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Analysis: Struggling Riverhounds failing to convert on ‘big chances’ early in season

Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC are clearly still trying to figure things out as they’ve reached mid-April without a win, with only one goal in five league matches, following a second straight nil-nil draw, played on Saturday at expansion Rhode Island FC.

Up next for the Hounds, a tough road trip, where they’ll face Phoenix Rising SC, the defending USL Championship Cup winners in their new stadium, late on Saturday night (10:30 p.m. ET kickoff).

Five games played provides enough of a sample size, against some very good opponents, to address legit concerns about the Riverhounds’ inability to break down opponents, point out their lack of consistent dynamic play and pressure in the final third and deficiency in generating scoring chances, both in run of play and on set pieces.

With 29 league matches remaining and U.S. Open Cup competition looming, and with a veteran coach who has a knack of always producing winning teams that qualify for the postseason, the Hounds can clearly right the ship.

It’s a bit daunting though, early in this season for the Hounds when they look up at the Eastern Conference table, on some level they have to be feeling some pressure to see Louisville, Charleston and Detroit City FC, among others, building up strong points totals.

Lilley indicated in an exclusive interview with Pittsburgh Soccer Now last week, he believes that results will take care of themselves if his team keeps putting in the work. 

“Those of us at the at the south end of the table are trying to get wins, not draws. So you know there there will be a lot at stake next week,” Lilley said ahead of the scoreless clash at Rhode Island.

“You’re on the road, so I mean it’s not going to be easy and we’re going to have to hopefully have another strong performance. It’s a process. I mean, if we keep playing well and growing. I think the results will take care of themselves.”

Lilley has stated numerous times that he doesn’t really look too closely at the standings until the final 10 matches, or so.

The Hounds to this point in the season have not executed the cornerstones of ‘Lilleyball”-– as they’re not dynamic, they’re not dictating terms of matches enough and — in their three losses to start the season — they’ve been giving goals away.

Missing Out on ‘Big Chances’ Is the Most Glaring Statistic

This may seem elementary, but the Hounds can take a positive step forward in the coming weeks in looming challenging match-ups (starting at Phoenix), if they can convert when they do get around to creating ‘big chances’.

The Hounds currently sit among the bottom of the 24-team USL Championship (USLC) in some important statistical categories: goals scored, goal conversion rate and big chances missed.

Yes — that’s right — there’s a statistic that tracks ‘big chances’.

While the Black and Gold have created enough big chances (per FotMob) to count on both hands (9) season, through five matches that number isn’t terrible (15th in the USLC), they have not been able to convert on eight of those (that is last in the league).  In total, the Hounds have league’s worst goal conversion rate of 2 percent (tied for last with Colorado Springs).

From my viewpoint, the Riverhounds were completely outplayed in their first two road matches.

First, in the season opening loss at New Mexico, with heavy (some might use excuse — travel fatigued) legs, they chased most of the match against a solid possession team, and were not able to find enough transition moments even as their opponent held nearly 70 percent of possession.

In the home opening loss, which the Hounds got caught giving up an early goal to Orange County, and despite playing on the front foot for most of the match, they failed to convert on the all of the chances they had.   Babacar Diene’s powerful header forced a smart save from OCSC’s keeper, Colin Shuter to push the ball away for a corner. Then, Robbie Mertz again came close as his effort from just inside the box rattled the crossbar with a volley to end the half in exhilarating fashion.

However, the most concerning performance came at Louisville City FC, where they were caught on their heels by constant pressure and looked very disorganized for a harrowing first 30 minutes, but somehow they weathered most of that storm.  Still, chasing that match, they eventually would lose 3-1 as things opened up and defensive lapses haunted them in the second half.

Even after being thoroughly outplayed in the first half in Louisville, it was Diene who came close to getting a go-ahead goal when he was set up in the middle of the box, with an effort that sailed to the right of Louisville keeper Damian Las, with defender Sean Totch there to deny the Hounds splendid chance.

When the Hounds returned home to face Tampa Bay, they were facing squad that has started to find their attacking rhythm in the past few weeks, evidenced by 4-1 win vs Rhode Island and another 5-2 beatdown of The Miami FC.  In a very evenly played contest, the Hounds’ attack couldn’t get over the hump — despite a couple more ‘big chances’ as Robbie Mertz (twice), Danny Griffin and Bradley Sample had golden opportunities to give the Hounds’ their first lead of the season, but each time, shots were deflected, or off target.

On the flip side, Tampa Bay has been absolutely dynamic in their other two matches during this stretch. The Hounds really kept them in check at Highmark Stadium, and a sign that at least on the defensive side, Pittsburgh is getting on the same page.

The defensive lapses in the first two road matches came late in first half stoppage time, the other against OCSC in the home opener came at the very start of the match (3rd minute).  Head Coach Bob Lilley said following the Louisville loss, that all those goals were ‘preventable’.

Matches at home against Orange County and Tampa Bay offered glimpses where, holding an edge in possession and chances, against high quality teams, the Hounds were still unable to score. Outside of the matches vs New Mexico and at Louisville (primarily in the 1st half), they have have good possession numbers, but as you’ll see in further analysis below, much of the postive possession is happening in the defending and middle third.

There’s been some moving parts to the back five, as the Hounds have gone mostly with a 5-3-2 formation this season. Center back Pat Hogan, who started the regular season on the bench due as injury and fitness kept him limited in the preseason, is back in the mix on the back line. Third-year Hound, Luke Biasi in a transitional role from being on the flank to one of the central defenders, and has been solid. In his second season now in Pittsburgh, defender Mike DeShields started the first match at center back, but since a hamstring injury at the end of the 1st half, hasn’t been back in the lineup, though it appears he’s cleared.

The most glaring personnel move early in the season came with the team’s newly appointed captain, Danny Griffin, who began on the back line, starting between two center backs, in each of the first three matches the Hounds’ lost. Langston Blackstock, who stepped in early against Louisville to replace veteran sixth-year Hound, Dani Rovira, has since started the past two matches, paired up with another veteran, Junior Etou, as the two-way wingers.  From a defending standpoint, the Hounds are starting to roll into decent form, as this group, in front of veteran keeper Eric Dick, has been solid as the Hounds have minimized defensive lapses, pitching 180-plus minutes of shutout soccer.

Despite the defensive improvements, the troubling trends on the attacking end continued Saturday, at Rhode Island, in a match where chances were hard to come by for both sides.

The ‘Big Chance’ for the Hounds in last week’s match came in the 77th minute, when Diene received the ball in the box and smartly cut a pass back to the front of goal, where Edward Kizza’s close-range effort was stopped by goalkeeper Jackson Lee. The rebound fell to Emmanuel (EJ) Johnson, who struck the follow-up with power, but Lee recovered across goal to tip the ball over the bar and deny the Hounds with a highlight-reel save.

Once again, the build-up looked great.  But the Hounds couldn’t convert.

Looking At the Numbers & Finding Silver Linings

Often times the difference between being successful and coming up short, there’s always fine margins.

The biggest difference between this year’s squad (starting 0-3-2), with an awful two percent conversion rate, and last year’s team, which would eventually go on to win the Players Shield finishing with league best 18% conversion rate, but also started with a less-than-convincing 1-1-3 record, is that last year’s team was more efficient in its scoring chances, even they were still trying to figure things out.

In expected goals category that some people really put lots of stock in (charted on FootyStats.org), the Hounds hold a +0.33 margin this season, with an expected goals output of 1.36 per match, while they’re expected opponents goals is 1.33.  That’s very revealing number for a team that has scored just once in five matches.

It might also be important to note that after five matches last season, the USLC’s all-time assists leader, midfielder Kenardo Forbes, didn’t register an assist. Anointed as the primary target forward last season, Albert Dikwa had his first coming out party last season when he registered three of the Hounds’ first five goals (all coming in the same match, a 3-1 win at Memphis).  Without a goal in four of those five matches, showed that Dikwa, and namely the forward position was still a bit of a work in progress at that time too.

Take away that Memphis’ match, and the team’s starts aren’t all that different from 2023 to 2024, in terms of results, and only with a slightly better conversion rate, thanks mostly to Dikwa’s three goals.

How valuable was Dikwa to the Hounds’ attack last season?

The Cameroonian striker averaged a goal every 114.7 minutes, accounting for 40 percent of Pittsburgh’s goals on the year. Dikwa recorded that one hat trick then tallied five two-goal performances over the course of the season.

Another comparison to note, last year’s squad didn’t have as much of an early season gauntlet, as thus far, this ‘work-in-progress’ Hounds group has played this year when you consider the teams they’ve played thus far:  Tampa Bay, at Louisville, at New Mexico and Orange County plus a road match vs Dikwa and expansion Rhode Island to start the season.

Still, the trends and numbers are not that bad.

Looking closer at their approach in each match, it’s possible that they’ve needed to focus on righting the ship defensively and staying organized, and hoping to make the most of chances on the counter, as they’re pulling back and not working diligently enough to break down their opponents, and instead, settling for direct play and quick counters.

They’re among the tops in the league in long passes attempted (1st) and long passing accuracy (6th).

In addition to those numbers, they’re 5th in USLC in Accurate Passes per match (334.2), 3rd with Successful Crosses (17) 10th in Corners Per Match (26), and touches in opponents’ box (108 — good for 13th) but they’re struggling in possessions won in the final third (3 per match) and generating shots on target (3.2 per match — good for 19th in USLC).

It appears that only one player has created multiple chances created (according to FotMob), and that’s Diene (4), who started the first three matches at forward and has the team’s lone assist, but was replaced by Kazaiah Sterling in the past two matches in the starting line-up. Diene has come off the bench in each of the past two matches, continuing his work rate.

The constant piece in the high line has been Edward Kizza’s work rate, movement and passing accuracy through five matches shouldn’t go unnoticed and he does have Pittsburgh’s lone goal of the season.

Kizza’s goal came in transitional moment, thanks largely to a terrific build-up, ended with his outstanding movement off the ball.

The former Pitt standout has started all five matches in his role as a connecting player between the top line and forwards/wingers/midfielders making runs.  Kizza’s hold-up play as a forward in 90 minutes against RIFC, connecting on 81.8 percent of his passes and winning possession five times. Against RIFC, Kizza also won a whopping seven free kicks; he was fouled more than double any other player on the pitch.  The only knock you could say on Kizza is kind of a big one — as he leads the team in the ill-fated ‘Big Chances’ missed — with three.

With the most established club leaders in the central midfield, it would figure that should be the most stabilizing unit for the club in having the likes of Kenardo Forbes, Robbie Mertz and Danny Griffin, along with Dani Rovira and Junior Etou, who have more than a dozen combined USLC experience. There are also a couple of young midfielders who Lilley insists will be important parts of the mix, namely Jackson Walti, who started the first three matches, and Bradley Sample.

Don’t expect too many changes to personnel in the course of the next three league matches.  With the US Open Cup mid-week match now slated for either May 7 vs FC Tulsa, Lilley and his coaching staff will have a chance to get more players some much needed extended playing time when dealing with three matches in a seven day stretch.  All of the Hounds’ field players on the roster have made at least one appearance this season, but only 13 have made starts.

The most interesting to watch will see how the target forward position evolves this season, as the Hounds are lacking the same presence that Dikwa provided and even Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon provided in the previous seasons.  Lilley has shown over the years, he can find new players to replace those who produced in prior years.  It just might be taking this group a little longer to round into form.

That’s where Diene, Sterling, and EJ Johnson, another player who has come off the bench, and shown some flashes with high energy, need to start contributing when they get their moments.  Even though some of the tactics may questioned about how the Hounds are attempting to play through its top line, the bottom line is that they’re are not producing.

Another glaring statistic — is that it’s Langston Blackstock — a converted forward who has been playing in that two-way winger role with outside back responsibilities, leads the team (by far) in shots per 90 minutes (2.4), and shots on target per 90 minutes (1.7).  Next up are Diene (1.5 shots per 90; 0.7 on target per 90) and Kizza (1.67; 0.6 on target) and Robbie Mertz is second in shots per 90 (1.7; 0.4 on target).

Those numbers absolutely have to improve.

This is a club that is doing enough (as the stats above show) in terms of accurate passing, generating enough crosses, setting up corners, and thanks to Kizza’s technical skill and work rate — getting just enough touches in opponents’ box.  Where they’re struggling — is they need more possessions won in the final third and generate more shots on target.  Without the latter two, this could be a long season for the Hounds.

The big chances need to start coming — and they need to start coming in more waves for the Hounds to get back on track.

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Look for match preview and coverage of the Hounds-Phoenix showdown on Saturday to come over the weekend!! 

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).

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