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Takeaways and Player Grades: Few dangerous shots fired, but when smoke cleared, Riverhounds, Battery defended well in logjam at Patriots Point

Photo courtesy Charleston Battery

The Riverhounds salvaged a point on the road against one of the toughest opponents and while playing in some of the most difficult conditions they’ll face this season, playing Old Guard rival Charleston Battery to a scoreless draw at Patriots Point Soccer Complex on a very warm, muggy South Carolina night.

The result pushes the Hounds (3w-5l-5d, 14 points) up another point in the standings, while Charleston (8w-1l-5d, 28 points), who were leading the pack in the Eastern Conference standings for much of the early part of the season, drop a couple points to remain in second place behind Louisville City FC (32 points).

It was a showdown between two teams with coaches that finished first and second respectively in USL Championship’s Coach of the Year balloting last season — so it proved to be a tactical battle.  A year ago, each side raced out to early leads against each other a year ago, each winning handily on their own turf.

This time around, both sides did their best to limit each other’s chances in a tightly contested match where shots were fired on both sides, with only a few quality chances coming for each.

Riverhounds Starting Lineup, Tactics and Formation

The Hounds had a few tweaks to the lineup this week, adding Jackson Walti into central midfield as part of the starting eleven while — as predicted in our preview — veteran midfielder Kenardo Forbes would start the match on the bench.  With Luke Biasi nursing a hamstring injury, the defender started the match on the bench, as the Hounds opted to start the match with Sean Suber in the three center back alignment, which often swayed between a when compact — 3-5-2 and when opening up more 3-4-3 (not something we see that often under Bob Lilley) — as Junior Etou and Langston Blackstock did their part on the wings to stretch the field while covering plenty of space in keeping enough defensive structure to keep the Battery from doing much damage on the edges.

In a match where squad rotation would be important, Forbes and Bradley Sample would come on in the 57th minute, while Biasi and Pierre Cayet also were added to the mix in the 81st minute.

Takeaways

Glass Half Empty: Guess How Many Goals Hounds Have Scored Against The Top Four Teams in Eastern Conference?  

First, looking at the glass half empty — the Hounds still can’t convert on their chances.  Look, there were not a lot on the table in this match, but they had a few moments, but couldn’t capitalize.

Against the top four teams in the Eastern Conference, having played each team one time to this point this season, the Riverhounds have scored one goal in four matches against Charleston, Louisville City, Tampa Bay and Indy Eleven.

Ouch!

These are the matches which Bob Lilley’s squad will measure themselves — and through the first set of matches against the top squads in the East — the Hounds are coming up empty.

For a team that has one of the league’s highest expected goal rates  — they also keep living up to their disappointing league’s second best rate of missed big chances and bottom dwelling goals (11 in 14 matches!?), conversion rate (10%) and goals per match (0.68) totals.

Danny Griffin — coming off a match where he scored the team’s first goal from distance — nearly did it again in the 11th minute.

The Hounds captain must be getting good advice and tips from assistant coach Rob Vincent, who was a master at burying shots from behind the arc in his playing time with the Hounds.  Griffin hit his one-time chance about as solid as you can hit it — but Charleston’s goalkeeper Daniel Kuzemka was up to the task with a brilliant save.

Late in the second half, a pair of subs, nearly connected for the Hounds, when Pierre Cayet’s left footed cross from the corner, found Kenardo Forbes in perfect position in the middle of the box, but Forbes’ header chance sailed just left of goal.

The Hounds did put more shots on frame than their opponents in this match by scarce margin (3-2), and ironically, all three came from outside the box.

It was a mixed bag from the forwards on this night — as Kazaiah Sterling and Edward Kizza once again were the starting pair at the top and you could also throw in Robbie Mertz at times along the top line as he was pressing forward on the right side a lot — as they were covering a lot of ground to disrupt Charleston out of the back.

They did well to back track to extend possessions (especially Kizza), but they were almost non-existent in generating any shots or chances the box, where they combined for two shot attempts, including Sterling’s powerful half-volley chance at the half hour mark, but that one went straight to Kuzemka.

The opponent’s tactics and flow of each match will dictate how the forwards need to adjust.  It’s not as simple as it looks — and as simple as Sterling, Kizza or any other forward playing higher up in formation.

It’s clearly been difficult to replace the production that stemmed from last season’s USL Championship Player of the Year Albert Dikwa.

Sterling, Kizza and Danny Griffin share the team lead with three goals apiece.

It’s important to note that under Lilley, the importance of two-way play for the forwards.  In this match, while they weren’t productive in the final third, Kizza and Sterling did put in a full 90 minute shift on a very hot night, even with Babacar Diene available off the bench.

This was always one of Dikwa’s trademarks, and we’ve seen Kizza start to emulate that as well now playing most every minute of every match.  Now Sterling put in a full shift and they were at least effective in their defensive responsibilities, with eight defensive actions and four recoveries.

One of the things that worked so well with Dikwa and Kizza that has not been as efficient this year, is their rotation in coming back for the ball and making runs behind the last line of defenders.  After four years under Lilley’s tutelage, Dikwa mastered the art of finding spaces to score goals, but it always started with his two-way play — non-stop pressing as well as extending possessions. And that’s the part of the game that Sterling, a product of Tottenham Hotspur FC who became South Georgia Tormenta’s all-time leading goal scorer, has not quite mastered just yet in this system.

By the way, guess how many goals Dikwa has scored in his new system in Rhode Island this year?   Three.

So, it’s not always easy to adjust to a new system, coaching and gelling with teammates.   It took Dikwa four full seasons to emerge into the player he was in Lilley’s system.

Maybe the Hounds and Rhode Island should propose a rare in-conference trade — straight up — Dikwa for Sterling?

While that’s extremely, highly unlikely, it’s some food for thought while both teams struggle to score goals.

Bottom line though, from Saturday’s result, in a match against a quality opponent like Charleston, the Hounds are not going to get a lot of quality looks.

But, when they do — they have to convert them.

Glass Half Full: Hounds Defended Well as a Unit

The Hounds looked very organized and did an excellent job of denying any open spaces for Charleston’s dangerous attackers to flourish, especially around the edges and through the middle of the final third.

As a result, Charleston settled for 13 shots which were mostly from difficult angles and from distance.  While the home side owned the possession battle, they kept the ball mostly in their defensive third and through the midfield, as the Hounds were selective on a humid South Carolina night about when they would press.

Heading into the season there appeared to be concerns about the Hounds reshuffled back line, especially with the loss of Arturo Ordonez.

Pat Hogan and Osumanu Illal started this match — and were outstanding — along with Sean Suber who filled in as Luke Biasi who was left off the starting eleven due to recuperating from a hamstring tweak.

Lilley also chose to start Jackson Walti, former Pitt captain, in the middle of the park, for additional support for Griffin as together they secured the barrier above the center back line rather effectively, forcing Charleston to work harder in trying to get into the final third.  It was Walti’s first start since March and his fifth overall appearance.

With Kenardo Forbes and Bradley Sample coming off the bench, the Hounds utilized an effective rotation that kept legs fresh as they knew they’d probably be at a possession disadvantage most of the night.

There were a few dicey moments.

Charleston cut in to the edge of the box a few times, but each time, shots sailed over the bar as Hounds defensive pressure was evident enough to forced rushed attempts.  Keeper Eric Dick, making his second straight start, made a couple of saves, but had a dropped ball in the first half, then nearly had a mix-up with Osumanu in the 70th minute, but both times the Hounds averted danger.

Overall though, if you look at this team, defending has been its strength and carrying them through a rough patch where scoring goals has been an issue.

Riverhounds Player Grades

(Grades on scale of 1 out of 10)

Eric Dick – 5.5 – didn’t face a ton of pressure but had one — to use yinzer slang – slippy moment in first half but recovered after dropping ball on free kick, but grabbed it quickly.  Had eight throws and four high claims.

Illal Osumanu – 7 – another strong night as part of center back pairing, as he made his 12th start in all 12 appearances, following being out of lineup last week.

Pat Hogan – 7 – seems comfortable playing against his former team — anchoring the back line as the Hounds put together their first shutout in six overall matches. The center back and former Battery player had a match-high 10 clearances, three interceptions, won both tackles he contested and 5 of 7 duels overall.

Luke Biasi (81’) – working his way back from tweaked hamstring, Biasi was used late to help secure the shutout

Sean Suber – 6.5 – thought it was a good performance and another sign of his versatility working with center back grouping winning 4/5 duels and had eight defensive actions. Suber is starting to find more and more playing time as he’s now made 11 appearances and this was his fourth start.

Junior Etou – 5 – not able to create any real threatening chances with only two of his 44 touches in opponents box, but had two shots — one coming early in the match that sailed high over the bar. Covered a lot of space on left flank — had three recoveries, won only 2/7 duels

Danny Griffin – 5.5 – Starting to feel his oats from distance as his 11th minute chance was denied thanks to a splendid save.  Especially with Kenardo Forbes out of the lineup, Griffin needs to have more touches though– as only had 31 on night.   Was busy on the defensive side, where he had six recoveries, but only won 1/7 duels.

Jackson Walti – 6 – former Pitt captain returned to the starting lineup with a decent outing in 57 minutes, as pairing central midfielder with Griffin, creating a few chances despite just 19 touches as the Hounds played less through the middle

Bradley Sample (57’) – 5 – on hot night, rotation with Walti and Sample proved to be effective and keep legs fresh, stayed busy on the defensive end with pair of interceptions and clearances and made four recoveries in 33 minutes.

Robbie Mertz – 6 – it looked like the Hounds were in a 3-4-3 at times as Mertz is playing higher and higher up on the right side, trying to exploit and get behind the opposition.  Still, in this match, Mertz covered his share of ground too, as the Hounds were selective with their pressing and also keeping an organized formation.

Kenardo Forbes (57’) – 5- The 36 year old will likely start to be utilized off the bench in selective road match-ups as he’s been in the past two away games.  Forbes had his moments, creating a chance and had a huge miss, after Pierre Cayet set him up with a beautiful ball into the center of box, heading it wide.

Langston Blackstock – 6 – didn’t create any chances, but had four passes into final third, and was solid in his defending responsibilities — while sharing a load of team’s touches (44), along with Etou. Won 3/5 duels, three defensive actions and three recoveries.

Pierre Cayet (81’) – n/r — just his third appearance but nearly had assist with nice left-footed cross that set up Forbes late in match.

Edward Kizza – 5 – Kizza’s work rate continues to be excellent, defending and extending possessions (when he gets chance to touch the ball) — but unable to make an impact in creating goal scoring chances.

Kazaiah Sterling – 4 – The Hounds need for Sterling to have more of an impact as he remains on just three goals.  His once chance, fired right at the keeper.

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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