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Hounds Notebook: Bob Lilley has built a resourceful squad that uses depth to its advantage

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC are preparing for a Saturday night showdown at home against the Phoenix Rising SC, as they go through a week of training at Montour Junction Soccer Complex.

While the squad is mostly healthy, Dani Rovira has been slowly working his way back, while the Hounds kept forward Albert Dikwa, USL Championship’s leading goal scorer, out of the lineup as a precaution, after he left last week’s US Open Cup match with an apparent hip flexor injury.

The Hounds finished an impressive May schedule without a loss, following its 1-0 win at Loudoun United FC, in Leesburg, VA, on Sunday night.

Takeaways and Player Grades: Red-hot Riverhounds complete remarkable May stretch with set-piece success at Loudoun

There are a lot of things that have added up for Pittsburgh’s recent success, both in its unprecedented run in the one-and-done US Open Cup knockout competition and in league play.

The Hounds are once against establishing themselves as not only a unit that’s difficult to score goals upon, but also one that just doesn’t let its opponents take many shots.

With the USL Championship’s monthly awards being up for a vote among eligible media members, it’s probably a given that Head Coach Bob Lilley will be among the nominees, as his club completed the month with five wins and one draw in all competitions, allowing just four goals in six matches.

In addition, forward Albert Dikwa remained on a hot tear through May, jumping into the league lead in goals scored, as he now has nine in league play, plus another big Open Cup goal.

That also puts the Cameroonian into contention for the USLC’s Player of the Month award for May.

Waite, Center Back Rotation Provide Backbone of Hounds’ Defensive Structure and Success 

The month of May started for the Hounds with an open-ended, 2-2 draw at Monterey Bay, and since that time they’ve allowed just two goals in five matches.  We’re starting to see this team take on the signature Bob Lilley team that starts to come into its own as one that’s cohesive on both sides of the ball.

One of the most impressive feat during this run came in two matches against Major League Soccer sides, as Bob Lilley’s club became the first lower-division team in the modern era to earn consecutive shutouts against MLS teams.

In the Open Cup matches, Hounds were never in a position where they looked overmatched.

Pittsburgh was disciplined, used its possession smartly, didn’t concede territory unnecessarily, and was solid in its defensive structure.  The Hounds were also winning all of the second balls and taking the cake as far as duels/50-50 battles for balls in open spaces.

Common misperception and conventional wisdom would imply that a ‘park-the-bus’ approach and putting a lot of numbers behind the ball is the key to frustrating opponents trying to break lines and create scoring opportunities in the final third. While the principles of getting defenders behind the ball is applicable, Lilley knows better to make that the wholistic approach to limiting scoring chances.

“You’re asking for trouble like that,” Lilley remarked recently.

“You can’t just get conservative. If you’re not running forward and you’re just trying to steal something off the other team, you’re going to have to be very lucky to get anything.”

The MLS sides were the ones who were a step behind and left frustrated.

“We were late. We were (winning the) first ball, but the second ball no,” Wilfried Nancy, Columbus Crew’s Head Coach, said after losing to Pittsburgh in the Round of 16 in the US Open Cup on May 24.

“After that, when we had the ball, we didn’t connect the way we usually do. Yes, the environment. Yes, we can find a lot of excuses with the turf and so on, but at the end of the day, this is for both teams. We were not able to be better on that. That’s why we didn’t score at least one goal.”

The backbone of the Hounds defensive structure has come with three second year pros leading the way and contributing the bulk of minutes played, with Jahmali Waite in goal along with Nate Dossantos and Arturo Ordonez as mainstays on the backline. From there, Lilley will rotate various center backs to pair along with Dossantos and Ordonez, including Pat Hogan, Joey Farrell and Mike DeShields.

The Hounds have also settled into playing with a three-man center back grouping for the most part of May, whether it’s been in 3-5-2, 5-4-1 or other formations.

Of course, with Lilley tinkering things from match-to-match, and it’s also been a given that even though Dossantos and Ordonez are in the lineup, they may be moving around to different places on the back line.  The tendency has been to see Dossantos on the left side of the three, and Ordonez to the right, but it all depends on the opponents and how Lilley sees how he can utilize each player’s strengths.

For example, in the Open Cup win vs Columbus, Dossantos, who had the ball at his feet a lot in that match, was the man in the middle between Ordonez and DeShields.  Especially early in the match, Ordonez was spending a lot of time marking Columbus’ most accomplished scorer on the field that night, Christian Ramirez, on the left wing.

Resourceful Riverhounds Using Depth to their Advantage 

Adding to what appears to be a very solid rotation among the center backs, the Hounds have significant depth in most positions.

For the past two seasons, Danny Griffin played almost exclusively in the valuable holding midfield position, but with veteran Junior Etou back in the fold after an arm injury in late March, Trevor Zwetsloot getting plenty of playing time, and with the emergence of second-year pro Marc Ybarra as a flexible option to position deeper in the midfield or as an attacking midfielder when called upon, Lilley feels more comfortable utilizing Griffin in a role higher up in the attack.

Additionally, prior to May, there were some players on the Hounds roster who still hadn’t broken the starting lineup in league matches and when made available for selection, mostly came off the bench as late substitutions without making much of an impact.

That changed after the Hounds’ first Open Cup win against the Maryland Bobcats on April 25.  On that night, Burke Fahling, Tola Showunmi, DZ Harmon, Mike DeShields and Langston Blackstock all started, making very positive contributions.

Prior to that match, from that group of players, only Fahling made one start (March 28 at Tulsa).

In the last six matches, Blackstock has emerged as a key player on the wing, starting in five of those matches.  Showunmi, Fahling, DeShields and Harmon were all starters in the Hounds massive upset win at New England.

If you look closely at the starting lineups from match-to-match in May, the Hounds used 18 different starters in a two-match swing from Monterey Bay FC away match to the New England Revolution Open Cup match.  Junior Etou made his first start since March in the third match of May, making it 19 players who have started for the Hounds during this stretch of success. That rotation continued throughout the month, with numerous players each getting at least two or three starts, with only three players starting all six matches: Arturo Ordonez, Jahmali Waite and Danny Griffin.

The Hounds have been mostly fortunate in that they’ve been relatively healthy to this point in the season, with a few injuries to contend with, but for a second division club, they’ve been extremely resourceful and have used their depth to their advantage.

Another Western Conference Foe Comes to Highmark

The last match of the Riverhounds’ underachieving 2014 campaign ended with a whimper on September 6, as they would lose to Arizona United SC, 2-1, when first half goals from Tan Long and Jonathan Top erased a Miro Cabrilo 6th minute tally.

That was the first year of existence for the organization which would later become Phoenix Rising FC.

Both clubs would finish below the playoff line that season, in a 14-team league that took the top eight teams for its postseason tournament.

On Saturday, Phoenix returns to Highmark Stadium almost a decade later after its last appearance.  Heading into this match, the Rising are sporting a 4-4-3 record (good for 16 points and seventh place in the Western Conference standings), and a team that has literally been up-and-down for a good part of the past month, but all season really as they’ve dealt with numerous injuries and inconsistent play.

“The group is motivated,” Rising Head Coach Juan Guerra said recently.

“They’re a bit thin at the moment because of some injuries but it’s good to see some guys stepping up. It has been a good week of training after a disappointing result in Florida. Now, we have the opportunity to bounce back in front of our people.”

“We focused a lot on the final third this week,” continued Guerra. “So far this season we have been able to sustain pressure in the opponent’s half. Now we’re looking to do that while being dynamic and adding aggressive runs, playing balls in-behind the back line. The team has responded well. The group keeps growing. They are strong mentally. I’m looking forward to seeing them bounce back.”

PSN Riverhounds Coverage 

Look for a more in-depth preview and scouting report to come on the Rising and I will have an interview with a Hounds player on Friday to share.  PSN’s Dominic Campbell will provide on-site coverage from Highmark Stadium while we will have Dan Angell, our esteemed Midwest contributor, who will be on site for next week’s US Open Cup match in Cincinnati.  We will have much more to come on that match and more Riverhounds features to come.

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).

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