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Hounds Notebook: ‘Pretty thin up top’ for next Open Cup challenge vs MLS front-running FC Cincinnati

There’s little time for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC to recuperate, following Saturday night’s home league win against Phoenix Rising FC, as they now set their sights on the Queen City, when they’ll travel to face FC Cincinnati on Tuesday night (7 p.m. kickoff on B/R YouTube) in the U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinal Round match.

Actually, the Hounds are already in Cincy, as they’ll be training at TQL Stadium on Monday in advance of the Open Cup match.

Head Coach Bob Lilley talked about the importance of recovery with the quick turnaround, but also getting reps in training for the players who will be in the lineup on Tuesday night.  With Albert Dikwa missing the last two matches as he’s been working his way back after a hip flexor injury and Edward Kizza having to sit out Tuesday’s match as he’s carrying a red card suspension from the Columbus Open Cup win, Lilley acknowledged that his club is “a little thin up top” heading into this match at Cincinnati.  (For more on that see below)

With a win in the Open Cup, this Hounds team will go where no Hounds team has ever gone before, into the Final Four of the tournament. The furthest the Riverhounds have ever gone in the tournament was the Quarterfinal Round, in 2001, when they lost to Chicago Fire, 3-2, in Extra Time at Bethel Park Stadium.

With the short turnaround, this edition of the Hounds Notebook will take a quick look back at Saturday’s match, while starting to take a look at Tuesday’s showdown with a club the Hounds have a history, both as USL Championship foes for three season (2016-18), and in last year’s Open Cup Third Round.

PSN ran this piece ahead of last year’s Open Cup match against FCC, which saw the Hounds take the hosts to the limit, as Jahmali Waite had a breakout performance, but Pittsburgh ran out of gas and wilted to the enormous pressure from the MLS side. losing 2-0.

Pittsburgh-Cincinnati soccer rivalry never had a chance

Much like the Riverhounds on Saturday night, FC Cincinnati squeezed out a 1-0 victory at TQL Stadium against a league foe, Chicago Fire, not playing its best match, but showed plenty of resolve.

The two clubs come into the Open Cup match arguably playing the best soccer in each of their respective leagues.  The Hounds have won six straight matches in all competitions and unbeaten in its last nine, while FCC has won eight straight in all competitions, and are unbeaten in its last 11 matches.

That’s right, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are unbeaten in their last 20 matches.

Regardless of league, any showdown between two sides playing with lots of confidence and deep rosters, should make for a great match.

Determined Hounds Make Their Move in USLC’s Eastern Conference Race Despite Flawed Performance

The Hounds (6-2-5 -W-L-D) took care of business in league play, and in doing so, moved past a couple of annual contenders, Louisville City and Tampa Bay, to now take sole possession of second place, with 23 points as they move past the one-third mark of the regular season.

This season, and especially in its recent run of success, Pittsburgh has been very good at managing through games where they’ve conceded possession, and yet still find more chances created, match or exceed shot opportunities and dangerous moments than its opponents.  However, on Saturday, they needed an opportunistic result, scoring on an early set piece chance, then despite allowing Phoenix to own the ball for the majority of the contest and conceding more shots/shots on frame (15-6, 4-2), withstood nervy moments and pull out a victory by the skin of its teeth.

As PSN’s Dom Campbell reported, Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley praised his team for pulling out another win, but wanted to see more as the game evolved, instead of staying on the front foot, the Hounds went into a shell.

“We defended well in our own box, that’s about the extent of it,” Lilley said.

“It’s too easy. They played through us, they dribbled through us. We weren’t able to hold the ball in higher areas and make them defend. I’m proud of the determination to keep them off the board when we we’re backed up on our own goal line, but overall, there’s a lot we can do defensively better higher up the pitch and in the middle third and even how we organize out of the back.”

Lilley also expressed his concerns with sitting too deep with leads, and that when they’ve done that earlier this season, it’s come back to haunt them — specifically pointing out giving up late goals against Monterey Bay (2-2 draw), and at Indianapolis (1-1 draw), in late April and early May.

With the Open Cup match on Tuesday squarely factoring into his mind, Lilley put together a starting lineup and implemented squad rotation in this match that reflected the importance of keeping legs fresh.

Being that the Hounds have been rotating a lot players between league and Open Cup matches in the past month, it was a given that Edward Kizza would get the start on Saturday, as he’s facing suspension for Tuesday’s match, as he was sent off late with a red card in the last Open Cup win vs Columbus.

Here’s what the Hounds lineup selection and substitutions looked like on Saturday, as they kept a very narrow shape for most of the contest, denying Phoenix everything through the middle.

Hounds Lineup (6/3/2023 vs Phoenix)

Jahmali Waite; Langston Blackstock (Junior Etou 76’), Mike DeShields, Arturo Ordóñez, Pat Hogan, Burke Fahling (Trevor Zwetsloot 46’); Danny Griffin (Luke Biasi 76’), Marc Ybarra, Edward Kizza (Robbie Mertz 86’), Kenardo Forbes; Tola Showunmi (Nate Dossantos 46’)

With Biasi, Mertz, Zwetsloot, Etou and Dossantos coming off the bench, plus DZ Harmon and Joe Farrell not even playing, likely makes them good candidates to be in the starting XI or be part of the rotation on Tuesday night in Cincinnati.

It’s more than likely that Jahmali Waite, Danny Griffin (who was carrying a yellow card — came out on Saturday and Arturo Ordóñez are the most likely sure bets to also be in the starting eleven.

As pointed out in last week’s edition of Hounds Notebook, despite a few concerns (no Kizza and continuing absence of Albert Dikwa), Lilley’s been able to work his magic with lineup selections and tactics of late, and will now have to continue to rely on his roster depth as they face another very tough MLS opponent, then turn around to face Old Guard Shield rival and Eastern Conference leaders, Charleston Battery, on Saturday night at Highmark.

Dikwa Remains Out of the 18 

The big question mark for the Hounds will be whether Albert Dikwa, the team’s, and the USL Championship’s leading goal scorer, will be available for selection.  Dikwa is in a tie with his former teammate, Russell Cicerone, for the league lead with nine goals, and also scored in the Hounds’ Open Cup win vs Columbus.

For the second straight match, Dikwa was held out on Saturday, as he’s been recuperating from what Lilley described after the Columbus match as a hip flexor injury.  Dikwa did train with the team late last week, and he didn’t land on the team’s injury/inactives report.

Conventional thinking is that he’ll be available to go on Tuesday night.  Being that he hasn’t played since May 24, his fitness might limit him to coming off the bench.

“He’s close,” Lilley said on Saturday.

“He didn’t dress tonight, but he’s close. We’re unclear at this point, but I think he’ll be available to us in some capacity, but that will be determined in the next couple of days.”

Keep in mind, the Hounds did not start Dikwa in its first MSL ‘Cupset’ on May 9, when they defeated New England.  In fact, in the two ‘Cupsets’ it was Showunmi, the lanky Londoner, who has started at the top of the formation.  In the Columbus match, Dikwa played underneath Showunmi in the 5-4-1 formation, and scored the match’s lone goal.

Lilley cited after the match that he was very pleased with Showunmi’s work rate against Columbus, pointing out that the Crew’s backline would be having nightmares about Tola after that match.

Unlike Columbus, FC Cincinnati is not dealing with a depleted backline, and the Hounds will have to be prepared for a bigger challenge in trying to disrupt FCC’s efforts to play the ball out of the back.

Without Kizza and possibly putting a questionable Dikwa on the field, the Hounds will have to roll out Showunmi, and likely rely on their talented attacking midfielders, Griffin, Mertz and Forbes (as a super sub?), along with Blackstock, Harmon Biasi and potentially with the return of Dani Rovira, to provide quality two-way play on the width.

“Hopefully we have the legs on Tuesday night.  We’ve rotated so many players, between Loudoun (last Sunday) and tonight (vs Phoenix). We’ve asked a lot emotionally, physically, and the fact that we’re going on this run, with two really tough matches vs New England and Columbus, then we have two more this week, at Cincinnati and a very big game on Saturday, against Charleston, who’s leading the East.”

Lilley stated in Saturday’s press conference, then took one of his patented pauses, shrugged and added:

“Sometimes I think we earned most of these wins, but tonight, we got the rub of the green and got fortunate.  I suppose for the work they put in, we deserve a little bit of fortune.”

First Look at FC Cincinnati  

PSN’s Mark Goodman, our residential MLS expert from our team of contributors, will provide a more in-depth look at FC Cincinnati, but at first glance, the Hounds will have their hands full in the Open Cup rematch at TQL Stadium.

Lilley added to his remarks that his team “will have to be better against Cincy on Tuesday.”

Much like the Hounds, and maybe even more so, FCC will have to rely on heavy squad rotation too, as they’re in a very busy stretch with its fifth match since squeaking out an Open Cup win on Penalty Kicks vs NY Red Bulls on May 23.  On Saturday vs Chicago, five of the 11 starters from its previous match on Wednesday against NYCFC started on the bench. ‘

Head Coach Pat Noonan opted to use Luciano Acosta, who scored the match’s lone goal, atop the formation with Arquímides Ordóñez, who made his second overall MLS start.

Much like Lilley, Noonan thought his team also found a way to win when they weren’t at their best, thanks to solid defending and getting a timely goal on a well-played ball and nifty finish.

But despite the congested schedule, Head Coach Pat Noonan’s side and the Supporters’ Shield leaders halfway through the MLS season keep winning. Under Noonan, FC Cincinnati are 6-0-2 in games on two days rest, including Saturday night.

“A really gutsy performance,” Noonan said in his post match press conference on Saturday night.

It looks like Noonan, who expressed the importance of getting all of his players important minutes (refrain much like Lilley) and FCC are not taking the Hounds lightly, at all.

“Guys that deserve minutes from the start, rotation to make sure that we continue to get fresh legs out there. And in saying that, there’s still guys that were logging a lot of minutes that we had to just kind of monitor as the game went on. Then with the rotations, how over the course of tonight’s game and Pittsburgh [on Tuesday] can we position ourselves to win two games? And a lot of who was rotated tonight kind of factored into what led up to it with just the outputs of some guys.

“When I say rotation, there’s just guys that deserve minutes and are ready to start the game for us and help us win. You can see sometimes the chemistry is maybe a little bit off or there are nerves with performances, but that’s natural. I was still pleased with the group that started the game to get us to a point where when we had to make some changes, the game was level.”

Ironically, in their previous history, the Hounds faced more intense crowds against FCC when they were still playing league matches on the campus of the University of Cincinnati, as last year’s Open Cup midweek match was sparsely attended, by Cincinnati fans standards in recent years.  On Saturday, FCC drew more than 25,000 fans to TQL, but the midweek Open Cup match will likely draw a lot smaller crowd.

PSN’s Open Cup Coverage   

In addition to Goodman’s preview, look for a special edition of Sounding Off on Soccer to come late Monday or early Tuesday, as well as on-site coverage from PSN’s Midwest contributor, Dan Angell.

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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Glory on the Grass

Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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