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Veterans lead the way for Riverhounds approaching first preseason contest

Robbie Mertz (r) in preseason action in 2023. File photo courtesy Ed Thompson

Team leaders including Robbie Mertz and Danny Griffin aim to help new talent acclimate and thrive with the Hounds

Consistency is a premium in all sports, especially soccer at the USL level, and for the Riverhounds it’s worth its weight in (black and) gold. With a busy offseason behind them and numerous faces both leaving and arriving at Highmark Stadium, while head coach Bob Lilley aims to provide stability from above, he looks to key veterans to provide it at field-level.

While the initial roster for the 2024 USL Championship campaign and Players’ Shield defense continues to build out, the Riverhounds are nearing the end of the first week of preseason training and approaching their first exhibition of the year at home next Tuesday, Feb. 6 (12 PM ET) against Indy Eleven. The first of five preseason contests the club has scheduled before the regular season kicks off on March 9th in New Mexico.

On an unseasonably warm February morning, the Hounds took to the outdoor fields at the AHN Montour Health + Sports Medicine Center to get some nonetheless brisk practice into the blood before Tuesday’s match. While working on rapid ball movement, wing play, and quick counters, veterans Danny Griffin and Robbie Mertz spoke with Pittsburgh Soccer Now about the framework of stability provided by Lilley’s successful system, as well as their roles in ensuring its continuity from year-to-year.

“Something we see more on the inside of Bob’s system is that it’s actually pretty flexible – even game to game throughout a season, and certainly across seasons as our personnel changes,” explained Griffin. “He actually tweaks a lot of things, but the key is that the principles and some of the things he’s harping on every day remain the same.”

When asked how players such as himself and his fellow long-timers help facilitate the translation of those principles across seasons, Griffin emphasized the responsibility they hold in helping new, incoming talent adjust.

“I definitely think at this point we’ve got four or five guys that have been around long enough that we kind of know what he’s going to say before he says it at times. I think that is helpful for some of the other guys who are just stepping in and are new here, that we can certainly give them that insight and help Bob to implement some of his ideas.”

Aside from a brief stint in Huntsville early last year, Griffin enters his fifth year under Lilley after the 25-year-old attacking mid’s four years at Providence College. Now a veteran 27-year-old midfielder, Mertz enters year five with Lilley as well, starting in 2019 and interrupted by two years as a fixture at Atlanta United 2. Both rank among the senior personnel on-field for the Riverhounds alongside fellow vets Kenardo Forbes and Dani Rovira.

Joining the long-term Riverhounds spine are a series of newcomers, ranging from forward Babacar Diene out of Rider University to former MLS and USL Championship goalkeeper Eric Dick and several other talents in-between.

Mertz spoke about his enjoyment working with new teammates, helping them to adjust to Lilley’s system, and echoing Lilley’s sentiment from earlier in the week that the team feels further ahead at this point in the preseason than previous seasons.

“Yeah, I’d say definitely. We have more guys returning who are familiar with Coach [Lilley] that know his system, know the way he wants to play, the way he wants to defend and what we want to do with the ball,” said Mertz.

“So yeah, having these new guys in, obviously a lot of talent coming in – a lot of guys who are going to learn and be sponges every day and they’ve got good guys around them to help them learn the system.”

With just over a month until the regular season kicks off, the Hounds look to lean on the leadership of their strong core and the rarity of consistent coaching of the past seven years to once again contend and defend their Players’ Shield.

Glory on the Grass

Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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