The Riverhounds continue through the preseason as they’ve now reached week three, having dispatched of Penn State with a 3-0 victory at Highmark Stadium on Saturday.
As Punxatawny Phil saw his shadow a few weeks ago, it was only fitting that Hounds players will pretty much feel like they’re going through their daily motions in Groundhog Day fashion, as this week’s schedule is pretty much the same as last week.
The Hounds have been training each day this week, starting at 10 a.m., through Friday, then take on another college opponent, facing Akron on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Highmark Stadium.
It’s important for Head Coach Bob Lilley along with assistants Dan Visser and Jonathan Busch to keep the players on their toes. Truth be told, competition is fierce among the players in training for spots on the team and also among the rostered players for starting and big minutes once the season kicks off.
On Wednesday, the team wrapped up its training session with a three-quarter of the field 11v11 scrimmage, with good goal scoring chances created on both sides of the ball.
Another really nice weather day to catch @RiverhoundsSC training at Montour Junction.
Interviews with players and more to come on @pghsoccernow pic.twitter.com/NRTX0b32C9
— John Krysinsky (@JohnKrysinsky) February 15, 2023
One player who jumped back into the live action for the first time this week, was none other than the team’s captain and most decorated veteran, Kenardo Forbes, who acknowledged that it felt good to be back out there.
There have been two additions to the roster since last week, rookie goalkeeper Christian Garner and third-year USL Championship pro Pat Hogan.
These additions bring the Hounds roster up to 13 players signed, with nearly another 10 more players training and playing with the team as non-roster invitees this week.
While Bob Lilley would not flinch if he has to start the season with as low as 16, 17 players on the roster, as he’s willing to wait to get exactly what he’s looking with each player addition, more new signing announcements are coming.
Making His Marc in Central Midfield
With Danny Griffin moving on after three seasons in Pittsburgh, signing with Nashville SC’s MLSNext club, in Huntsville, the Hounds will enter 2023 without the presence of a player who logged the most minutes as a reliable box-to-box midfielder who was willing to do all the dirty work.
With the return of the 34-year old Forbes, along with Robbie Mertz, who will be playing in his first full season back in Pittsburgh since 2020, the Hounds have two proven veterans in the central midfield.
The third returning piece of the Hounds central midfield puzzle is Mertz’s former college teammate, Marc Ybarra, who comes back to Pittsburgh for his second season.
In his first season, Ybarra made 25 appearances, logging 696 minutes, and starting in nine of those matches. The former Michigan Wolverine, who admitted he’s never been outside of his home state of Michigan prior to last year, grew more and more comfortable as the 2022 season evolved.
“It was a ton of learning,” Ybarra said after training on Wednesday.
“For a lot of us that come right from college, we played a lot of minutes. But being ready to come off the bench or start games, whatever the team needs, was a big adjustment. Learning how to do both roles, was important.”
Ybarra played the final 14 minutes of the Hounds exhilarating playoff victory at Birmingham, and the last 39 minutes of the heartbreaking loss at Louisville, giving him plenty of experience in big moments.
“It was a lot of fun in those playoff games, to try to make a difference,” Ybarra said.
While he didn’t register a goal nor an assist in his first season, often times, he moved around in the central midfield, but often sat deep alongside Griffin or moved up into the attacking line.
It was in extra time, with the Hounds trailing BIrmingham, when Ybarra dribbled the ball deep into the attacking third, and delivered a key pass that led to an assist on Edward Kizza’s second goal.
HE DOES IT AGAIN. OMG 🤯🤯🤯#BHMvPIT | #USLPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/ribY3eNALS
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) October 24, 2022
“Every day in training we’re working three-v-two’s, four-v-three’s driving on players, getting around the edge. To execute it, in one of the most important moments in the playoffs, it was really exciting. Gratifying to be part of that moment on the field,” Ybarra shared.
“That’s something we work on the whole year. all the time, and it comes at the right moment.
As Ybarra prepares for the 2023 season, he’s eager to contribute where ever needed.
“When I was brought here, Bob (Lilley) said I could be used as an eight sometimes, or as a six sometimes. I’ve even been out as a winger,” Ybarra said.
“Here, tactics change all the time. I’m just trying to bring whatever I can to any of those. To be honest, anywhere in the center of the park. Any where in the center of the field is great by me.”
We have posted the complete interview with Ybarra, on Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s YouTube Channel.
Hounds Roster in Review
As mentioned in the top section, the Hounds’ official roster currently stands at 13 players.
- Goalkeepers: Jahmali Waite, Christian Garner
- Defenders: Arturo Ordóñez, Pat Hogan, Nate Dossantos, Luke Biasi, Joe Farrell
- Midfielders: Dani Rovira, Marc Ybarra, Robbie Mertz, Kenardo Forbes.
- Forwards: Albert Dikwa. Edward Kizza
Of this group, here’s a preliminary look at the current depth chart below.
While we could see Dikwa and Kizza both start on the top line on occasion, it’s probably unlikely as it’s probably more likely we’ll see them rotate starts in the long 34-game season.
The Hounds are clearly still looking to find some more dynamic wingers on the roster, with the need to replace the playmaking and ability to get behind the defensive lines are always important to Lilley’s attacking schemes. With Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon gone, this is an area that they need to fill.
With tactical flexiblity that Ybarra, Mertz and Forbes provide in the midfield, the Hounds could still benefit from having more depth in the middle. Lilley could very well continue to utilize all three in the attacking midfield roles. That also make it more imperative that seek the addition of a pure defensive stopper and box-to-box worker who can complement the rest of the group. Under Lilley, the Hounds had this with Mohammed Dabo in 2018 and 2019, then Danny Griffin from 2020-22.
Could it be Ybarra? Or will it be someone else?
Don’t completely discount Dani Rovira from contributing in the middle at times too. In his fifth year with Pittsburgh, Rovria is a versatile player who can slide into the central midfield, but also can be used as a winger or outside back.
The current group brings plenty of versatility, now they’ll just need to add to that.
Schedule Ramps Up Next Week
The Hounds will have a quick turnaround after playing Akron on Saturday, then they’ll travel for the second time this preseason, when they head out to Michigan to take on Detroit City FC, on Tuesday, February 21 at 2 p.m.
This will give the coaching staff ample opportunity to give the trialists a deeper look, while starting to blend in the roster players to build match fitness. Stepping up against another USL Championship opponent should also provide an even better measuring stick.
Remaining Riverhounds Preseason Schedule
- Saturday, February 18 vs Akron 4 p.m. Highmark Stadium
- Tuesday, February 21 at Detroit City FC 2 p.m.
- Saturday, February 25 vs Pitt 7:30 p.m. Highmark Stadium
- Saturday, March 4 vs Louisville City FC 2 p.m. Highmark Stadium
Look for more to come later in the week, as we’ll be profiling Kenardo Forbes, who also provided a fun interview session after training on Wednesday