It’s not very common to see a player have a career in second or third division soccer leagues for a decade or more.
If you look around hard enough, you’ll find that it just doesn’t happen.
The longest tenured player in the history of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC organization is Saint Lucian international David Flavius who currently holds the club records for most appearances and goals which he set over his eight seasons between 1999 and 2006. Beyond that, there’s only Kevin Kerr, who played seven seasons in Pittsburgh (from 2013-19), and then a few others who played five seasons.
There are even fewer who play for the same coach during that long of a span.
The lone player who is the rare exception is the USL Championship’s all-time assists leader and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC current captain, Kenardo Forbes.
Not only has Forbes, now 34 years of age, played in the league for nearly a decade, but he’s also played under the same coach during his professional soccer career in United States, serving as the loyal lieutenant to current Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley.
When Pittsburgh Soccer Now contributors came together in early February to select the top players who played for the Riverhounds during the Highmark Stadium era on a recent episode of ‘Sounding Off on Soccer’ podcast, Forbes was the consensus number one pick.
When he heard this, Forbes shyly smiled, but redirected his praise, sharing how much it’s meant to him to be able to play this long at this level and for the same coach.
“It’s meant a lot to me, to be here, and to be playing with Bob for so long,” Forbes said after a preseason training session at sparkling new AHN Montour Juction Soccer Complex in Coraopolis.
“It was a no-brainer to sign again (for another season with the Riverhounds in 2023). Obviously I am getting older. But knowing the system, it’s much easier for an older guy, knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it.”
At the start of this season, which kicks off on Saturday night in Birmingham, the Lilley-Forbes duo will enter their ninth season together, and their sixth in Pittsburgh.
The 2023 season will also mark another longevity milestone for Forbes’ as it will be his 18th as a professional.
As a young player, Forbes got his start in the pro ranks playing in his home country’s Jamaican National Premier League. He began his professional career in 2006 as a teen with Naggo Head FC, then a part of the Jamaican National Premier League.
He then moved back to his hometown to play for Waterhouse FC from 2007-11 (four seasons) and again in 2014. Forbes captained Waterhouse for a spell and appeared in three matches during the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League Group Stage.
It was during that time, when he had his one taste of playing with his National Team, as the Kingston, Jamaica native earned three caps for the Jamaican National Team, debuting with the Reggae Boyz in 2010.
Soon thereafter, Forbes started making winter escapades to the most unlikely of locations for a Jamaican: Upstate New York.
That’s when he began using his ability to slice passes and send shots into the narrowest of spaces by excelling with the Syracuse Silver Knights of the Major Arena Soccer League from 2011-18.
Eventually, Forbes caught Lilley’s attention, and the veteran coach signed him on to play for the Rochester Rhinos in 2015.
During his seasons playing in Rochester, Forbes stayed sharp as he continued playing indoors with the Silver Knights. It was a unique arrangement, and a sign of the times. Now, that has become a rarity, as players under contract with USL Championship clubs are more committed year-round to the club they are under contract.
In total, Forbes spent seven seasons mastering the indoor game with the Silver Knights. He finished his indoor career as the club’s all-time leading scorer and was named the Silver Knights’ MVP for the 2016-17 season, when he led the team with 42 points.
In his first season in Rochester, even as Forbes began to build his bond with Lilley, though, like everyone else found it to be tough to play for the ultra-successful coach, who had previously won a pro title in Vancouver and multiple Voyageur Cups in Canada leading the Montreal Impact.
Winning a championship together and being part of one of the greatest seasons in North American soccer history took care of any reservations Forbes had about Lilley.
The 2015 Rochester Rhinos were almost impossible to score against, and with Forbes working his magic in the middle of the field, they also found a way to always dictate tempo and terms of each match they played.
What Lilley found in Forbes, was a player who had the ability to set the tempo of his team’s play.
The long-time coach often spends lots of time breaking down game film while trying to get his players to execute a game plan from his vision.
With Forbes, Lilley found that a player not only understand that vision, but can take it onto the pitch to help control the flow of the match.
“Kenny’s so calm on the ball.” Lilley said recently.
“He sees the game as good as any player I’ve ever coached.”
That season Rochester surrendered only 15 goals, losing only once in the regular season.
They lifted the USL Cup that October.
“I never thought I would play with him (Lilley) that long, but going through that, we won it all,” Forbes said.
How good was that team?
They posted a 20-1-10 record, 15-0-2 at home, where they outscored foes 28-7, had 17 shutouts and aforementioned, just 15 goals allowed set new-USL era records. Overall with the playoffs, it was 19 shutouts and only 16 goals allowed with a 45-16 goal-differential, plus 29, the number that Lilley often has said he’s most proud.
“So that made the relationship so much better. We understand each other. He knows what to expect from me.”
It’s been no secret that Lilley has been a demanding coach, but Forbes believes he’s become a better player under Lilley’s guidance.
“Having a coach like him, that’s going to push me and all of the players, each and every season,” Forbes states.
“That’s a good thing.”
In terms of the leadership pairing, Forbes is the Ying to Lilley’s Yang.
Forbes, in-turn, is consistently methodical, cool and business-like when he sets foot on the pitch.
“It’s not so much what he says, but what he does,” Marc Ybarra, second year midfielder, said in describing his captain and veteran teammate.
Fellow midfielder Robbie Mertz points out that Forbes has everyone’s attention, and doesn’t have to be the most vocal leader on the pitch.
“There’s an understanding. When he does say something, it has meaning,” Mertz explained Forbes’ ability to connect with his teammates.
“He picks his moments. He has a presence on the field.”
Sometimes Forbes’ nonchalant persona could be misleading.
“When I first started training with him as a rookie, I was not sold right away,” Mertz admitted.
“But when you see quality come through, time and time again, and obviously he knows the system so well. He’s always in the right spot. You want to follow him.”
Forbes’ easy going and charming personality had endeared him with his teammates both on and off the field.
“He’s a great friend, who’s become one of my favorite people,” Mertz, who has now played with Forbes for the better part of four-plus years.
“I had him at my wedding in December. It’s just a testament to the way that he’s been a mentor, a great leader and teammate for me personally.”
On the field, Forbes has made a lot of friends, as he is the most decorated facilitator in league history, thriving in making his teammates better. The numbers allude to the fact that Forbes has been a team-first player, as he’s become the USL Championship’s all-time assists leader.
When it comes to scoring goals, Forbes has picked his spots. In his three seasons in Rochester, he scored three goals each season. Then in his first two campaigns with the Riverhounds, in 2018 and 2019, he scored four times each of those seasons.
It’s rare that Forbes would come on as a sub, but he made some magic happen when coming on late to defeat Indy Eleven in the 2019 Open Cup.
Kenardo Forbes puts the @RiverhoundsSC up 1-0 late in the 2nd half!💥
PIT 1-0 | #USOC2019 pic.twitter.com/ZMlerTrGjQ
— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) May 30, 2019
That same year, he provided the fireworks to lift the Hounds over Bethlehem Steel FC on the Fourth of July.
Kenardo Forbes with a Laser Beam strike 1-0 @Riverhounds over Bethlehem Steel. Second half pic.twitter.com/gqUIYMRLcF
— Bob Pompeani (@KDPomp) July 5, 2019
After a relatively quiet season in 2020, when he went without a goal, but still had seven assists, despite missing a chunk of the already shortened season due to an injury, Forbes started to transition into becoming more of an impact player higher up in the attack.
Seeing that Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon were emerging as the team’s most dangerous players in 2021, and with Danny Griffin holding down deeper midfield duties, Lilley unleashed Forbes higher up into the formation to allow him to link up even more with these talented attackers who were already flourishing.
“That’s the thing with Bob. You never know where you’re going to be at the start of the week,” Forbes cited when they’re game-planning for an opponent.
“This week, Bob might say, Kenny I need you on the left wing, or I need you in the number 10, or to strike. As a player, you just have to adapt. It’s about familiarity. It’s about guys that know the system.”
After going through the entire first half of the 2021 season without a goal, Forbes finally got his first goal in August. By season’s end, in taking a more aggressive approach, Forbes scored a career high five goals in 2021.
At the start of 2022, Forbes continued to play higher up in the formation, but would contribute with his most productive season, at age 33, in the assists department, dishing out a career high 10 for the season.
“If there is a piece that’s been important all these years, it’s been Kenardo,” Lilley said once after Forbes started on a hot assists streak in 2020.
“Kenny is one of the best players in the league. Kenny continues to be a major asset to this organization on and off the the field. His consistency of performance since his arrival to the USL Championship is unmatched, and his positive impact on all those around him make him a very important part of our club.”
Kenardo Forbes: USL Championship Career By the Numbers:
226 appearances (201 starts), 18,811 minutes played, 25 Goals, 55 assists (*USLC all-time leader)
Since joining the Hounds before the 2018 season, he has accumulated a record 44 assists in all competitions and has appeared in 155 matches, the fourth-most in team history.
Turning his attention to the 2023 season, Forbes, who will turn 35 in April, wants this group, with many players 10 years or younger then him, to remain focused throughout the long season.
One of the biggest frustrations he had from last season was inconsistent and underachieving play during stretches of the regular season, which cost the Hounds a chance to host a home playoff match.
“Each and every week, and each and every game, we have to do a better job of sticking to the game plan. Go, give our best. Last year, we had our longest streak at one point without winning a game,” Forbes noted, and as kept talking the more he pounded his palm to make his point.
The Hounds have made the playoffs every season since Lilley and Forbes have arrived, but they have not hosted a home postseason match since 2019.
“We’ve always had this rule. We never lose two in a row. As soon as you lose again, you have to respond. That’s the mentality this season, never lose two in a row. It’s not going to be easy. But, we have to have the mentality. We have to have a high standard.”
Mertz recognized that Forbes is a great conduit to ensure that young players new to the league, and even veterans new to the Hounds understand the culture that has been built under the leadership tandem of Lilley from the sidelines, and Forbes on the field.
“He just understands how things work,” Mertz added.
“That’s such an important element to the team. He’s not always going to be a guy that’s most vocal, but he certainly leads by example and he shows up in the big moments. I can’t say enough about him.”
When Coach Lilley and his staff brought in aspiring players during open tryout sessions in January, Forbes was right there to assist and add his two cents.
When the Hounds began the preseason in the first couple weeks Forbes was relegated to the sidelines and was only doing light training. That didn’t stop him from getting involved in each intense training session and when he traveled to Ohio for a closed-door friendly against Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, Forbes was there, on the sidelines giving direction, almost serving as an unofficial player-coach.
“That’s kind of where I think he’s headed,” Mertz admitted.
“He has the rapport with both sides of the coach-player relationship. I think it would be seamless for him. Everyone respects him. It’s going to be a good place for him.”
By the end of the preseason, Forbes was back on the field, and starting in the final tune-up to the regular season.
There’s little doubt that Kenardo Forbes is ready lace up his boots to keep building upon his impressive playing career as more assists and big moments are still in store.
He wouldn’t want it any other way, and is happy to keep doing it in Pittsburgh.
“It’s a privilege to play for this organization. It’s a good organization. I just want to win a Championship here. We just have to be our best in October. We need a home (playoff) game. That’s our goal this year. To get a home playoff game, and we’ll take it from there.”
Riverhounds MF Robbie Mertz talks about his friend and teammate, Kenardo Forbes
Interview with Kenardo Forbes (February 2023)