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Hounds Notebook: A team in need of a signature win

The Hounds fell, 2-0, at Louisville earlier this season. Photo courtesy Louisville City FC

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC are on a relatively shorter week schedule as they prepare for a big match-up vs front-running Louisville City FC on Saturday at Highmark Stadium.

We plan to have full coverage of Saturday’s match from Highmark Stadium as the Hounds seek a signature win in a season that started with very high expectations, but has seen number of underachieving moments. The Hounds still have an opportunity to finish strong and secure a top four spot in the standings and a home playoff berth.

It won’t be easy.

The Hounds have only lost one match in its last 11, and yet the overall sense and feeling from many around the league and those who follow the team closely, is that they have not played to their potential, most recently dropping points they probably should have in the bag.

With a chance to make a move on the leaders at the start of August, the Hounds couldn’t grab the mantle.

Instead, they came away with two relatively close wins and two draws against the bottom four teams in the conference, coupled with a 2-0 loss to third-place Memphis, at home in early August, which essentially pushed them back to back edge of the top four spots in the conference.

The Memphis loss aside, draws vs NY Red Bulls II and Charleston Battery at home were the four most glaring dropped points.  That’s four points that could have put the Hounds within striking distance of first place.

On the back end of a three games in nine-day span, Head Coach Bob Lilley relied on heavy squad rotation in the last two matches: a 0-0 draw with Charleston on Wednesday, then Sunday’s 2-1 win at Loudoun United.

Fully acknowledging that it’s important to manage minutes and players’ workload through the course of a grueling 34-game season, Lilley has one more short week test coming up, and it may be the biggest test of all this season.

First, the Hounds will face the league’s top squad, LouCity FC at home on Saturday, then must turn around, travel to Birmingham to take on the team that they’re battling, neck-for-neck with in the standings for 4th place and a home playoff spot.  In fact, Pittsburgh and Birmingham have identical records and have both played the same amount of matches (28).

Anything less than four out of a possible six points in these next two matches will likely put the Hounds in precarious position heading into what appears to be an interesting final stretch of four matches in four weeks, with three of those at home.

ironically, the final four matches will be against Western Conference opponents.

So, where are the quality wins?  

The Riverhounds are clearly a team that will be in the postseason as there’s almost no doubt that they’ll be one of the seven teams to enter the Eastern Conference playoffs as they currently sit comfortably ahead of sixth place The Miami FC and seventh place Detroit City FC.  Barring an epic collapse, this will be the fifth straight season under the helm of Bob Lilley that the Hounds will be in the field for the USL Cup Playoff Tournament.

EASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS

Pos. P W L T GD Pts Form
1
Louisville City FC 27 18 5 4 33 58
WWLLW
2
Tampa Bay Rowdies 27 16 5 6 30 54
WLLWW
3
Memphis 901 FC 27 16 7 4 21 52
WWLLD
4
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 28 15 7 6 12 51
LDWDW
5
Birmingham Legion FC 28 15 7 6 19 51
WLWWD
6
The Miami FC 28 12 8 8 8 44
LWWWD
7
Detroit City FC 27 11 6 10 10 43
DWLWD
8
FC Tulsa 28 10 14 4 -10 34
WWLWL
9
Indy Eleven 27 8 14 5 -11 29
LLWWD

 

Taking a look at their overall record, 15 wins, 7 losses and 6 draws, it looks okay.  Sure, the Hounds, for the most part, have been a good team this season. But for a franchise with championship aspirations, who have set a higher bar in recent years, it looks like they’ve been going through the motions, especially in the last month.

In last week’s episode of Sounding Off on Soccer, USL Championship Lead Broadcast Analyst Devon Kerr and I had this very discussion.

When I posed the question to Kerr if he thinks the Hounds have another gear, and he emphatically said they have potentially a third or fourth gear that they’re capable of reaching. After all, this is a team that has the USL Championship’s all-time leading goal scorer, all-time leading assist man, a coach that has lifted the USL Cup and is synonymous with success.  They went out and picked up a few solid additions, adding another All-USL Championship level starting midfielder, with the return of Robbie Mertz and depth for the forward rotation by getting Edward Kizza, at midseason to bolster the roster.

Still, they dropped points in the past month they’d like to have back and haven’t shown any success against the top teams in the league.

Maybe most importantly, the Hounds really don’t have a signature, quality win this season.

Against the top three teams in the Eastern Conference standings, Louisville City FC, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Memphis, they’re are a combined 1-4-0, having been outscored 12-5 in these games.  The lone win and three of those goals came in opening week, when a well-prepared and fresh Pittsburgh squad scored a 3-0 win vs a Memphis side that was still trying to figure things out.

If you look down the line of the match fixtures this season, the only wins Pittsburgh has carved out in the last four months against teams in contention for postseason or with winning records have come against Miami FC (4-1 win on July 9) and Birmingham (1-0 way back on May 7).

That’s why this week’s showdown vs Louisville City FC, is crucial, and a positive result would be just what the doctor ordered.

The Hounds need to put together a 90-minute performance to show that they can play with the teams in the top of the standings. They were outclassed in the first match against the front-runners, at Lynn Family Stadium, in late April, losing 2-0.  

Lilley told PSN’s Dan Angell after that match there were some positive takeaways from his team on that night, but ultimately, they were chasing the game too much.

“Louisville was really good right out of the gate and got on top of us,” Lilley stated at the time.

“We tried to make some adjustments at halftime, but I thought they were ready to play. We’ll try to learn from it quickly because we have some tough games coming up. They deserve a lot of credit, but I think we have another gear that we didn’t really show.”

“There were some moments where we got balls in transition and had even numbers or chances, but we never got the final pass or shot on frame. I think there was probably a moment to get a goal in there to change the complexion of the game, but unfortunately, we weren’t good enough on the ball (Saturday).”

That quote really tells it all, doesn’t it?  The Hounds have to be at the top of their game to beat Louisville City. They can’t lollygag in the final third. They have to be sharp in transition. And they can’t afford to make mistakes that would lead to Louisville goals, like they did in the first match.

The Hounds are a team led by veterans and a coach who have been very successful at this level and know how to grind out wins.  That’s why many in and around the league, and analysts like Kerr still believe that this team could be dangerous come postseason time.

But they’ve got to get out of first gear and start to show they can play with the big boys, or it will be another disappointing season with lofty expectations left unfulfilled.

Lilley, who loves to tinker with his lineups and adjust to every opponent, has implored an aggressive tactical approach in recent matches against Louisville, all at Lynn Family Stadium, with mixed results.  Louisville has always been — and still are — a very good possession team. Lilley knows that the best way to disrupt a team like Louisville’s build-up play is to come at them with a high-press, keep enough of the ball to help dictate tempo and make the most of scoring chances.

The Hounds will have to check off all those boxes if they want to win on Saturday.

Of course, the most glaring of their losses to Louisville came in the two most recent postseason defeats in 2019 when Pittsburgh was the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and again in 2020.

Additionally, at Highmark Stadium, LouCity has never suffered defeat, going 4-0-3 away from home in the rivalry between the two clubs.  Pittsburgh’s four wins in the series have come in the Derby City in 2015, 2018, 2019 and in 2020’s season opener.

It’s winning when it matters most, against top teams, which has seemed to evade the Hounds this season and in the postseason in recent years.

A win on Saturday could help reverse that trend and give this club some much needed confidence to push forward.

Squad Trends 

As mentioned, the Hounds used a heavy rotation to keep players fresh with three games played in a nine day stretch that ended with Sunday night’s win at Loudoun United FC.  Lilley intended to start this season with more roster depth, and he certainly have kept true to his word.  Only Nathan Dossantos has been out of the rotation with knee injury. Otherwise, in the past three matches, Lilley used two goalkeepers and 21 different field players.

Here’s a look at the last three matches:

vs Loudoun (4-2-3-1)

Jahmali Waite; Dani Rovira (Jelani Peters 62’), Mekeil Williams, Arturo Ordóñez, Shane Wiedt; Kenardo Forbes, Danny Griffin; Russell Cicerone (Angelo Kelly 73’), Robbie Mertz (Luis Argudo 73’), Alex Dixon (Edward Kizza 62’); Albert Dikwa (Jesse Williams 86’)

vs Charleston  (5-4-1)

Jahmali Waite; Luke Biasi (Kenardo Forbes 46’), Jelani Peters, Arturo Ordóñez, Shane Wiedt, Toby Sims (Robbie Mertz 65’); Danny Griffin, Marc Ybarra (Alex Dixon 46’), Angelo Kelly (Dani Rovira 80’), Russell Cicerone; Dane Kelly (Albert Dikwa 60’)

vs Atlanta United 2 (5-2-1-2)

Kevin Silva; Dani Rovira (Jesse Williams 85’), Mekeil Williams, Arturo Ordóñez, Shane Wiedt, Alex Dixon (Marc Ybarra 72’); Robbie Mertz (Angelo Kelly 72’), Danny Griffin; Kenardo Forbes (Luis Argudo 72’); Edward Kizza (Jelani Peters 85’), Albert Dikwa

It’s clear that the Hounds three mainstays on the field through every game this season have been Griffin, Wiedt and Ordóñez.  Each started and played every minute of the last three matches.  In addition, only two other players have logged more than 2,000 minutes: Russell Cicerone and Kenardo Forbes.  This is a remarkable feat for the team captain, Kenny Forbes, considering he’s the team’s oldest player (34) and other than Griffin (28 starts/28 appearances), he’s the only other player on the team who has appeared in every league match this season (28 appearances/24 starts).  Mertz would also fall into this group, being that he’s logged more than 2,200 minutes if you combine his time between Atlanta and Pittsburgh, where he’s played 515 since returning to Pittsburgh.  

The center back rotation seems to be fairly stable, as Wiedt (27 starts) and Ordonez (26 starts) are going to be penciled in almost every night while Jelani Peters (26 starts) and Mekeil Williams (22 starts) have been interchangeable and stable parts to the group.

The good news/bad news for Pittsburgh is that Ordóñez, Wiedt and Griffin got to the Louisville match without reaching eight total yellow cards, but the bad news is that they’re each getting awfully close to sitting out a match.  Wiedt and Ordóñez are sitting on seven cards, while Griffin has six.  This means that when they reach eight, they’ll have to sit out the following match.  

The forward rotation continues to see Cicerone and Albert Dikwa carrying much of the workload as Lilley expects his forwards to cover a lot of ground.  The addition of Kizza, has provided much needed minutes and quality play off the bench while the Hounds continue to carefully work in Dane Kelly in spots. In the past three matches, Kelly started the midweek match vs Charleston, and was pulled after 60 minutes. He didn’t make an appearance in the two road wins. In 22 matches played, Kelly has logged 1,017 minutes with just 11 starts, registering only two 90 minute matches this season.

Lilley wanted to alternate his midfielders last week, keeping both Kenardo Forbes and Robbie Mertz out of the starting lineup for the midweek clash with Charleston, but both entered the match early in the second half.

Since the addition of Robbie Mertz and the added injury to Dossantos, Dani Rovira has become the favored option on the wing and at times shifting to outside back, opposite Alex Dixon.

If there’s one player who’s continued to press forward and be a key part of the lineup, but has seen a dip in production that may be the most concerning, is Dixon.  Through the end of the July, the 32-year old had four goals and seven assists. Over a month and six games played later, he’s still stuck there.  The versatile playmaker, has not had an assist since July 30 and hasn’t scored a goal in 12 matches and only scored once in the last 15.

One has to wonder if Dixon and Kelly, two of the best attacking players in the past decade of the USL Championship, who were the Hounds two most dynamic attackers very early in the season, are slowing down or are they’re just picking their spots, and gearing up for a strong stretch run to the end of the season.

I’ll say this much: there have been some big games when many Riverhounds fans would have loved to had either one of them on the field, especially in those postseason matches vs Louisville City.

Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s Riverhounds SC – Louisville City FC Coverage 

Look for more in the coming days we plan to preview the clash and have on-site coverage from Highmark Stadium on Saturday.

 

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 MF Danny Griffin

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