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Takeaways and Player Grades: Dawdling, hunted Riverhounds off to worst start since 2008

Photo courtesy Louisville City FC / USL Championship

For the third straight match to start the season, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC begin a match on its heels, and couldn’t recover, as Eastern Conference rival Louisville City FC raced to a 3-1 victory at Lynn Family Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Riverhounds’ stumble at Louisville, 3-1, to extend season opening season losing streak to three matches

The Hounds were never able to really get a grip on things in this match, dawdling their way through a third straight loss to start the season.

This match provided Hounds fans with plenty of reason for frustration and brief hope, as they had a pretty bad start, still could have very much could have gone into the half with a 1-0 lead, then experienced a second half roller coaster ride, coming out on the losing end.

You know things are not going great for the Hounds under Bob Lilley, when they don’t play well in Louisville, a place where they always seem to bring their A-game, against one of the perennial top clubs in the Championship.  Heading into this contest, the Hounds were 4-2-1 at Louisville under Lilley.

With this defeat, the Hounds are off to their worst three-match start since 2008, and the club’s third 0-3-0 start in club history.  For perspective the other two seasons included the 2008 restart campaign, when the Hounds returned from a one-year sabbatical.  The other time it happened was in 2005, when much like the Hounds this year, were coming off a record breaking regular season.

Of note, Hounds teams under Lilley have had some slow starts. Most recently, the 2021 squad opened with 0-2-1 record and minus-4 in goal differential (1-5), losing 3-0 at Tampa Bay, then after a 1-1 draw vs Hartford, ended up losing to Charlotte Independence, 1-0, in their home opener.

So, it’s clear that the Hounds, after their success in 2023, are the hunted this season, and they’ve been playing like sitting ducks.

It was Louisville City FC who brought their A-game on Saturday — and the results showed.

Now, in dead last place, Pittsburgh is the only team in the Eastern Conference sitting at zero points.

Personnel / Formation / Tactics

Bob Lilley remained committed to a 5-3-2 formation, with the same exactly starting eleven from the previous week.

Despite the result and slow start to the season, this starting lineup marked a major milestone for Kenardo Forbes, who made his 195th start as a Riverhound — tying the club record for most appearances.

Riverhounds Game Notes and Injury Report: Kenardo Forbes on verge of equaling club’s all time appearances record

The veteran coach went to his bench early in the match, taking out Dani Rovira in favor of Langston Blackstock in the 28th minute.

Additional subs came in the 72nd minute, when both Kazaiah Sterling and Bradley Sample, a former Louisville Cardinal, made their club debuts, along with Sean Suber in the 72nd minute, with Junior Etou, Babacar Diene and Kenardo Forbes coming out of the match.

On their heels from the go, Hounds make rare 1st Half tactical substitution

Despite being completely outplayed and facing tons of  pressure for much of the first half, the Hounds appeared to right the ship, primarily after making an early tactical substitutional change.

Dani Rovira started the match at right outside back, but overall, the Hounds were struggling to navigate through Louisville’s high press, as they attempted the play methodically, with short passing.

Unfortunately it was the sixth-year Hound, Rovira, who was having a rough time on the right flank, remaining pushed back, he was struggling to connect passes or turning to direct play confidently.  Louisville’s three-man backline which includes former Riverhound Arturo Ordonez, last year’s USL Championship defensive Player of the Year, along with veterans Sean Totsch and Lou City’s captain, Kyle Adams, were well positioned along with Elijah Wynder, taking away the deeper channels that Rovira will pick out to find Edward Kizza or Robbie Mertz.

This forced Rovira a few times into retreating to play back (fine), but also a few times to attempt to play into the middle of the field, but that was also bringing more waves of purple shirts into suffocating the Hounds’ back line when they were trying to play the ball out.  A few of those errant passes into the middle led to dangerous, quick counter chances for Louisville.

Unlike Orange County SC last week, who scored very early in the match, then sat very deep, Louisville City FC were hunting the Hounds as they attempted to play the ball out of the back.

Louisville’s attacking midfielders and forwards were not only effective in winning balls back, but with their movement off the ball in transition, they were effective in creating waves of pressure, which led to a 12-1 shot advantage in the first half.

Fortunately for Pittsburgh, they weathered the storm.

Goalkeeper Eric Dick made a few excellent saves (recorded five diving saves and three on shots in the box), while Danny Griffin, sitting between the continued unique center back pairing of Illal Osumanu and Luke Biasi, was thrown into major recovery mode.  In all, Griffin finished the match with a game-high 15 defensive recoveries.

With the tactical shift that brought Blackstock, who’s listed as a forward, but has been used in the winger spot numerous times in his year-plus tenure in Pittsburgh, the Hounds focused on moving the center-point of pressure further away from goal, counter-pressing effectively and pushing the ball forward more rapidly to much more success.

This got both Kenardo Forbes and Robbie Mertz, two players who were getting caught having to track back more than they should, a bit more into the action too.

The final 15 minutes of the first half saw the Hounds playing on much more level footing, generating several opportunities of their own, including an excellent build-up in the 39th minute, which started from the Blackstock’s right side, which Babacar Diene was set up in the middle of the box effort that sailed to the right of Louisville keeper Damian Las, but defender Totch was there to deny the Hounds splendid chance.

Settling down, and playing better in navigating through Louisville City’s persistent high press, the Hounds started to level the playing field in the latter stages of the first half.

Late First Half Disaster

However, a very late Wilson Harris goal, in the dying seconds of stoppage time gave the hosts a 1-0 lead heading into the break.

In the run of the play, the goal came from a fortunate bounce that followed a few clearance attempts by the Hounds ending up with Serrano having the ball at his feet, then getting it to one of the most dangerous goal scorers in the league.

Harris had a gift on a silver platter, thanks to the deflection — but happened as the Hounds were caught a bit out of position.

According to Harris, who told Louisville media after the match, he made a run forward trusting that something good would happen.

“I turned over my shoulder and the ball was there. I composed myself to put it away,” Harris said.

“I felt like we were knocking on the door a lot, and I think I could have had a couple more.”

Harris was absolutely right about that.  For the persistent pressure they brought forward early in the match with little result, somehow the Soccer Gods tilted things in their favor at the end of the half.

The worst part of surrendering this goal for the Hounds, if either clearance attempt goes out of bounds or if they were able to sustain any possession in the sequence leading up to the Louisville possession that led to the goal, the match would have been scoreless at the half.

With the clock winding down, Pittsburgh advanced into the middle of the field, but a sloppy switch ball attempt from the left center of the field from Robbie Mertz sailed over Junior Etou, and out past the sideline. This allowed for Louisville for one more possession, which led to the goal.

Sometimes its the little things — and a bit more extended possession on that previous sequence, and the Hounds may have either had a chance to create a late chance of their own, but at the very least could’ve seen the clock run out for a scoreless half.

Second Half Roller Coaster

The match opened up quite a bit at the start of the second half.  Both sides were trading countering moments.

The Hounds’ high press paid dividends in the 59th minute, as they began to force Louisville into playing a bit more hesitantly out of the back during a few sequences, then took advantage with quick, sharp transition passes that started on the left width when Junior Etou won a ball back from Sean Totsch.

Etou’s quick pass through to Babacar Diene in space on the left edge of the box, pushed Louisville into retreat mode, and Edward Kizza got on his horse — getting into the middle of the box behind the defense to knock in Pittsburgh’s first goal of the season.

The Hounds equalizer was diminished only moments later.

Ever-present throughout the match, it was once again Ray Serrano who created another chance for Louisville.

Bob Lilley said after last week’s loss to Orange County SC that all three goals his team surrendered to that point were all preventable.   You can probably say the same thing about Louisville City’s go-ahead goal in this contest.

The former Seattle Sounders’ youth academy standout midfielder, made a clever run into the box along the left wing for Louisville. At first Serrano was stride-for-stride with Illal Osumanu, but he was starting to cut inside the Hounds’ defender — and that’s when the former Marshall Thundering Herd defender lunged in and tripped up Serrano in the box.

Totsch, stepped up for Louisville and easily converted his effort into the lower-left side of goal, sending Dick the wrong way and sending the hosts back into the lead.

Despite the Hounds continuing to press aggressively for the equalizer, they couldn’t find an answer to Louisville’s second goal.

The closest they came emanated from a brilliant pass from Jackson Walti in midfield, offered a hook-up of former Pitt standouts, as he found Kizza for what appeared to be a goal, but the Ugandan’s potential brace-maker was whistled for offside.

The dagger came late, as the Hounds were stretched again, much like they’ve been on most of the six goals they’ve surrendered this season.

This time, Serrano found himself unmarked in the box during a Louisville counter in stoppage time, with nearly all the Hounds pushed upfield.

Making a case to be USL Championship Player of the Week (he may very well likely get my pick), Serrano dribbled around Dick and finished into an empty net to secure the 3-1 victory for the hosts.

There’s probably a lot of concerns from Pittsburgh soccer fans after this last result, and understandably so.

However, it is early in the season, and plenty of time for Bob Lilley and his coaching staff to get this team on track.  A season ago, it was Tampa Bay Rowdies who started off with an 0-2-2 record, but were in contention with the Hounds for the Players Shield at the end of the campaign.

Later on Saturday night, during the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, TNT analyst and former NBA Champion, Kenny Smith was talking about success of NC State men’s team in recent weeks, as they’ve had to play five games in five nights, then play two games in three days during the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Smith remarked that winning is a ‘Learned Behavior’.   That made me think of what the Riverhounds were able to accomplish a season ago, when they won the USL Championship’s Player Shield, but started the season with a few bumps in the road (they were 2-2-7 after 11 matches).

Bob Lilley’s group last season faced its share of adversity early in the season.  Winning didn’t come naturally.

But they put the work in.

Winning became a learned behavior from that group.

The Hounds can’t afford to fall too far behind in the standings.  They’ll have a week off, then will host the Rowdies on April 7, at home.

That should provide some time for them for the players and coaches to put in the work, make proper adjustments so they don’t continue to fall behind in each and every match. Getting out on the front foot and dictating terms are among the trademarks of successful teams under Bob Lilley.   We have not seen them accomplish either in their first three matches of the 2024 season.

Adversity is staring them in the face.

For a franchise that has come a long way in making every effort to establish a winning culture, they will have a chance to show if they’re made of sterner stuff.

Player Grades (Riverhounds at Louisville City FC)


Eric Dick (GK) – 5 – Was fantastic in the first half under lots of pressure.  Guessed wrong on PK.   Not all his fault but six goals in three matches isn’t great though.
Junior Etou – 5 – nice takeaway and pass to Diene to set up the Hounds’ goal. Has been a steady two-way option on the left flank.
Illal Osumanu – 3 – costly foul at a critical time — right after Hounds equalized the match.
Dani Rovira – 3 – 50% passing accuracy (14 passes); pinned back a lot, only got forward a few times; subbed out in 27th minute.
Danny Griffin – 6 – lot of people calling for Griffin to be moved back to midfield, but he’s been doing yeoman’s work out of the back. Under constant pressure, especially in first 25 minutes, had 15 (!!) recoveries, won 9/11 duels, four tackles, four clearances. Passing accuracy was lower than usual (69%), but created one chance.
Luke Biasi (46’) – 4.5 – like Griffin, was having a hard time trying to navigate things out of the back under the constant Louisville pressure early in the match. Seemed to settle down and had some solid moments.  Won 5/6 duels, three tackles/three clearances, but also another player that would be better to have on the flank and in more of a play making capacity.
Sean Suber (72’) – n/a – second appearance this season — again coming on for Etou on the left flank
Kenardo Forbes – 4.5 – a milestone start, yes, but very little attacking presence in creating chances (only 31 passes, no chances created). Hounds need Kenny to have more touches. It was Louisville’s midfield, namely Serrano and Wynder, who were the ones dictating terms of match.
Jackson Walti – 5.5- has been solid and reliable in the holding midfield spot.  At times will rotate with Griffin, and sit deeper.  Won 4/7 duels/78% passing (42 passes).  Fabulous ball over to Kizza that nearly equalized the match.
Robbie Mertz – 4.5 – Much like Forbes, when has more touches, more good things can happen — but wasn’t enough in this match. Had four tackles, one shot on target — 78% passing accuracy (44 passes).
Langston Blackstock (27’) – 6 – Strong effort to help infuse the Hounds and provide toughness and attacking presence on right wing to help them climb back into the match.  Won 4/7 duels, 85% passing, created two chances (two successful crosses), had two shots along with team high five tackles.
Bradley Sample (72′) – n/a — professional debut for Sample, was a homecoming of sorts too, as he played collegiately in Louisville.
Edward Kizza – 5 – One shot — and made it count, as Hounds finished off a sound transitional scoring opportunity. A sign of what they did very well last year — will need to do more of this. Continues to work hard with back to goal to link-up with midfielders (75% passing on 28 passes), but there hasn’t been enough constant pressure in final third.
Babacar Diene – 5 — Had another near scoring chance late in first half much like previous match.  Nice work to move into box, and set up Kizza on the goal.  Same as Kizza — just not enough time on the ball and needs to be involved creating more chances, then we might see what he’s really capable of doing.
Kazaiah Sterling (71’) – n/a – made his debut with the Hounds — but nothing to write home about.

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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