Lots of interesting storylines will be on tap when the Pittsburgh Riverhounds travel to Northern California for a Friday nightmatch-up, against the Monterey Bay FC, which will include a number of former Hounds players, Alex Dixon, Hugh Roberts, Christian Volesky and Jason Johnson.
For the Hounds, it will be their seventh road match out of nine league contests. All road matches have been played out of the Eastern Time zone. but Friday’s 10 p.m. (ET) kickoff will certainly be the latest.
“We haven’t really thought about it that much,” Riverhounds midfielder Robbie Mertz, said of the team’s extensive travels thus far this season.
“It’s kind of become the norm. We’ll probably notice it more when we come home for longer stretches in May and June,” Hounds Midfielder Robbie Mertz said this week.
The big news from the Hounds this week came on Wednesday, when they announced that they’ve brought back midfielder Danny Griffin.
Danny Griffin ‘absolutely buzzing’ upon return to Riverhounds SC via transfer from Huntsville City FC
After training in Pittsburgh earlier this week following its road draw vs Indy on Saturday, the Hounds traveled to California on Wednesday, and are gearing up for what should be another pretty interesting showdown between two clubs that play fairly different styles, with coaches that have each been around the professional soccer circuit in North America since before the start of the Century.
That’s right, combined, Bob Lilley and Monterey Bay’s Frank Yallop have won more than 500 matches, captured two pro soccer championships each (Yallop won two MLS Cups with San Jose in 2001 and 2003) — and remain among the most well-respected coaches among their peers in the top levels of U.S. pro soccer.
Lilley will then turn around, travel back across the country, to then face another U.S. coaching icon, Bruce Arena, when the Hounds face the New England Revolution on Tuesday in the 4th Round of the U.S. Open Cup at Foxborough Stadium. Look for more on that match-up to come over the weekend and early next week.
It’s always fun to see how experienced coaches lead their sides into matches like this, especially when they’re very different in various ways.
Leading up to this league match, both Alex Dixon and Hugh Roberts were nice enough to connect with Pittsburgh Soccer Now, weighing in on what they expect to be a hard-fought, difficult contest.
Alex Dixon, Hugh Roberts weigh in on match-up vs former team
When the Riverhounds SC’s attack was clicking on all cylinders in 2021 and 2022, one of the primary catalysts and playmakers at the center of the team’s success was Alex Dixon.
Arguably, Dixon could have easily been the team’s MVP in 2021, when he tallied nine goals and nine assists.
Along with Russell Cicerone, who also saw his contract with the Riverhounds expire at the conclusion of the 2022 season, they contributed over 40 goals and 20 assists in the previous two seasons.
In the offseason, Dixon was in regular contact with Yallop, and much like Bob Lilley, a long-time successful coach in the professional ranks in both MLS and USL Championship, who targeted Dixon to help provide leadership and veteran presence in the attack.
Yallop enticed Dixon with the opportunity to play in a system where he would be able to use his scoring talents higher up in the attack.
“With Pittsburgh, I did a lot of different things, and was used a lot on the wing. (In Monterey Bay), I definitely have more freedom,” Dixon said on Thursday, in advance of facing his former team.
“We like to play fast, and get after it. It’s been a whirlwind since getting here, both on and off the field. But it’s been great.”
Almost two months into the season, Dixon leads his new team, and the USL Championship in goals scored, with six, one ahead of his former teammate Albert Dikwa and a host of others.
Dixon began the season with a hat trick against another one of his former teams, Hartford, earning the league’s first Player of the Week honors.
Monterey Bay FC forward Alex Dixon has been named USL Championship Player of the Week for his hat trick against Hartford Athletic.#USL | #ReadyToShine | #DefendThe831🌊 pic.twitter.com/SAdkn5CJCf
— Pedro Rondon (@usasupersoccer) March 14, 2023
“To get off to a start like that, it was a great sign for our club,” Dixon, who turned 33 years of age prior to the season, said.
“It’s great to have personal success, but the bottom line, it’s all about picking up points, so that was best part.”
Dixon said that it will be all-business leading up to the match against the Riverhounds, but he does look forward to seeing many of his former teammates.
“It’s too bad we came up short in my two years in Pittsburgh in winning a championship,” Dixon, who did win a USL Cup playing for Lilley in Rochester, in 2015, added.
“Bob’s teams are always going to make things very tough for opponents. They’re younger and have been very tough to score against early this season. I expect that to be the case again when we play them.”
In 2018, when Bob Lilley came to Pittsburgh, and was in the process of building a winning culture, one of the key veterans who helped create a professional environment in the locker room and on the field, was an All-USL defender, Hugh Roberts.
Following his stint in Pittsburgh in 2018, where he played alongside Joe Greenspan and Tobi Adewole to form one of the most impressive central defending groupings in team history, Roberts moved to play with Charlotte Independence in 2019-21.
When Yallop was building Monterey Bay’s roster for its inaugural season, Roberts became one of the primary building blocks, and ascended into the team captain’s role, wearing the armband for the new franchise in its first two seasons.
“It’s definitely been a learning curve,” Roberts said.
“Last season, it took us time. For me to get used to him, and I wasn’t used to playing a certain way. We were on the road for the first seven games. It wasn’t that we weren’t good enough players, but it was more about establishing our identity, and building our relationship between the players and the coach.”
Roberts, who said he didn’t know Dixon that well before they became teammates, said that it’s been nice to have another veteran leader, who has led by example.
“He’s a top pro, who knows how to take care of himself, each and every week. I’ve watched him, three-four days a week really get after it in the gym,” Roberts said.
“It’s been uplifting to have someone like Alex here, in a very good way.”
With former Bob Lilley coached forwards, Dixon and Christian Volesky (with three goals of his own), leading the attack, Monterey Bay come into their first ever match as a very formidable foe for the Hounds.
Monterey Bay currently sits in the middle of the pack of what’s proving to be a very competitive field in the Western Conference, with a 3-2-3 (W-L-T) overall record, which thus far, is a considerable improvement from last year’s first-ever season for the club. They haven’t lost a match in any competition since April 1, 2-1, to the defending USL Cup winners, San Antonio. Their only other loss was to the defending Eastern Conference champions, Louisville City FC.
“It should be a hard-fought battle on both sides,” Roberts said.
“The last two-three years, they’ve been more dangerous in possession and on the counter attack, and we’ll be paying close attention to Albert Dikwa. It’s going to be a tough battle for 90-plus minutes. You never expect anything less from Bob Lilley coached team.”
You can count on goals typically being scored when Monterey Bay takes the field, as they have scored a league high 15 times, while surrendering the third-highest total in the league thus far this season (12). Even more remarkable, Monterey Bay are dead last in shot attempts in the entire USL Championship, with just 57, proving that they’ve been incredibly efficient in their chances.
“We have been able to get our offense going this year. Last year, we found ourselves defensively first, but this year, we’ve found ourselves offensively, which is the opposite of what where we were a year ago, and that’s helped set the tone for our success,” Roberts added.
MBFC’s run of form includes being unbeaten in last six matches in all competitions (including two U.S. Open Cup wins) and the last four against USLC foes (2-0-2).
The Hounds will have their eyes on their former teammate, Dixon, and a dynamic scoring group from Monterey Bay FC.
“We know what we’re going to expect from Alex. He’s (Dixon) a quick, explosive player, who can get behind you,” Mertz said after training earlier this week.
“We’ve been pretty solid defensively, and working for each other, so we expect more of the same there.”
To say that the Hounds will have their hands full on Friday, will be an understatement.
Look for a more detailed breakdown of this match-up to come on Pittsburgh Soccer Now on Friday.
PSN’s Past Coverage of Alex Dixon and Hugh Roberts
Former Riverhound Hugh Roberts launches BackYardFooty educational webinar series
Dixon’s late header salvages a road draw for Hounds at San Antonio
Invaluable Veteran: Alex Dixon’s versatility adds to Hounds’ success
Pittsburgh Sports Live’s Soccer Show makes debut with Riverhounds SC’s Joe Greenspan & Hugh Roberts