On Friday night, the Riverhounds SC were pushed, tugged, tripped, battered and hobbled at times in its first meeting of the season against The Miami FC in their home opening match of the 2023 campaign at Highmark Stadium.
When the smoke cleared, and the lights went out for the planned laser show, and the team headed back to the locker room after a brief chat with Head Coach Bob Lilley, they probably knew collectively that they found a way to get a result and survive a stern challenge, even when they weren’t at their best.
The match ended in a 1-1 draw, thanks in large part to the Hounds’ squad rotation of substitutions who came off the bench to push back an opponent that did a lot to frustrate the Hounds for much of the first half and into the early portions of the second half.
Burke Fahling’s strike was the payoff — and the Hounds nearly walked away with the win too — as Joe Farrell nearly connected at the start of stoppage time.
Match Report: In ‘A Battle of Attrition’ Hounds salvage draw on Fahling’s wonder strike
“I’m proud of the guys for responding,” Lilley said after the match.
“This was a game that didn’t go our way, especially in the first half. If we don’t keep our concentration it probably ends up 2-0 or 3-0. We asked the guys to do a lot of different things off the fly tonight. There was a lot going on in that second half, they responded and we won the second half. It’ll be a quick turnaround to go out to Tulsa on Tuesday. Sunday and Monday we will train. I will expect some rotation and changes in the lineup for the next game. Tulsa is home tomorrow and Tuesday. We’ll test our depth next game and try to get three points.”
The Hounds (1-0-2, 5 points) showed resiliency on Friday night against Miami (0-1-2, 2 points) and still are without a loss early in the season with numerous new players still working into their roles with the squad. It’s fair to say that thanks to defensive lapses in the first half of both Birmingham and Miami matches, they could be sitting in better position after three game.
Before we turn the page, and look at the Tulsa match-up in the coming days, and despite my power being out for nearly 14 hours Saturday/Sunday — I’ve still carved out a little bit of time to push on to get this Takeaways/Player Grades piece completed from this match with Miami.
Hounds Formation, Tactics, Personnel
Once again, Pittsburgh started in a 4-2-3-1, as they did in their two previous matches this season.
They also lined up with the same 10 field players. Bob Lilley said after the match that he was inclined to start the season with as many seasoned players in the line-up as much as possible. With the exception of having Joe Farrell coming off the bench, that is clearly what he’s had in mind with his starting selections early in the season.
The one exception to the starting lineup was seeing Christian Garner get his first start with the Hounds, largely because Jahmali Waite is off on International Duty with Jamaican National Team. (Waite and Jamaica will face Mexico on Sunday at Azetca Stadium in Mexico City)
As I said in the post match reaction show to Jordan Smith, the first place I am looking when I see the Hounds take the field, and the ball is kicked off, is where is Kenardo Forbes in the first five to 10 minutes of the match. On Friday, Forbes drifted to the right side, in the attacking midfield line, with Robbie Mertz on the left side. We didn’t ask Bob Lilley this after the match, but after thinking about how things played out, but keeping the 34 year-old midfielder on the width to be a play maker and create chances, and away from a lot of the physicality of Miami’s resistance in the middle, leaving Edward Kizza (in higher line) along with Marc Ybarra and Junior Etou to do a lot of the dirty work in the middle.
When the Hounds started making substitutions, once again, with the need to keep legs fresh for a short turnaround, but also need to bring some more energy and physicality into their push for an equalizer, Lilley didn’t hold back from using all five substitution allocations, taking Forbes, Dossantos and Kizza out of the match in the 66th minute, for Fahling, Tony Lopez and Tola Showunmi, then taking out Rovira and Etou, for Farrell and Langston Blackstock. It was the professional debut for Blackstock, who is a forward, but Lilley pointed out that he wanted someone to provide service from the width, and had a lot of faith in Blackstock to add that element to their late push.
Physical Match Right Out of the Gates
While the Hounds were pretty efficient at keeping the ball and building up possession, primarily around the edges, Miami was very direct and very physical right out of the gate.
The Hounds were frustrated, as most 50/50 balls, the calls weren’t going their way. Albert Dikwa and Arturo Ordonez picked up yellow cards in the 11th and 27th minutes. Defensively, the Hounds’ shape was pretty solid through most of the night.
Miami took three shots on the night. Three!
The visitors were doing everything to deny Pittsburgh an opportunity to play through the middle, with 13 interceptions and 35 clearances.
Yet, when they had their once chance to penetrate and scrap their way to a shot on target, they made the most of it.
In Kyle Murphy’s goal scoring sequence in the 23rd minute, he Hounds got pushed around and made a few defensive errors, which Lilley was happy to point out after the match. Murphy bulldozed his way toward goal, after his first shot was saved by Garner, he stayed with the play, and put the rebound back into goal to give the visitors the 1-0 lead.
The visitors from the 305 go in front! 🌴
Kyle Murphy followed up his shot from close range to bag his first goal of the season!#PITvMIA | @TheMiamiFC pic.twitter.com/C9tw2wuOCK
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) March 24, 2023
“We didn’t deal with the first ball,” Lilley explained on a goal he felt was preventable.
“We made multiple mistakes on that play. It bounced between Arturo (Ordonez) and Nate (Dossantos). Then a guy sneaks between the two of them. That shouldn’t happen. They carve out a shot. Even after the initial save was made, Dani Rovira was first on the ball. He needs to kick it sideways. He tried to dribble out of it when he should have kicked the ball out of bounds. That gave Murphy another crack.”
“The goal we gave up was preventable,” Lilley said.
After talking with Robert Morris Men’s Head Coach at halftime, I asked him what he thought of the first half, and he said, ‘That was an ugly goal’.
After that, the Hounds really locked down Miami for the rest of the night. The center back pairing of Ordonez and Hogan matched Miami’s strength and took care of business in the middle, as they won 20 of 24 duels and combined for 10 clearances.
“This was a game that didn’t go our way, especially in the first half. If we don’t keep our concentration it probably ends up 2-0 or 3-0. We asked the guys to do a lot of different things off the fly tonight,” Lilley explained.
The Hounds had 11 fouls in the first half, but in the second half, they were only called for four more. (Pittsburgh ended the match with 15-9 edge in fouls conceded category).
In his first start, Garner made the one save, but Lilley said considering it was his first start, it was something for the young keeper to build upon.
“Our keeper didn’t really have anything to do. There were a few dangerous plays he stopped but on the goal he shouldn’t have given up the rebound. He could’ve called off the defenders a bit quicker. It’s good to get this game under his belt and be out there.”
Adjusting on the Fly
Nothing seemed to be working for the Hounds in creating chances.
“I think we wait to see guys 10 yards open. When the game is tight that won’t happen,” Lilley said, referring to having to play ‘Smashmouth’ football against Miami.
“It was a battle of attrition.”
After giving up the goal, it was a bit startling that the Hounds deferred to start playing long, and direct, as the center backs and deep midfielders were sending ball forward to Kizza and Dikwa, who were working to get between the Miami center backs, and more times than not, they were getting sandwiched on 50/50 balls.
Lilley provided an explanation after the match why they did this.
“I’d like to have been 0-0 at half. We didn’t create anything for most of the match. The last 10 minutes of the first half we just kicked it long,” Lilley explained.
“Under a little pressure we kept playing back. We didn’t turn the defenders. We had no crosses and no shots and basically no offense in the first half.”
At the half, the Hounds adjusted, and turned things up a notch in the final 45 minutes. They exercised a little more patience again in keeping it, and opted to play the wider channels, especially after the subs which put Lopez out wide on Forbes’ side, Fahling in for Dossantos as a left back who could push the pace and the bigger Showunmi in the middle to match Miami’s physicality.
By the end of the night, the Hounds held a solid edge in shots (11-3, 2-2 on frame), huge edge on crosses (27-7), corners won (8-3) and possession (59-41).
“We started to figure it out,” Lilley added.
“The subs came in and did a good job. Miami’s big. I think we coped well by not giving them many chances. We brought on guys with good size. It changed the dynamics of the game. It’s hard to chase a game aggressively when the chances are so few.”
The subs were a big reason for this, impacting the match in the second half.
“(Riverhounds) coach Bob (Lilley) just said to impact on the game,” Fahling said about coming in as a sub. “Everyone is expected to have an impact on the game. Everyone here is a professional player, and everyone is here for a reason. Whether it’s Langston (Blackstock) or Joe (Farrell) or me … it’s go in and do your job. I thought all the guys that came in did a good job tonight. We just have to make sure we’re pushing and we can get a win next time.”
Fahling Delivers the Equalizer
Watching the Hounds in preseason training, I kept noticing a speedy player with amber hair on the left flank, who was doing some good thing, not afraid to mix it up and was providing solid service from the width, and wondered, who is this guy?
That player, I learned a little bit later after doing some research after Hounds Matt Grubba pointed out that a few of the guys in camp were former Charleston Battery teammates, and that’s when the light bulb went off.
Burke Fahling spent one season in Charleston, making 27 appearances with the Battery in 2021, before spending another season in League One’s Tuscon FC.
In Pittsburgh, it seems like the versatile, left-foot first player would be a good fit in Bob Lilley’s system.
With their added pressure and more success in getting deeper into the final third, the Hounds were creating more corner kick opportunities.
Fahling found his golden chance on Pittsburgh’s fifth corner chance of the 2nd half.
Burke with a BANGER! 💥
Burke Fahling has drawn @RiverhoundsSC level with a sensational strike from the top of the box!#PITvMIA pic.twitter.com/NwM3G7spOR
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) March 25, 2023
In the post match show, Jordan Smith described it as a perfect hit, as the ball tailed into the top left corner.
Fahling was more than happy to get his crack at it, as the ball came right to him.
“I was fortunate the way it bounced to me,” Fahling admitted.
“It was a nice goal. Professionally this was probably the best goal I’ve ever scored.”
After scoring the goal, Fahling’s celebration consisted of back peddling all the way back to the get ready for the kickoff.
“I ran back because I wanted our team to go out there and score another.”
The Hounds will have a lot of players coming off the bench who the fans may take some time to get to know, but Fahling quickly acquainted himself with Pittsburgh in his first shot attempt.
“It was nice warming up and not getting heckled, ha ha,” Fahling said about making his debut at Highmark Stadium for the home team.
“I like the energy from the crowd. It was a very good feeling, but I wish we could’ve given more for the fans. We go to Tulsa on Tuesday and our mentality is to win. Our mindset is to go there and win.”
Lilley knows that he will need contributions from subs like Fahling to push the team over the top this season. For the Hounds, it was positive sign that they can find a way to get a result, even when they weren’t playing their best.
“Burke took his chance very well, and it was an important goal to get something out of the game. I felt like it would’ve been very deflating dropping all three points in the home opener.”
Hounds Player Grades (#PITvMIA)
Christian Garner – 4.5 – Pro debut he held his own. Nice first save on Murphy, but deduct points for not securing the rebound.
Pat Hogan – 6.5 – Lot of touches and passes (79). Won 12 of 14 duels. Five Clearances too. Solid night again for Hogan.
Arturo Ordonez – 5.5 – another solid performance. Won 8 of 10 duels, created a chance, three clearances, two tackles and one clearance. Had to deduct for being caught off guard on the Miami goal.
Nate Dossantos – 5.5 – Was there in the mess that led to the Miami goal. Conceded two fouls. Won 7 of 11 duels. Didn’t have too much of an impact getting forward. Continues to get pulled, as he’s covering a lot of ground, but also still working back to fitness after last season’s knee injury.
Dani Rovira – 4.5 – won 4 of 8 duels. Had two unsuccessful crosses. Was last man in to prevent Murphy’s rebound attempt, but couldn’t clear it.
Joe Farrell – 7 – came on in 77′ Nearly hit the game winner, but it was saved. Also had two blocked shot. Nice to have a veteran like Farrell who can come off bench and do good things on both sides.
Robbie Mertz – 6 – was serving up ball after ball… had 10 crosses from the left side — three of them connected (three chances created). Won just 3 of 16 duels. Passing accuracy dipped (season lowest 76%).
Kenardo Forbes – 5.5 – quieter night on the fringe for Forbes, who stayed wide. Did win 3 of 6 duels.
Marc Ybarra – 5.5 – More improvements and seems calmer on the ball, with a lot more touches (had 60 passes — most of all MF’s). Also in deeper central spot, more comfortable. Won 6 of 15 duels, 77% passing accuracy. Two unsuccessful crosses and conceded two fouls.
Junior Etou – 5.5 – Again, nothing spectacular, but won 6 of 11 duels, and won three fouls. He’s going to work and work, and do everything to win balls back and close space.
Tony Lopez (66′) – helped pick up pace for Hounds as part of group of subs that came on. Only won 1 of 6 duels. One unsuccessful cross and conceded two fouls.
Burke Falhing (66′) – 7.5 – came on in 66′ and gave Hounds what they needed — in providing spark and made the most of his scoring chance.
Edward Kizza – 5 – it was tough sledding for Kizza, who was constantly working to win ball (won just 3 of 11 duels), as he was absorbing a lot of resistance. He did win three fouls, had a blocked shot and clearance so he’s working hard both ways too.
Albert Dikwa – 6 — After hat trick performance at Memphis, Miami really made sure he was well marked for most of the night. As true to form, Dikwa still found ways to work and make an impact in playing a full 90 and covering a lot of ground. Won 7 of 17 duels, 88% passing accuracy (meaning he played a lot of ball back), had one cross that connected, one shot off target and a clearance on the other side of the ball. Probably earned a rest on Tuesday, at least to start the game.
Tola Showunmi (66′) – 6.5 – part of the wave of subs that helped impact the game.
Langston Blackstock (77′) – 6 – did what was needed in pro debut. Provided service (had one successful cross/chance created), won both duels, had shot off target and 10 passes.
The Hounds head to Tulsa on Tuesday for 8 p.m. (ET) kickoff.