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Riverhounds Notebook: Forwards come through as tactical and lineup adjustments pay off in first win

File photo courtesy Ed Thompson

It took six games and a long trip out west, but the Riverhounds finally got in the win column last weekend after making some tactical and personnel changes contributing to an exhilarating 3-1 victory against the defending league champions, Phoenix Rising FC, on the road on Saturday night.

The Hounds picked up a much needed three points, and maybe more importantly, they finally capitalized on their chances.

The club now looks to build on the momentum from that road victory, as they turn their attention when they return home to take on Detroit City FC, in the first rematch between the teams since the 2023 campaign came to a stunning end for the Hounds in the first round of the USL Cup Playoff tournament last October.

Another item to keep close tabs on will be midfielder Kenardo Forbes’ minutes played, as he’s creeped up even closer now to the USL Championship’s all-time minutes played total, as the 35-year old Jamaican native and league’s all-time leading assist man is getting very close to this mark.  The win in Phoenix came with Forbes making only a 16-minute appearance off the substitute’s bench, postponing his ascent to becoming the USL Championship’s all-time minutes played leader for at least one week.

He now sits 54 minutes off of the record of 21,237 held by one-time former Hounds teammate Hugh Roberts.

Kenardo Forbes on verge of USL Championship’s record for minutes played

Before we look at Saturday’s coming match, lets take a look back at some of the things that stood out as the Hounds pulled off their first road win in Western or Mountain time zone since 2021, in 10 tries.

Hounds Forwards Step Up

The Hounds entered the contest in the desert at the depths of the league’s goal scoring and conversion rate statistical categories early in the season.  Their struggles relating to their scoring drought were outlined in detail in last week’s PSN analysis feature, as the Hounds had only capitalized one of nine ‘big chances’ in their first five matches of the season.

While they were outshot (19-10), the Hounds made the most of their chances at Phoenix.

Edward Kizza had himself quite a match, adding his team leading second goal of the season, but also had an assist, while remaining very efficient as the link-up forward, connecting on 84 percent of his passes, won possession a match-high seven times and created a team-high three chances.

For his efforts, Kizza earned USL Championship Player of the Week honors.

Riverhounds’ Edward Kizza earns USL Championship Player of the Week honor

Sterling, a former USL League One Player of the Year who is South Georgia Tormenta’s all-time leading goal scorer and Babacar Diene, who have split time at the top forward spot this season, each added goals.

With the departure of Albert Dikwa, and a poor start to the season in terms of goal scoring, concerns started to bubble to the surface from Hounds fans that this new group of target forwards may not be up to the task.  Heading into last Saturday’s match, Pittsburgh had a league low .02 percent conversion rate.

Provided opportunities to score in Phoenix, this trio did not disappoint.  The Hounds scored three times, with five (of ten) shots on frame.  As the starting top man, Sterling added three (of his four) shots on frame, converting on one — and if not for getting too cut on his penalty chance — could have easily bagged his first brace of the season.    Diene was also very active and productive, after coming on in the 74th minute, and converting on his one chance to put the match away.

The much ballyhooed conversion rate jumped up to 8.5 percent — and can get back into double digits if this group continues to show progress from this win.  The match against Detroit this Saturday, against a team that has played in its share of tight contests with one of the best goalkeepers in the league — will certainly provide a stern test against a team that wouldn’t break in that playoff match a year ago.

But with a win and three goals to add to the stat sheets, all three forwards who have played the most this season are now in the scoring column, and gaining more and more confidence in playing in Bob Lilley’s system.

Adding Sean Suber and Bradley Sample to the Starting XI

From a tactical standpoint, Head Coach Bob Lilley has not swayed too much from a base 5-3-2 formation this season through the first five matches. Also, in terms of starting lineup selections, the Hounds have stayed with a core group of field players, with only a new starter being sprinkled in here and there.  The forward rotation has evolved with Sterling and Diene splitting starts (Sterling the past three matches), Luke Biasi came on for Mike DeShields following an injury in the first match and Pat Hogan eventually working his way back into the back line.

On Saturday, the Hounds made a few new changes to the starting eleven, as two of the youngest players on the roster,  rookie midfielder Bradley Sample and defender Sean Suber, made their first starts with the club.

This also allowed Lilley to tweak some things tactically for this match-up with Phoenix.   Going with a center back pairing of Hogan and Illal Osumanu, the Hounds opted to move Biasi to the left back spot in a four-man back line, while Suber, an industrious and seemingly versatile 22-year old defender, got his first extensive run as the right back.

This formation shift provided the Hounds with a chance to add a second central midfielder — in what morphed between a 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 — depending on where Kizza lined up.  A few weeks ago, Lilley shared in an exclusive interview with Pittsburgh Soccer Now, that he was looking forward to getting Sample into the lineup, as he stated ‘he’ll be an important piece’.

While the Hounds were clearly outpossessed in this match (62/38), the Griffin and Sample pairing were solid in terms of positioning, rotating/covering space and defensive responsibilities — diverting constant Phoenix attempts to play through the middle — and maybe most importantly — provided two players who were comfortable and generally were making good decisions when they were able to carry the ball forward to the final third.

Despite absorbing more pressure and conceding possession for most of the first half, as goalkeeper Eric Dick stood tall by making three saves in the early going, the Hounds stood toe-to-toe against a tough opponent on the road.

They also made the most of their first chance, to grab their first lead of the season.

Building up play through the right side with an added central midfield attacker paid off in the 26th minute in a scoreless match.  Sample carried the ball into the final third in this sequence to get things going — finding Suber out wide.  The Hounds then executed well with movement off the ball and in creating space, which effectively stretched Phoenix — as when the ball rotated to Robbie Mertz, then there was an opening in the box for Edward Kizza to take a touch, then feed Kazaiah Sterling with a clever backheel that set up the opening goal.

These are the types of clear, clean-cut looks the Hounds has sorely been lacking in most of the first five matches.  A little more patience on the ball, helped with this build-up.  Sometimes, when being outpossesed in matches, teams feel they have to push forward in a hurry to counter on their chances.  The Hounds didn’t panic — and showed that they can build things up effectively and break down a solid team.  Heading into this match, Phoenix had been pretty resolute defensively, with one exception all season, a 3-3 draw a Tulsa.

The move to the four-man back line also shifted Junior Etou, who’s been solid on the flank this season, to be more involved in creating chances and winning balls higher up, with a more attack minded focus.

The veteran midfielder didn’t disappoint.

While much of the attention in the match went to the forwards for converting on the goals, Etou was all over the place creating positive moments for the Hounds.  At the start of the second half, Etou continued to cause some headaches for Phoenix, eventually getting into the box, and getting clipped by Pape Boye to draw a penalty.

Sterling was anointed as the first Hound to get a PK chance this season, but the former Tottenham Hotspur product got too cute with his chance, with an extended run-up to the ball, then tried to trick the keeper with a right-footed chip that went over the right corner.

Kizza gave the Hounds the lead for good at the end of some good link-up passing in the 62nd minute but it was Etou who created the moment — as the veteran sent a sharp square ball across the face of goal for Kizza, who netted his second goal of the season. Etou again created havoc working the left side. His pass toward Danny Griffin was met by two Phoenix defenders in the box, but the ball deflected into the path of Diene, who scored his first professional goal and sealed the three points.

Rematch with Unbeaten, Untied Detroit Awaits

With their first win in the books, the Hounds have been training this week in preparation to face the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season, Detroit City FC.

Coming into this match, DCFC (5-0-0, 15 points) is the only team remaining in the Eastern Conference without a loss or a draw in league play.

Detroit is off to its flying start under new head coachDanny Dichio. The former Premier League striker took over for veteran boss Trevor James, who now serves as the club’s Sporting Director, and their team has shown a knack for squeaking out wins with four one-goal victories in those first five. Tight, low-scoring matches also are par for the course when the Hounds meet Detroit; the teams have met five times (seven, counting preseason meeting) and have never combined for more than two goals in a match.

While the leader on the bench is new for the visitors, the stars on the front and back are familiar faces, with 2023 Goalkeeper of the Year finalist Nathan Steinwascher in Detroit.

Look for a more detailed match preview to come — plus an exclusive interview with Hounds’ captain Danny Griffin on Friday and Saturday ahead of the match-up.  


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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Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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