Through 20 league matches plus an impressive U.S. Open Cup run, the Riverhounds SC show no signs of slowing down. One the other hand, with a stifling defensive structure, the Hounds have consistently slowed down every opponent they’ve faced this season.
In this edition of the Notebook, we’ll take a deeper look at how impressive the Hounds have been defensively. In the meantime, the team is in the midst of a full week of training and preparation for its next match, on Saturday night on the road, at Old Guard Shield rival Charleston (7:30 p.m. — ESPN+).
Pittsburgh currently sits atop the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference standings with 38 points, four points ahead of Tampa Bay, as they have the most points accumulated in the league, with all teams now passing the halfway point of the 2023 campaign.
In the Eastern Conference, everything seems to be falling in the Hounds’ favor of late.
The next closest team, Tampa Bay, finally cooled off, losing 1-0, to Birmingham in its first match without Head Coach Neill Collins, who stunned many around the club and the league, when he took the Manager position with EFL League One club Barnsley. Meanwhile third place Charleston enters the match with back-to-back underwhelming draws, while 4th place Memphis hasn’t won in four matches and 5th place Louisville is really struggling, having only scored two goals in its last five matches, somehow pulling out a pair of 1-0 wins in that stretch but may have hit a low point in losing to Detroit, 2-0, on Wednesday night.
Who’s the hottest team in the Eastern Conference?
Tulsa is the answer. The Oklahomans have reeled off four straight wins against the murderers row of Indy, Miami, Detroit and Hartford (okay, I was just blowing smoke with the murderers row label).
The point of this writing exercise though, is the point out the fact that Head Coach Bob Lilley has to sense in the back of his mind that the Eastern Conference is absolutely ripe for plucking. With a four-point edge in the standings, however, the Hounds cannot be content, and must smell the blood in the water.
Pittsburgh has not lost a match to an Eastern Conference opponent this season (6-0-5 | W-L-D).
The Hounds’ gaffer has demanded more from his players after recent matches, wanting to see more dynamic attack in getting forward and look to punish its opponents in the final third.
Even after Saturday’s win vs Detroit, Lilley made it clear, his squad didn’t do enough.
“We didn’t have much possession and created very few shots. We had to defend from deep for a large portion of the game,” Lilley explained.
“You’re not going to win that many games playing that way, but the guys dug in and found a way. Hopefully we get some energy back (next week). My sense is that we were tired as a group.”
What Lilley wants from this team, made up of a fairly younger roster (sans Kenardo Forbes as they’re the third youngest in the league), is to play more consistently with sharper focus, make better decisions when getting forward, have killer instinct, and play in a way that they start to put their proverbial foots on the throats of every opponent.
What’s been impressive from this group, how impressive they’ve looked under Lilley’s direction after playing a team for the second time. After the first match with Louisville City FC, a somewhat disappointing effort which ended in a scoreless draw, Lilley was clearly not happy with his team’s inability to make better decisions on the ball, and take advantage of an opponent that hadn’t been scoring goals.
“We can’t win on defense and hard work alone,” Lilley lamented after that match.
In the rematch a little more than a week later, the Hounds never relented on the road, playing on the front foot in 1-0 win at Lynn Family Stadium against a hapless and lifeless Lou City side that often dominates opponents on its home turf.
There’s been one other instance where Pittsburgh has already played an Eastern Conference opponent twice. In the season opener, Pittsburgh and Birmingham played a 1-1 draw. In the return match, the Hounds looked like the much stronger club, in a convincing 2-1 win at Highmark Stadium.
The way the schedule plays out, the Hounds will face each Eastern Conference side twice this season. On tap, the Hounds have a visit to Charleston, then they’re home for Indy (just above the playoff line at 21 points) and Memphis in the coming week. These are three teams they’ve already defeated. This current stretch will provide them with a chance to keep stacking points in more rematches against Eastern Conference sides.
Then, they’ll finally get to face Tampa Bay the following week for the first time, also at home, on August 5.
While the rest of the Eastern Conference is taking its lumps, now is a great time for Pittsburgh to push themselves further up and away from the rest of the pack.
Taking a Closer Look at Staggering Defensive Numbers
A lot of impressive things have stood out for the Hounds this season, but the foundation of the club’s success has been predicated on collective defensive play, overall organization and team shape, which limit scoring chances of every team they’ve faced.
How stingy have the Hounds been in limiting other teams this season?
Here are some of the staggering numbers:
- Lead the USL Championship (USLC) in clean sheets (10)
- Given up least number of goals (12 – tied with Sacramento)
- Allowed 0.6 goals per game (good for a goal once every 150 minutes)
- Ridiculous shots allowed stats include:
- lowest allowed shots allowed (167)
- lowest shots allowed per match/90 (8.35)
- shots on target allowed percentage (22.8% — next closest is San Diego at 27.0%)
- maybe the most impressive of all — just 1.9 shots on target allowed per match (next closest also San Diego at 3.21!!).
- Dating back to May 28 — during the last nine league matches – the Hounds have surrendered just one goal (in 2-1 win versus San Diego Loyal)
- Have not allowed a goal in the last four full games plus a little more than a half (408 minutes)
- Boast the third best goal differential (plus-13) in the league
You might have to go back to Bob Lilley’s 2015 Rochester Rhinos to see a stretch of defensive play and a run through 20 matches to start the season that compares to what the Hounds are doing. Through 20 matches, that Rochester team posted a 12-1-7 (W-L-D) record, allowing just 10 goals (four came in loss at Charlotte). Through 20 matches this season, the Riverhounds are 10-2-8 (W-L-D), surrendering 12 goals. Of course, that Rochester squad finished the deal, ending the season with one loss, allowing just 16 goals for the entire season and playoffs while capturing the USL Cup in a shorter campaign (28 regular season and three postseason matches).
Sometimes, when things are going your way, you get the right bounces too.
Two of those ‘bounces’ came for the Hounds in the Louisville matches. At home on July 1, Arturo Ordonez and Dani Rovira made ridiculous saves off the line on the same sequence in the second half to deny an Elijah Wynder shot attempt off the post from bouncing past the goal line. Then, on road, on July 10, Griffin made a lunging effort to block a dangerous Brian Ownby shot.
What’s even more impressive, is that the Hounds are not relying on specific, individual players, but rather a deep rotation during the rigors of a schedule that has included 20 league and four Open Cup matches since early March.
Goalkeeper Jahmali Waite went off to play for the Jamaican National team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
No problem, as the Hounds didn’t stand pat. They went out and found one of the best third string keepers off an MLS roster to acquire on loan for one month, through June and July, in place of Waite. Luis Zamudio did his part by posting four of the team’s 10 clean sheets.
No team has kept more shutouts in the USL Championship than Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC this season (10).
— Pedro Rondon (@usasupersoccer) July 18, 2023
Taking a closer look at the back line, and again, the Hounds have used a pretty heavy rotation, as it’s never really the same two or three center backs, and the same outside backs.
Here’s how they’ve lined up in the last five matches with backline pairings:
- June 24 vs San Diego – Luke Biasi, Illal Osumanu, Arturo Ordonez, Mike Deshields, Nate Dossantos
- July 1 vs Lou City FC – Luke Biasi, Illal Osumanu, Joe Farrell, Arturo Ordonez, Dani Rovira
- July 8 vs Sacramento – DZ Harmon, Arturo Ordonez, Joe Farrell, Illal Osumanu, Langston Blackstock
- July 12 at Lou City FC – Dani Rovira, Arturo Ordonez, Pat Hogan, Illal Osumanu, Langston Blackstock
- July 15 vs Detroit City FC – Burke Fahling, Arturo Ordonez, Joe Farrell, Mike Deshields, Dani Rovira
The Hounds have regularly used five different center backs during this time, and this doesn’t include Dossantos, who was playing center back at times before an injury in the San Diego match sidelined the former Marshall University standout. In this five match stretch, Pittsburgh has also used six different outside backs.
Among this group, multiple players have earned USL Team of the Week honors this season including Ordonez (twice), Hogan, Osumanu, Deshields and Fahling.
This week, it was Deshields’ turn to get recognized, after a solid outing on Saturday.
“It takes a full team effort to get these shutouts,” Deshields, a first-year Hound who previously played with New England Revolution in MLS NextPro, said after training this week.
“From goalie to forward, its all defensive work. We’ve been working hard, and it’s paying off.”
Deshields is spot on when pointing out it’s been a complete team effort when it comes to defending. The Hounds have midfielders and forwards who have bought intp not just sitting back and creating an impenetrable shape, but they also have the personnel to swarm and press opposing back lines with regularity and strong rotations in covering space.
To back everyone up, it’s still no surprise that among the center back group, Ordonez is the primary, constant force. The former Pitt star who was drafted by Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer, has been putting up All-USL Championship worthy performances every time he steps out on the pitch.
In 18 matches played, Ordonez is among the club’s leaders in minutes (1,609), matches started (18), is fifth in the Championship in interceptions (33), has a knack for making big plays, saving a few plays off the line this season while scoring three goals (coming in three straight matches), has an assist and is the Hounds’ highest rated player on FotMob.com.
With the Hounds running an impressive defensive streak, the rest of the league will be eager to put an end to their success, starting with Charleston on Saturday. The last time the two rivals played in Charleston, the Hounds suffered one of their worst defeats in memory — a 3-0 drubbing to a last place Battery side.
“From start to finish, we have to just keep going,” Deshields added.
“Hopefully it gets easier for us, but I don’t see it as such. We’ll be ready for that challenge anyway.”
Hounds at Charleston — What’s At Stake in the Old Guard Shield Rivalry?
By virtue of its 3-0 win last season at home (and subsequent draw in Pittsburgh) the Battery currently are the reigning belt holders in the series, but Pittsburgh, coming off its 2-0 victory at home vs Charleston in June, have a decent edge going into the final match of the season between the two sides in terms of securing the Shield back in the arms of Pittsburgh’s Steel Army.
Charleston would essentially need to win by three goals in most scenarios to retain the Shield, which continues to sport the logos of the supporter groups for all five original ‘Old Guard’ USL franchises (Rochester, Richmond and Harrisburg).
ATTN: IT'S AN OLD GUARD SHIELD WEEK!
— Steel Army (@SteelArmy) July 18, 2023
You can review past results in the series here.
The teams have played every season, with one exception, the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season. In five seasons that the Shield has been contested, Pittsburgh has won it three times (2018, 2019 & 2021), while Charleston captured it twice (2017 and 2022). In 2017 all five original clubs were involved, and in 2018, after Rochester folded, the remaining four duked it out for the Shield. Since then, it’s been contested between Pittsburgh and Charleston.