Lebo Moloto is a former Riverhound.
What are the Pittsburgh Riverhounds all about? I don’t follow the day-to-day, so let’s check in with somebody who does. John Krysinsky is the founder of Pittsburgh Soccer Now, and will be the color analyst for the Riverhounds’ television broadcast tomorrow evening. I subjected him to a vicious grilling on the Hounds.
For Club And Country: “Lilleyball” is a term tossed around USL with a little bit of respect, and a little bit of frustration. Is the defensive formula still the same, or have there been adjustments made to what we’ve seen in past seasons?
John Krysinsky: Lilley’s reputation in the modern USL (since 2011) has been built and established based on what he was able to accomplish in Rochester. The 2015 team in particular, that won the USL Cup and Regular Season title. In trying to build an identity early last season, that Hounds team didn’t surrender a goal until its fifth match, didn’t lose a league match until late May when Nashville beat them 1-0 at Highmark Stadium. Lilleyball is a word that gets tossed around a lot, as well as ‘The Bob Lilley Special” or another word for 1-0 wins predicated on getting a timely goal, and stuffing out and wearing down opponents. If I were to define what ‘Lilleyball’ really means, it is actually a word that defines a coach who does things in his own unique style — and probably adapts and adjusts to every opponent. Much like Bill Belichick does with the New England Patriots, Lilley has often been effective in coming up with a tactical game plan that takes away what its opponent typically does best. Last week for example, against a pretty strong Saint Louis FC squad that’s been known to play direct, Lilley took one of his regular holding midfielders, Mouhamad Dabo, and played him a bit higher up in the formation. This was done to rely on Dabo’s defensive instincts that disrupted Saint Louis’ build-up and spots where they like to initiate its attack from the back. This approach worked fairly well, as STLFC weren’t able to generate a lot of chances on the night. In fact, in the last three games, they’re starting to look like that team we saw in the first half of last season as they only goal they’ve surrendered was a perfect, ESPN Top 10 strike from Hartford’s Jose Angulo from distance.
FCAC: On the other side, scoring has sometimes been a problem for the Hounds. Toward the end of last year, opponents decided to just let Pittsburgh play on the ball to avoid getting hit on the counter. Has the team improved its pure build-up play?
JK: In the off season, I spent few occasions talking with Lilley about what type of team he wanted the Hounds to be in his second season at the helm. Especially at Highmark Stadium, which has a bit more narrow field and has (newly installed) field turf surface, Lilley wanted this year’s edition of the Hounds to become a little bit more patient, better in possessing the ball and much more efficient in the final third — but still stifle its opponents. With the exception of the Tampa Bay opening loss, this team has been on the front foot and had the better of play most of this season. Prior to last week’s nil-nil draw in a driving rain, the Hounds went on a streak of games scoring eight goals in four games, three of them on the road. The Hounds are aiming to be a versatile attacking group, where they can play direct at times, and also, they’re trying to be better at keeping the ball and are more patient in the final third. Thus far, they’re relied on veteran Steevan Dos Santos to set the table. If they’re trying to be more possession based, they’ll bring Dos Santos into the attacking midfield, where he has the ability to draw defenders, hold up the ball, and redistribute. But they can also play longer, and more direct with Dos Santos at the top of the formation. Dos Santos can be very dangerous in the air, and with the ball at his feet. The Hounds are still mixing things up –but the combination of Kevin Kerr, Kenardo Forbes, rookie Anthony Velarde, Dabo and even Thomas Vancaeyezeele gives Lilley a group of midfielders that can be used in a variety of styles and formations. In fact, Vancaeyezeele played pretty much every field spot last year except striker. On the road early in the season, they played with an additional forward, either the team’s leading scorer last year and thus far this year, Neco Brett or Christian Volesky. In recent games, when Dos Santos has been the lone forward, Brett has dropped as an attacking MF, and Volesky too when he’s come on as a sub. Waiting to see how Lilley’s teams line-up each week always provides a bit of intrigue.
FCAC: Sort of mixed results to start the year. What’s the feeling on the ground in Pittsburgh about the early-season results? Confidence that it’ll work out in the end – or that the results haven’t been as bad as they’ve looked – or worry that something may not be working out?
JK: Lilley’s teams in the past (prior to last year), have been known to start off a little slow, and build momentum as the season progresses. The general feeling is that it’s still pretty early in the season, and the Hounds, like many teams, are still trying to figure things out and build chemistry. I think most of us that have been watching this team, believe that they’ll be a top four club in the Eastern Conference, and most of us are still pretty confident that’s they’ll be there at the end of the season.
FCAC: Even more than their general defensive acumen, the Hounds are generally impenetrable at home. What allows them to be so successful in Highmark?
JK: At Highmark, most teams last year couldn’t play the ball out of the back with any kind of regularity and that’s where it starts for the Hounds being impenetrable. They’ll generally bring out the high press, and really won’t let teams get any kind of rhythm going.
FCAC: Who are some of the stars of this team we should be watching? How has former Nashville SC defender Ryan James performed so far this year?
JK: I already mentioned the attacking players (Dos Santos, Brett, Volesky) who are being counted on to share the scoring load, in what appears to be a more balanced group this year, so don’t expect any single player to get near Brett’s 15 goal campaign last year. The center back combo of Tobi Adewole and Joe Greenspan are very solid, dependable.. Each has scored a goal this season too on set pieces. RIght back Jordan Dover has been solid since coming to the Hounds last year as well. And on the left side, Ryan James has been a very active player up and down the left flank — and a bit more aggressive than Dover on the other side. There were early season concerns from some Hounds observers about James being a defensive liability, but he’s been better the past few games in that area. Lilley has rolled out the same back line in all six games, so he has lots of faith in those guys. If they keep up what they’ve been doing the past three weeks, when it’s all said and done, they’ll be one of the top defensive teams again in the USL Championship.
FCAC: Any predictions for the game, including a final score?
JK: Why not go with a ‘Lilley Special’ — Hounds get a signature win to close three-game homestand, 1-0 on a set piece goal.