After a match in which his team scored the fastest goal in club history, a mere 21 seconds into the match, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley was asked if scoring so soon was blessing or a curse.
“It was probably a curse,” Lilley said of his team getting out to the early lead on midfielder Junior Etou’s first goal of the season coming from a clever cut-back assist from Kenardo Forbes.
“It’s a great goal, and its important in the game, but I don’t think we ever established how we wanted to play this game. When you score that early, you put that one in the bank and it’s like a CD or a retirement fund. You don’t spend it. You go back to it being 0-0 and play.”
Despite a lull on the attacking front and an inability to — as coach Lilley stated — ‘get a hold of the ball a little bit more’ for the rest of the first half, and into stages of the second half, Lilley’s squad won its fifth consecutive match in league play with a 2-0 victory in a top-of-the-table showdown with long time league rival Charleston Battery at Highmark Stadium before yet another lively and mostly full crowd at Highmark Stadium on Saturday night.
Once again, the Hounds posted a third consecutive league clean sheet as they shut the door on the Battery with superb defending in the box while goalkeeper Jahmali Waite was on top of his game when tested on a couple of shots.
With the win, the Hounds take over the top spot in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference standings.
While Lilley, who was named USL Championship Coach of the Month for a fantastic May in which his team defeated two MLS opponents in the US Open Cup and were unbeaten in league play, remains pragmatic when looking at the overall picture.
“Lets see where we are with 10 games left to play,” Lilley said in retrospect of his team’s continued success that has carried over from a deep Open Cup run and into league play.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind. The fact that we’ve been able to handle it… I always say, it’s not what we do during the cup. Frankly, we needed the chaos. That win in New England (May 9 in USOC Fourth Round), built confidence, gave guys chances. We grew as a team. We’ve had all this achievement. Growing. Excitement. (We) burned that physical, emotional energy. Now defines it. What are we going to do in the next six weeks after the cup. We have some physical injuries. How do we maintain this during this (next) difficult stretch. Good teams find a way. So, hopefully when we get to those final 10 games, we’re in pretty good position.”
Tactics, Formation & Personnel
With the news following the Open Cup loss that the team’s leading scorer Albert Dikwa will be recovering from a collar bone injury (no exact time table has been given, but any fracture / trauma to the clavicle has typically been a 6 to 8 week recovery period for most athletes), the Hounds started with a lineup rotation that was pretty much expected.
Edward Kizza, who didn’t play in the midweek Open Cup match, got the start along with a four-man midfield grouping that included Danny Griffin, Kenardo Forbes, Junior Etou and Trevor Zwetsloot.
The Hounds kept a pretty compact shape in a 5-4-1 formation. Luke Biasi and Langston Blackstock maintained their defensive responsibilities in the wide spots on the back line, while Arturo Ordonez was positioned in the middle of the back line with Nate Dossantos to his left and former Charleston Battery defender, Pat Hogan on the right.
With Blackstock on a first half yellow card, he was subbed out at the half for Dani Rovira, who made his second appearance since being out with a knee injury. Zwetsloot also gave way at the half to Marc Ybarra.
Robbie Mertz came on for Forbes in the 74th minute, while Joe Farrell replaced Mertz. Kizza was replaced by Tola Showunmi in the 74th minute.
Don’t Blink: Hounds Come Flying Out of the Gate
Before most fans could sit down, the Hounds took the opening touch for a brilliantly executed build-up that looked almost orchestrated, as Junior Etou scored his first goal of the season by making a run to the middle of the goal that was opened up by Danny Griffin’s movement to the far post and a clever cut-back pass from the USL Championship’s all-time leading scorer, Kenardo Forbes.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) June 10, 2023
A few days before, in Cincinnati, the Hounds nearly found a go-ahead goal in the first half of the Open Cup Quarterfinal, when Forbes delivered a beautiful pass right to Etou’s foot.
In that match, Etou didn’t pull the trigger when he had room at the top of the box.
Four days later, he made sure to go for it.
“Before the game, Coach (Lilley) said when I make a run in the box and the ball comes to me, hit it with my first touch,” Etou said.
“Last game against Cincinnati, the same ball came in. I went to take a touch and finish and didn’t.
“It was a strike that I need to score, and I think our midfielders need to score more because we have had so many chances coming into today’s game. Today, I got the goal and it felt good for me.”
When the goal was scored, when looking up at the scoreboard, it appeared it was at 24 seconds into the match, but the replay showed that it was officially 21 seconds, which is a club record among the 992 goals scored by the team across 24 seasons.
Taking a closer look at the goal, the Hounds took possession as Zwetsloot send a ball to Biasi on the right side. As Forbes started making his run to the right edge of the final third, Kizza, the target forward stepped up to receive a ball in from Biasi. If you watch Forbes closely, it looks like he does a little hand gesture with his right arm as he runs through.
Kizza, obviously well aware of Forbes’ overlapping run to the right, simply flicks it over to his captain.
The off the ball movement by Griffin to take the last defender with him to the far post opened up room in the middle of the box for Etou, who took it from there.
Playing through Chaos
Following the goal, the Hounds conceded much of the possession to Charleston, who would carry 65 percent of the ball for the rest of the match.
Pittsburgh also sat deeper, and were pinned back at times for long stretches, which Lilley wasn’t happy about, especially as Charleston, playing down a goal, were looking to be aggressive, playing through the midfield lines and sending pressure (although only one shot on frame), mostly with crosses and efforts to get the ball to dangerous striker Augustine Williams.
The veteran coach tried different things, and every time looking at the midfield line, it appeared they were playing musical chairs in the diamond rotation.
He wasn’t pleased either, especially toward the end of the first half, citing that they weren’t compact enough in defending.
“At 35 minutes, I was just hoping we’d get to the half,” Lilley admitted.
Lilley said that it was a bit chaotic as he tinkered with the line-up, namely having two players who have primarily been holding midfielders (Etou and Zwetsloot) along with Forbes and Griffin. At different points, there was different players switching around between deeper central midfield and the attacking spots.
“There was nothing brilliant about it,” Lilley paused and chuckled.
“We did have some guys out of position who played well, and we have a lot of flexibility. Anything we didn’t work out in the first half, we solved in the second half. Some of the things I tried, that didn’t work, we’ll address this week. We were trying to figure out a way to get a hold of the ball a bit more. It was a bit chaotic.
Despite the chaos, the Hounds were keeping Charleston at bay in terms of quality chances, even as the match ended with Charleston posting 13 shots, with just two on frame. The Hounds defending included 24 clearances, 13 interceptions and 21 tackles — along with Waite’s two saves.
Showunmi Gives Forward Rotation Much Valued Depth
Early in the season, Tola Showunmi had a few golden chances to score his first ever professional goal, missing a few sitters near goal in the opener at Birmingham and at Memphis late in those matches.
The hard working forward has made the most of his opportunity, with some solid outings during the Hounds Open Cup run, starting the matches against New England and Columbus, where his coach said after the Columbus win, that the Crew’s back line would be having nightmares about his lurking presence on the high press.
But it wasn’t until late in the Open Cup loss to Cincinnati when Showunmi finally came through with a goal, scoring in extra time.
Coming off the bench on Saturday, in place of Kizza, Showunmi did it again, and this time with some brilliant foot work. The London, England native first did some terrific work on the far right corner to keep a possession alive — working a ball over and around two Charleston defenders to land a pass back to Robbie Mertz.
Then, with the Hounds starting to find room on the counter, he made Luke Biasi’s perfectly played ball through count.
Receiving the ball in space entering the left side of the box, Showunmi took a few touches to get around Charleston keeper Trey Muse, and slotted home his shot chance with a left-footed finish.
Rounding the keeper 🔄 and finishing it off!
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) June 11, 2023
Although Lilley may have concerns about being thin up top (as he said ahead of the Columbus match), the emergence of Showunmi is a perfect example of a player who has come out of the chaos of the Open Cup run and intense league matches in the first half of the season, and is now more confident player who is ready to step up into a bigger role.
#PITvCHS Player Grades
Riverhounds SC Lineup (5-4-1)
Jahmali Waite – 7 – two saves. Did have to also deal with a bevy of 20 Charleston crosses and pressure for long stretches.
Langston Blackstock – 6.5 — yellow card, four passes into final third and four recoveries in 45 minutes.
Dani Rovira 46’ – 6.5 – seven recoveries and won 7 of 9 duels. Solid second half sub in his second match back.
Nate Dossantos – 7.5 – solid in distribution and under pressure: won 10/14 duels, had 7 recoveries, 4 interceptions, 3 clearances.
Arturo Ordóñez – 7 – locked down the middle, handled dangerous Augustine Williams — had 3 clearances, 2 interceptions.
Pat Hogan – 6 – won 6/10 duels and had a strong performance against his former side
Luke Biasi – 6.5 – good two-way performance, with the assist on the late goal
Junior Etou – 8- Not only did he score the early goal, but also was solid in the middle of the park, winning 8 of a team-high 14 duels and gaining possession four times.
Trevor Zwetsloot – 5.5 – it was interesting to see the New Zealand product so high up on the pitch at times in the first half. Made a couple passes into the final third, had two recoveries and drew a foul.
Marc Ybarra 46’ – 6.5 – difference with Ybarra vs Zwetsloot — thought he extended a few possessions more and drew three fouls as the Hounds were trying to hold on to the ball a bit more while holding the lead.
Danny Griffin – 6.5 – another good all around match for Griffin on both sides of the ball.
Kenardo Forbes – 8 – when there was a lot of chaos in the middle — as his coach talked about — Forbes was always there to keep things calm. Created 3 chances and 85% passing before sitting down after 74 minutes.
Robbie Mertz 74- – NR – hopefully Mertz is okay after coming off 11 minutes after entering the match.
Joe Farrell 85’ – NR – late sub to lock the match down defensively.
Edward Kizza – 6 – lots of movement and pressing, good coming back for the ball and creating the pass that led to first goal.
Tola Showunmi 74’ – 7 – First pro goal on Tuesday. First league goal on Saturday. Confidence is high with Tola.