Photo: Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country
The first game against Pittsburgh was so long ago – nearly five months – that plenty has changed in the Steel City. I caught up with Mark Asher Goodman – a.k.a. the Soccer Rabbi – for the latest on the Riverhounds. Follow Mark on Twitter @soccer_rabbi, and find his work on the new Soccer Rabbi site and Pittsburgh Soccer Now.
For Club and Country: Last time Nashville met the Riverhounds, a draw felt like a gut-punch for NSC after surrendering a late lead. How did that result go over in Pittsburgh? Did it have the opposite effect – feeling almost like a win?
Mark Asher Goodman: I think so – but Hounds fans at that point of the season were generally disappointed with a poor string of results. This team was supposed to build on the success of last year and be a top-three team in the East, but back then – and even now – they haven’t quite been as spectacular as the supporters had hoped. Personally, I’m thrilled with the results this season.
FCAC: The Riverhounds have been much stronger on offense this year than last, but leakier on D. What happened to Lilleyball? Did it ever really happen in Pittsburgh? Was the true Lilleyball inside us all along?
MAG: I’m still new-ish here, so I’m still trying to grok what Lilleyball was/is. Hypothetically, it was a defense-first approach, although not necessarily counterattacking or route-one football (AKA longball AKA dump and chase). Lilley hates conceding goals, and always keeps a midfielder or two deep enough to shield the backline. That hasn’t changed.
What has changed is that Lilley signed Ryan James, a Left Wing Back, and runs a lot of the offense through him, letting him push high. He also added Robbie Mertz, a dribbly No. 10 who can play wide or in the middle and is confident and creative. And Kevin Kerr, his veteran wide midfielder, is also performing at peak levels. Meanwhile there was some addition by subtraction – speedy forward Christiano François was sold to Ottawa, probably because he took too many shots when he wasn’t the best option.
I don’t know if there truly is a Lilleyball. What I do know is: the dude has coached for 20 years, and never once put up a losing season. That’s insane to me.
FCAC: Pittsburgh was tactically flexible earlier in the year (I believe the previous Nashville game was the first time they’d gone strictly 3-5-2 for an entire game). What has the approach been lately? Is Lilley sticking with a specific plan, or is it varying – beyond little tweaks, at least – opponent-to-opponent?
MAG: On paper the formation changes, but in reality it generally doesn’t. Whether it’s a 5-3-2 or a 4-5-1 or a 4-4-2, the back two are Tobi Adewole and Joe Greenspan; they are fronted by either Thomas Vancaeyezeele or Kenardo Forbes. Kenny plays higher, Tommy sits deeper. James and Kerr bring the ball up wide on either side. Mertz and Anthony Velarde probe the middle, and Steevan Dos Santos and Neco Brett do holdups, knockdowns, or shoot the gaps.
Bob wants the team to advance the ball quickly. The degree to which they succeed determines if he’s mildly displeased or extremely grumpy with reporters post-game.
FCAC: I saw that the Hounds signed now-former Memphis 901 defender Todd Pratzner this week. Is he expected to be a major contributor in the stretch run, or more of a depth guy?
MAG: Probably depth, but I think he’ll get a lot of run to keep the team fresh for the post-season. The three centerbacks on the roster are all north of 2,200 minutes, and two defenders were also busy on international duty this year. I know Ucchena Uzo, a defender on the roster, clearly doesn’t rate, since Lilley has only played him 189 minutes and still brought Pratzner on. My bet is Pratzner plays a lot the final seven games and goes back to the bench for the playoffs.
FCAC: How are the stakes of this game being perceived in Pittsburgh? Is it looked at like a must-win for playoff positioning?
MAG: Some are framing it that way. I think it’s early to say things are ‘must-win’. With the Hounds sitting in fifth, most fans would really like the team to push hard through season’s-end to get a home playoff game.
FCAC: Any predictions about what unfolds (including a final score)?
MAG: Draw 2-2. Hounds are a better team, but they’ve been in a weird mini-slump the last two weeks – scoring and movement has been meh, and only the backline has been good. But it should be a great game.