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Takeaways and Player Grades: Impotent Riverhounds’ woes exacerbated by defensive blunder in latest loss

Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

If you thought the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC season couldn’t get any worse, they found a way extend their dubious winless and goal-less scoring streaks in heartbreaking fashion.

In a match that wasn’t expected to see a lot scoring chances, the Hounds shut down Monterey Bay FC, not even allowing a single shot on goal for more than 90 minutes, but the visitors converted their one chance from a Pittsburgh defensive miscue in stoppage time, and that was enough for a 1-0 win at Highmark Stadium on Saturday night.

PSN’s Griffin Floyd was there and had the match report.

Defensive lapse in stoppage time haunts Riverhounds in 1-0 loss to Monterey Bay FC

With the loss, the Hounds’ (3w-9L-6d, 15 points) winless streak extended to 10 matches in league play (11 overall if you count US Open Cup)

They’ve also gone more than six games and  570 minutes without scoring.

After the match, both Riverhounds’ Head Coach Bob Lilley and midfielder Robbie Mertz, stepped up to answer the tough questions about the team’s performance and gut-wrenching result.

Always transparent and full of detail, Lilley tackled the tough topics head on including the late gaffe and his team’s inability to score in a game he felt “was there to get all three points, and we give it away.”

While Mertz, who wore the captain’s armband on a night when fellow midfielder, Danny Griffin was sidelined with leg injury, was resolute in his support and belief in his teammates, believing firmly that they will keep battling to play their way out of this extended difficult stretch of play despite 11 matches without a win.

“When you put it like that, it definitely doesn’t sound good, and it does feel like it’s been awhile,” Mertz said.

“I think people are trying to stay positive. At the end of the day we’re professionals, and we just know that we have to put our heads down as a team, to work hard in training, doing the right things, staying disciplined. Because on a night like tonight, and I think many of the games we’ve played this year, it’s there to be won for us, and we know that.

Formation, Tactics, Personnel

The Riverhounds haven’t scored a goal in over a month — so in the spirit of trying something different — Lilley went with yet another combination at the top of the attack.  This time he went with Emmanuel ‘EJ’ Johnson in the starting lineup alongside Edward Kizza as the starting forwards. It was the 21 year-old’s second start this season.

Also, with team captain Danny Griffin missing his first ever start in his two stints with the club, due to a right leg injury, the Hounds went with the young pairing in the central midfield, Bradley Sample and Jackson Walti.

The Hounds featured a 5-3-2 formation, with three center backs flanked by same two wingers/outside backs who’ve logged most of the minutes this year in those spots — Junior Etou and Langston Blackstock.

In the 65th minute, the Hounds made their first subs — bringing on Babacar Diene and Kenardo Forbes for EJ Johnson and the wounded warrior, Robbie Mertz.

Late in the match, in the 87th minute, Enoch Mushagalusa and Aiden O’Toole came on to try to provide a spark.

Takeaways

Playing backwards… 

This was a brutal result, as the Hounds held Monterey Bay FC without a shot on goal until stoppage time.

That shot on goal came hand delivered.

It started when MBFC’s goalkeeper, Carlos Herrera, sent a long clearance from the goal box that sailed over everyone but Hounds defender Sean Suber, who attempted to play the ball back to goalkeeper Eric Dick.

But Suber’s ball wasn’t played firmly enough — giving MBFC’s trailing forward Ousseni Bouda, a chance to snatch his team’s first chance at a shot on frame, by easily slotting through the ball into the empty net left after Dick came off his line.

Suber and his Hounds’ back line mates were outstanding most of the match.  Sure, there were things to nit-pick, as Lilley felt that the Hounds took their foot off the gas a bit in the second half in terms of pressure and staying on the front foot, but by the time the match reached the 92nd minute, the Hounds’ held Monterey Bay to four total shots — and none on frame.

When a defensive player attempting to move a ball out of a dangerous position, general rule of thumb is that they need to play the ball forward or at least away from the box and center of the final third.  Sending a ball out over the sideline as final resort would suffice.

Watching the replay over a few times, it seems pretty apparent that Suber didn’t sense that Bouda was closing in that quickly.

“I’d rather see us one-time the ball forward. I think at that point in the game, everything should be going forward. I mean, I understand the concept of trying to bring it down and play back, but at that time in the game, the keeper’s just going to knock it forward,” Lilley explained.

“I think we probably need to play forward there rather than try to play backwards.

Playing the ball back to the keeper is generally acceptable in that situation, but the pass has to be firm and in a safe enough zone for the keeper to take a touch and play it safely.

“To be honest with you, he took that ball out of the air and his first touch was ridiculous. If you watch back the play, like how would you take that out of the air? From there, not knowing exactly where the guy is. You see that happen at all levels of the game,” Mertz added.

Suber has been a solid addition to the Hounds defending corps this season.  While he didn’t initially get a lot of starting time this season, the former Nashville SC SuperDraft selections who spent last season with Huntsville SC (MLSNextPro), has started the last eight matches, and nine total league matches this season.

In this match, Suber was positioned centrally in the three man center back grouping, with Luke Biasi to his left and Illal Osumanu to his right.

“I thought Sean [Suber] otherwise had a pretty good game,” Lilley added, then turned his attention to the team’s shortcomings throughout the match.

“We made a few mistakes on the ball in the first half, had a very good first half, controlled the game. Second half, I don’t think we were as aggressive, as urgent to get in behind.”

Mertz also made a point to share that it’s unfair to put all the blame for this result on one player.

“It is not the time to point fingers or to blame anyone. There were chances at the other end that we could’ve converted that would’ve put us in an advantageous situation in that game where Sean’s not even thinking about trying to keep that ball because we’re leading the game, and then he can just make a safe play,” Mertz stated.

“That’s where it comes down to it’s a team game. The blame does not fall on any one person.”

The real problem, continues to be lack of scoring… 

The first half of the match was an ugly slugfest — with neither side really connecting on any quality shots, but the Hounds were on the team on the front foot, and dictating terms as is a trademark of Lilley teams that are almost always successful.

While they didn’t generate a single shot on frame in the first 45 minutes, the Hounds did have a few decent crosses and a couple balls into dangerous areas.

When they couldn’t get in from the width, Pittsburgh simply played direct, sending numerous balls over to Johnson and Kizza, hoping they could cash in and get behind the defense, but Monterey, as most opponents this season, were not fooled or overpowered by the Hounds’ efforts to play direct.

Johnson was on the end to two chances, but his efforts to take defenders off the dribble — however ambitious — ultimately didn’t generate a shot on goal.

As the story has gone all season — Hounds had their touches in the box — they just couldn’t create real scoring chances.

Lilley pointed out his team’s inability to generate more dangerous moments on set pieces, as the Hounds earned six free kicks and 10 corner kick attempts.

Early in the second half, Mertz, who suffered a head injury in a late first half collision, was forced to wear head bandage, had the best chance of the match for either side to that point in the 48th minute getting to the edge of the box and firing a laser that was saved by MBFC keeper, Carlos Herrera.

Sure, he was subbed out in the 62nd minute, but up to that point, Mertz was flying around, battling and doing his part with two shots on target, 13 crosses and drawing two fouls.

Former Hound, Alex Dixon, who excelled in the attacking third in his two years in Pittsburgh, nearly got the game’s first goal in the 53rd minute, on MBFC’s first shot attempt of the match.  Hounds GK Eric Dick came way off his line to punch ball away, but Dixon got their first and the 34-year-old USLC vet’s chip attempt took a few bounces to the left of the goal.

“To me they [the defense] didn’t excel tonight,” Lilley responded when one reporter suggested that the Hounds have excelled defensively.

“Monterey Bay’s struggling scoring goals recently: I think they’ve been shut out three of the last four times [entering tonight]. We gave a lot of balls away in the back. They got in behind us a couple times on direct balls. To me it wasn’t good enough. Our standards have been so much higher in the back and offensively—the word excel is a pretty strong word.”

Lilley added:

“Yes, we are asking a lot of the defenders right now to keep shutouts, because it doesn’t appear like we’re gonna score tons of goals. Better to get a draw or have a chance to win 1-0. Give up a goal, you’ve gotta score two. So yeah, we’re leaning on our team defending, but that’s failed us tonight as well, and I’m not just talking about the goal.”

The Hounds’ high press rattled MBFC throughout the first half and early in the second half played out, but still they couldn’t create too many point blank chances — and let the visitors hang around throughout the second half.

“You can’t come out in the second half and not reestablish dominance. We’re at home. I think we backed off, that’s frustrating,” Lilley said.

“We’ve got to score goals, but we’ve also got to press. The second half, they were able to play out of the back, the first half they weren’t. Our forwards lacked intensity, midfielders sat deeper, defenders sat deeper, and we didn’t go after the game with the same urgency and intensity.

The match was also on even terms in possession, but in the end, it all didn’t matter, as the Hounds could not even see through a scoreless draw and what was — to that point — a very solid defensive performance.

Ultimately, the ball is not getting into the back of the net, and that’s the primary issue.

“I mean it’s belief, it’s confidence, it’s all those things,: Lilley tried his best to explain his club’s inability to score.

“Last week we didn’t shoot in a lot of situations where tonight we shot. But if you have no angle or you’re off balance, backpedaling, trying to head it at the goal, you’re not going to beat the keeper. You have to be able to get a proper strike or find someone in a better position.”

Instead, the Hounds season is in peril.

They now trail North Carolina FC by six points for the last playoff spot, but at this rate of ineptitude on the attacking front, and being prone to defensive lapses — the season is getting very, very close to becoming a lost cause for the Riverhounds.

Player Grades

GK Eric Dick – 5-  rarely tested as didn’t have to make a save through the entire 90 minutes though came off line in 53′ — and nearly paid the price but Alex Dixon’s chip over missed left.  Can’t really blame him for the goal, can you?

D Sean Suber – 3.5 –  sequence on the goal and the costly mistake will all that we’ll remember from this match so unfortunately, a solid overall performance for 90 minutes goes by the wayside for Suber in the final grade.

F Langston Blackstock – 6.5 – was solid playing both ways (six defensive recoveries and 7/8 passes connected into the final third)

F Junior Etou – 6 – two chances created, seven passes into final third — felt like he was carving out some moments working around the edge including two balls into the box that nearly connected with Kizza and Mertz in the first half.

F Emmanuel Johnson – 5 – only his second start this season had one decent extended possession in the box when he did a Maradona move to evade a defender, then fell into defender. Created two chances but didn’t have a shot.

D Luke Biasi – 6 – solid all the way around in anchoring the back line

M Robbie Mertz – 6 – he was subbed out in the 62nd minute, but up to that point, Mertz was flying around, battling and doing his part with two shots on target, 13 crosses and drawing two fouls.

M Bradley Sample – 6.5 – while it seems as if Danny Griffin is indispensable to this club, Sample was very good in his pairing with Jackson Walti in the center of the park — doing plenty of the two-way work between the 18s well (seven defensive recoveries, 87% passing, 10 passes into the final third)

F Edward Kizza – 4 – created a couple chances, but missed another big one — when making run into box on Etou short cross but couldn’t get past defender.  Seven touches in box need to result in more production.

D Illal Osumanu – 6 – played a lot out through Osumanu in this match (61 passes/76 touches) — with team leading 90% passing accuracy, including 4/7 on long balls, he was mostly up-to-the-task.

M Jackson Walti – 6 –  as mentioned, central midfield pairing alongside Sample was more than reliable in this match. Walti created one chance, had seven defensive actions, 79% passing accuracy, and on the ball

Subs 

M – Kenardo Forbes (62′) – 5 –  it’s becoming a common theme to rotate Forbes into matches in second half as of late, but still without an assist through 18 matches.

F – Babacar Diene (62′) – 4.5 – two shots but little impact in helping with much needed goal.

M – Aiden O’Toole (87′) – N/R

F – Enoch Mushagalusa (87′) – N/R

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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