The Pittsburgh Riverhounds have spent this week gearing up for their upcoming USL Championship Eastern Conference quarterfinal round playoff match in Birmingham (Sunday, October 23, 6 p.m. ET).
Even on a day when training was optional, a handful of players still made their way to Highmark Stadium to fine tune different aspects of their game.
The overall vibe at Highmark Stadium on the field and in the locker room has been upbeat and positive, following a regular season closing 3-1 win vs Oakland at Highmark Stadium last Saturday before a sellout crowd.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, and we’ve learned a lot from our mistakes, but we’re getting hot at the right time,” Riverhounds defender Arturo Ordonez said following training on Wednesday.
“We’re ready for the playoffs.”
While the Hounds did struggle to produce results and overtake the Legion FC in the standings in the final month of the season, including a 2-1 loss at Protective Stadium in September, Head Coach Bob Lilley feels very encouraged by what’s he’s seen of late from his squad, culminating with the regular season finale,
“It was one of, if not, our best performance of the season. We created a number of great chances and we were solid defensively and took care of the ball, kept up with speed of play and made good choices. We looked dynamic, and I think we’re up for the fight,” Lilley said.
“We look really focused to manage the game well. Those are all the things you want to be doing to play winning soccer.”
Now, Lilley is hoping that will carry over on Sunday when the Hounds get a shot of redemption, one year in the making, as it was a year-ago, they also entered the playoffs preparing to travel to and face Birmingham, but that never materialized, as they had to forfeit the match due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the team.
The bitter disappointment from last year is a motivating force, but the truth is, the Hounds are really focused on the current task at hand.
“The energy is good. They’re close and they’re always buzzing after a big win,” Lilley said. “They’ll need to feel the energy of how we’ve been playing. There’s a lot of confidence in the group. A month ago we were struggling in terms of performance. The diligence they’ve had to dig in and fight through that and bring the energy every day. They’ve banked a lot of positives over the last few weeks, and we need to take that into the playoffs.”
The primary task at hand?
Beating a very good and veteran-laden Birmingham squad.
Birmingham epitomize veteran squad in ‘established’ league
The Hounds can certainly boast a nice mix of veteran and young players, and heading into the playoffs. It’s natural to pay close attention to the veterans as potentially being difference makers who can lead and elevate the team to the next level and understand the speed of play and intensity of the playoffs.0
The Riverhounds have a few players over 30 years of age, who’ve been through their share of playoff battles including Kenardo Forbes, Alex Dixon and Dane Kelly. There are few others, including Robbie Mertz, Dani Rovira and Danny Griffin who have been with the team now for a good part of the Lilley’s tenure, and they’ve gone through the successes during the regular seasons and experienced failures in the postseason.
“They know it’s a big moment for the club,” Lilley said. “We want to make a playoff run. (Whether it’s) home or away. Many of our guys were here last year, and felt the disappointment of not being able to get a chance to play. It’s an important moment for us, and if we put on a good performance, we’ll have our opportunity.”
Forbes has been a remarkable pillar for the club since his arrival to Pittsburgh, at the same time as Lilley, in 2018.
They’ve been — probably with little argument — the most prominent and long-running coach-captain tandem in franchise history and maybe even in the history of the USL Championship.
This season, for the first time in Forbes’ career, one that has made him the all-time leading assist contributor in league history, he has reached double-digit assists (10, along with 3 goals).
In addition, Forbes has appeared in every match (34 appearances) and started 30 times, as he continues to be a player that has a huge influence and can really help dictate and orchestrate things on the field in the central midfield.
The Hounds’ midfield has seen the development of Robbie Mertz and Danny Griffin and it’s probably not a coincidence that they’ve elevated their games and become the players they are because they’ve played alongside Forbes.
Dixon has also been a key play maker for the Hounds too, arguably the team’s most valuable player in 2021, when he produced a nine goal and nine assist campaign. He started off this season at a high level, reaching four goals and seven assists by late July.
Then there’s been a significant drop off in production for Dixon, who has still been present in the line-up but has not scored a goal nor had an assist since July 30. Lilley did keep Dixon out of the starting unit in the finale though, bringing him on as a late sub.
The same could be said for Dane Kelly, who came to the Hounds as a veteran addition that could help put the team over the top. Kelly is the league’s all-time leading scorer.
Things started off swimmingly for the Jamaican in Pittsburgh, as he scored five goals in his first six matches. Even what appeared to be some load management and getting less starts and then less appearances through the second half of the season, Kelly has played sparingly, with a total of seven goals.
At first, it seemed as the Hounds were being very careful with Kelly’s minutes. But as the season has progressed, with the emergence of Albert Dikwa and the non-stop persistence of Russell Cicerone in the attack, Kelly’s become an afterthought.
One has to wonder though, if Kelly is in the 18, if he can be a key difference maker off the bench in the postseason?
That’s something that the Hounds were lacking in disappointing playoff losses in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
When asking Lilley this week about the Hounds’ veteran players, he was quick to redirect his answer to make a point that the USL Championship has grown to where all of the top teams have established veterans and mainstays.
Birmingham may be the perfect example of this.
The Legion FC’s leadership comes from its venerable captain and longtime Hounds killer Enzo Martinez, who, at age 32 is having a fantastic season with 15 goals and eight assists along with 36-year old keeper Matt Van Oekel, who can be an intimidating presence and a strong leader on a squad of vets. PSN’s Mark Goodman has provided plenty of insight Van Oekel in his past scouting reports of Birmingham.
Looking up and down the roster, the bulk of the Legion squad is filled with veterans who range from 25 to 36 years of age. In fact, only one player under the age of 25 has made more than 10 appearances (Edi Horvat).
Among those on the Legion squad include two who Pittsburgh fans know very well, Ryan James and Thomas Vancaeyezeele.
Both players were very instrumental and played a lot of minutes in their time in Pittsburgh, but are a perfect example of how difficult it’s been to get on the field when on a roster filled with many talented veterans. James has started 13 matches in 27 appearances, while Vancaeyezeele has just four starts in eight matches.
The only thing wrong with this picture is the kits being worn!!@RiverhoundsSC 🤭 pic.twitter.com/UCG0HQJ9bA
— Tuffy Shallenberger (@Tuffy_Shall) May 8, 2022
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, they didn’t get a chance to experience the postseason last year. And while Birmingham lost out on a chance to play the Hounds before their fans, they did with most of the same players, have the opportunity to play Louisville City to a tight match in the USL Championship Eastern Conference semifinal loss a year ago.
They’re equally buzzing to get a chance to win a playoff match before its home crowd. This will be the first-ever home playoff match for the Legion as they’re also searching for the club’s first ever postseason win.
“I don’t know if it’s extra motivation but it’s a little bit of déjà vu,” Legion coach Tommy Soehn said. “Last year when we found out they weren’t coming, you could hear a pin drop. The guys really wanted that game. We’re still building that fanbase so being able to play them this year, there’s a lot of excitement around it.”
It’s hard to believe, but this is a match where the Hounds will be at a disadvantage when it comes to recent playoff experience.
Center Back Quartet Provides Stability
In the win against Oakland, the Hounds had to go with a bit of a makeshift line-up, with the absence of two center backs, Arturo Ordonez and veteran Mekeil Williams, not to mention having Nathan Dossantos, who started the bulk of his rookie season at outside back before succumbing to a knee injury.
Lilley pieced together the back line for the finale by utilizing Danny Griffin, the team’s workhorse central midfielder, in the middle of a five man alignment. This was something Lilley has done before utilizing one of the team’s best distributors in the central defense, primarily when Thomas Vancaeyezeele was with the Hounds in 2018-20.
Griffin was situated between Jelani Peters and Shane Wiedt, while Dani Rovira and Toby Sims were the outside backs, who were equally efficient getting forward throughout the night.
Sims scored the equalizer for the Hounds near the end of the first half while playing solid both ways (82% passing accuracy, won 6/10 duels with 4 tackles, 2 clearances and 2 interceptions). Lilley also cited Rovira (80% passing accuracy, won 7/11 duels, 5 tackles) as having played one of his best games in his four-year Hounds career on Saturday.
The truth is, these line-up tweaks in the last regular season match were a bit out of the ordinary for this year’s squad because the Hounds have relied heavily and built the last line around four true center backs., veterans Peters, Williams, Wiedt and Ordonez.
It can be a daunting task to put our a consistent lineup during the ebbs and flows of a 34-game regular season, but Lilley has counted on this quartet to be there, for the most part, game in and game out.
Wiedt and Ordonez, two former Pitt standouts, along with Peters, have led the group in minutes played and appearances. Wiedt and Peters have played in 32 matches, while Ordonez appeared in 31 and is second on the club in minutes played (2,778).
In his rookie campaign, Ordonez has 31 starts, the most of all the defenders.
In January, Ordonez was drafted by Houston Dynamo, and while he did have an option to stay with that franchise as part of their MLS Next squad.
Instead, Ordonez wanted something more.
“When I decided to come here, I wanted to play for something meaningful. I wanted to develop but I have that mentality of chasing a trophy,” Ordonez said after training on Wednesday.
“With the Riverhounds, with Bob, that’s what they want to do, win trophies. That was my main goal, and I got to play a lot and I am grateful for that, but now it’s the time to get it.”
Of course, Ordonez is no stranger to big games. At Pitt, he anchored the back line of the team that made it to the program’s first-ever NCAA College Cup and in winning back-to-back ACC Coastal Division titles.
Adding depth and experience, Mekeil Williams is the veteran of the group, probably had the most ‘load management’ having made 27 appearances with 20 starts.
Now, when it comes to line-up selections for Sunday’s match, Lilley can use all four or he could mix-and-match.
He has used them in many ways and combinations this season, whether they’re a 3, 4 or 5 man back line, depending on the the opponent.
When San Antonio, the league’s top overall team this season, came to Highmark Stadium a few weeks back, Lilley used all four in the starting lineup to counter what was a very athletic and physical attacking group of forwards.
“Our trainings are specific,” Ordonez said. “Each week, even if we change tactics, we spend extra time in the video sessions. Out on the field with each game plan. I’ve learned a lot as a player. It has helped me develop and I am prepared to play in the different ways that Bob wants.”
Ordonez also feels that they’re always going to try to make things difficult for opponents to try to figure out how to break them down.
As the rookie of the group, Ordonez has been embraced and welcomed by the others on the back line but also thrust into significant role.
“They helped me understand the league. They know Bob. They helped me adapt to all the tactical adjustments we make,” Ordonez added.
“It’s been massive for me to adapt to the team and help. I’ve been grateful to be able to play with them for the entire season,”
Along with Jahmali Waite, who has emerged as the team’s number one keeper in the second half of the season, this group has been responsible for 11 clean sheets (T-5th in USLC) and has conceded 38 goals this season (9th least in USLC). In its last nine matches, the Hounds have surrendered a total of eight goals.
The only match during this stretch they allowed more than one goal, was in the 2-1 loss at Birmingham.
Looking back at this year’s matches and sizing up the Birmingham attack
Legion FC have become one of the most dangerous scoring units in the league over the second half of the season, and Lilley is well-aware of this.
The teams have played twice this season, splitting the series, as the Hounds shut out the Legion, 1-0, at Highmark Stadium in what seems like a lifetime ago in May. Then last month, the Legion came back from a 1-0 halftime deficit with a pair of second half goals to take the 2-1 win, and get an important leg-up in the standings.
In both games, the Hounds looked strong at the start.
In May, Griffin scored his first, and only goal of the season, in the 4th minute.
Usually in a deeper, holding midfield spot, Griffin was actually used in that match in a higher spot with the attacking line of midfielders.
The Hounds came out in a 4-2-3-1 formation both times against Birmingham this season.
The first go-around at Highmark, Lilley’s tweaks in the lineup were designed to make Birmingham chase the match, while getting the home side into quick scoring opportunities, quickly.
With this aggressive mindset, the Hounds attacked early and often in the first half, with precise passing, including multiple balls in from the left side, when Dosssantos had one of his best games, creating service opportunities. Forward Albert Dikwa missed on a number of scoring chances that could have double or tripled the lead.
Pittsburgh ended that match with 57/43 possession edge (497-374 passes), more than doubled the number of crosses (22-10) and outshot Birmingham 18-10, with a huge 8-0 edge in shots on frame. They also held a 9-4 advantage on corner kicks.
Hounds executed well that night using all the key principles Lilley preaches.
In September in Alabama, the Hounds had an equally strong start, this time on the road at Protective Stadium.
After being on the front-foot for the first 135 minutes or so this season against Birmingham, the switch flipped in the second half on September 12.
And it was Martinez who was in the mix, as usual, in causing havoc to the Hounds.
The veteran midfielder/forward redirected a deflected ball from Arturo Ordonez’s attempted clearance, with a one-time blast into the upper part of goal, blowing past Hounds keeper Jahmali Waite.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) September 15, 2022
Birmingham took the lead in the 66th minute when Martinez delivered a perfect cut-back pass from the right side, sending the ball through traffic and to the foot of Sadik Balarabe, who took a touch, then with plenty of room to shoot, beat Waite for the go-ahead goal.
They are a good team, with really good players. Playing there is different than being at Highmark. It’s a lot bigger field,” Ordonez said.
“They’re a good team in finding the spaces and breaking lines, especially with (Enzo) Martinez and Argudelo. It’s going to be important to close them down. They can hurt you in many different ways.
The lead would hold up in that second match for Birmingham, despite a late push from the Hounds that included numerous crosses and close calls.
“I’m proud that after they scored, we regrouped and still tried to win it,” Lilley would go on to say.
“We pushed hard at the end, and the guys worked hard. … But against a good team on their home pitch, they found a goal.”
What the Hounds will have to contend with will be a big, athletic and experienced target forward, Agudelo, who scored 28 goals in 142 appearances for New England Revolution in MLS from 2015-19. They have plenty of additional firepower. In addition to Martinez’s club-high 15 goals. Marlon Santos, the Brazilian in his first season in Birmingham, scored nine. Prosper Kasim with eight goals heading into the playoffs.
“He (Agudelo) holds the ball up so well, and they have so much movement around him,” Lilley explained. “Whether it’s Enzo (Martinez), Marlon or Kasim. Argudelo is kind of the pivot for them, but Martinez can pop-up where ever and he’s always dangerous. Along with Kenny (Forbes), has been one of the best players in the league for a long time.”
The Legion will line-up typically in a 3-4-2-1 or more recently, they’ve been going with a 3-5-2.
Lilley also cited that once Argudelo got fit and the Legion figured out their rotation and roles for attacking players, they’ve been more dangerous.
For the Hounds to contain the Legion, they’re going to have to play to their strengths, and make sure that Forbes, Mertz and Griffin are dictating terms in the the middle of the field, and they’re creating chances in the final third.
There’ really aren’t going to be many tweaks or secrets for either team,” Lilley said. “It’s going to come down to execution. We’ve got to go at them. We can’t sit back. They’re experienced enough to find free kicks. Find a combination. Pick up second balls on the edge of the box. You don’t want to be pinned back by a team like Birmingham. Their goal production has gone up significantly in the second half of the season.”
Interviews with Bob Lilley and Arturo Ordonez