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Preview and Scouting Report: Riverhounds face Hartford Athletic SC side still in transition under Brendan Burke

Photo courtesy Hartford Athletic FC

Going back on the road, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC are looking for their first win in six tries when they head to face another team that has been struggling to find wins, Hartford Athletic FC.

The two clubs have been playing each other since 2019, when Hartford came into the league, and at Trinity Health Stadium (previously Dillon Stadium), the Hounds have yet to lose (5-0-1).

Both clubs through the first third of the 2024 campaign have taken their share of knocks, and are each looking for a spark to ignite their respective seasons and their scoring woes.  We know the Hounds’ plight pretty well, as they’re mired in a 14-point stretch in 13 matches, coming off a fairly positive 0-0 result at Charleston thanks to a strong defensive effort, but they’re winless in the last five matches.  While Hartford are not the bottom dwellers they were a year ago, they still sit one point behind the Hounds, and have just one win in their last nine matches in all competetions.

This match will also be a battle of wits between two coaches who know each other pretty well, Riverhounds SC Bob Lilley and Hartford’s Brendan Burke.  Diehards may recall Burke leading Bethlehem Steel FC into cross-state battles with the Hounds during the 2016-2019 stretch.  The most significant match between Lilley-Burke took place when Steel FC stunned the Hounds in the first-ever playoff match at Highmark Stadium, in 2018, in a penalty kick shootout.

Since that time, Burke also helped turn Colorado Springs Switchbacks into a Western Conference contender, then took a post as an assistant with Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo, who won the US Open Cup last year.

Another interesting storyline for Riverhounds fans — Hartford has two former Pittsburgh men on the roster who have featured prominantly this season — defender Joey Farrell and defender/midfielder Thomas Vancaeyezeele.

Can the Hounds pick up a much needed three points?  They’re heading to place where they’ve been able to secure wins every season since they started playing in Hartford in 2019 and should have a favorable match-up to do so against a club still in transition.

A Closer Look: Hartford Athletic FC

Hartford really hit the bottom last year, finishing dead last. This meant another coaching change. Instead of taking a chance on a coach from overseas, this time around, Hartford looked for someone very familiar with the USL Championship landscape by bringing in Burke as they’ve (once again) had to make concessions to start all over for the most part.

Starting over sometimes means there will be some bumps in the road, and Burke is still shuffling his roster around, even 12 matches into the season.

It’s been an interesting week for Hartford, who made three different roster moves with the biggest being sending forward Romario Williams to Indy Eleven in exchange for fullback Younes Boudadi.

Hartford also added another forward in Dantouma Toure, and as reported by The Blazing Musket, it’s been rumored that yet another forward – Kyle Edwards – is on his way out the door by way of a loan to Monterey Bay FC.

Boudadi – who spent two previous seasons in Hartford in 2021 and 2022 – seems the most likely to start and should give the Latics a much-needed attacking spark from one of the fullback positions.

Hartford’s top scorer, Michee Ngalina, also sits at three goals in his first season in Connecticut. He arrived in Hartford along with Burke, who Ngalina also played for with Bethlehem Steel and the Colorado Springs Switchbacks. Also new in a Hartford shirt are a pair of former Riverhounds players, Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Joe Farrell, both of whom signed as free agents in the offseason.

After one season in Pittsburgh, as a key veteran presence on the backline who also has a knack for coming up with a few goals on set pieces, Farrell’s doing the same thing with his new club, having started nine of 10 matches he’s played.

Vancaeyezeele, who was a valuable and versatile contributor to the Hounds from 2018-20, including earning two Second Team All-USL Championship honors, starting as a defensive midfielder, but mostly emerged as a defender in Lilley’s system.  Tommy V has traveled a bit in his career since, with stops in Birmingham, San Diego, Tampa Bay and even a stint back in his native France, with sixth division Bassin d’Arcachon.

Back in the states, it appears that Vancaeyezeele‘s is comfortable in his role with his new club, primarily as someone who’s dependable on the ball, makes solid decisions, has creativity and can defend, as he’s now key veteran presence for a club trying to build a winning culture. The French Guiana international transitioned back to defensive midfield spot in Burke’s system which typically lines up as a 4-2-3-1, as he’s starting to do the things again he did so well in Pittsburgh.

‘It’s always hard to make it work, when players come from all over,” Vancaeyezeele said on a Hartford radio interview recently following Hartford’s last win. “We have a lot of experienced players in the USL (Championship). We’ve played against each other. Soccer is one language. We need to understand each other. And then, you make it work. In the past game (Monterey Bay), we showed that.”

In Hartford’s 2-1 defeat of Monterey Bay, Tommy V came up with a pair of assists, earning USL Championship Team of the Week honors.

Despite the veteran presence of Farrell and Vancaeyezeele, Hartford’s allowed the fourth most goals in the Championship (23), while only posting two clean sheets, as they’ve gone with a split rotation of goalkeepers, Renan Ribiero and Paul Waters sharing the duties with six starts apiece.

They continue to be a team very much as a work in progress, so it will be interesting to see how they match-up vs the Hounds who are also still looking for solutions in the final third and more consistency.

Here’s how Hartford lined up last week in 1-0 loss to New Mexico.

Hounds Matching Up vs Hartford and Projected Starting XI

This is a match between two clubs who have not scored a lot of goals this season, but if the Hounds look to open things up, maybe some sparks could fly.

Despite their lack of scoring (league worst 11 goals through 13 matches at a rate of 0.8 goals per match), Pittsburgh continues to hover highly in touches in the box (4th with 329) and 5th in Expected Goals.

At some point you would think things would have to level out — and they could use a breakout performance to get on the right track.

The Hounds need to finish on their big chances and create more consistent pressure on goal.

Last time out, they were locked into a pretty tight, defensive struggle on the road against one of the best teams in the league, Charleston, but still had a couple of golden chances they could not convert.

Against a club in transition, maybe this is the opportunity for Bob Lilley’s squad to find some scoring rhythm.

With a fairly short turnaround — as front-running Louisville City FC comes to Highmark on Wednesday night — Lilley will also doing some load management.  Kenardo Forbes did not start in two of the last three matches, as the Hounds hit the middle of the season, the league’s all-time assists and minutes played leader may continue to be utilized off the bench.   Last week, the Hounds opted to start Jackson Walti in the central midfield, alongside captain Danny Griffin, while Bradley Sample and Forbes came off the bench.

Both regular starting forwards, sitting on three goals each for the season, Edward Kizza and Kazaiah Sterling, played full 90 minutes at Charleston, so it appears that Lilley is intent on them figuring things out in terms of scoring, while they contribute two way play covering a lot of ground.  With the quick turnaround on Wednesday, there’s a chance we’ll see more rotation in the lineup, and would think that would be the case with the forwards, as Babacar Diene and EJ Johnson may be used during this stretch.

The only player listed on Hounds Injury Report is Luke Biasi (questionable – Hamstring), who was also on the report last week, but did find a spot on the lineup card, but came off the bench late at Charleston.  Even without Biasi, who previously started the previous 10 matches at center back, the Hounds back line depth proved to be reliable at Charleston, anchored by veteran Pat Hogan, Illal Osumanu and Sean Suber, while Langston Blackstock and Junior Etou took on outside back/winger roles.

Here’s my projected Hounds starting eleven for this match at Hartford on Saturday.

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Match Info

Riverhounds (3-5-5) at Hartford Athletic (4-7-1)
Date: Saturday, June 15
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Trinity Health Stadium, Hartford, Conn.
Odds: Hounds +120 / Draw +210 / Hartford +220 (FanDuel)
TV: SportsNet Pittsburgh Plus
Streaming: ESPN+
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtags: #HFDvPIT and #HOUNDTAHN

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).

Glory on the Grass

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Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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