If there was one overriding theme this past weekend at Highmark Stadium — as the Pittsburgh Riverhounds played a pair of scrimmages against college opponents to open their preseason schedule — it was that they are clearly still working out the kinks.
After a full week of training under new coach Bob Lilley, the Hounds used a variety of lineup combinations that included 25 players on Saturday, and 20 on Sunday. In 180 minutes of soccer, the Hounds came away with a pair of uninspiring results against a pair of college teams that were also opening their spring seasons.
The Hounds preseason opening wins included beating Spring Arbor University 4-2 on Saturday, then a 3-0 triumph against Cleveland State on Sunday.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, that’s for sure,” Lilley said in response to a question about his thoughts on his team’s first live-game against opponents.
“Look, we had a great week of training. Energy was really good. As a staff, we gave them a lot of information. I think in some cases, in two games, we weren’t as fluid, because guys were still processing information. And that has to become ingrained more before they’re really comfortable and relaxed.”
In each scrimmage Lilley was often found pulling players aside — and giving them extended verbiage and instructions — even as the game was going on.
The Hounds took a 2-0 halftime lead against Spring Arbor on Saturday, but had a pair of defensive lapses in the second half after scoring two goals – resulting in a 4-2 final.
For a coach who has assembled some of the toughest defensive units in USL in recent years, those defensive breakdowns were not emblematic of a Bob Lilley coached team.
“Defensively, we’re not close to where we need to be. We’ll get a lot better,” Lilley explained after Sunday’s action. “I felt we were better today (in 3-0 win over Cleveland State). It was good to see a little bit of improvement.”
On Sunday, it was Romeo Parkes scoring on a penalty kick in his preseason debut in the first half, after Brett drew a foul in the box. Skylar Milne delivered the Hounds second goal from a nice pass from Parkes, who broke behind a defender to make a deep run into the left side of the box. The Hounds capped the scoring in the 90th minute when Brett broke loose on a breakaway, sliding a shot into an open net. Combining for the clean sheet in net were Kyle Morton and Mike Kirk
So, after these two performances, what have we learned about the 2018 Hounds under Lilley?
CRASH-COURSE IN LILLEYBALL
For starters, we had a chance to see a bit closer how Lilley operates in the preseason. A long-time pro coach who’s won championships with Vancouver Whitecaps and Rochester Rhinos, Lilley is demanding a lot from each and every player, as he and his staff have thrown a lot at the 27 players that were in camp this past week.
“Part of that for us is me giving them an awful lot — and put them in game environment. Sometimes players have to be able to play off their instinct,” Lilley added. “I’ll expect it will get better.”
Watching Lilley in action, as he was in preseason ‘teaching’ mode on the sidelines, may have been as entertaining as any of the actual game action.
At halftime of each game, Lilley proceeded to spend the full 15 minutes talking with the 10 field players that just came off the field. In fact, on Sunday, he was diagramming things on the field with the water bottles, and while a steady rain was coming down.
In a day and age when coaches and technical staff use all kinds of technology, sleek training methods and analytics to get an edge, Lilley apparently pulls out more primitive resources to effectively get his message across, and seems most comfortable drawing up strategies with lines in the sand.
Turning our attention to the field, in each friendly, the Hounds came out with a 4-4-2, with a diamond midfield.
>Here was the starting XI on Sunday:
And to be more specific, here were the line-ups for each scrimmage:
- vs Spring Arbor: First Half – Kyle Morton – Phil Fives, Sean McFarlane, Nicholas Walker, Malcolm Harris (Christian Ramos) – Mouhamed Dabo, Andre Thomas, Bakie Goodman, Joseph Holland – Skyler Milne, David Goldsmith. Second Half – Dan Lynd (Mike Kirk) – Phil Fives (Ray Lee), Mélé Temguia, Nicholas Walker (Joe Greenspan), Ritchie Duffie – Stephen Okai, Christian Ramos (Christiano François), Bakie Goodman (Jordan Dover), Ben Fitzpatrick – Skyler Milne (Darío Suárez), Neco Brett
- vs Cleveland State: First Half – Kyle Morton – Ray Lee, Sean McFarlane, Joe Greenspan, Jordan Dover – Kevin Kerr, Stephen Okai, Christiano François, Joseph Holland – Neco Brett, Romeo Parkes. Second Half – Mike Kirk – Phil Fives, Nicholas Walker, Joe Greenspan (Sean McFarlane), Jordan Dover (Ritchie Duffie) – Ben Fitzpatrick Mouhamed Dabo, Christiano François (Bakie Goodman) Kevin Kerr (Christian Ramos) – Skyler Milne, Romeo Parkes (Neco Brett)
Getting a long look at the attacking midfield spot and starting both matches was trialist Joe Holland, who played five games with MLS’ Houston Dynamo and more with its USL affiliate Rio Grande a season ago after a stellar four-year college career at Hofstra University. Holland made an immediate impact, taking advantage of Milne’s effort to take ball away from a Spring Arbor defender, then drilling a shot from the top of the box into the back of the net for the early 1-0 lead.
After that though, the Hounds attack lacked patience and precision in the final third.
“I think we were settling for a lot of longer shots. We’re not completely breaking opponents down and getting all the way into the box the way we should,” Lilley explained. “I’d like to see to get around the corners a bit more. It’s nice that we scored some goals, but there’s a lot more goals in these games if our movement is a little bit better. There’s good players here — but we’re all not on the same page yet. That’s our job as coaches — it’s now about us getting them play a little bit more on the same page and continue to draw that picture for them and do things in practice to help facilitate that. And that’s just a process.”
Lilley wasn’t thrilled about Saturday’s result — and kept his team in the locker room for quite some time afterwards.
WHO STOOD OUT, WHO DIDN’T
I won’t go into great detail here and these were my casual observations (keep in mind that Lilley informed me that he was letting a number of trialists go after the first week, and said he’ll be bringing some more on Tuesday):
- Neco Brett – scored twice, plus set-up the first goal on Sunday after being taken down.
- Bakie Goodman – while Holland got a hard look at the attacking mid spot, Goodman, was crafty in the center of the field, made solid decisions and scored on Saturday.
- Stephen Okai / Mohammad Dabo – these two USL veterans played exclusively in the holding midfield spot. Dabo seemed foul-prone and hesitant, while Okai was taking a lot of chances playing it forward, but giving away a number of balls in the process. With Kenardo Forbes playing indoor in Baltimore through at least early March, these two may be battling for a chance to serve as the Hounds back-up holding midfielder.
- Sean McFarlane / Nick Walker / Mele Temguia– while all got a look a center back, they weren’t really tested. Lilley would like to have at least four solid options at center back, so it’s likely that two or three of them will be back for a longer look.
- Skylar Milne – in contrast to Brett, and the other forwards already with spots on the team, Milne provided a different type of player up top. The 6-foot-4 product from Logan, Utah did a solid job as a hold-up forward and in disrupting defenders at times, and even converting on a nice ball in from Parkes.
- David Goldsmith – a last minute addition to the list of trialists, Goldsmith played with Indy Eleven in NASL in 2017, and was paired with Milne in the Saturday starting XI at forward.
- Phil Fives – local product who was a standout at North Allegheny and then at Indiana University before playing in Sweden last year, held his own at outside left back, even sending in a few nice balls into the box. I had a chance to catch up with him on Sunday, and look forward to sharing video of this interview real soon. I did confirm today that he did make it past the first week of trials.
As for the players already on the roster, most looked fairly solid but still adjusting to a new coach and new system.
Joe Greenspan is looking very much like one of the anchors in the back line, Kerr was solid and fit as ever playing both on the left wing, but also dropping at times to support the holding mids. Both Jordan Dover and Ray Lee are clearly outside backs that are very familiar with the coach and his system, as both showed signs they’ll each have a role in stretching the field and the Hounds attack along with Kerr, Christiano Françios and the other attacking midfielders in the fold like Ben Fitzpatrick.
The only two signed players who are in camp that didn’t play were Tobi Adewole and Kay Banjo, who were held out due to minor injury issues.
Lilley and I spoke a bit in length about Romeo Parkes, and I’ll be sharing more of this conversation in another post in the coming day or so.
Last year, Parkes was a player who didn’t play up to expectations after he returned to the club in early May, despite some positive performances, he became a bit of an enigma for a team that failed to make the playoffs. With a change in position to forward, Lilley has made it clear that Parkes is a player he wants to be on the finishing end of the attack and he has high expectations from this year.
Lilley had some interesting things to say about this after Sunday’s match.
While Kerr is clearly the guy who is the most natural fit to be the team’s returning captain, Lilley is not concerned with that so early in the preseason — as he’s focused on building a team of players who can all step up in big moments, and not look around for one or two players.
“We’re one week in. After four weeks I’ll have a better idea,” Lilley explained. “I hope after then they’ll all have the ability to show some maturity and leadership. I don’t want to have to pin that on one player — ever.”
“Good teams have multiple guys. I am a coach that we’re figuring out who’s captain about a week before the season. Right now, we’re about everyone helping each other, stepping up, pushing each other. I think it’s important for this group that we have multiple people stepping up.”
“Last year, there wasn’t enough urgency. Last year’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds, from my view, were a little bit of Kevin (Kerr) and Corey (Hertzog) show. To win in this league, you need a lot of guys playing at a high level. It’s not a knock on any of those guys, they’re all-league players. but I want more players that will have influence in the biggest moments in the biggest times. And that builds a stronger team.
“It will take time, and we’ll see in time.”
WHAT’s ON TAP?
The Hounds will have the day off on Monday, and as Lilley indicated, more invited players will be coming in — and after he was done talking to me on Sunday, he had to go upstairs and do the hard task to inform some of the guys that would not be returning for the second week of camp which will culminate with another preseason friendly against St. Bonaventure.
Lilley is building the Hounds roster methodically and there clearly is a method to his madness.
“You’re going to look for versatility in all positions. Sometimes you have a forward that can play as wide player. Sometimes have outside back that can play on wing. We have a lot of needs to fill, and we’re still trying to find what we’re looking for to build that depth,” Lilley said. “There are guys here that we’ll sign. Guys that had a good week and then a good week next week — that’ll probably punch the ticket.”
With 13 current players signed to the roster, Lilley anticipates having somewhere in the ballpark of having 18 to 19 total signed by the end of the third week.
“If we have wait right up until the start of the season, and wait a bit longer for those final two or three guys, that’s fine. I am not going to make any final decisions until I find what I want,” Lilley said.
With five more weeks of preseason — there’s a whole lot more work to be done.
SOCCER SCRIBE’s 91st MINUTE
- The Hounds season opener at Nashville (on March 24th at 5 p.m.) apparently will be moved from First Tennessee Park to Nissan Stadium due to high demand for tickets.
- My son J.J. was also at the scrimmage yesterday snapping some real quality pics — and we’ll be sharing those in the coming weeks. Looking forward to adding his photography coverage this year to this site.
- The Hounds will be hosting an event on Friday night (event starts at 7 p.m.) that will unveil the team’s new kits — and all signs point to the unveiling of a new crest. There will also be some news regarding team sponsorship’s, broadcast information and some other closely guarded details. There is expected to be a pretty nice turnout in the Highmark Stadium suites, and I’ll be on hand to see all of this as it happens.
The club has shown signs and provided some teasers of the team’s upgraded new look.
This much we already know:
- The Riverhounds name will remain, and on some of the team’s preseason gear, they’ve been identified as ‘Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’.
- It appears that the Hounds will somehow be incorporating the black-and-gold checkered design that’s a part of the City of Pittsburgh’s identity and crest
- The team also did reveal what the back of the gold home kits would look like last week.