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Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Takeaways & Player Grades: Hounds find second half equalizer to open season with draw at Birmingham

Photo courtesy Birmingham Legion FC

Final: Pittsburgh Riverhounds 1, Birmingham Legion FC  1

Match Stats: USL Championship Match Center

No deficit is too daunting for the Riverhounds SC when they’re playing in Birmingham.

On Saturday night, in a rematch of last season’s classic playoff encounter, much like they did last October the Hounds never panicked and battled back.

This time around, Pittsburgh settled for a 1-1 draw against Birmingham Legion FC in the season opening match for both clubs at Protective Stadium.

Head Coach Bob Lilley’s squad stuck with their game plan, which by-and-large meant they were going to use their strong midfield core to control possession, and with a starting lineup that included two new starters, and a sub rotation of five new additions, they showed glimpses that they can dictate terms and defend well against a potent and experienced team.

Overall, it was a decent start to the season for the Riverhounds SC, and a match result they can certainly build upon.

Formation, Tactics & Personnel

The Hounds started the match in a 4-2-3-1, which evolved at times into 5-3-1-1 (or 5-3-2). Their primary focus on the big field in Birmingham was to keep the ball, use the width and limit Birmingham’s potentially explosive attack.

Always mixing things up and moving personnel to fit his game plan, Bob Lilley used his captain, midfielder Kenardo Forbes in the first half and early stretches of the second half in a deeper position, especially when the Hounds were building possession out of the back.

Newcomer Junior Etou was also deeper in the central midfield, while Robbie Mertz and Marc Ybarra were flanked out wide right and left.

The Hounds opted to go with a four-man back line to start the match, as Arturo Ordonez and Pat Hogan paired up as center backs, while Nate Dossantos and Dani Rovira were the outside backs.

Although it was announced that he was initially called up to the Jamaican National Team earlier in the week, goalkeeper Jahmali Waite was with the club, and got the start in goal.

Lilley went to his bench, using all of his five allotted substitutions, bridnging on Tony Lopez (54′), Tola Showunmi, Luke Biasi and Joe Farrell (78′), and Burke Fahling (86′).

Match Takeaways

Possession Matters

The Hounds held the possession edge throughout the match (ended up with 54/48 advantage), as they stayed committed to building up play out of the back, playing through the middle and wide channels – essentially what ever Birmingham was giving them.

What was more important about this, was that once again, on this big field, the Hounds were effectively able to offset Birmingham’s efforts to punish and press by bringing Kenardo Forbes all the way back to help get many possessions restarted.

Kenny was basically doing his version of CP3 (Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul). What the heck, just call him KF11.

As Bob Lilley said after the Louisville preseason match, Kenny is so calm on the ball, that he commands respect from his opponents and constant movement off the ball from his teammates.  It was a methodical approach, and at times, they slowed the pace of the game down, but that appears what they wanted in the early and middle stages of the match.

The problem the Hounds ran into in the first half, when they generated zero shots on frame, was its inability to be creative and connect final passes in the last third.  They also didn’t use the width enough in the first half either.

Some of the passes that led to turnovers did spark Birmingham to push for counter chances, which did put the Hounds midfield and back line on its heels a few times.

Set Piece Hiccup

While the Hounds were keeping the ball and building possession through the middle competently, they did concede eight fouls in a first half that got started to get more physical. In the run of play, while there were times defenders were scrambling to keep their shape, they covered well and recovered when needed for the most part on the evening.

Birmingham would take advantage of one of its three corner kicks to break through for the game’s first goal.

Jacob Rufe curled a corner kick inward toward the near post. Birmingham’s big man, 6-foot-5 center back Alex Crognale was first to the ball, redirecting a darting header across the face of goal and into the right side of the net.

Looking back at the Hounds defending on the set piece, it was Albert Dikwa who initially picked up Crognale. Both defenders Pat Hogan and Arturo Ordonez were positioned by near post, and did converge on the spot where Crognale jumped to connect with the ball, but neither defender, including the 6-foot-4 Hogan, could react quick enough or jump high enough to deny or disrupt Crognale.

Crognale was the biggest player on the field for the Legion, and is clearly a weapon that they can use on set pieces.

Birmingham were the better team in the first half, creating more dangerous opportunities and deserved the lead going into the half.

Working Both Sides of the Field

Once the second half started, the Hounds were trailing 1-0, and needed to step up the pressure in the final third. Despite advantages in possession, they generated one shot in the first half.

In the preseason, one of the things they worked on a lot was attempt diagonal balls designed to catch back line defenders napping on the weak side.  This is something that has not been too common with Lilley’s Riverhounds teams of the previous five seasons. Sure, they’ll look to counter, and if a long ball opportunity is there, they’ll occasionally go over the top. Lilley does not like to slow things down, so if they’re playing side-to-side quickly and switching the field of play, it has to be precise and in a way that’s always moving forward.

Because the Hounds were effective in possession, it allowed them to pull Birmingham’s defenders to stay compact. that in the second half, some of the wide channels started to open up a bit more.

And that’s what happened in the 71st minute, when Arturo Ordonez took a few touches forward into the middle of the field. Having watched Ordonez for a number of years, both at Pitt, and with the Riverhounds now, sometimes he’ll come racing out of the back with the ball like a blaze of glory, and run too far ahead with the ball. But in this case, Ordonez relied on his crafty skills and vision to send a bending ball that curled over the last Birmingham defender, and found the feet of Robbie Mertz.

From there, Mertz had the time and space he needed getting in behind the defenders and into the box on the left side.  The fifth year pro from Upper Saint Clair delivered a deft finish across the goal box that was well-placed inside the right side of goal.

This was a resourceful goal that came as the team’s head coach spent much of the preseason preaching the importance of patience and making timely runs.

With patience and a timely run, the Hounds leveled the match.

Welcome to the Pros Kid

The Hounds grew into the match in the second 45 minutes, especially in the final 25, they started to generate more chances, delivering a few more crosses (they held a 17-6 advantage) and ended up with eight shots (three on frame).

Two of those came after the Mertz goal when Lopez broke free into the top of the box, where he sent a shot that forced a stand-up Matt VanOekel save, but the ball bounced back to the right side of the edge of the goal box.

The loose ball was ripe for the picking for newcomer Tola Showunmi, who broke to the ball then quickly tried to slot it through inside the right post, but remarkably, the 36-year-old VanOekel was there to deny the youngster in his pro debut on his first touch.

The Hounds substitutes added energy but more importantly, showed that this team is capable of going to a higher gear as needed.  Trailing 1-0, they brought on Lopez first, for Kizza, as Lopez seemed more effective in dribbling into space to draw defenders.  That began to open things up a bit more for the Hounds.  Showunmi, along with Luke Biasi and Blake Fahling (late for Mertz) – were all able options off the bench who pushed the tempo in the late stages to keep Birmingham on its heels.

Player Grades


Jahmali Waite – 7 – nothing he could do on the Birmingham goal. Had a terrific save to deny Dwengo’s


Pat Hogan – 5 – Paired up with Ordonez, he was fine on the night in his first start with Pittsburgh after two seasons with Charleston.  On the goal, he started in a zonal position at near post, and went up with Crognale, but couldn’t deny the header.

Arturo Ordonez – 7 – great way to start the season, showing he can deliver a deft diagonal ball from the right central side, over to the left, for the assist on Mertz’s goal. Otherwise another solid night at the office for the second year defender who has a high ceiling with this club.  Question on the goal, was could he have done more to help disrupt Crognale?

Nate Dossantos – 6 – his two way play is solid, if not spectacular on the left side. His three crosses were all unsuccessful, but he was putting them in good places.  Solid passing (87%) and won three of six duels.

Dani Rovira – 6.5 – in year five with the Hounds, was solid defending, as he had to be, when marking Tyler Pasher a lot on the night and limiting the pacy former Hounds/MLS contributor. Had four tackles, a clearance and a blocked shot.  Contributed three cross attempts and had a team-high four tackles.

Joe Farrell (78’) – N/R – the veteran made his first appearance for Pittsburgh as he came on for Hogan as a late sub.

Luke Biasi (78′) – N/R – moved into the left side, giving Dossantos, who is still on the mend from last year’s knee injury, the rest of the night off.


Robbie Mertz – 8.5 – Showing his ability to do good things as a wide attacking midfielder, Mertz was the team’s most accurate passer on the night, won his duels and most importantly delivered when it mattered most, taking Ordonez’s ball with a soft first touch while making a well-timed run behind the last defender on his side to get in position to deliver a quality finish.

Kenardo Forbes – 7 – As the case for the past nine years playing under Lilley, Kenardo will be put in a position where he can impact the game the most.  On this night, he really helped the Hounds as their point guard, who aptly helped navigate in playing the ball out of the back.  Created two chances, with one successful cross. Team high 63 passes at an 84% accuracy rate.

Marc Ybarra – 4 – It’s evident at times that the second year pro has developed some chemistry with his fellow midfielders, and did well defensively in keeping shape on his side. However, his struggles came in connecting passes (61% passing accuracy) and in his duels (won 1 of 7).  In second half, when Forbes moved up more into the attack, Ybarra dropped a little deeper and more central, appearing more comfortable there.

Junior Etou – 7 – showed his capabilities and skill in covering a lot of ground and rotating to fill in the gaps in the middle of the pitch. This is not easy for a new player to come to a team with other midfielders who are going to be used so fluidly and cover everything on the back end.  At times in this match, he showed his ability to close down space and win balls back. He should fit in very well as the season evolves in the Hounds grand scheme.


Edward Kizza – 5 – another second year player we’re expecting big things from, had his ups and downs in his first start this season. To his credit, he covered a lot of ground, but only 16 passes, no shots, conceded a foul, 2 of 8 in duels.

Albert Dikwa – 5.5 – work rate is never going to be questioned, but Birmingham’s back line were up to the task in limiting his chances on the ball.  Won 3 of 5 duels  and created one chance.

Tony Lopez (54’) – 6.5 – after Lopez came on, the Hounds added more energy level lifted a bit as they started to look to transition and look to do more on the counter. Won 2 of 5 duels, had 16 passes and that one shot on frame. Quirky observation, with Mertz, Odonez and Lopez, the Hounds may lead the league in number of players with z-ending surnames.

Tola Showunmi (80’) – N/R – in first pro appearance, on his first touch, he had a golden chance to give the Hounds the lead on the right post side, but veteran goalkeeper Matt VanOekel recovered quickly to deny the Hounds.

What’s next?

The Hounds will hit the road for a second straight week when they visit Memphis 901 FC on Saturday, March 18, for a 5 p.m. kickoff at AutoZone Park. Memphis dropped their opening match of the season at home earlier today, a 3-1 loss against Loudoun United FC.  Former Riverhounds forward Tommy Williamson scored the opening goal for Loudoun.

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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