race to earn a top four spot in the Eastern Conference standings. FInishing in the top four will guarantee Pittsburgh will host at least one home playoff match.

Right now, the Hounds (30 points / 18 games played) are trailing Louisville (1st place, 37 points), Memphis and Tampa, while being tied with Detroit City FC.

Here’s what the top eight looks like (see below).

The good news for the Hounds is that they’ll be facing both Louisville and Memphis, two teams they’re trying to catch, at home. The bad news is that they’re 0-2 vs Tampa and settled to two draws vs Datroit City FC.

If this season has proven anything, that there is no opponent that the Hounds can take lightly. They’ll earn every point they can accumulate.

Pos. P W L T GD Pts
1
Louisville City FC 17 11 3 3 20 36
2
Memphis 901 FC 17 11 4 2 16 35
3
Tampa Bay Rowdies 18 9 3 6 16 33
4
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 18 9 6 3 5 30
5
Detroit City FC 18 8 4 6 7 30
6
Birmingham Legion FC 17 7 5 5 1 26
7
The Miami FC 18 6 6 6 2 24
8
Indy Eleven 17 6 8 3 -5 21

Look coverage of this Saturday’s match between the Hounds-Miami FC from Highmark Stadium, with Jordan Smith on hand along with postmatch reaction and more.

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).

Riverhounds Postgame: Russell Cicerone after brace vs Indy

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