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Takeaways / Player Grades: Riverhounds western woes continue with season opening loss at New Mexico

Photo courtesy New Mexico United

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds opened its 2024 season with a lethargic performance, losing 1-0 to New Mexico United on a cool and sunny Saturday afternoon at Isotopes Park in Alberqueque, New Mexico.

Lackluster Riverhounds drop season opener to New Mexico, 1-0

It was a performance to mostly forget for the team and its fans, as the Hounds will travel back to Pittsburgh to gear up for its home opener on Saturday against Orange County SC.

That won’t stop us from keeping the tradition of posting our post match takeaways and player grades.

Personnel / Formation / Tactics

The Riverhounds started the match settling back into a 5-3-2 formation when in defensive shape.  Getting forward, things expanded a bit more, but there wasn’t enough movement or efficient passing through the middle and into the final third, despite the Hounds’ forwards efforts to cover a lot of ground with a mostly ineffective press.

Newly appointed as captain, veteran Danny Griffin, who has primarily featured as a midfielder much of his pro career, anchored things out of the back — sitting between Illal Osumanu on the right and Mike DeShields on the left.

Jackson Walti, the former Pitt defensive midfielder, started the match in the central holding midfield spot, while Kenardo Forbes and Robbie Mertz played a little higher.  The outside backs were a pair of veterans, Junior Etou on the left and Dani Rovira on the right.

On a bright note — it was Robbie Mertz’s 100 match as a Riverhounds player.  The Upper St Clair native is the 17th player to hit 100 appearances for the Hounds and he will be only the fourth Pittsburgh-area native to do so, joining Gary DePalma, Justin Evans and Nathan Salsi.

The Hounds formation was bookended veteran Eric Dick, making his first start for Pittsburgh in goal, while Babacar Diene and Edward Kizza were at the top.

Bob Lilley used all five allotted subs, starting with Luke Biasi, who has primarily played as an outside back/winger — replacing DeShields.  Additionally, EJ Johnson made his club debut along with Langston Blackstock in the 71st minute (for Forbes and Diene) and Pierre Cayet and Sean Suber also saw their first stints with the Hounds when they came on in the 84th minute for Etou and Rovira.  Suber moved to the middle while Biasi went to the wide spot as the Hounds pushed for the equalizer.

Hounds Chase The Match Early

Looking back, the Hounds started off with some positive elements, including setting up three corner kicks in the first two minutes.  A year ago against New Mexico, Pittsburgh capitalized on a pair of corner kick opportunities to take a 2-0 lead.  Even with Kenardo Forbes serving up balls into the box, the USL Championship’s all-time leading assist leader could not connect with anyone on balls into a crowded box.   On the final corner, Danny Griffin found a chance to drive a low shot on frame.

At that point, the Hounds were off to a good start.

It was something they couldn’t sustain.

Maybe one bright spot, Junior Etou, who has been moved to the left fullback spot, who covered tons of space from endline to endline, created a few moments where he cut back passes to the middle of the box, but each failed to connect for any legit chances.

Instead, New Mexico, a solid possession team a year ago, picked up the pace again as the match moved into the 10th minute, taking control of the ball, especially 23 year-old Jacobo Reyes, a central midfielder on loan from Mexican club Monterrey, was flawless on the ball, passing (25/29 passing), two chances created and with his decision-making to help set the table and extend possession time after time for the United.

Hounds’ veteran keeper, Eric Dick, making his first start for Pittsburgh, was forced into making a pair of excellent saves to keep the match scoreless, parrying away Jacobo Reyes’ shot in the 15th minute and moving across his goal to deny a header by Harry Swartz in the 20th minute.

Caught in Transition

Eventually, the gaps of space the Hounds were conceding, would come back to bite.    Their forward and attacking midfielders were mostly ineffective in pressing a solid possession team as New Mexico were patient and carved out enough space and once past the Hounds forwards, had plenty of time on the ball and made Pittsburgh chase the match.

In the 44th minute, Reyes played a clever ball to New Mexico’s Greg Hurst who broke between Griffin and DeShields, who were scrambling back.  Hurst made an excellent run, but the Hounds back line was clearly caught on its heels.  Hurst cleverly dribbled around a charging goalkeeper Eric Dick and had enough to poke the ball through for a goal that would be the difference in the match.

It looked a bit like Griffin and DeShields didn’t have the space closed out properly — allowing Hurst to make that run — getting a clear two steps past DeShields.

There are some that might question why Griffin might be playing in the central spot between the center backs, as he’s a natural midfielder, but Lilley has always liked having a player in that spot who can help navigate things out of the back.  We’ve seen this before with Thomas Vancaeyezeele, from 2019-20, and Nate Dossantos at times in the past year.

One of the Hounds veteran center backs, Pat Hogan, was in the 18, but not utilized in the starting lineup as it appears that Lilley may have been using some extra precaution as Hogan may not be fully up to speed for a full 90 minutes.

The Riverhounds were outpossessed by 68%-32% margin, as New Mexico also held the shots advantage, 5-3 (5-1 on target), as Dick made four saves in his debut with Pittsburgh.

Second Half Only Slightly Better

The Hounds buttoned things up defensively, allowing the hosts just one shot after halftime.

As for creating chances — that still remained a challenge.   They weren’t linking things up much through the middle.  With Walti, Forbes and Mertz responsible for the 55 of the team’s paltry 301 passes — the Hounds were clearly overlooking and not making too much of an effort to work the ball through the middle of the field.  Instead, they were settling for long balls and playing direct, with outside backs sending a lot of ball forward for Diene and Kizza.

It wasn’t until the final push in the final 10 minutes — and into stoppage time did it appear that Hounds started to muster some life into its attack.

The team’s best chances came late in the match. In the 85th minute, Sean Suber lifted a cross into the box from the right side, and Edward Kizzawas able to get open on the receiving end, but his headed attempt was slightly off-balance and missed to the right of the goal.

Three minutes later, the Hounds won a corner kick — one of eight in the match to just three for New Mexico — and the ball popped high in the air to Langston Blackstock at the top of the penalty area. He struck a shot on the volley, and it took a slight deflection on its way to goal, going right to the hand of Tambakis.

And that was it.

The Hounds will have a chance to make amends when they face another team from a far off place, Orange County SC, but this time at home on Saturday.

Hounds Western Woes

Since the start of 2022, when the USL Championship began playing a 34-match regular season schedule with Eastern and Western Conference teams playing each other on a regular basis, the Riverhounds have yet to win a match on the road in Mountain and Western time zones.

That’s right — since the start of the 2022 season, Pittsburgh has traveled to Las Vegas, Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico (twice now), Sacramento, Colorado Springs, El Paso, Monterey Bay, Oakland, Orange County — and throwing in San Antonio for good measure.

In these 10 matches, Pittsburgh is 0-5-5.

This past week, the Hounds trained in Pittsburgh on Thursday, and only had 24 hours in Albuquerque to adjust to the high altitude.

The Hounds will have to find a way to pick up points on the road, as they’ll have a few more Western trips this season, including vs defending USL Championship Cup winners Phoenix, Las Vegas and Sacramento.

Player Grades (Riverhounds at New Mexico)


Eric Dick (GK) – 7 – made four saves and held up well in first half under plenty of pressure.
Junior Etou – 6 – maybe Hounds’ best field player on the day.  19/27 passing — with five to the final third — but those three deep runs leading to crosses didn’t find anyone.
Illal Osumanu – 6 – five recoveries and won 9/15 duels.  Thought he was solid and comfortable playing out of back (24/33 passing).
Dani Rovira – 6 – workmanlike performance from Rovira.  He was busy — 44 touches, active defensively (3 recoveries/won 3/7 duels) and sent seven passes (mostly long balls) into final third and created one chance.
Mike DeShields – 5 – quite busy too in his one half of action (5 defensive actions, 3 recoveries, won 1 of 3 duels), but was stretched at times.  His average position was a bit wider than probably should have been — and that was evident when the Hounds got caught in transition on the goal.
Danny Griffin – 5.5 – had the team’s most passes (25/34) which is usually a very good thing and probably why Lilley wanted Griffin in this spot.  Four clearances, four recoveries, seven defensive actions, 4/10 in duels — and probably would love to have that goal back seeing that space closed out between him and DeShields.
Luke Biasi (46’) – 5 – Entered on the back line in the 2nd half.  Sent a bunch of passes (22/37)  into the final third (11) — again mostly longer variety.
Pierre Cayet (84’) – n/a
Sean Suber (84’) – n/a
Kenardo Forbes – 5- the usual solid passing accuracy (87%) but there wasn’t a lot of quality in the final third — and Kenardo only making 21 passes proves they need him on the ball a bit more to create chances.
Jackson Walti – 5 – playing in holding MF spot — defensively held his own (won 4/9 duels) and only had 10 passes (7/10) tells me a lot that the Hounds were just not able to play through the middle.
Robbie Mertz – 5.5 – won 3 of 4 duels, 3 of 5 crosses connected but wanted to see more of Mertz getting behind defenders
Langston Blackstock (71’) – n/a
Edward Kizza – 4 – on the ball was fine (17/20 passes), but was chasing and working uphill to win balls and keep possession when it came his way (2/9 duels won, committed four fouls), just one shot and created zero chances.
Babacar Diene – 4 – won 4/12 duels, one shot (off target) and didn’t touch the ball enough to be dangerous — plus three fouls conceded and yellow card didn’t make matters better.
Emmanuel Johnson (71’) – n/a

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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