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Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Lilley not satisfied despite win; Heavy rotation in plans for busy week

After five straight games without a loss and three consecutive wins, one might imagine the atmosphere around the Riverhounds squad to be bright and cheerful – but as those familiar with the high standards to which head coach Bob Lilley holds his squad can tell you, it’s about performances, not the ensuing results, and there’s always room to improve.

“We were poor tonight,” Lilley surprisingly began his post-game press conference. “We didn’t work hard enough. I mean, the first 15 to 20 minutes, there was no pressure. They dictated a lot of the game.”

“They played through us. And it started beginning the game – we weren’t willing to to get in their face,” Lilley continued. “They’re playing through us, dribbling through us. You know, we defended fairly well, but they were getting through us so easy. Our back line was stretched, and had Miami executed in in those moments where they ran through our lines or in the second-half, we were vulnerable a lot.”

“And they did. They had a header over the bar. They had a chance late where they got in around the left wing and Galivanes – their leading scorer – shanked his shot across. I mean, we we’re fortunate to get three points tonight as poorly as we played. Now, you can say we could have scored a few more, but I don’t. I don’t think we were ready to play our best at home tonight, which is frustrating. It’s not good enough, and at halftime we’re trying to raise the energy, but they were comfortable at that point. So even though we started the second-half with energy, they played around us, through us. We escaped a few really difficult moments where they had wide open people in the midfield, but they bypassed them and and played the obvious ball that we were able to cut out. Had they found the right ball in some of those transition moments, we would have been in big trouble.”

Looking more deeply beyond the surface-level stats, it’s clear Lilley has a strong point. Miami did generate numerous dangerous chances with long balls over the top of the Hounds midfield, ultimately generating two very significant chances that were left wanting. The first came as goalkeeper Eric Dick stepped forward in an attempt to claim the ball near the top of the box, but was beaten by a Miami attacker and left an empty net behind him. Fortunately, the Hounds defenders provided enough pressure to force a potential goal-scoring chance wide. But moments like that have stood out in recent weeks to Lilley, despite improving results, both in goal and in general effort from the whole squad.

“[Goalkeeping] has not been a strength, it has not been a strength,” Lilley responded vehemently to a question around the club’s four shutouts in five matches. “There have been dropped balls, potential calamities, it hasn’t been. I expect more. That’s the problem. People look at stats or that we won, and that’s not the truth – it’s not reality. Reality is we should be getting better. We shouldn’t be indecisive with the ball at the edge of the box, you either come out and grab it or clear it, and it [Miami’s late chance] was a mistake.”

“In Phoenix, there were five balls dropped. We could have lost six to one. It’s about getting better and we didn’t get better tonight. The team didn’t get better. Individuals didn’t get better. We have to be better in all phases. I’m not going to sugarcoat everything – reality is to watch the tape, compare it, think about what? What energy did they put into the game? Last week, Detroit got nothing, much less. We didn’t play with enough intensity tonight, which is the first thing you have to do. You cannot play in this league and compete for things without intensity, and we did not play with intensity tonight. We took shortcuts all over the place, and we weren’t good enough at either end, in my opinion.”

One member of the squad Lilley did single out with some individual praise was Junior Etou. The Hound’s newfound left wingback has been stellar so far this year after a shift from the central midfield to his wider position, and he contributed to a goal in his second consecutive game with an assist on the lone strike of the evening from Kazaiah Sterling. His performance, and performances in general this season in his new role, have been pleasing to Lilley – though that didn’t stop him from demanding even more from the forwards who benefit from his strong play.

“He’s fast, he’s a problem. Even the one he mishit with his right foot in the second-half ended up being a scramble because he got high, he cut inside and caused panic in defenders,” Lilley said in praise of Etou. “Sometimes he’s got to be able to slow down and get his body under control, but he’s a weapon. He’s done a good job of learning a new position, or adjusting to it. He knows what we want, and it’s not a surprise. Last year when we beat Louisville, he had the assist when we clinched against Tampa, so there were plenty of games last year where he can unlock. You know we need more from forwards in the first half. They want to post up. I don’t know why they want to post up. Every time we played a straight ball, they lost – they need to spin out. But they didn’t have the energy to defend, so I’m sure they didn’t have the energy to make an actual run. Nothing opens up because there’s no movement. It shouldn’t be a situation where the only one that’s threatening the back line is your wing back. And that happens far too often.”

Also speaking post-game, Etou elaborated on the new role he’s been asked to take on and how the transition has felt on the field, as well as how his assist on the evening played out with a clever run down the left flank before brilliantly beating the Miami defender with a nutmeg and firing in his pinpoint cross.

“Sometimes when I have the ball, it comes so quick and they leave so much space, so sometimes I just try to take a touch really quickly,” Etou said. “And if he comes, I just try to get around him and get a cross in and find others from the team. I think it’s great, because so many times the coaches tell me go one vs. one because I’m quick, so just try to go around and find someone and go to goal.”

“Last year, I started by playing center mid, and when Danny Griffin came back, we had a conversation with the coaches who said ‘I think we can try you on the left wing, left wingback’ and I said why not?” Etou continued. “So we just tried around the end of last year – the last 10 games or so – and I like to play this way, you know? Whatever position I play, I just try to update him and give my best. So it’s good for me.”

While Etou’s good performances have led to good Hounds performances overall, Lilley is aware that more needs to be done to continue this impressive run – with more performances like those against Tampa, Detroit, and Orange County. The Hounds will get a rapid chance to improve over Saturday’s win with a midweek U.S. Open Cup game against Tulsa at home on Tuesday – a match in which Lilley expects to heavily rotate the squad and give others a chance to show they can provide what he’s looking for.

“I’m going to get players opportunities. We haven’t been good enough, so we haven’t been able to rotate as many guys in, but I’ve got to find players that can hit that bar consistently,” Lilley said of Tuesday’s match. “There’s going to be a lot of changes and there’s going to have to be rotation on on Tuesday. You have to show up if we want to advance.”

“We just were complacent [tonight] and clearly I’ve got to get more competition within the group because there were a lot of guys that must have felt safe to put in that type of effort tonight,” Lilley continued. “So it’s a great chance Tuesday to get some fresh blood out there and see what they can do. And then we go from there.

And while Tulsa in the Open Cup on Tuesday is front-of-mind for Lilley and the team, there is an awareness that this is the first three-game matchweek of the year with more to follow later. Rest, rotation, and performances will all factor in to who plays Tuesday, and who potentially performs their way into perhaps another start on Saturday when the Hounds go on the road to face Tulsa once again in league play. Ultimately, Lilley knows he needs the whole squad ready for any given matchday, and that meaningful depth and rotation will be crucial as the schedule gets busier.

“Better Tuesday/Saturday than Wednesday/Saturday. So if guys play really well. I then have to think, do I push them in on Saturday?” Lilley said of the schedule. “I mean, it’s hard to play three games in a short window, but most of these guys could play double if you played them Saturday/Tuesday or Tuesday/Saturday, so it’ll be interesting what what some guys do with their opportunities Tuesday. And then does it make me question or make our staff question?”

“If some of the young guys do well, or if the guys that are getting the minutes don’t handle them well, then hopefully we have a rested crew from this game ready for next Saturday in Tulsa,” Lilley added. “We told them all this past week, there will be rotation, everyone needs to be ready. It’s the first time we’re playing three games, and we’ll do it again. So those that have been here before are used to it, but the new guys, like we’ve told them, you’ve got to be ready because we may need you for one, two, or potentially all three games, whether starting or off the bench. But we need everyone engaged, it won’t be a short bench. So I’d expect a lot of changes to the lineup on Tuesday, and I’ll leave it at that.”

With just two days between Saturday’s win over Miami and the Open Cup match against Tulsa, Lilley will get a great chance to see what some players who have either only seen some time off the bench, or haven’t seen any time at all, can provide to a squad he absolutely demands more from. Whether that means we see further changes for next Saturday’s match in Tulsa remains entirely in those players’ hands to try and force. Either way, we’ll get a healthy look at guys that will need to contribute for the Hounds to have a successful year overall.

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