The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC have had their share of success on the field in six seasons under the direction of Head Coach Bob Lilley.
Yet when it comes to the postseason, the club and its fan base have experienced its share of heartbreak.
In fact, last season, the club posted an article, citing the five most memorable playoff games in the franchise’s history. Of those five, two came during the Highmark Stadium era, and only one of those was a win. Pittsburgh Soccer Now further profiled the Hounds’ haunted postseason legacy ahead of last season’s playoff opener at Birmingham — and how a deep playoff run would cure the Hounds’ annual postseason blues.
Despite its lowest postseason seeding since Bob Lilley took over in 2018, the fifth-seeded Hounds played two of the most memorable matches in club history last postseason — both on the road and both decided on penalty kicks.
The Hounds completed a remarkable comeback win at Birmingham in the Quarterfinal round, trailing 1-0 heading into stoppage time, Edward Kizza, who seconds earlier came into the match for Kenardo Forbes, hit the equalizer which sent the match into extra time. Then, trailing by a goal in Extra Time, Kizza did it again, providing the Hounds second equalizing tally which sent the contest to penalties. They survived a marathon penalty kick shootout, with Kizza coming through with the clincher.
It was the most thrilling win in club’s postseason history.
It was also a match where Lilley showed plenty of confidence in going deeper to his bench and turning to younger players more than he had done at any other time in his tenure in Pittsburgh, setting the blueprint for how the Hounds’ would build its roster this season.
Inspired by the comeback effort in Birmingham, the Hounds went to face nemesis, Louisville City FC a week later, and were in command of the match, holding a 2-0 lead in the 80th minute. Two sudden defensive lapses saw Louisville rally in a short span late in regulation, then the hosts outlasted the Hounds in penalty kicks to eliminate Pittsburgh from the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
The heartbreaking loss vs Louisville was a culmination of a string of disappointing playoff exits that have taken place every year since 2018 for the Riverhounds.
*For complete look at Hounds postseason history in the Bob Lilley era, see bottom of this article*
A few days later, the Riverhounds held a ribbon cutting ceremony for its new Montour Junction Complex, and it was evident from talking with Lilley and the players that were present that day, how gutted they were after that loss.
That’s when the building blocks of the 2023 campaign began.
Between contributions of young players like defender Arturo Ordonez and goalkeeper Jahmali Waite and those coming off the bench, like Kizza, Marc Ybarra, Toby Sims and William Eyang, the Hounds proved late in 2022, that they could get over the hump when faced with adversity down the stretch of the season and in the postseason when turning to less experienced but hungry players eager to make their mark.
A little more than a month later, Lilley announced the core group of players who the Hounds would be picking up contract options. This core group of returnees would include Robbie Mertz, Albert Dikwa, Marc Ybarra, Arturo Ordonez, Nathan Dossantos, Luke Biasi and Jahmali Waite.
From this group, only Mertz had reached his 26th birthday ahead of this season.
Heading into the new season in 2023, Lilley clearly altered his roster with more players in the 23-25 year old range, with only three veterans older than Mertz — Kenardo Forbes, the USL Championship’s All-Time assists leader and Lilley’s right hand man on the field for nearly a decade, and veteran defender Joe Farrell, who played for Lilley in Rochester in 2016-2017. The club also later added only one more veteran, 28 year-old Junior Etou, and picked up J.C. Obregon (25) in the middle of the season.
The current group consists of nine players who are in their second full seasons as professionals, three first-year pros, along with a mix of other players who range in having three to five years of pro experience in addition to Forbes, Etou and Farrell.
Bottom line, the Hounds fielded the fifth youngest average starting eleven in the Championship (avg age 25.2) this season, with only Charleston fielding a team in that top five that made the playoffs this season. Last season, Pittsburgh’s average starting eleven age was 26.8.
“I think we have the right mix. I like this group,” Lilley said at the start of the season.
“It’s a process, and every year since I’ve been here, we’ve built a solid roster, and when I look back, maybe we’re not as solid in some areas as I’d like to be, but I like what we have to build upon this year.”
Fast-forward to October, Lilley’s investment and what’s he ‘built upon’ with this core group of players, plus solid additions and the return of Danny Griffin in May, allowed the Riverhounds to put together its most successful regular season in club history, capturing the league’s Players Shield for most points as they’ll have the home field advantage in the postseason as long as they keep advancing.
It is now six straight seasons the Hounds have qualified or the postseason — all under Lilley’s direction. The Hounds hold the second-longest playoff streak in the USL Championship (trailing only Louisville’s nine) and the currently the longest streak among Pittsburgh’s pro franchises (Penguins broke their streak this Spring).
Lilley, a USL Hall of Famer, has not missed the postseason in 22 seasons as a head coach at the pro level. His championship pedigree includes leading Vancouver Whitecaps to the USL First Division title in 2006 and leading the Rochester Rhinos to the USL Cup title in 2015.
Lilley’s remaining holdover from the Rochester 2015 title team is Forbes, who has played for the veteran coach since 2015, coming over to Pittsburgh with him in 2018.
“It’s meant a lot to me, to be here, and to be playing with Bob for so long,” Forbes said after a preseason training session at sparkling new AHN Montour Juction Soccer Complex in Coraopolis.
“It was a no-brainer to sign again (for another season with the Riverhounds in 2023). Obviously I am getting older. But knowing the system, it’s much easier for an older guy, knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it.”
With home field wrapped up for this year’s postseason, the Hounds got what they wanted, to play in the postseason before the home fans during a season where they’ve shattered the team’s attendance records.
In his first season in Rochester, even as Forbes began to build his bond with Lilley, though, like everyone else found it to be tough to play for the ultra-successful coach, who had previously won a pro title in Vancouver and multiple Voyageur Cups in Canada leading the Montreal Impact.
Winning a championship together and being part of one of the greatest seasons in North American soccer history took care of any reservations Forbes had about Lilley.
The 2015 Rochester Rhinos were almost impossible to score against, and with Forbes working his magic in the middle of the field, they also found a way to always dictate tempo and terms of each match they played.
What Lilley found in Forbes, was a player who had the ability to set the tempo of his team’s play.
The long-time coach often spends lots of time breaking down game film while trying to get his players to execute a game plan from his vision.
With Forbes, Lilley found that a player not only understand that vision, but can take it onto the pitch to help control the flow of the match.
“Kenny’s so calm on the ball.” Lilley said recently.
“He sees the game as good as any player I’ve ever coached.”
Showing no signs of slowing down, this season Forbes — now 35 years of age — was second in minutes played and appearances on the team, plus ended up as co-leader in assists.
It’s Forbes who’s served as a mentor and assistant coach on the field to a team of players who he is — on average — at least 8 to 10 years older.
“He just understands how things work,” Mertz added.
“That’s such an important element to the team. He’s not always going to be a guy that’s most vocal, but he certainly leads by example and he shows up in the big moments. I can’t say enough about him.”
It’s not a coincidence that Albert Dikwa’s become one of the league’s top scorers and Ordonez has led the team in minutes played as a center back anchor in a season when the core group of players on the roster have now had time to develop chemistry playing together, adapting to Lilley’s demanding and detail-oriented style, while playing alongside Forbes, who sets the example for all of the other players.
As the Hounds were trailing late in the match vs Birmingham, Lilley didn’t hesitate to take Forbes out of the match, replacing him with Kizza. And, it was Kizza who found the critical goals to lead the Hounds to its most enthralling postseason victory in club history.
This was a moment that shone light on Lilley’s willingness to put faith in his younger players and his bench — and set the course in motion for the 2023 roster build. None of the older veterans beside Forbes were brought back to the roster. Alex Dixon, Dane Kelly, Russell Cicerone, two 30-plus year-olds, and other player past his 26th birthday — were gone.
Lilley and Forbes have accomplished many great things together, but the work they put in to help steer this year’s Hounds forward while continuing to instill a winning culture, with plenty of help from the core group who have mostly been together since 2019 and 2020 that includes Griffin, Mertz, Dikwa and Dani Rovira, may be one of their greatest accomplishments.
Heading into the penultimate week of the season showdown at Tampa Bay, on the road, with so much at stake, Lilley decided to alter his starting lineup slightly (Pat Hogan and Luke Biasi got the starts in place of Joe Farrell and Dani Rovira who started for the previous four matches), and the Hounds didn’t miss a beat in terms of executing the team’s game plan.
During the final stretch of regular season matches, Lilley, who used 23 field players during the season, pointed out that he expects many players to contribute, and wishes that with this squad, sometimes it’s unfair that he has to limit his number to the league requirement of 18 players on the game day roster.
And that will be no different for the playoffs.
Here’s a closer look at the roster with years as a pro and usage since September listed:
- GK – Jahmail Waite – 2ND YR – Started four matches (other two matches was on international duty)
- Arturo Ordonez – 2ND YR – started al six matches
- Nate Dossantos – 2ND YR – started all six matches
- Danny Griffin – 4TH YR – started all six matches
- Albert Dikwa -6TH YR – started all six matches
- Marc Ybarra – 2ND YR – started all six matches
- Dani Rovira- 5TH YR – four starts, two off bench
- Robbie Mertz – 5TH YR – three starts, three off the bench
- Junior Etou – 5TH YR – four starts, two off the bench
- Kenardo Forbes- 11TH YR – three starts, three off bench
- Tola Showunmi – 1ST YR – two starts, three off bench
- Pat Hogan – 4TH YR – two starts, two off bench
- Langston Blackstock – 2ND YR – one start, four off bench
- Joey Farrell -7TH YR – four starts, two off bench
- JC Obregón – 6TH YR – two starts, four off the bench
- Luke Biasi – 2ND YR – two starts, four off the bench
- Edward Kizza – 2ND YR – three starts, three off the bench
- Christian Garner – 1ST YR – two starts
PSN’s PROJECTED RIVERHOUNDS SC PLAYOFF STARTING XI
- GK: Jahmali Waite
- DEF: Arturo Ordonez, Nate Dossantos, Joe Farrell
- MF: Kenardo Forbes, Danny Griffin, Marc Ybarra, Junior Etou, Dani Rovira
- F: Albert Dikwa, Edward Kizza
Most Likely Available off Bench: Robbie Mertz, JC Obregón, Pat Hogan, Luke Biasi, Christian Garner (GK), Langston Blackstock, Tola Showunmi
Players who haven’t been in recent rotation: Illal Osumanu, DZ Harmon, Tony Lopez, Burke Fahling, Mike DeShields, Jonathan Gomes (GK)
No matter which way you spin it, or spit out the age and experience levels, the bottom line was that the Riverhounds have found a mix and blend of players who have worked well this season, providing coaching staff with many options to be ready when called upon, as they’re poised to make a deep run in the playoffs.
The Hounds this season have accomplished many exciting new heights, from beating two MLS teams in the US Open Cup, to winning the Players Shield.
A four-match run to the USL Cup Final, with all games played at Highmark Stadium, would be fitting way to see all the pieces of the puzzle come together to cap the 2023 season.
PAST PLAYOFF DISAPPOINTMENTS UNDER BOB LILLEY
In 2018, the Hounds came up short, losing after playing to a 2-2 draw after 120 minutes and an extended penalty kick shootout against the Birmingham Steel FC.
That was a very exciting night for Pittsburgh soccer fans. It was their first postseason match in Highmark Stadium history, and they showed that a soccer playoff match in Pittsburgh could pack the seats and provide a very lively atmosphere — even on a very wet, cold Fall night along the Monongahela River.
The following season, the Hounds finally got their first postseason win in more than a decade, and the first at Highmark Stadium, when they absolutely bulldozed a Birmingham side on the strength of Neco Brett’s four goals.
It was another packed house at Highmark, with the newly reconstructed Paul Child Stand filling every seat.
Unfortunately, the Hounds, who finished with the best record in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference that season, couldn’t capitalize on all the momentum even with another full house at Highmark the following Saturday night, when they fell against an experienced and playoff-tested Louisville City club that wore them down, eventually winning, 2-1, in Extra Time.
The COVID-19 shortened season in 2020 only brought more late season disappointments, as Pittsburgh lost a late regular season match to Hartford, which cost them a shot at hosting at least a first-round playoff. Instead, the Hounds had to go to Louisville, where they came out attacking, but were turned back for another playoff loss against the Purple and Gold.
Coming back in 2021, the Hounds couldn’t overtake Tampa Bay or Louisville, in the eight-team Atlantic Division, regular season format, and had to settle for starting the playoffs on the road.
Though that team was very confident heading into the playoffs, they were ravaged by a number of positive COVID-19 cases on the club, and had to deal with the unthinkable — forfeiting a playoff match at Birmingham. Ending the season in the most harsh way — by making the playoffs but not being able to get on to the field.