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Riverhounds Notebook: With preseason winding down, Lilley still ‘moving things around’

Head Coach Bob Lilley was pleased that his Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC squad put two goals in the back of the net against University of Pittsburgh in the club’s second-to-last preseason match at Highmark Stadium on Saturday which resulted in a 2-o win.

However, when asked about his team’s performance and personnel following the match, the veteran coach shared a similar refrain that’s he’s been echoing through this preseason: that his club is “still a work in progress”.

Saturday’s scrimmage provided an opportunity for Lilley and his coaching staff to select a lineup that may indicate who will likely be penciled into the starting lineup when the Hounds open the regular season at New Mexico on March 9.

“We have a good core, and a lot of them played a lot of the minutes today,” Lilley, who has 11 returning players from USL Championship Players Shield winning squad, told Pittsburgh Soccer Now in an exclusive post match interview on Saturday.

“We’re missing a couple of guys who aren’t here yet.  One was back finishing up a college credit, there’s injuries, so we still have a few pieces to introduce.  I think it’s a good group.  A group with a lot of potential.  We still have a lot of work over these next two weeks.”

The starting lineup included eight of 10 returning field players plus one non-roster invitee, goalkeeper Gabriel Perrotta.

When falling back into defending formation, the back line consisted of venerable and versatile Danny Griffin between center backs Pat Hogan and Illal Osumanu, while veterans  Junior Etou and Dani Rovira was flanked out as the two-way outside backs/wingers.

The central midfield saw Kenardo Forbes, Robbie Mertz alongside newcomer and former Pitt midfielder Jackson Walti, with a forward high line that included Babacar Diene and Edward Kizza.

The first half was a struggle for the Hounds in terms of maintaining sharpness in building up possession and connecting passes, primarily in the final third.

What worked well in the first half?

The Hounds were effective in disrupting Pitt’s rhythm with a persistent high press, but they could not capitalize, with only one good, clean look, when Etou cut back a well-placed low pass from the left end line for Forbes in the center of the box .

“We forced a lot of turnovers, even in the first half, but our passing wasn’t very good,” Lilley said, of his team’s inability to connect passes and build-up scoring chances.

By the end of the first half, Pitt had the most dangerous chances in the match, in both cases Pitt’s Guilherme Fetiosa nearly getting past Perrotta in the 18th minute, then in the 24th minute, Pitt finally solved the Hounds’ press with a dynamic, quick counter that led to a ball finding left winger Albert Thorsen, who could not finish a golden opportunity.   The half ended with Fetiosa driving a low free kick from the left edge that forced Perrotta into a diving save.

As the case in the previous scrimmage, a 2-0 loss to West Virginia, which Lilley stated was the club’s low point of the preseason, through 45 minutes vs Pitt, the results were the same.

Two halftime subs were made, including Luke Biasi for Rovira, and non-roster invitee, Kazaiah Sterling for Diene.

Both subs made a pretty quick impact, as the Hounds started to pick up the pace and were sharper in getting final passes into dangerous positions.

After some clever work along the sideline, Biasi sent a solid cross for Mertz, but it wasn’t a clean chance on frame.

Moments later, in the 50th minute, Sterling, a one-time Tottenham Hotspur product who’s shone brightly with South Georgia Tormenta FC (USL League One) in past few years, drew plenty of company as he was just inside the left side of the box, then found Mertz trailing the play with lots of room to shoot.   A sharp, low pass right to Mertz’s foot led to the Hounds’ first goal since the second half of the Loudoun United FC road scrimmage win.

The Hounds stayed on the front foot for most of the second half, even as they subbed in a few more players, and in true preseason fashion, brought a few more players back onto the pitch for additional action.

Pat Hogan would capitalize on a Mertz corner kick in the 65th minute to double the lead, and for the Hounds, drastic improvement in connecting passes in the final third led to a positive result.

Among the musical chair subs included:  Langston Blackstock relieved Forbes in the 68th minute and another non-roster invitee, EJ Johnson, came on for Sterling.  Another newcomer, Sean Suber and Mike DeShields were added to back line a few moments later, taking the spots of Osumanu and Hogan.  Rovira and Diene entered back in the 77th minute, while Kizza and Etou saw their afternoon end at that point.  Finally, in the 89th minute, former Duquesne University/West Allegheny High School standout, Nate Dragisich, came on for fellow Pittsburgh-area native Mertz.

“We are still moving things around a bit.  We certainly look at this as our second-to-last preseason game.  We stayed with the starters a bit longer in most cases, because we got to get guys 90 minutes fit.  With two weeks of training, and (final preseason) game at Louisville, that should help educate us a bit more.  It’s a bit of a race now to try to be ready for that. Even though we’re on the road, we want to start the season on a good note, as everything’s about getting ready for that New Mexico game.”

As mentioned above, the Hounds’ featured a well-organized five man back line, three central midfielders and a pair of forwards, and as expected, there was a lot of movement off the ball and high pressing.  Etou, who came to Pittsburgh with a lot of professional experience as a holding midfielder, showed his versatility as a wide player, as he did last year when he returned to the lineup after an early season injury.  Diene is an interesting addition at forward, as he was a non-traditional college player, finishing up his eligibility in his mid-20s, and is now one of the older players on the Hounds.  Diene and Kizza spent a lot of time pressing and covering a lot of space, and did not get on the end of many scoring opportunities.

Diving deeper into the current roster and non-invitee list, the players who didn’t step foot on the pitch on Saturday included rostered players goalkeeper Jacob Randolph, defenders Pierre Cayet and Jake Lent-Koop, midfielder Bradley Sample, and non-roster invitees forward Markus Naglestad and midfielder Aiden O’Toole.

This might give an indication of the players who Lilley was referring to who might be sidelined by injury or not with with the team.

Of the non-roster invitees who played against Pitt, as second half subs, both Sterling and Johnson brought intensity and work rate, along with some glimpses of dynamic play would be welcome additions to this Hounds’ squad, if they’re formally added to the roster.  Perrotta, battling for third keeper spot, also made a couple key plays in denying Pitt’s chances in the first half.

Lilley chalked up the scrimmage with Pitt as step forward, even as they have a lot of work to do with the season opener now less than two weeks away.

“The understanding’s starting to come, and definitely an improvement over last week,”  Lilley added.

“This group works hard and they competed well today even though we have a lot to work on. The effort and intensity was good today, and I was impressed with Pitt too. They always give us a good game. Maybe we were able to stick a few on them, but generally it’s close.  They had three or four good chances.  But I was happy to see we created 15 or so really good moments. Hopefully we can get more clinical and tighten things in terms of our defending.  And we’ve been struggling with this for a while, to get cleaner on the ball as a group. We talked about that all last year, and we have to take care of the ball better. It’s a lot of turnovers, unnecessary turnovers.”


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).

Glory on the Grass

Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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