After 31 games, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC have reached a 15-8-8 overall record by putting in the work.
Head Coach Bob Lilley and his staff meticulously devise games plans, carefully selelct personnel and put in plenty of time to scout each opponent.
The players also put in the time, training through intense daily sessions, many coming back to Highmark Stadium on optional workout day doing every thing they can do to fine tune their skills and receive extra medical and athletic training treatment.
During the course of every 90-minute match and throughout the season, the Hounds rarely come up short in the effort department.
But time and time again in 2022, they’ve come up short in the picking up points department, where they’ve been making a habit of being generous at home, giving away points on their own turf.
Following the Hounds’ latest result, a 1-1 draw against Orange County SC, at Highmark Stadium on Saturday night, the Hounds have now yet to pick up a win at home in the last four tries (preceded by August run that included 2-0 loss to Memphis, 2-2 draw vs NYRBII, 0-0 draw vs Charleston).
At the arrival of stoppage time, the Hounds couldn’t stop the USL Championship’s leading scorer Milan Iloski from leveling the match in the 90th minute with his 21st goal for Orange County.
The draw leaves the Hounds in fifth-place in the Eastern Conference, two points behind both Tampa Bay and Birmingham, with three games left in the race to secure a home playoff game.
“Feels like we’ve had a lot of these nights where let points get away,” Lilley said following the match.
“This time of year. Want to be playing solid soccer game in and game out. We were coming off two good performances against good teams, but we didn’t do enough to connect passes and create more chances in the final third tonight.”
Lineup Selections / Formation / Tactics
Not swaying too much from recent personnel decisions, Lilley stayed with pretty much the same group for the starting lineup on Saturday night, with Jelani Peters sitting out the match due to a red-card suspension.
The Hounds went back to a three-man center back alignment.
Hounds Starting Formation vs OC (3-5-1-1)
Overall, Lilley was happy with his team’s defensive performance and shape through much of the night.
“We defended well,” the Hounds’ gaffer said after the match.
“I was encouaged.”
The Hounds did allow eight shots, with just three on frame, two of those coming in the final five minutes and stoppage time.
The Hounds controlled possession (54% possession but it was higher for most of the match) thanks in large part to the same central midfield trio we’ve seen for the most part of the past month and a half: Kenardo Forbes, Robbie Mertz and Danny Griffin. Of the three, it was Griffin who stayed most central and deepest, sitting right atop the back three for most of the night. Griffin was key point person to deny many OC advances, coming up with team-high seven interceptions. Together, the trio combined for 143 passes at a rate of over 80 percent, but didn’t do enough and create enough dangerous opportunities in connecting passes deeper into the attacking third.
Albert Dixon and Dani Rovira were also featured on the flanks again, with Dixon taking on more of a role pushing up and trying to create chances on the right side, while Rovira tucked back more often was a little deeper, taking less chances going forward. Part of the reason for the latter came as the Hounds were holding the lead, and Rovira was also dealing with OC’s speed and dangerous players, including Iloski working into his side of the field. For what it was worth Rovira ended the match with three fouls won and three conceded. Dixon, who has been on a scoring drought (no goals or assists since July), did create three successful crosses and two chances.
Was it enough?
It could be said that the Hounds are not scaring anyone and not creating enough chances or starting enough dangerous attacking moments on the flanks in the latter part of the season.
Russell Cicerone and Albert Dikwa were the highest attacking pieces (more on that below!), while Jahmali Waite made his fourth straight start in goal, as it appears that those starting lineup pieces have been cemented.
Lilley waited until the 80th minute to make substutions.
At which point, he brought on Angelo Kelly-Rosales, Marc Ybarra and Toby Sims for Alex Dixon, Dani Rovira and Cicerone, looking to protect the lead.
Also coming on in stoppage time were Dane Kelly and Luis Argudo for Mertz and Sims.
It was the Hounds’ inability to create more scoring chances, and ultimately manage the game with a lead is what drew ire and frustration from Lilley in his postgame comments.
Dikwa Earns His Role as Hounds Go-To Target Forward
If you were at the match or watching the broadcast on Saturday, one of the players who had to be a pleasure to enjoy watching from the first whistle to the last was Albert Dikwa.
The match started off on a strong note for the Hounds, thanks to the Cameroonian forward. He was doing his part to help his squad bounce back from a tough 2-1 road loss at Birmingham.
Dikwa continued his good run of form with his 11th goal of the season for the Hounds (15-8-8) in just the fourth minute of the game.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) September 25, 2022
Forbes found the perfect place to advance a direct thru ball.
And Dikwa took it from there to beat OC’s Patrick Rakovsky.
“I ended up getting into good position, and King Kenny has good vision and he slid me the ball,” Dikwa said.
Dikwa’s continued work rate and willingness to not give up on plays makes him a constant threat and presence throughout the match to help the Hounds extend possessions.
His work rate showed up on the stat sheet too. DIkwa won 12 of 17 duels (6 of 8 in the air), created one chance and won a team high five fouls, as Orange County defenders were often on the rough end of 50/50 exchanges.
It has become clear through the second half of the season that Dikwa has become the team’s primary option at target forward. Even with a roster that includes the USL Championship’s all-time leading scorer, Dane Kelly and the addition of Edward Kizza on loan from New England Revolution, it’s Dikwa with Cicerone buzzing in and around him, the Hounds have created a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the formation that is always working and doing what they can to make opposing back lines and goalkeepers uncomfortable.
On the flip side, Dikwa’s only shot attempt on frame of the night came with that goal in the fourth minute and he had only one other shot.
Cicerone created a couple of chances, but didn’t have any shots on frame and won just 2 of 8 duels.
No Lead is Safe for these Hounds
The last two times the Riverhounds have held a lead on home turf, they’ve let it slip away.
If you go back to June 4 draw vs Detroit City FC (1-1) and the Tampa Bay 5-2 loss, when Arturo Ordonez opened scoring that night, the Hounds have conceded four leads at Highmark Stadium this season.
In August, they had 2-0 lead, but let the NY Red Bulls II storm back for two second half goals. Again, on Saturday, they reached the 90th minute pitching a shutout.
Lilley knew things started to get a little dicey, when only moments before stoppage time, his keeper Jahmali Waite had to make a dynamic, diving fingertip save to deny Milan Iloki’s strike from the edge of the box.
In the Hounds’ coach’s view, the game started to become too open-ended.
“Every counter attack late in game, can’t lead to a turnover. When you’re winning the game, you need to slow the game down. We failed. We should be able to pull that game out,” Lilley said.
Sure enough, a turnover lead to Orange County’s long ball over the top which caught the Hounds scrambling back to get into position. Give credit where credit is due, ‘El Cubo’ Erick Torres made a terrific play to get a touch on the ball, then bring it to the end line.
By that point, the damage was partly done. But Torres played a pass to the USL Championship’s top goal scorer, who wasn’t picked up by the Hounds backs.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) September 25, 2022
Back to Lilley’s point, the Hounds came up short in connecting passes in the final third and taking care of the ball.
“Instead of trying to go 100 miles an hour all the time, we have to pick our spots,” Lilley added.
Lilley’s primary playmakers are Forbes, Dixon and Mertz. As good as they’ve been, at times this year and especially in the case of Forbes and Dixon, throughout terrific careers, they are not doing enough collectively to stretch defending units and keep goalkeepers honest.
Scoring 13 goals in the last 12 games hasn’t cut it.
In a season where things started off well, as the Hounds showed signs of being a dynamic scoring unit, they can’t afford to play too many open-ended matches.
They nearly rewarded the hard work at the top of the attack of Dikwa and Cicerone and solid play by the defending unit and Griffin in the central deep midfield with a 1-0 win, but that came apart when they allowed a goal as things opened up too much at the end.
They’re going to have to grind their way to the finish line and be a lot smarter both on the ball and in managing games for a full 90 minutes.
“It’s tough. (There’s) no excuses. The reality is we didn’t make goalkeeper work. We scored so early, so we had 90 minutes to do more. We’re not making good enough decisions on ball when we have it. Even though we have very capable players. We have lots of quality in attacking phases, but we have to have an awareness in the game,” Lilley explained.
“Sometimes we falll into trap going too fast. There’s too much space out there. We have to find it, and use it, as opposed to trying to go solo or can’t just kick it long. But that’s what it felt like.”
Three games remain for the Hounds to patch up their holes and become a team that can grind out complete, winning games or they’ll have a short exit in the playoffs once again.