Through just over 50 percent of the 2022 USL Championship campaign, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds have demonstrated themselves to be a strong opponent – up for any fight. The team’s 11 wins, 4 draws, and 6 losses indicate a club that is both cohesive and tenacious. The goal scoring from front line attackers like Russell Ciccerone, Albert Dikwa, and venerable USL veteran Dane Kelly has been consistent and generally timely. The team can defend or possess as they see fit. The tandem battery of goalkeepers Jahmali Waite and Kevin Silva have both taken to frustrating the strikers on opposing teams.
And yet all has not gone well in #Houndtahn.
After a blistering start with four wins and one draw, Pittsburgh sputtered in the month of June, putting up a draw and three losses, including an embarrassing pasting at the hands of Eastern Conference leaders Tampa Bay by a score of 5-2.
It seems, however, that the club might have begun righting the ship in July.
Through five matches this month, the team beat NYRB II, then Indy Eleven, and then Miami, before drawing last week in New Mexico, then pulling out a win at Hartford on a stoppage time strike.
What’s Gone Right
When we spoke with Hounds players about what had gone particularly well this season, they came up with a wide variety of answers. Shane Weidt, speaking from his perspective as a defender, remarked that backline communication had been quite good to date.
“The cooperation (between the other defenders) has been pretty seamless. We’re all fighting for each other,” Weidt said.
Weidt also thought the back three had been effective at getting the ball into midfield into useful spots. “Our passing between lines and things has kind of helped open things for the team.” Shane also noted the specific contributions of the newest Hounds defender, Arturo Ordonez.
“With Jelani (Peters) and Mekeil (Williams) Arturo’s fit right in and is giving everything he has.”
Midfielder Danny Griffin was short on praise for the successes of the early part of the year; likely a result of interviewing him just a few days after the team’s third consecutive defeat.
But he did highlight the good coordination in the midfield as a strong point for the team.
“The relationship I have in the midfield with Kenny (Forbes), Angelo (Kelly Rosales), Dani (Rovira), and Mark (Ybarra) helps in creating chances,” Griffin said.
“We’ve controlled the tempo – whether we’re pushing forward or getting in behind.”
The midfield received another boost this past week with the return of Robbie Mertz.
Assistant Coach Dan Visser also gave us a laundry list of things to improve, giving away little as to the elements that had placed the team so high in the table. Essentially, though, Visser thought the team might have been a little unfortunate to date.
“We did get some good results early. I do think we’ve played a bit better than our record showed in the month of June.”
As befitting of the infamous Johnny Lunchpail Steel City work ethic, striker Albert Dikwa credited the teams good results to hard work.
“The key to success is just hard work, and to believe what coach asks us to do.”
Visser, interviewed separately, mirrored Dikwa’s comments almost identically.
“I think hard work solves a lot of things. I do think that we’re working.”
What the Hounds could improve on
Ask a striker to solve a soccer teams problems, and you’ll get a striker’s answer. When asked what the Riverhounds need to do in the second half of the season to succeed, Albert Dikwa replied,
“Obviously, we need to score more goals.” Pretty straightforward.
Danny Griffin had several thoughts on things the Riverhounds could fix going into the second half of the season, with 14 games yet to play.
“On both ends of the field, there’s a lot more that we can be doing. We’re not creating the chances that we created early on. We need to be more dynamic in that final third, and we need to be clinical.”
The Riverhounds, according to the advanced metrics compiled by American Soccer Analysis, have been pretty darned good at creating chances – the team’s 32.94 Expected Goals For ranks sixth in all of the USL Championship. And they’ve converted those chances at almost precisely the rate that an average pro soccer team would be expected to: the team has 33 goals, perfectly in line with that 32.94 xGF. So when Griffin desires that the team be ‘more clinical’ and put more chances away, he’s not talking about making a bad team decent or even taking the team from average to good.
“Some games, we’ve created the chances and didn’t finish. In the past, we’ve been really good at our shot percentage and hitting the target, and making the keepers work.”
Griffin is expecting the team go from good to league best. Is that achievable?
For the Hounds to win the league, that may be the mentality the team needs to sustain.
Defender Shane Weidt feels the team might be better served with a more aggressive stance overall.
“We’re best just being on the front foot and pressing and winning the ball high, or playing in the attacking half.”
That high press style has been characteristic in the past of Red Bull New York – both the MLS and USL variants. Bob Lilley has tended to use the press more selectively, but overall the Riverhounds have often been known for being a tough team to play through; a so-called front-to-back defensive team. It is one of the aspects of what USL commentators often refer to as ‘Lilleyball’ – an irritating, suffocating defense played by all eleven guys.
Dikwa concurred with that sentiment, in as few words as possible: “Work together, defend together.”
Weidt also thinks the team needs to get on top of things early.
“When we’re on the same page – we’re flying. Looking back at last year, we were always the first 15 or 20 minutes of the game, we were always all over the opponent. If we can just get back to that this year – we have a lot of talent, a lot of guys that are very good, and we can make a good push for the end of the season.”
In 22 matches this year, Pittsburgh has opened the scoring 15 times. Their record when scoring first is 11-2-2. The two losses recorded after scoring first both came against Tampa Bay, who hold the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
Overall, the sense is that the team has everything it needs to be successful. An occasional fine tuning, some better finishing, and focus will get the team to the end of the regular season in a strong position for the post-season.
Weidt preaches this both to his teammates, and in regards to his own obligations to be at his best.
“There’s always ways to be better, whether it’s doing more to organize the defense or doing more to help the guys around me get back quicker.”
Dikwa is the primary advocate for mentality and focus, which makes sense for a striker, who may see less of the ball in a game than any of his teammates, but must absolutely maximize those few moments to succeed.
“For me, it’s about concentration. It’s football. You can have a bad moment in the game, but you have to be focused, pro active. When we have our chance, we have to put it in.”
Albert speaks the truth.
He’s undoubtedly been successful this season, with six goals to his name in 1,193 minutes of play. His Expected Goals, however, is 7.96 xG; meaning, he’s underperformed expectation by nearly 2 goals. Meanwhile, his striker compatriots Dane Kelly and Russell Ciccerone have exceeded expectation. Kelly has 7 goals on an xG of 5.67, and Ciccerone has bagged 9 goals with only an xG of 6.91.
In summarizing the way the team wants to play through the rest of the year in order to succeed, Albert Dikwa succinctly lays it out as if he was trying to focus test the buzzwords for a corporate retreat.
“Control, energy, hard work, and the success will come.”