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Takeaways/Player Grades: Determined Riverhounds stay a step ahead, lock down Rowdies to clinch Players Shield

Photo courtesy Tampa Bay Rowdies

Heading into the most important regular season match, potentially, in club history, on the road in a place where the Riverhounds have only won once before, Al Lang Stadium home of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Head Coach Bob Lilley needed to address some lingering questions despite his club’s overall solid form coming the down the stretch of the season.

Despite winning four straight matches and being unbeaten in its previous six matches, the Hounds had also been getting into the habit giving up late goals, and allowing opponents back into each of the past four matches.

This trend began in August, when they pulled out a wild, 4-3 win at Hartford in August but blew a three-goal lead in the process.

Following a 3-2 win vs FC Tulsa at Highmark Stadium, Lilley was still searching for answers about his team’s ability to close out matches, as FC Tulsa scored late in the first half and late in the second half.

“We’re going to have to play the full 90 minutes every match going forward. They were getting balls through us. And that shouldn’t happen,” Lilley stated.

“It’s frustrating that we’re giving up some soft goals.  I still don’t think we’re defending at best level.”

The veteran coach is always demanding more from his players and while he could be described by many that have played and worked with him as a perfectionist, Lilley’s ultimately looking for his team to always execute three cornerstones to be consistently successful:

“Don’t give anything away”

“Dictate the game”

“Be Dynamic”

In his 200th overall match at the helm of Pittsburgh’s pro soccer outfit, the Hounds carried out those objectives, mostly staying one step ahead of a very talented Rowdies squad all night long in St. Petersburg, earning a 2-0 victory that gave the club its first ever Players Shield, which will also earn them home field advantage for the USL Cup playoffs.

Riverhounds clinch Players Shield by slamming door shut on Rowdies, 2-0

USL Championship / MLS / NCAA soccer broadcast analyst Devon Kerr hailed the Hounds as the most consistent team in the league on Sounding Off on Soccer podcast last week, as they endured and continued to grow as a team through the marathon regular season which also was further sparked by a successful run in the U.S. Open Cup tournament.

The payoff came on Saturday night in St. Petersburg, as the Hounds played like a determined group with an answer for everything that Tampa Bay, who were in desperation mode, threw at them.

Following the match, in a brief interview with PSN contributor, Amadeo Eichberg, Lilley deferred credit to his players, who he applauded for putting in the work and dealing with difficult circumstances all season long.

“It’s a big accomplishment for the guys. They worked hard all year, and I am proud of them,” Bob Lilley, Riverhounds SC Head Coach said after the match from the jubilant locker room.

“They stuck together.  It was not easy. We worked hard since the preseason and never lost sight of our goal. The group responded well.”

#TBRvPIT TAKEAWAYS

Slight Tweaks to Starting Lineup Selections

Lilley indicated in early September that he didn’t expect to make too many changes to the starting lineup and player selections for the game day rosters moving forward.  For the next four weeks, the Hounds’ lineup remained mainly intact, with the same starters for the previous three matches.

On Saturday night, the Hounds made two switches to the lineup, as Luke Biasi and Pat Hogan were penciled into the starting eleven, with Joe Farrell and Dani Rovira available for selection off the bench.

Of course, Lilley went to his bench to provide fresh legs and energy — and leadership in closing out the match by bringing on Rovira, Farrell, Tola Showunmi, Langston Blackstock and Robbie Mertz.

Get the ball to Albert Dikwa Early (this time it took 29 Seconds!) 

Maybe an addendum to Lilley’s cornerstones for this year’s Riverhounds’ squad should be: Get the ball early to Albert Dikwa.

That’s how the Hounds have been a step ahead of the competition many times this season.

It’s hard to believe that at one time, there may have been a prevailing thought in his tenure with the Riverhounds that Albert Dikwa’s ideal role would be that of a super sub and high energy forward off the bench.  That was his role when he joined the team halfway through the 2020 campaign as a 21 year old.  That became the thought again, after injuries sidelined him in 2021 and he started off the 2022 season on the depth chart behind the USL Championship’s all-time goal scoring leader, Dane Kelly.

But, time-after-time, Bob Lilley continued to push Dikwa harder, and started to recognize that the forward from Cameroon would be someone who would become impossible to take off the field, even playing a physically demanding role as a forward in Lilley’s system, which requires strikers to cover a lot of space.

At the end of the 2022 season, it became clear that Dikwa’s ability to find goals and finish anywhere near the box with efficiently began to match his relentless work rate and superb match fitness.

In the 2023 campaign, he added a new element to his game.  Find goals early in matches.

On Saturday night, he did it again.

The Hounds kicked off and went forward straight from the opening whistle.

Kenardo Forbes received the ball in the middle of the field from the right side, and the captain swung a pass the other way to Junior Etou. The left back struck an early cross to the far post, where Dikwa sprinted in unmarked to touch the ball into the net after only 29 seconds, making it the second-fastest goal in team history.

It was a remarkable, instinctive play by someone who clearly is getting the message from his coach about looking for the open spaces and getting behind defenders.  As the Hounds knocked the ball around, Dikwa held up near the center part of the box, only to take off on a run to the far post, just as Etou pivoted and began to send a ball in the same direction.

It was Dikwa’s 20th goal, which puts him three goals clear of the field in the race for the Golden Boot with one week to play.

Of those 20 goals — nine of them have come in the 22nd minute or earlier.  (By the way, if you’re wondering, here’s the complete list if you’re wondering:  5′ vs Memphis; 18′ at Indy; 16′ at Monterey Bay; 11′ vs Birmingham; 22′ vs Columbus; 3′ vs Tampa Bay; 16′ at Harford; 21′ vs Loudoun United; 12′ vs FC Tulsa; 1′ at Tampa Bay) 

So many times this season, the Riverhounds have started the early part of the match with an Albert Dikwa goal.

In the biggest match of the season, with so much on the line, they did it again, and for the second time against the Rowdies.

It was a dream start to the match for the Hounds — and they could thank a great team build-up and another terrific goal from Albert Dikwa.

Dikwa now also accounts for 40 percent of Pittsburgh’s goal scoring production in league play.  He’s already in great position to win the Golden Boot, but it may also be hard to deny Dikwa’s bid to become the USL Championship’s MVP this season too.

Always a Step Ahead 

Watching the match play out in the late stages, with the Riverhounds keeping a pretty firm grip on its 2-0 lead, all you had to do was look at the facial expressions of the Tampa Bay Rowdies players, and Head Coach Nicky Law.

The Rowdies looked exasperated and frustrated, despite owning 78 percent of the ball to dominate possession, and finding moments to send shots at Hounds goalkeeper Jahmali Waite, Pittsburgh made the very talented and potent Rowdies midfielders and attackers work for every inch they advanced the ball.

Even after the early Hounds’ goal, Tampa Bay continued to deal with an annoying press.  Once the match reached the half hour mark, the home side started to find some opportunities.

No player had more frustration written all over his face than Cal Jennings.

In the 31st minute, Jennings, who came into the match trailing Dikwa by two goals in the Golden Boot race, had a header chance from a Lewis Hilton cross, but missed it wide.

Then, in stoppage time, after a set piece had been punched clear by Hounds keeper Jahmali Waite, a cross to the right side of the penalty area was met by Forrest Lasso, whose header got tangled in Jennings’ legs but fell kindly for a chance at a narrow angle inside the six-yard area.

This time, Jennings connected with the post and then pinged away for a goal kick.

The Rowdies had plenty of the ball, and they kept pushing, but that might have been their best chance of the match.

The Hounds started to back off from its press, but once absorbing things a bit more, they continued to have an answer on many Tampa Bay pass attempts through the middle, and many balls played wide, they continuously rotated to clog the attacking spaces. On the night, Pittsburgh had 12 interceptions and 23 clearances.

Waite showed more confidence than ever in securing each save, but maybe more importantly, with his decisiveness coming off his line all night as the Rowdies were persistent in sending 19 crosses and seven corner kicks on what was a warm, wet Florida night.

Staying Aggressive 

While they sat back in the latter stages of the first half, while holding a 1-0 lead, the Hounds couldn’t afford to absorb pressure alone for 45 more minutes.  They adjusted and began the second 45 minutes just like they started the match, with a more aggressive mindset.

Junior Etou and Marc Ybarra drew fouls in the attacking third early in the second half while Kenardo Forbes took a run at goal, forcing Connor Sparrow to make a save.

In total, there were 28 fouls (each team with 14) in a match that could hardly be called free-flowing, and with the Hounds bottling things up, the stop-and-start nature at times favored the road team holding onto the lead.

The Rowdies kept pushing though, and by the 56th minute, they were ready to unleash some fresh legs, by bringing on J.J. Williams and last season’s USL Championship MVP, Leo Fernandes, in his first appearance of the season since going down with an Achilles injury.

As Fernandes came on, the crowd started to come back alive, looking to give the Rowdies a lift to find the equalizer that could flip the match.

Again, in the 58th minute, Jennings had some room at the top of a crowded box, to drive a low shot that snuck by everyone by Waite, who comfortably fielded the grounder.

The Hounds brought some fresh legs on of their own, as Tola Showumni and Joe Farrell came on for Edward Kizza and Nate Dossantos in the 61st minute.

Shortly after, Pittsburgh punished the Rowdies again, in the battle between the Conference’s best attacking group and the most stingiest side.

Following a Pittsburgh corner in the 62nd minute, the Rowdies tried to counter, but once again, a Riverhound jumped a passing lane. This time it was Luke Biasi who slid in the center circle to turn play the other direction. The ball came to Forbes, who advanced to the edge of the box, then fed Tola Showunmi to the right.

And yet again this season, Showunmi, shortly after entering the match, found a way to make a big play.  The lanky Londoner took the ball to the end line, then found Ordóñez making a near-post run for the finish.

While the remaining, non-Albert Dikwa scoring contributions making up the other 60 percent of goals have been spread out, this was the fifth goal of the year for Ordóñez, the most ever in a single-season by a Hounds center back.  It’s an impressive feat considering Ordóñez scored six goals in his three seasons at Pitt.

Being that the Hounds were already pushed up for a corner kick, Ordóñez was already higher up in the pitch than usual, and when his teammates were moving forward quickly on the counter, and in the spirit of Total Football, he simply joined in on the fun, making a very well-timed run that gave the Hounds a lead that burst Tampa Bay’s bubble.

The Hounds forced Tampa Bay to play uphill from the start of the match, and by the time they reached the final 20-plus minutes, the home side met even more resistance.  Bringing on Showunmi, who Lilley said after the Columbus Open Cup upset was giving backlines nightmares with his persistence when pressing, along with veterans Rovira, Mertz and especially Farrell, helped make sure the group would stay together and be unified in seeing through the clean sheet.

With a final regular season at Detroit with little on the line, Lilley and his staff will work everyone in the rotation in for valuable minutes, fitness and most importantly to stay sharp to prepare for the first round of the playoffs, which could come the following week at Highmark Stadium against either Detroit or Miami, depending on how things play out next weekend.

#TBRvPIT PLAYER GRADES 

Starters in Bold 

Jahmali Waite – 7/10 – under pressure for much of the match, this was one of Waite’s best performances as a pro, coming up with five saves but as mentioned above, may have been at his best and under control coming off his line when needed.

Junior Etou – 8/10 – continues to show why he was a valuable pick-up in the off season — as his assist in the first minute showed his connection with the attacking group, but also his two way play was strong winning 8 of 8 duels (!!) along with six defensive actions, four recoveries, two interceptions and two clearances.

Nate Dossantos  – 6.5/10 – watching Dossantos work with other backline players, he continues to be very comfortable carrying the ball out of trouble with his feet — as a former number six — when needed and in making good decisions, especially working well linking up with Danny Griffin.

Tola Showunmi (61’) – 7/10 – Remember in the first four or five matches he came off the bench, how much hard luck he had with his finishing and making an impact?  That seems like ages ago, as the rookie forward has continued to develop and is a key part of the Hounds attacking rotation late in games.

Arturo Ordóñez – 8.5/10 – This was another big performance for the former Pitt man, who continues to log the most minutes for this team, and score goals in big moments.  His defensive ability to shut

Pat Hogan – 7/10 – Did his part for the first hour, made five clearances, had nine defensive actions, with two recoveries and won 4/9 duels.

Luke Biasi – 7 /10 – Up to the task, as he was solid both ways, coming up with the big intercepted pass that led to the second goal, but also had three tackles, three clearances, two recoveries and won 5/10 duels.

Kenardo Forbes – 7/10 – as always, solid on the ball and in decision making that was so valuable in a big match like this — created two chances, had four recoveries and 83% passing accuracy.

Robbie Mertz (75’) – NR – nice for Hounds to have Mertz ready to step in when Forbes rotates out, to maintain high level two-way play and keep high quality on set pieces.

Danny Griffin – 7/10 – sitting deeper, had four clearances and six recoveries, with nine defensive actions.

Marc Ybarra – 6.5/10 – again, with the lead the entire match, Hounds midfielders were very solid in defending, while conceding possession. Ybarra personified that — passing accuracy at just 69%, but had seven recoveries, won 4/8 duels and

Edward Kizza – 6/10 – Kizza continues to do a lot of the dirty work well, and no different here.  He had three recoveries and three clearances while also pressing constantly and working together with Dikwa at the top.

Joe Farrell (61’) – 7/10 – Nice to have added veteran presence and leadership who can help close out the match.

Albert Dikwa – 7.5/10 – Made case MVP status above.  As always, played well on both sides of the ball, but ended up with just three shot attempts in the match.  He made sure he converted on one of those!

Dani Rovira (87’) – NR – Another important veteran presence that is a good player to have both as a starter or late in matches.

Langston Blackstock (87’) – NR – Much like Showunmi, was ready and up for the task to come in late in match.   

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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