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Hounds Notebook: Reloaded (with former Hounds) Birmingham will provide stern road opening test

Ahead of the season opener, Bob Lilley and Riverhounds SC players were upbeat after Saturday’s final test, an unresounding 0-0 draw vs defending Eastern Conference champions, Louisville City FC.

This Saturday, the competition matters, when they kick the season off in Birmingham (7:30 p.m. – ESPN+), against a veteran-laden team eager to get some retribution after the Hounds eliminated them from the playoffs a season ago.  

The Hounds have been training all week at Montour Junction, and will travel on Friday.

As far as the eye test and who stepped foot on the field in the preseason finale, the club appears to be healthy and ready to go.

The one player who was held out from a few preseason contests, forward Albert Dikwa, put forth 68 minutes in Saturday’s scrimmage against the defending Eastern Conference champions.  In fact, every field player on the roster (plus one non-roster invitee) took part in the preseason match.  

“It’s a good, young team. We have enough experience and leadership in the group,” Head Coach Bob Lilley said after the preseason match in which his squad settled for more long passes in the early going, but started to look good in build-up play in the second half.

“Overall, I am pleased with where we are right now. In the second half, we saw what we want to be. If we passed it better today (throughout the match), we could have had a few more chances.”

On the Road Again

Taking a look back over the years, the Hounds have started many seasons on the road.  In fact, in the Bob Lilley era, the Hounds have begun every season with a road match. 

In the Highmark Stadium era (since 2013), the Hounds only opened the season three times at home, in a stretch from 2015 to 2017 (posting a 1-1-1 record in those openers).  Weather in Pittsburgh in March can be unpredictable, it makes sense for the Hounds to often petion the league to keep them away from home in the early part of each season.  That will certainly be the case this season, as they’ll play six of their first eight league matches away from home in March and early April.

Since the stretch from 2015-17, each Riverhounds season has started on the road.  Here’s a look at how they fared.

Bob Lilley Era Season Openers

Season openers under Lilley don’t always tell how the season will go.

If you recall, last year’s team, with lots of experience on the roster, looked like world-beaters in the opener at Memphis, in a 3-0 victory. That was a team that saw veteran production drop off quite a bit as the season evolved (namely Dane Kelly and Alex Dixon).

In addition, they had bad losses at Tampa Bay in 2019 and 2021 but bounced back strongly, redeeming those losses by defeating Tampa later in the season.  In 2019, the Hounds finished at the top of the table by season’s end.

The fascinating one to look at is the 2018 trip to Nashville.  That match set the tone for the Hounds defensive prowess in the early part of that season, as they would not surrender a goal until a mid-April trip to Cincinnati.

Anticipating the Starting Lineup  

Typically, Head Coach Bob Lilley will put out a starting lineup in the final preseason match that will closely align with the one that he chooses for the season opener, but not always.

Last season, 10 of the 11 players in the starting lineup in the final preseason match (vs WVU), started in the season opener at Memphis.

All field players who started against Louisville City stayed on the field for at least 68 minutes, with two players who stayed on for the full 90-plus minutes: second-year center back Arturo Ordonez and veteran midfielder Junior Etou.

Here’s how the Hounds lined up, and as mentioned above, all field players signed to the roster made it on to the Highmark Stadium pitch.

Bob Lilley will always put in a line-up that will have tweaks and tactical adjustments for each opponent.

While the Hounds did play a lot of three center back or five in the back in 2022, when they faced Birmingham, they did use a 4-2-3-1 formation in each match, including the playoff classic.

Sizing Up The Instant Classic Playoff Rematch against Reloaded Birmingham

Not much separated the two teams a season ago.

The Hounds took the first meeting in May, 1-0, then the Three Sparks returned the favor, with a 2-1 victory that helped push them ahead of Pittsburgh in the standings, where they would finish in fourth place, slightly ahead of the Hounds.

This forced the Hounds to travel to Birmingham for the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal match which turned out to be an instant classic, thanks to the heroics of Edward Kizza and Jahmali Waite.  Kizza scored in stoppage time to send the match to extra time, then scored again in extra time to level the match for the second time.

Kizza capped a marathon penalty kick shootout by burying the clinching kick in the 10th round to lift the Hounds to its first playoff victory since 2019.

Waite stood on his head to make enough dazzling saves in the shootout and in the second half to keep the Hounds alive.

Young Hounds come through in epic playoff win

With many contributions coming from its young core of players contributing to the playoff win, certainly had an influence on Lilley in how he was going to build his roster for the 2023 season.

Waite was brought back as the clear-cut starter in goal for 2023, and Kizza, a former star at Pitt who had been on loan from New England Revolution, was signed on to a contract with Pittsburgh.

While the Hounds opted to get younger this season, Birmingham went to work in the off season to bolster its already strong roster with some very familiar faces — by adding notable former Hounds – Tyler Pasher and Neco Brett.

USL Championship has grown to where most of the top teams have established veterans and mainstays.

Birmingham may be the perfect example of this.

Between 2022 returnees Enzo Martinez, Juan Agudelo and Prosper Kasim, new arrival Pasher (now 28) and the return of Brett (30) – still the club’s all-time goal scoring leader after his one-year spell in New Mexico – Legion FC is looking for its attack to power an assault .

Much like the Hounds have Kenardo Forbes as it’s lone long-time USL Championship veteran, the Legion boast venerable captain and an often Hounds killer Enzo Martinez, who, at age 33 had a fantastic season in 2022 with 15 goals and eight assists.

Ageless keeper Matt Van Oekel also returns.  Van Oekel 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 37 years of age.  In fact, only one player under the age of 25 made more than 10 appearances in 2022 (Edi Horvat).

The question will be for Birmingham, are they going to be too reliant on veterans who may be past the peak of their powers?  A 34-game season is a marathon, and it will be interesting to see how this roster filled with many older players will hold up.

In addition, the Hounds appear to be in good form in terms of being difficult to play and score upon.

While preseason results can be taken with a grain of salt, the Hounds still capped its final five matches in February and early March by only allowing one goal: a wonder strike from well outside the box from Pitt’s Filip Mirkovic.

The first regular season test though will be a tough one, as Birmingham has a roster full of explosive players.

Will Birmingham be able to get it’s attack clicking from the start on its large field at Protective Stadium, or will a well-organized Hounds unit be difficult to solve?

Either way, it’s a fascinating match-up and should be a great way for the new season to get started.

Look for much more content to come ahead of the Riverhounds season opener. 

Some of our additional content will include a special guest on Sounding Off on Soccer Podcast to help preview the 2023 Riverhounds and USL Championship, the PSN’s team and Pittsurgh soccer media 2023 season predictions, a special feature story and more to come the remainder of the week.

We are also looking forward to taking part in a conference call with USL Championship President Jake Edwards on Wednesday, and will have more from that as well.

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 Kenardo Forbes

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