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Riverhounds Notebook: Flumping Hounds sit in very unfamiliar spot below playoff line

Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

Following another frustrating result, this time a 2-1 home loss to Indy Eleven, Riverhounds Head Coach Bob Lilley didn’t mince his words as his team sits below the playoff line in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference standings with one-third of the season complete.

“Winning teams find ways to get the job done. We’re taking shortcuts. And making excuses,” Lilley exclaimed after returning from having an extended talk with his players on the field after a second straight loss, bringing the Hounds’ overall winless streak to four matches.

“We have not managed games. We have not covered for each other. That’s a fact. We need to get better. We need to suffer for the guy next to us. We pinned them back in the second half, and we earned their respect. But we didn’t respect them.”

“We need to be resilient” Lilley told the reporter pool.

With their upcoming game against second-place Charleston Battery on the road on Saturday night (7:30 p.m.), followed by another away game against Hartford Athletic, the Hounds resiliency is going to be challenged.

And they have put themselves in a position where, with about a third of the season already gone, they will need to make the kind of adjustments needed sooner rather than later.

Say That Again?  The Hounds Under the Playoff Line!

This may be the first time in Bob Lilley’s tenure in Pittsburgh, since 2018, where the Hounds are this far into the season and are sitting below the playoff line in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference standings, stuck on 13 points while posting a record of 3-5-4 (W-L-D).

That’s right, the Hounds currently are sitting in 10th place (out of 12 team conference).

The glass half full perspective is that there’s still more than two-thirds of the season to go in the 34-game season and they’re just one point off the line, trailing eight place North Carolina FC (14 points) by a single point, and they’re within striking distance of Birmingham Legion FC, Detroit City and Loudoun United where they can very much join the middle of the pack of teams jockeying for spots between 5th and 8th place.

Under Lilley though, we’re used to seeing the Hounds in the battle for the top spot, as this club is coming off finishing in the top spot in the Eastern Conference and winning the Players Shield for best overall points total.

Getting into the final third is not a problem, but then ‘it goes flump’

It’s not exactly breaking news that the Hounds are tied for last in the league (along with the two New England sides — Hartford and Rhode Island) with 11 goals.

Saturday’s performance continued a troubling trend that has ailed the Hounds this season.  Plenty of touches that lead to balls in and around the final, attacking third, but the execution in and around the box has been faulty at best.

With good ball movement, possession that included well-worked 20 yard ground passes, the Hounds were getting forward, but consistently found themselves coming up empty when they reached the final third.

In addition, playing from behind has become all too common for the Hounds, as in their five losses in league play (they also have an Open Cup loss too), the Hounds have surrendered a first half goal in each match. Only once this season have they battled back after giving up the first goal, settling for a wild, 2-2 draw at Tulsa.

This is one way to take Bob Lilley coached teams out of their element, by putting them in a a hole.  They take so much pride in enforcing their will and dictating terms of matches.

Last Saturday, against an Indy Eleven side that’s in very good form, the Hounds were limited to two shots on goal in the first half; one off the underside of the woodwork that bounced out at 10′, and another that was headed into the keepers hands by Dani Rovira at three feet.

Defensive miscues led to two goals allowed, and with that they lost their grip and were climbing uphill the rest of the way.

In this column, we’ve hammered home a recurring theme that the Hounds have simply not been good enough in the final third.

Well, the most-up-to-date numbers don’t lie.

  • Goals – 11 (last in USLC)
  • Conversion Rate – 10% (last)
  • Shots – 148 (11th)
  • Goals per match – 0.9 (last)
  • Shots on target per match – 4.1 (13th)
  • Big Chances – 32 (4th)
  • Big Chances Missed – 23 (3rd)
  • Touches in Opposition’s Box – 318 (2nd)

The discrepancy between touches in the opposition box and big chances, with the even more important statistical categories — goals per match, big chances, shots on target — is pretty significant.

PSN’s Mark Goodman may have said it best when describing the Hounds’ play late in the first half on Saturday — writing that they ‘moved deftly through midfield and up the wings and into the final third’.

‘Then it goes flump.’

What adjustments can be made?

The most glaring issue for this team is scoring goals. Through 12 matches, of the 11 goals the Hounds have scored, two have come on penalty kicks (both converted by Danny Griffin) and the rest on the run of play.

There are some other concerns — as it seems as if neither goal keeper — Eric Dick or Gabe Perrotta — has seized the starting position.

Despite some lapses in allowing 14 goals in 12 matches, the back line and defensive midfield have been — for the most part — reliable.

That takes us back to the woes in the final third.

Three goals each have come from three players, Griffin and two forwards who’ve started the majority of the matches, Kazaiah Sterling and Edward Kizza.

The other two goals have come from center back Pat Hogan and forward Babacar Diene.

Griffin’s goal last week was the first one coming from outside the box this season.

The captain’s left-footed finish after a nifty move provided some substance behind Lilley’s assertion earlier in the season that “shooting from distance is not a forward’s skill, it’s a midfielder’s skill” when talking about his young forward EJ Johnson’s ambitious play in the Open Cup loss to FC Tulsa.

Don’t expect too many personnel changes with the current group.

The back-up forwards, Johnson and Diene have shown they have positive attributes but have not made much of an impact. Sterling and Kizza have been out there for a reason — as they’re the most experienced and proven forwards on this squad.

One of the other glaring statistics is that two of the team’s most creative and reliable playmakers, Kenardo Forbes and Robbie Mertz have accounted for one assist this season.   Junior Etou and Langston Blackstock have been effective on the width, each with two assists this season, while Etou has also drawn a number of fouls that lead to three penalty kick chances.

Overall, this group’s inability to finish on big chances has been one of the key factors for this team’s anemic scoring, as displayed in the team’s last full body of work on Saturday. 

In that match, despite the early struggles, in the final 30 minutes, Pittsburgh generated more chances and better chances, and eventually cashing one in to bring the score to 2-1.

The Hounds had 68.6 percent of possession and a 24-6 edge in total shots.

Griffin’s clever finish came at the end of good build-up play from Mertz and Blackstock in the 58th minute.

The Hounds would continue to press for a goal for the final 30 minutes, recording 14 shots in the second half, and a total of 25 on the night, to Indy’s 6 shots.

But they weren’t the right shots, as strikers Kazaih Sterling and Edward Kizza, followed by their replacements Junior Etou and Babacar Diene could not break through for a goal, and good chances for Patrick Hogan and Langston Blackstock also fell short.  Sterling hit the crossbar — and that’s a shot that if sails under the bar — could have changed the trajectory of that match.

Many clubs in highest levels of the sport would consider some drastic changes.

We know that a coaching change is out of the question with the enormous success that Lilley with the club, coming off a Coach of the Year and Players Shield winning season.

The other option could be looking to see if there are any players out there who could help infuse a spark to this team. 

Especially under Lilley, the Hounds have rarely made drastic, in-season moves. However, they have made two big moves in the last two seasons to bring back players.  Robbie Mertz made his return to Pittsburgh in mid-summer 2022, after a year-and-a-half stint with Atlanta United 2.  Danny Griffin also came back to the club following an even shorter experience with Huntsville FC, the MLS Next Pro outfit for Nashville SC. In addition, Edward Kizza came back to Pittsburgh (where he played his college ball) on loan from New England in 2022 — and has been here ever since.

It’s very possible at this rate — that the Hounds may be in discussion with MLS clubs or looking for someone who could help provide some additional quality and boost their chances in the final third.

Based on recent past history — that’s not completely out of the equation.

Stay tuned on that but there’s also an overriding sense that Bob Lilley and his coaches still believe this current group is awfully close. They’re going to demand from these players that they need to pay more attention to all the details, then things will start to come together.

Assistant coach Rob Vincent, in his first year on the bench with his former club, played on a few Hounds’ teams that had poor starts in 2013, 2014 and 2015 — and turned things up a notch or two into the last two-thirds of the season each time.

“I think the aim right now is to find consistency more often than not. You know if we are doing that 85 to 90 percent of the time, then we know the results are going to start to flip in our favor a little bit more,” Vincent said.

“We’ve shown it here, just probably not enough right now, but I think there’s something to be excited about if we can find our feet and string some wins and results together.”

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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