Pittsburgh Riverhounds head coach Bob Lilley will look to lean on a select group of players to help bind his team together after going through big changes this offseason.
Given the setup of the USL, with a large portion of players on short-term contracts, being able to keep the majority of a starting eleven together for more than a couple of years is about as rare as Jeff Jimerson hitting the wrong note during the national anthem at PPG Paints Arena.
The Hounds are, of course, not immune from such changes, with a quick glance at the preseason roster showing 11 players returning from the 2023 campaign, 8 newcomers who are already signed to a contract and 10 players on trial still hoping to impress Bob Lilley and earn their way onto the team for 2024.
Perhaps the biggest story though is not who the Hounds gained, but who they lost over the winter. Goalkeeper Jahmali Waite moved on to El Paso Locomotive, whilst defender Arturo Ordonez and Golden Boot-winning forward Albert Dikwa, both USL All-League First Teamers, have also moved on to Louisville City FC and Rhode Island FC respectively.
Speaking exclusively with Pittsburgh Soccer Now as the players completed their first training session of the campaign at the AHN Montour Health + Sports Medicine Center, Lilley spoke about the departure of his stars from last year and what the club are doing to replace them moving into 2024:
“Those guys are a huge part of our success. So we don’t take it lightly, we know we have to grow and develop to win games and replace them.
“Albert had hoped to go to Europe. I know there were some offers, didn’t hit the sweet spot. So then he was looking to come back and we were in really deep with him and unfortunately, at the end the overall numbers didn’t work, but we pushed hard.
“Arturo made a quick decision and obviously Louisville is a really strong club, so he made that decision. He’s been in Pittsburgh with The University of Pittsburgh and us for a long time, I think he was looking for a new challenge and had a great season.
“There’s always solutions, we’re in the process of solving those things and we’ll be ready as we go into the season.”
But as Lilley explained, in times of turnover, he knows that he has a reliable group that he can use as the building blocks for whatever shape the team takes on. The likes of Robbie Mertz, Danny Griffin, Kenardo Forbes and Dani Rovira all acting as his trusted leadership group to help new talent settle in:
“There’s guys that have been here, understand exactly how we want to play and they’re helpful even when we’re going through training sessions early on, having little private conversations with players to make sure they’re all on the same page.”
What does Lilley look for in the group? In the end it comes down to three key principles, something that his group of veterans all have in abundance:
“They just bring steadiness, they bring leadership, they bring consistency. And that’s important for any group, but they’ve been around the block, they know what we’re trying to do. They’re able to communicate that to the new guys, they’re able to keep the guys pointed in the right direction, calm the waters when they’re anxious, stir them and push them when we need a little bit more juice, they’re good at those things.”
With preseason kicking off next week with a home game against Indy Eleven and the regular season underway on March 9th against New Mexico United, the Hounds will be hoping those messages can be passed on quickly if they want to start off the season on the right foot with some very tough games on the schedule to begin the year.