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Hounds Notebook: Midseason moves show club’s ambitions

Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

The Riverhounds SC have gone about their usual business this week, putting in training sessions on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and will wrap-up the week with a light session Friday ahead of Saturday’s showdown between the top teams in the USL Championship’s Eastern and Western Conferences when Sacramento Republic FC visit Highmark Stadium (7 p.m. kickoff).

The Hounds’ impressive unbeaten streak in league play, which now has stretched to 10 games going back to April, could be in danger if they’re not at the top of their game.

Head Coach Bob Lilley said as much in his post match comments following his team’s scoreless draw vs conference rival Louisville City FC last Saturday.

Lilley pretty much got his point across to his players standing in a torrential downpour after the match, then to the media afterwards, and again this week in practice, that one or two chances per game won’t cut it, especially against an opponent the caliber of Sacramento.

“Yeah, there were one or two golden moments, but to score consistently, we need to get five, six, seven of those, and seven or so chances on top of that. And we’re getting very few looks, and you’re not going to always capitalize on one or two chances every game.”

It may have been business as usual this week in training, but the club is clearly showing ambition to finish at the top of the table and make a deep playoff run, as they announced the addition of another talented scoring option at striker, with the signing of Juan Carlos Obregón Jr.

Ambitious Hounds are Making Moves 

The fact that the Riverhounds have made multiple roster moves recently shows that Head Coach Bob Lilley and the organization are really going for it this season.

In five-plus seasons, Lilley, with the support of team owner Tuffy Shallenberger, each year, has made a move or two in the middle of the season to bolster his squad’s roster.

  • Last year, if you recall, the Hounds picked up Edward Kizza on loan from the New England Revolution, and reacquired Upper St. Clair native Robbie Mertz.
  • In 2021, the only pick-up coming after the start of the season came when they added Jalen Robinson in May, only a few weeks after the season kicked off.
  • In 2020, looking for depth and experience on the back line, they brought back Ray Lee to  the squad during the shortened season.
  • In 2019, the Hounds also brought back a player who was on their 2018 roster, Todd Pratzner, at midseason and when they were having goalkeeper injury concerns, they also added Ben Lundgaard on loan from Columbus Crew for four matches early in the season.
  • In 2018, the only midseason pick up for the Hounds was goalkeeper, Nathan Ingram, who signed with the club as the third keeper in July.

This season, they have already surpassed their usual quota.

Since early May, the Riverhounds have made three significant moves to bolster its roster.

Danny Griffin returned to the club in early May, when the Hounds reacquired the versatile midfielder from Huntsville (AL) of MLS Next Pro. As Jahmali Waite has left to be on international duty with Jamaica during the Gold Cup, the Hounds also added goalkeeper Luis Zumudio on loan from DC United two weeks ago.

And now, this week, looking to load up the roster with attacking talent, Juan Carlos Obregón Jr. has been signed for the rest of the 2023 season, the team announced on Wednesday.

While signs may point to this pick up being added insurance for the target forward position, the Hounds have been lacking quality in its attacking midfield rotation of late, especially with the absence of Robbie Mertz.

Obregón rotated last season with Hartford as the wide attacking midfielder in 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 formations, with intermittent spot start or two as the high line striker.

Lilley even admitted the past couple times in his post match comments, that the Hounds have used some guys out of position and that he’s tried different things in the absence of Mertz and Dikwa. The most glaring plug-and-play guys have been veteran Junior Etou, typically a holding midfielder, and Denny Griffin being more involved in the high line of midfield attackers along with a rotation includes Marc Ybarra and Kenardo Forbes.  In looking for solutions, Lilley wanted to add a player who could be involved in making good decisions in the final third who can help generate more goal scoring opportunities.

“It’s not a decoy thing. It’s not a forward thing.  Our midfielders are not playing the right balls at times,” Lilley explained

“That’s the strength of our team, and we’re not controlling the tempo.  They’re not getting in the box. And that includes Kenny, Junior and Danny Griffin and some of our best players. The quality of our crosses need to be better, the movement has to be better. We have to attack the corners. We’re sitting there, waiting for the ball to bounce our way.  We’ve been saying this for a while. We have to do more.”

Obregón’s Journey Brings him back to the U.S.   

The club has brought other players to train during the season as trialists, but Obregón, who had a brief spell in Honduras with Motagua during their Clausura season, was available. The Hounds jumped at the opportunity to see how the native from Brooklyn, New York, who got his start with the NY Red Bulls Academy, but then moved over to the Cosmos Academy on Long Island. Obregón joins a forward rotation that has included Albert Dikwa (currently recovering from collar bone injury), Edward Kizza, Tola Showumni and Tony Lopez.

Obregón only made four appearances with the Honduran club, but in his two seasons with Hartford, he was in and out of the starting rotation, scoring 15 goals.

In 2021, when he played more than 2,000 minutes, Obregón was Hartford’s leading goal scorer with 10 goals.

After further developing as a collegiate player at Seina College for two seasons, and in PDL, with hometown club F.A. Euro while also getting call-ups to Honduras’ U20 National Team, Obregón decided to turn pro after his sophomore year of college, joining Liga MX side Club Necaxa, which plays in the top flight of football in Mexico.

“I was a member of the U20 reserve team for two seasons, and I played tremendously well on the biggest stage of my career up until that point. I hit the back of the net twice in an abbreviated 2017 campaign and led the league in goals with 12 in 17 appearances the following year,” Obregón recalls in ‘My Story’ team feature when he was with Hartford.

“The first team was intrigued by my goal scoring prowess and oftentimes would allow me to practice with them. I was starstruck to be around the likes of players who represented their national teams at the World Cup, most notably Matías Fernández from Chile and fellow Honduran Brayan Beckeles.”

In 2019 and 2020, Obregón was brought into camp with Houston Dynamo, and would eventually feature in some matches with USLC side, RGV Toros.  After the 2020 season, he found his way back closer to home, signing with the Hartford Athletic, where he became the team’s leading scorer in 2021.   He also had a chance to help Honduras’ U23 squad qualify for the Olympics, scoring the game’s opening goal in the match that eliminated the U.S. squad in Mexico.

“When the referee blew the opening whistle, I felt untouchable. I never lost the ball, I was creating opportunities, and I was rewarded for my efforts when I scored the opening goal of the game,” Obregón described.

“I actually started the chance while making a run, and then I was tripped up by one of the U.S. center backs just over half field that drew a free kick. A cross was lobbed into the box, headed towards the net by my teammate Denil Maldonado, and I tapped in the goal. We held on to the advantage and came out victorious 2-1. I became an Olympian representing the country where my parents were born, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled.”

Obregón comes to Pittsburgh at the same time in his career, at age 25, as another player with Latin American roots, who grew up in New York, came up through the Red Bulls system and had a taste of some time with MLS club.  That would be Jose Angulo, who had his breakout season as a professional with the Riverhounds in 2013, and scored more than 20 goals with Pittsburgh in two seasons.  Ironically, Angulo ended his USL Championship career in Hartford, in 2019.

Sacramento Republic: Current Kings of the Western Conference

The Riverhounds next opponent, Sacramento will be a tough out.

When asked questions about his team’s injured players and about next week’s matchup vs Western Conference leaders, Sacramento Republic, Lilley held nothing back in his replies, especially to Amadeo Eichberg, of La Mega Media, Inc.

The veteran coach responded to the question about facing three former Hounds who are now with the Republic by turning the tables, asking the reporter how many quality players did he think the Hounds have?

Lilley made his point eventually that he’s never focused on just three players, pointing out his team is filled with a lot of very good players, and Sacramento have many other outstanding players besides the three former Hounds, Russell Cicerone, Danny Vitiello and former Pitt standout Shane Wiedt.

“If we don’t have the ball, it doesn’t really matter. They’re (Sacramento) scoring goals,” Lilley exclaimed.

The Hounds will be contending with a squad that has only lost twice in 17 league matches (9-2-6 W-L-D), boasting a league leading goal differential of plus-19, having surrendered the least number of goals this season (11).

In its last four matches, Sacramento has just one win though, but it’s an impressive one, defeating last season’s defending USL Cup champs, San Antonio, 3-1, in a much anticipated match. The Republic have tied San Diego and RGV FC (each 1-1) and lost to Monterey Bay (1-0) in this recent run in June.

Vitiello, Wiedt, and  Cicerone were all key contributors for the Hounds in the past three years, as Cicerone and Wiedt also featured for the club last season, while Vitiello seized the starting goalkeeper position in Pittsburgh in 2020 and 2021.

Each return to Highmark good form.

Cicerone remains among the league leaders in scoring with nine goals, while Vitiello leads the Golden Glove race so far this season with 0.60 goals against average.

While the 27-year-old keeper isn’t the league-leader in shutouts anymore – Oakland Roots SC’s Paul Blanchette and Louisville City FC’s Oliver Semmle have seven apiece – Vitiello’s best case for the award might be his underlying numbers, where per Opta he has allowed only nine goals on a 15.01 Expected Goals Against mark.

Cicerone’s impact on Sacramento Republic FC’s fortunes in the final third keeps him at the front of the pack for MVP as he edged his former teammate Albert Dikwa for League’s May Player of the Month award.

As Lilley pointed out, Sacramento are a very deep and talented club, as the Hounds will have a lot more than the three former Hounds to contend with.

Look for a more detailed breakdown of Sacramento in PSN’s match preview and scouting report feature to come ahead of Saturday’s match.

PSN’s Hounds-Sacramento Republic FC Coverage 

Look for on site coverage on Saturday plus Dom Campbell will visit Hounds training session on Friday, and will have more on the team’s injury updates and more.

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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