BREAKING DOWN THE HOUNDS: Roller Coaster Ride Hits Midseason Point

There’s a poignant scene in the 1989 Ron Howard film, Parenthood, when Steve Martin’s character is having a rough day dealing with the trials and tribulations of life as a parent and family man. As he’s in an intense discussion with his wife — his Grandmother interjects herself during their discussion to share some simple wisdom…

“Up. Down. Up. Down. Oh what a ride.”

The 2015 edition of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds have found themselves on a Phantom’s Revenge type of roller coaster ride thus far after 14 league games and three additional Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup matches. Just like Grandma’s description of a roller coaster, the Riverhounds first half of the season has been anything but a merry-go-round. With a new head coach and an influx of new additions to the roster — the Riverhounds have managed to provide a litany of ups and downs.

Let’s take a glance as what’s transpired so far:

  • many, many goals (both scored and conceded — as they are at or near the top of both categories in league play),
  • feature the United Soccer League’s (USL) highest scoring tandem (Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr),
  • not one scoreless match in 17 games
  • scored five or more goals three different times
  • in the opener, setting the tone for the season, stunned the 2014 USL runner-up Harrisburg City Islanders 5-2, as Kerr tallied a hat trick while Vincent added two goals and two assists in a game played in weather conditions resembling conditions suited for the Arctic Circle.
  • lost two games against the league’s top team in which the winning goal was scored in a cloud of controversy surrounding the decision making of the officials.
  • gave back potential points in stoppage time on multiple occasions (Louisville draw and NY Red Bulls II loss) and another in 80th minute (St. Louis).
  • advanced in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with wins over W.V. Chaos and NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, both at home. Rob Vincent’s goal in the 90th minute against the Rowdies set up a memorable showdown that was played before a packed house at Highmark Stadium vs D.C. United.
  • Vincent has scored 12 goals in all competitions (USL-9, Open Cup-3)
  • a wild affair at Red Bull Stadium that saw the Riverhounds respond to two deficits to equalize, and almost a third time as Drew Russell’s last ditch effort in dying second sat on the goal line only to be cleared away in 3-2 loss to Red Bulls II
  • posted rare 2-1 road win at Richmond, in a game started by a rookie goal keeper, Ryan Hulings, as they hung on for dear life in the closing moments despite an onslaught of shots.
  • have started four different goalkeepers
  • Miracle on the Mon (see below)

HIGHS

image

AND LOWS 

Courtesy of NY Red Bulls
Courtesy of NY Red Bulls

Clearly, the first half season was highlighted by the Open Cup clash with D.C. United played before a spilled over sellout crowd of nearly 4,000 — and a game that was so remarkable that I could only describe it as a “Miracle on the Mon”. Yes — the second leg of the Keystone Derby vs Harrisburg, played on May 30, at Highmark Stadium, may have provided the most dramatic finish to a soccer game ever played in the City of Pittsburgh. Trailing by scores of 3-0, 4-2, and then 5-3 as late as late as the 89th minute, the Riverhounds rallied for a 6-5 win for the ages.

So — the ride has been thrilling, bumpy and included some terrific moments — and we’re only half way through the season.  It’s time to give out some grades — here goes my best attempt:

COACHING image

In terms of keeping his heart rate steady, new coach, Mark Steffens, a USL Hall of Famer, who came to Pittsburgh with impressive credentials after 18 seasons at the helm in Charlotte, might have preferred the merry-go-round season. Steffens though, is a veteran — and has has been through enough to keep this team focused, staying the course despite the highs and lows of the season thus far. In taking a step back — and looking at the big picture — Steffens has really helped turn around the Riverhounds. A year ago, they were a team without an identity — lacking cohesion and chemistry for much of the season. He has made his mark already on this organization -instilling a positive culture — and the sense I get is that he has earned the highest respect from most everyone in and around the team. Steffens has been instrumental in building a roster and a much needed team identity built around young players eager to forge their soccer careers in Pittsburgh.   This was what that they were lacking a year ago. There have been some obstacles (most glaring were the onslaught of early season injuries to defenders). The Syosset, NY native has been a solid tactician mostly utilizing a 4-2-3-1 attacking formation (fall back into more of a 4-4-2 when in defensive mode) that has played to the strengths of two 3rd year USL players from the United Kingdom (Kerr who grew up in Scotland, and Vincent, Liverpool, England native) who have had breakout seasons.   His halftime adjustments have resulted in many strong performances in the final 45 minutes, even in losses. A few late game collapses, and what seems to be uncharacteristic ejections in the last game, have been the only blemishes on what has been an otherwise impressive work done so far by Steffens and his coaching staff. Grade: B image FORWARD / STRIKER

I’ll start with the two players who’ve seen the most time up top. Vini Dantas – the big Brazilian has some nice skills on the ball. I’ll go out on the limb to say he’s not much of a threat in the speed department. Outside of the second half of the St. Louis game, he’s not been a dangerous threat to score, and has had moments where he’s failed to capitalize on chances. Miro Cabrilo – the Canadian native and Robert Morris product has made the most of his opportunities in his first full season as a pro, by scoring a few goals and providing a serviceable part of the attack as hold-up, target forward. Drew Russell started the last two games in the lone forward position and against Charlotte, Steffens threw in a different wrinkle starting Fejiro Okiomah in the top forward spot — as he delivered his only assist of the year. We have not seen much of Kene Eze, the Rutgers University standout yet this season. The good news is that in this year’s system, the Riverhounds are still getting lots of goal scoring without relying on a true dynamic striker.  Instead the forwards have been utilized as target men at the top of the attack, who redistribute the ball.  Being that the coaching staff seems to continue to change starters frequently at this spot and being that they’ve accounted for a (not-so) whopping total of three goals in 17 games, shows that this is an area that is still work in progress for the Hounds. Grade: C-

 (Photo Courtesy of Pittsburgh Riverhounds)
(Photo Courtesy of Pittsburgh Riverhounds)

MIDFIELD

In my opening night article (and related in-game tweets) — I began singing the praises of Kevin Kerr and Rob Vincent – and I don’t think I stopped.  I couldn’t help but notice how well they were playing off each other despite being on opposite sides of the field. It seems as if Steffens found a place for both players to thrive this season. When the Riverhounds have needed a big play or a goal, a spark in to ignite the attack — more often than not in 2015 — it’s come from this tandem that have mostly played on the left and right side of the three-man attacking midfield. What else is there left to say about the tandem.  The only minor concern will be can they hold up — and keep it going? Here are a few more things to highlight their impact:

  • each top the team in minutes played (1253 and 1260 respectively) and both have started every one of 17 games.
  • responsible for scoring 15 of the team’s 28 league goals (Vincent-9, Kerr-6) and nine of the team’s 20 assists (Vincent-4, Kerr 5)
  • Taken 68 of the team’s 154 shots
  • Kerr’s tireless work rate has been unmatched while Vincent’s been money anywhere near the box.
  • Coming up in big moments — here’s a few of their biggest —
    • In the team’s signature come from behind win against Harrisburg, it was Vincent’s shot from 25 yards that tied it at the beginning of stoppage time, and Kerr’s terrific finish on a give-and-go with Lebo Moloto, that finished off the remarkable comeback.
    • After struggling to create any significant scoring chances in the first 20 minutes or so against D.C. United, Kerr drew a foul while battling for a ball — setting up the penalty kick that Vincent finished.  After that, the Hounds carried large stretches of play and nearly won in regulation.
    • In a scoreless affair with a chance to host MLS’ D.C. United on the line, and entering the 90th minute against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Vincent stumbled as he was making a run toward the top of the arc.  Then made the Rowdies pay with a snakelike shot to the left of goal that gave the Hounds the decisive win to advance in Open Cup.

In the middle of the three attacking forwards, for the most part this season has been Moloto — and at other times Mike Green. Both have provided solid play. Moloto has been the more creative of the two, and has shown the ability to be a solid playmaking threat. He was at his finest display came during the Harrisburg comeback — picking up three assists on that memorable night. Green has been the Hounds most versatile player — going between midfield, forward and outside back roles making appearances in every game this season. Anchoring the team have been a solid pair of holding midfielders Danny Earls, team captain and Stephen Okai. Occasionally Vincent and Moloto have dropped into these roles.  Both have been steady contributors — and often unsung.  Earls exemplifies the fight of this team, always winning balls in the middle and coming up with big plays in big moments.  Earls’ two goals in Harrisburg comeback gave the Hounds hope.  Now if he can only do something about those yellow (and red) cards.   Okai’s ability to sustain possession has been instrumental in starting build up to numerous key goals and scoring chances this season. After the season began, the Hounds added Serbian Boris Zivanovic, who has found most of his playing time coming off the bench. Amara Soumah has seen limited duty, but as second half sub, he helped ignite the comeback against Harrisburg. Max Touloute has also made a few starts and appearances with his best moments coming in the second half against Rochester in early April as he scored the Hounds only goal against the Rhinos this year. Clearly with the goal scoring production and number the quality players in the last paragraph mentioned who are getting limited playing time, it shows that the midfield is clearly deep and this team’s greatest strength. Grade: B+ image DEFENSE – BACK LINE

The roller coaster ride has certainly applied to the back line.  However, despite giving up 24 goals in 14 games, the Hounds have seemed to right the ship a bit as they get to midseason.  Even though they were at the bottom of many of the league’s defensive statistical categories, a recent run that has included their first shutout (vs Montreal), they’ve given up just four goals in the past four league games. But much of it has been dependent upon the health of their core defensive players. The two players who’ve played the bulk of minutes along the back line have been Anthony Arena and Willie Hunt.  Injuries have hampered the most tenured Riverhound, Sterling Flunder, veteran Matt Dallman, who led the USL in assists in 2013, and new addition Okiomah, who was brought in to pair with Arena to solidify the central defense.   The injuries forced Steffens to use Mike Green in the outside back role and thrusted 20 year-old Canadian Tyler Pasher into a prominent role early in the season.  Local product, Anthony Virgara has also filled in at times in the back. Make no mistake, Steffens wants his outside backs to come forward — playing a part in the attack as they will often overlap the midfielders and make runs.   Pasher’s speed in particular has been an asset in this area — and if Dallman can regain form, he will be used in this role as well. The recent run of better defensive efforts have been boosted by having Okiomah and Arena in the back at the same time, enabling Hunt, who has appeared in every game, to slide back to the right outside back spot.  With Flunder back healthy, this fortifies the defense and allows Steffens to use Pasher off the bench.   With Dallman back in the mix, can provide much needed depth for the stretch run of the second half of the season. Despite their potential, the back line will need stay healthy, provide more consistency and cut down on mistakes in the second half if the Hounds are going to make a move up the Eastern Conference standings. Grade:   C    Ryan-Thompson-3-28-15-4-850x560

DEFENSE – GOALKEEPERS

Ryan Thompson was a rock solid presence — and at times — spectacular in goal for the first eight games.    Then, injuries and his leave with the Jamaican National team in Copa America — have brought a revolving door at the goalkeeper position. Despite the fluctuation of net minders — the Hounds ran off an unbeaten string of games in all competitions in May and early June with a pair of first-year pros.  Former Hounds U-23 goalkeeper Ryan Hulings saw the bulk of work, while Former University of Virginia national champion Calle Brown impressed in his first start against Richmond, but was injured.   Hulings was in net for the wins against Tampa Bay and Harrisburg — and for the 1-1 tie at home on June 6 against St. Louis when protecting a 1-0 lead, he made a bad judgement to come off the line to try to play a ball, and was beaten.   The next week, the Hounds brought in Columbus Crew’s Matt Lampson on loan to start against Charlotte in a disappointing 2-1 loss.   Brown has since returned to start in the past two games. July will likely see a lot of Brown who has impressed and provides an imposing presence with his 6’6″ frame.  — Upon Thompson’s return in late July — the Hounds will likely go with the hot hand. Grade:   C+ 

Photos Courtesy - Terry O'Neil / www.Riverhounds.com
Photos Courtesy – Terry O’Neil / http://www.Riverhounds.com

OUTLOOK

Steffens said at one point a few weeks ago that he feels that the best is yet to come for this team.   At the half way point, they are right over the playoff line — and have a great opportunity to make their move up the standings as the defense gets healthy, the goalkeeper situation stabilizes.  It can’t all be on Vincent and Kerr — they will need help if this team is going to make a move upward. Well folks, better buckle up — because we’re only half way through this roller coaster ride.

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