Breaking Down the Hounds

Highmark stadiumFor the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, the real season starts Saturday.

Yes, that’s right, we are just a few days away from the Pittsburgh Riverhounds USL opener, at home against the 2014 league runner up, and interstate rivals, Harrisburg City Islanders.

With an abundance of changes happening in the offseason, it wasn’t easy to keep up.  An abbreviated and cold-weather shortened preseason didn’t help matters either — as we had limited opportunities to see the team.   But as the training and preparation for the regular season ends, it looks like we finally have a better idea of what to expect who new coach Mark Steffens will be putting on the field – and how they will align tactically.

I didn’t see a lot of the team, but did get a glance at the team during their scrimmage with Akron on March 15, and met some of the new guys during their jersey unveiling.   The key words this year will be — youth, promise and potential — as a lot of new players are in the 21-25 age range with recent college and PDL experiences.  It will be interesting to see which take advantage of their opportunities, and rise into prominent roles for the Riverhounds.  Will there be another Jose Angulo come out this group?

And as I was talking with one player, it was tough to tell what we can really expect from playing against college teams that are in their offseason.   The real test will come on Saturday night.

Without further ado, here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the current Hounds roster.

GOALKEEPER

Ryan Thompson – member of Jamaican national team, played for Tampa Bay Rowdies along with stints with European clubs.  Will playing in front of the Steel Army be a good home for one of the Reggae Boyz?

Calle Brown – First pro contract.   National Champion at Virginia a year ago – where he posted shutouts in Final Four vs UM, Baltimore County, and National Championship Game vs UCLA.  He is one big dude.  I am 6’3” and he’s was towering over me on the field the other day – must be at least 6’6”.

Ryan Hulings – Played on Hounds Inaugural PDL team in 2014, and played for Baldwin-Wallace University.  Also, first pro contract.

What to expect

The Riverhounds are seeing a complete overhaul at the goalkeeper spot.  Thompson is the seasoned veteran of the group, and when he was signed, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that he would the main guy this season.

But, as the team anticipates chunks of the season when Thompson will be called up to play for the Jamacian national team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and COPA Americas tournaments, it was important that they brought in a couple of aspiring net minders in Hulings and Brown who will provide depth and upside.

BACK LINE / DEFENSE  

Anthony Arena – made 16 appearances for the Hounds in 2014 on loan from the Houston Dynamo (MLS).    His presence in the middle last year solidified the back line, and Steffens is hoping for more of the same from Arena this season.

Sterling Flunder – Riverhounds mainstay since 2009.  He’s the longest tenured player on roster.  Flunder will continue to climb up the top of the Riverhounds appearances list, as he’s over 100 now.  Has provided stability to defense past few years at one of the outside back positions.

Fejiro Okiomah –  Native of Austin, TX, and last played with the Indy Eleven (NASL) in 2014.  The 25 year-old Okiomah immediately impressed with his physical presence (6’2” / 190 lbs) in the Akron scrimmage albeit against college players.  It looks like he will be a good partner with Arena in central defense.  He also appears to be a dangerous option in the box on set pieces – has penchant for scoring goals in the box when brought up.

Drew Russell – Played his rookie season in Charlotte in 2014.  The Mount Vernon, Iowa native is among three former Eagles who played for Steffens, who has landed in Pittsburgh.   Russell likely will be the other starting fullback opposite Flunder.

Tyler Pasher – First year with Hounds, first pro contract.  At age 20, he’s the youngest player on the Hounds roster.  Former Toronto FC academy product, and Ontario native has played for the Canadian U-20 squad, and has been called up in March for the senior team.

What to expect

Having Arena back will most certainly solidify the team’s central defense – as he provided solid presence a year ago when he was with the club. Looking at the rest of the back line, Flunder, who has surpassed 100 team appearances for the club, will likely climb near the top of the Riverhounds record chart of most games played this season, is very likely to occupy one of outside back spots. In addition to Arena and Flunder, they have added Okiomah and Russell to the mix. Tyler Pasher, provides depth and could see time in any of the areas on the backline. In preseason, it looked like Anthony Virgara (listed as MF) saw some time at full back in the Akron scrimmage.  Matt Dallman played outside back out of necessity a year ago, but likely Dallman will return to an outside midfield role with the Hounds.  Mike Green has also spent time in the back line in previous seasons, but he’s likely to remain in attacking MF role.

Dallman

MIDFIELD

Matt Dallman – Entering his 3rd season with the Riverhounds .  Next to Flunder, and Thompson, Dallman is the only other player on the roster over 30.  The former USL assist leader returns as likely the most recognizable face among Riverhounds fans.  He has been hampered with leg injury this spring and is still getting back into fitness.   If he can return to his 2013 form, he will provide a dangerous presence on the flank.

Danny Earls – by midseason 2014, when the Riverhounds began to turn what seemed to be a hopeless season around, Danny Earls was going about his business and took the captain’s armband.   He led the team in minutes played, appearances and if there was a statistic for toughness, he would have nailed that one too.  The USL veteran, and Irish midfielder, was the team’s MVP in a tough season, and won the respect of teammates, fans and opponents.  His presence in the middle of the field gives the Hounds instant credibility and his left foot is dangerous in serving set pieces.

KerrKevin Kerr – Scottish native resigned with the Hounds in the offseason.   This will be his third season with the club after brief stints in the Netherlands and Germany.  He tallied five goals in 2014 – and will be looked for some production in a variety of roles in midfield.

Rob Vincent – native of England, and former University of Charleston product, Rob Vincent is now entering his third season in Pittsburgh.  He’s scored six goals in his first two seasons.

Stephen Okai – from Ghana, Okai played collegiately for University of Mobile where he won the National Player of the Year award in NAIA and was a three-time All-American.During his time at college, Okai also played for USL PDL club Des Moines Menace in 2010, and Reading United A.C. in 2011 and 2012.

Lebo Moloto –full name is Matshidiso Lebogang Moloto, but we’ll stick with Lebo Moloto.  He’s a native of South Africa, who attended Lindsay Wilson College – where he played on two NAIA National Championship teams (scoring 42 goals in his four years).  Moloto played in the USL PDL for Des Moines where he had 11 goals in three seasons.

Seth C’deBaca – Alberquerque, New Mexico native, and former Georgetown University player, who played with DC United U-23 squad, has been with the Riverhounds since 2012, with 52 appearances mostly as a midfielder.    

Mike Green – versatile player, who has played outside back, midfield and striker in 62 appearances for the Riverhounds since joining the club in 2012.   Look for Steffens to use Green in a variety of roles – but most likely in the attacking midfield spot.

Anthony Virgara – Along with Hulings, made some impressive appearances with the Riverhounds PDL squad in 2014.  After attending Seton-LaSalle and Keystone Oaks, Virgara attended Marshall Univeristy where he played from 2010-13.  This will be his first professional contract.   Look for Steffens to possibly move him around a bit – as Virgara played some full back in the preseason.

Nick Kolarac  – along with Virgara, is the second homegrown player on the roster, who made 73 collegiate appearances for Saint Francis University during four years in Loretto. He previously attended West Allegheny High School and played his club soccer for Century United.  Also, another player in his first pro contract, played for USL PDL’s Michigan Bucks in their league title season in 2014.

What to expect

This is the one area where the Riverhounds will have continuity.   It looks like Steffens has a lot of experience (by USL standards) and depth in the midfield, and he will rely on many of these players in early in the season.   In the preseason, with Dallman out of the lineup, he toyed with having Vincent and Kerr on the flanks – with a core central midfield consisting of Earls and Okai in holding roles – and Moloto (or Green) in attacking midfield role.   On the preseason line-up sheet, Vincent and Kerr were listed as forwards at the top of a 4-3-3 formation.  Both were able to convert on scoring opportunities (Vincent had a hat trick against his alma mater, Charleston and Kerr scored the lone goal against Akron).   The alignment appears to shift back into a 4-5-1 (or 4-2-3-1) when they are not in possession – and it appears Steffens will rely on versatility of his midfield to work together and interchangeably throughout the course of each match.

FORWARDS

Miro Cabrilo – Canadian native and Robert Morris standout – Cabrilo made his first appearances for the Hounds late in 2014, when he scored a few goals in matches when the Hounds were making their playoff push, including the game winner at Charlotte.

Kene Eze –  was a fourth round pick of Toronto FC in last year’s Major League Soccer SuperDraft. The Sayreville, N.J. native and former Rutgers University player, spent last summer with the PDL’s Jersey Express franchise.

imageVini Dantas – a late addition, the Brazilian joins the club after playing for the Baltimore Blast MASL Championship series. Scored the first goal in the history of the NASL’s Ottawa Fury, he only registered one other goal in 26 appearances last season. The Riverhounds will be his fourth professional outdoor club in the past five years as he’s played in Finland, Norway, Canada and now the U.S.

Max Touloute – Attended IUPFW (that’s Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne if you are keeping track – we’ll stick with the acronym!) after being raised in Fort Wayne, Ind.  Played 2014 forUSL PDL’s Reading United.   Most recently featured for the Missouri Comets indoor soccer franchise.

What to expect

In my early season forecast in Pittsburgh Sports Report, I listed one of the three keys to the Riverhounds season will be replacing 2013 USL MVP and the team’s leading scorer the past two seasons, Jose Angulo, who signed with NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers in Feburary.    It appears that while there’s an influx of youth on the roster, the forward position is one where the Hounds are banking on one of these bright young players to step up and shine.

The guy with the most pedigree is Dantas, who has bounced around a bit, but might be the dangerous forward they are hoping can elevate their attack.

In the formations that Steffens has utilized in preseason, it appears that he will be utilizing one striker in the lone, central striker role.   Eze has been starting the last few matches – and has not been hesitant about taking on defenders and trying to create scoring chances.   Cabrilo a natural, big-body, central forward who can hold the ball up, redistribute and seems to draw lots of contact.

While having a lot of production up top could be a crucial final piece that could elevate the Hounds into contender status, Steffens doesn’t seem to be concerned with having the forward carry the scoring load as the team features midfielders who can also produce.

The key of course will be making it all fit together.

We’ll find out real soon how things turn out.

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