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Analysis: Foundation of Riverhounds 2023 roster centers around a young core

Defender/winger Luke Biasi fends off a FC Cincinnati attacker in April 2022. Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

Another December has arrived for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Soccer Club with the club stripping down its roster from the past season, all ready to be built back up, piece-by-piece.

There’s some truth that things are moving along as business as usual for the Hounds and Head Coach Bob Lilley as they work through expected roster turnover from season-to-season that comes to be a way of life in second division soccer.

The start of this offseason has been a little bit different.

Last December, when the Riverhounds set out to rebuild its roster ahead of the 2022 season, exercised options for nine players. Among that group, included Kenardo Forbes, Alex Dixon, Russell Cicerone, Mekeil Williams, Jelani Peters and Todd Wharton.  Each of the players listed would be 27 years of age or older in 2022.

From the nine, Wharton and Ezra Armstrong, never made it to preseason camp in Pittsburgh, as Wharton announced his retirement, and Armstrong’s contract was bought out by St. Louis FC 2, an MLS Next club.

While most of the roster additions that came in the offseason and during the 2022 preseason were younger players who rounded out the team’s depth charts, the Hounds did make a big splash by signing Dane Kelly, the USL Championship’s all-time leading goal scorer, and later also added a former MLS veteran, Luis Argudo.

Fast forward to this December, the club announced last week the players who’s contract options they would pick up and sign back on for the 2023 season.

What a difference a year makes.

Of the seven players who had contract options exercised, not one is over 26 years of age.

This core group of returnees that the Hounds have already announced as returnees include Robbie Mertz, Albert Dikwa, Marc Ybarra, Arturo Ordonez, Nathan Dossantos, Luke Biasi and Jahmali Waite.

Hounds hold 2023 contract options for bulk of roster (Update: Russ Cicerone to move on)

Of the seven returning players, Mertz and Ordonez are the’elder statesmen’ of the group.  Mertz just turned 26 in December

Everyone else is 25 and under: Dikwa (24), Ybarra (24), Ordonez (25), Nathan Dossantos (23), Luke Biasi (23) and Jahmali Waite (24).

This week, three of those players, Ybarra, Mertz and Waite, joined the fan-based Mon Goals podcast.

 

Head Coach Bob Lilley, who has been doing this for more than 25 years, has settled into a bit of a groove since arriving in Pittsburgh.  With support from Team Owner Tuffy Shallenberger, the Hounds operate without a general manager, sporting director or technical director, as Lilley takes the lead in all first-team personnel decisions.

It’s an interesting set-up, as many clubs throughout the USL Championship have been working with various organization charts in terms of who has final say in personnel decisions and with the on-field management of the team.

Quite frankly, it’s hard to argue with the team’s success over the past five seasons under Lilley, as they’ve reached the playoffs every year and never finished lower than sixth overall in the Eastern Confernence.

The Hounds completed one regular season with a top of the table finish.  The postseason has been less than kind to the Hounds though, as Lilley has won two playoff matches in his reign, including a road penalty kick shootout win vs BIrmingham in October.

Lilley will need to fill in the rest of the 2023 roster between now, and through the preseason which is expected to kick off in early February.

Club officials shared that the team will likely be making announcements as soon as this week on additional player signings for the 2023 roster.

The first wave of signings will likely come from two areas. The players who were out of contract, but the Hounds will work new deals for their return for another season in Pittsburgh and some young, recent college prospects who are on the fringe of the MLS SuperDraft pool and won’t be selected in this week’s draft.

The player pool from the SuperDraft eligibility selection list is much longer than the number of spots and selections that MLS teams.  Don’t underestimate the continuing unofficial pipeline that the Hounds have built with Pitt’s men’s soccer program either, as another eight players from Pitt are eligible for Wednesday’s draft.  It’s likely that most of them will not get drafted, and will be among the pool of players the Hounds may be looking at closely.

Lilley was out of town late last week scouting, and is also expected to continue to host Open Tryout sessions either at Highmark Stadium and/or the Montour Junction Complex.  (We look forward to sharing a lot more in my annual offseason sit-down with Coach Lilley in the coming weeks) 

Of the players the Hounds held contract options for in 2023, but chose not to bring back included: Kevin Silva, Toby Sims, Luis Argudo, Kelly, Jesse Williams, Angelo Kelly-Rosales, Wiliam Eyang.

The players on the last season’s roster who were out of contract and the Hounds didn’t hold contract options included Mekeil Williams, Alex Dixon, Jelani Peters, Shane Wiedt, Dani Rovira, Russell Cicerone, Danny Griffin and Kenardo Forbes.  Wyatt Borso (Hounds Academy player who saw time with the first team in 2022, is now at Notre Dame) and Edward Kizza (who was on loan from New England Revolution) are also two additional players who were on the roster.

Based on recent history, in an effort to maintain continuity, Lilley has made it known to Pittsburgh Soccer Now following his team’s season ending loss in early November, that they are hoping to re-sign some returning players who had contracts expire.

Of the group that had contracts expire, included two of the most productive attacking pieces for the Hounds from 2021 and 2022: Cicerone and Dixon.

This duo contributed over 40 goals and 20 assists in the last two seasons.

The bad news for Pittsburgh soccer fans is that they have each signed new deals with other USL Championship clubs.

While Pittsburgh fans may be upset about these departures, and that’s completely understandable, both came as little surprise.

It’s hard to ignore Dixon’s drop in production after the end of July, as he failed to register a goal or an assist in his final 13 matches of 2022.

After a nine goal, nine assist 2021 campaign, in which certainly made a case to be considered the team’s MVP and to  earn All-League honors, his final numbers in 2022 included a drop-off to four goals and seven assists, most coming in the first half of the season.

Cicerone was an attacking midfielder/winger who fit Bob Lilley’s system so well the past two seasons in Pittsburgh.

His consistent presence and production (30 goals) to go with a persistent work rate, allowed him to thrive and have career seasons with the Hounds.  With Cicerone and Dixon, and with Albert Dikwa emerging as the center man at the top, the Hounds created more chances than we’ve ever seen in the Lilley era, as they really focused and relied on a strong central midfield to dictate tempo, and when clicking well, could use various options from using the width or central build-up play to get behind defenders in the final third.

Cicerone was the recipient of many goals, and Dixon was the team’s main facilitator on the width.

With Dikwa coming back to the fold, Lilley will have to do this thing, and find the next Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon to step in to fill those roles.

The Hounds will be scouring the free agent market, as there are a lot of quality players that will be out there.

Last season, they took a few chances, in bringing on Kelly and Argudo.

There’s no doubt along with a young core, Lilley is also looking to add some veterans to the mix who will be a good fit for his system and will be attracted to coming to play in an enviroment where he’s built a winning culture.

But first, the Hounds are likely to announce the return of some of players who ended the 2022 season with expiring contracts.

At 34 years of age, Forbes had another solid campaign in Pittsburgh, earning All-USL Championship Second Team honors and ended up top five in minutes played on the club in 2022. It would seem a certainty that with his long-established relationship with Lilley (they’ve been together since 2014, when they were in Rochester), that he’ll sign on with the Hounds for another go-around.

After all, when it’s all said and done, Forbes could make a case to go down as the most enduring and arguably the best player in club history.

Takeaways & Player Grades: Kenardo Forbes adds to his impressive Hounds’ legacy

Griffin signed a one-year deal with Pittsburgh for 2022 without the club holding his contract option.  Griffin, who was selected in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft by Columbus, did have a chance in early 2022, to spend some time at MLS preseason camp, but did eventually make his way back to Pittsburgh. Griffin has been an indispensable part of the Hounds roster for the past three seasons, breaking the club record for minutes and games played in 2022.

Lilley has made it clear in the past that he will always look out for each player and their best interests.

If the Hounds lose Griffin, and with Angelo Kelly-Rosales not coming back, they’ll need to be in a market for another number six, though they are bringing back Marc Ybarra for another season.

The two most likely players that the Hounds will likely re-sign to new deals will be Dani Rovira, who has already played four seasons in Pittsburgh, and Shane Wiedt.  Rovira provides Lilley with tactical flexibility, and Wiedt is the youngest of the center back group from 2021-22.

The offseason signing period will kick off and last from now through early February. LIlley will be hoping to have a core group of somewhere between 16-18 players signed before preseason camp opens, but if he’s not entirely satisfied and needs to see more, he’ll use preseason to bring players on trial, when the final spots to the roster will be added.

While there will certainly be some veteran additions, it’s clear that the Hounds will have a younger nucleus in the coming season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).

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