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Captain’s Quarters: Griffin talks team growth, youngster development, and the pursuit of constant improvement

Photo courtesy Mark Goodman

Welcome to part one of the 2024 Captain’s Quarters, a recurring series where PSN’s Colton Coreschi sits down with Pittsburgh Riverhounds captain Danny Griffin at each quarter mark of the season to discuss recent performance, the state of the team, and other topics of interest.

With eight games completed in the 2024 USL Championship season, and the first half of Saturday’s ninth game in Tulsa rounding out the first quarter of a 34-game regular season slate, the Riverhounds find themselves in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings – in a playoff spot from #5-7, but not comfortably so. While the club is riding a five-game unbeaten streak in league play at the moment, their most recent outing saw the Hounds bounced from the U.S. Open Cup in their debut match, a slightly souring note after a stellar 2023 showing in that competition.

After a slow start to the year – three losses in their first three matches – the Hounds have found their feet thanks to technical tweaks from head coach Bob Lilley, raised performances from a core of veteran starters such as Danny Griffin, Robbie Mertz, Kenardo Forbes, and Junior Etou, and some stepping-up from guys outside of the starting XI at year’s start, now firmly entrenched, such as Pat Hogan and Kazaiah Sterling. While expectations were high coming off a 2023 Players’ Shield-winning campaign, things sometimes don’t go perfectly to plan – but as the saying goes, it’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s how you get back up. A sentiment that rings true for Griffin.

“I think the biggest thing is that, you know, good teams can bounce back from something like that,” Griffin started. “I think one thing in our profession is that players, people know you can’t get too high, you can’t get too low. So things should be going great, but if you’re not playing at the best level a team can show that on any night in this league. If you’re not having your best game a team will show that to you. I think it’s just about constantly consistently getting better, which we have seen from our pieces. Obviously the start wasn’t the way we wanted and there was a lot that we needed to fix, and just because we got more results doesn’t mean everything’s fixed. There’s still always work to do. So I think guys taking that on, you see the growth in the team defensively and offensively and each week and each day it’s just about getting better.”

That message of constant improvement isn’t just a platitude, it’s a message pervasive through the organization as a whole, and you’ll hear it from top-to-bottom around the team at practice, during games, and afterwards. It’s a message Lilley is constantly utilizing and spreading throughout his squad, and one that evolves as the season progresses.

While the beginning of the campaign was largely about building cohesion within a heavily changed squad outside of the midfield core – about guys learning to work together, read each other, move off the ball to create opportunities for one another – the message and tone has changed as things have progressed. These days, you’re more liable to hear about maintaining positive possession, stepping up to and pressuring the opposition quickly, making life uncomfortable for the other team and controlling the game. While the results are coming, it’s really when you watch the team play and hear the communication from coaching staff to players that you see the difference spurred by growth.

“There’s always some stuff individually for guys, as well as the team to keep growing,” said Griffin of how Lilley’s message has changed of late. “It’s things like possession. It’s about having the total package to your game, and there’s a lot that we can be doing better. Obviously we can score more goals. I think we’ve started to keep more clean sheets. It’s not been perfect, but we’re definitely showing that fight and have those areas that we can work on, which is what we’re going to do. I think coach knows how to get the best out of us, how to keep pushing the guys.”

While Griffin acknowledges more goals can come offensively, they have started flowing more freely for the Hounds after the slow start to the year. Kazaiah Sterling and Edward Kizza have each scored a pair now, with Pat Hogan, Babacar Diene, and Griffin himself each contributing a goal apiece as well. Additionally, those goals starting to come has been nicely paired with an improving defense that has kept four clean sheets during this five-game unbeaten run in league play.

For Griffin and his midfield compatriots, their work is less about what shows up on the scoreboard, and more making sure those two other groups of forwards and defenders have the chance to put up those numbers. That veteran core mentioned earlier has been hard at work shoring up their game, providing experience to a newly forged team, and trying to make everyone around them better and more productive.

“Obviously the midfield is used to the guys we have, it’s a lot of experience,” Griffin said of the veteran core. “You can play familiarly with each other. You also have good guys that we’ve added now like Bradley Sample, Jackson Walti – young players that can step in and play. So obviously with how technical we are, we need to be able to drive the team. It’s the engine of the team in the middle of the field, so we’ve got to be good on the ball. A lot of times we set the tempo, so yeah, it’s just easier when we can be good in possession, knowing when we need to go forward. And yeah, I think cleaning things up and always being sharp. The backs organize us as well when we’re defending, so we’ve got to do what we can do to organize the guys around us as well.”

Part of what Griffin points out in the midfield is the addition of several young impact players new to the squad this season. Bradley Sample has worked his way into a spot starting role, consistently appearing in matches and providing plenty of forward progression when he does so. Walti has been a key addition for Griffin in particular, playing a similarly deep-lying role in front of the defense and helping turn defensive transition into attacking potency.

While some of the team’s youngsters have contributed meaningfully already this season, many got their first real run of minutes in Tuesday’s Open Cup match against Tulsa. While that game had an unfortunate result, the entirely rotated starting XI played well together and left themselves with a chance to win the game until the very final moments. Lilley was effusive of the team’s performance after that match, and Griffin echoed his sentiments, highlighting the growth they’ve seen in those youngsters, and the increased trust and faith the veterans have in them to perform when called upon.

“I think there’s been a lot of growth there. I mean, you could see even when they when they played in the game on Tuesday, I think there’s a lot of growth in that group,” Griffin said of his newfound teammates. “That’s the biggest thing that we’ve always had on our teams is that depth and having that mentality of ‘next guy up’. I think every single one of them, those guys that were out there on the field starting Tuesday, know that if they were put in a position to start this weekend, they’d do the job. I think guys know multiple roles, you get more comfortable, you get more familiar with the group, and obviously I think they showed that on Tuesday. You’ll see guys have chances again to get into the team, so always having that mentality of the next guy up knowing your job, and doing your job, is key.”

As Griffin says, the Hounds will need the whole squad to compete this season in a difficult conference. While this week was the first three-game week of the year, there will be more to come, and Lilley and his staff will be reliant on those growing newcomers to be reliable and trustworthy when given their shots. With another three-game week coming next month in June, and another in August – with plenty of matches in-between during an increasingly hot spring and summer – it’ll take all hands on deck to continue to win the points necessary to have a shot at the title this fall.

Moving forward, Lilley has been adamant that while the team wants the best performances they can get always, there is nothing more crucial than turning Highmark Stadium into a fortress and winning at home. Bolstered by the Steel Army and a stadium that is packed to the brim most evenings, Griffin knows that those games are key. And the Hounds will have a chance to lean on Highmark and that support in July, with four consecutive home games on the schedule during that month.

“I think the best thing for us, obviously, we take it a game at a time. So home or away, we want the three points,” Griffin said. “At home you have the crowd behind you. We’ve turned this place into a fortress with how our results were last year. I think it’s just continuing that. We feel the presence of the Steel Army, we’re at home, we’re defending our field. But of course we want the three points home or away, anywhere we go, and we take it week-by-week. But for sure, we need to take three points out of all those games [in July] and continue to close the gap on the teams ahead of us right now, and then push to make the gap even bigger on the teams behind us.”

While not at home this Saturday, the Hounds will have their first chance to bounce back and do exactly that in a rematch against FC Tulsa. With the usual starters well-rested and likely back in the lineup, we’ll see if the Hounds can put forth another strong effort – one with a better end result perhaps – and continue their unbeaten run in the league as they continue to rise up the Eastern Conference standings.

We’ll be back with more from Danny Griffin just prior to that July homestand with our midseason Captain’s Quarter later in June.

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