Championships aren’t won in May, but that didn’t stop the Riverhounds and Indy Eleven from playing a match that felt like a playoff game.
Both teams were resolute in defending and cautious not to make a critical mistake, and the end result was a 0-0 draw Friday at Highmark Stadium that kept the Riverhounds undefeated but cost them a chance to move to the top of the USL’s Eastern Conference.
The Riverhounds (4-0-4) will be happy to come away with their sixth shutout in eight games heading into road matches in Erie and Tampa, Fla., next week. But coach Bob Lilley, never one to settle, felt his team could have done more to come away with all three points against a defensive-minded team from Indy (4-2-2).
Even if the Hounds didn’t have the late surge forward for which Lilley hoped, they managed to keep intact their record of five consecutive home games without allowing a goal, and with that, they have yet to trail in 720 minutes of soccer this season.
1. Not much separates the teams.
Indy came into the season with — on paper — one of the more talented rosters in the Eastern Conference. The Hounds showed over 90 minutes they can go toe-to-toe with the Eleven, and, coupled with the 2-2 draw last month in Cincinnati, have to feel they can win games against anyone on their schedule.
The stat sheet bore out the even play in the game. The Hounds had the slimmest of edges in possession, 51-49, and corner kicks, 6-4. They also took 13 shots compared to just seven for Indy, and the teams were separated by less than 2 percent in passing accuracy.
Indy’s one big edge came in the duels categories, where the league stats had the Eleven winning 62.3 percent of the 50/50 balls, which includes a 64.7 percent clip on aerial battles. Lilley, however, didn’t need the stat sheet to tell him that.
“I think what they did well was win a lot of second balls, and I think that’s something we’ll have to address next time we play them,” Lilley said. “I think we played more and had some good moments, but they turned the loose balls or the moments when they were able to be physical and come out with the ball into attacking moments.
“That’s the only thing I can see where they had the advantage. They did a good job picking up all the loose pieces, and that’s part of the game, too.”
Adjusting to Indy’s style of play took a while for the Hounds, but after a first 15 minutes with possession controlled by the visitors, the game settled into cagey, even play that became the norm, and midfielder Kenardo Forbes said the Hounds worked their way into the match.
2. Stats sometimes lie, especially about goalkeepers.
Another stat from the game shows Indy goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams with one save and Hounds goalkeeper Kyle Morton with none, but that doesn’t do justice to the job each did.
Morton, who has yet to allow a goal in his three starts, sometimes had to play the role of sweeper-keeper, coming far off his line to deal with long balls frequently thumped forward from the Eleven’s back line. He did so mostly without a problem, although a popped-up header about 30 yards from his goal line provided a brief breathless moment in the first half. And he commanded his penalty area in a manner that will give Lilley plenty of faith in his No. 2.
“I think Kyle’s starting points were good, and he was connected to the back four,” Lilley said. “One way to not give up or lose a ball in the back is to keep banging it out, but I don’t think necessarily that was their tactic.”
Williams also handled his end of the field, though the Hounds tested him more with crosses from the wing than direct balls from the back.
The Welsh netminder was sure-handed throughout and made a few important catches late, most notably on a late cross from Ray Lee on the left wing. Lee had two targets in the middle of a Hounds flurry as the game wound into stoppage time, but the pass drifted too close to the goal, and Williams held the ball cleanly.
Morton, who appeared to injure his left knee late in the game and was seen with ice on the knee afterward, presumably will have time to rest the injury with either Dan Lynd or Mike Kirk drawing the start Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup match in Erie.
3. Hounds still missing on opportunities.
While the way the game played out makes it unfair to say the Hounds deserved to win, they certainly will look at the tape and rue a few more misses of the kind Lilley has said “will hurt us going forward.”
Christiano François probably had the toughest miss to swallow. Early in the second half, Neco Brett and Jordan Dover combined on the right side to get Dover open for a right-footed cross. The pass found François in the box, but the Hounds’ winger couldn’t keep his shot under the bar from closer range — reminiscent of a play shooting at the same goal against Ottawa earlier this season.
But it isn’t just misses like that. Both Brett and Forbes — Forbes on the final kick of the game — had time to tee up shots from the top of the box during the match, and neither put their effort on goal. Likewise, in the first half, Dover was set up on a counterattack after Forbes intercepted a pass and played it quickly forward to Kevin Kerr. Dover could have crossed or shot from an angle on the right, but he had to hesitate controlling the ball and his effort was blocked away for a corner.
That isn’t dismissing the good work the Hounds did, such as Lee’s pass from goal-line left to the top of the box to pick out Forbes for the final shot, but eventually, the finishing needs to come.
“It comes down to how well we keep the ball in midfield. We have to give the wing backs time to go forward and get in behind,” Forbes said, citing the last play as a good example. “I think we didn’t move the ball as much as we wanted, but I think as the season goes on, we’ll get better in possession.”
4. Getting the balance right is difficult.
The Hounds have shown their ability to clamp down on the defensive side of the ball — six shutouts make that clear — and they also have shown times when they flow forward well, such as their two matches against Toronto and at Cincinnati.
But sometimes they seem to get caught doing too much of one thing. After the win last Saturday in Toronto, Lilley was upset his team left the defense in bad positions by getting out of position and too far forward. Against Indy, the problem was the opposite.
“We dealt with some dangerous players and limited their scoring chances to outside takes,” Lilley said. “That’s good, but to win games, you want to create. I have no idea what the shot totals were, but I’m guessing they were in the single-digits for both teams, and there weren’t that many on target. Especially at home, we want to create more clear-cut chances. It’s a tie. It’s not great.”
That adjustment falls under the category of correctable errors, however, and just eight games into a 34-game season, the Hounds still have much to be happy about.
“With Bob, you always know you’ve got a championship (caliber) team, because he’s very hard on the guys and he coaches the guys each and every day,” Forbes said. “No one can relax, and every day we come back here to work.”
5. Excuse me, have Ouimette?
Perhaps one of the biggest subplots to the game was the first game for Indy defender Karl Ouimette back in Pittsburgh since he was a New York player on the receiving end of the much-publicized kick to the back from Romeo Parkes after both players had been sent off in an altercation in a 2016 match.
Parkes, who served a six-month ban for the kick and who, this season, is still not 100 percent recovered from a knee injury, entered the game as a substitute in the 74th minute to partner with Brett in a two-striker look. It didn’t take long for the Canadian and Jamaican internationals to find each other, as Ouimette got his hands on Parkes and turned him to win the ball on their first encounter, with Parkes looking for a foul call.
It appeared to be much ado about nothing until stoppage time, when Ouimette opted against playing the ball at Parkes’ feet and dished out a two-handed shove to the back of Parkes in front of the Indy bench. Referee Eric Tattersall awarded the foul but surprisingly didn’t produce a card against Ouimette, who already has been sent off once this season for violent conduct.
Tempers didn’t have time to flare further, however, as the ensuing free kick began the final sequence of play, which ended with Forbes’ shot over the bar. But given the overall physical nature of the game, a rivalry could be brewing between the Hounds and the former NASL club.
“It’s a man’s game. We have to rise to the challenge and be more physical next time we play them,” Forbes said of the overall play. “We know what they’re going to present next time, and we’ve got to go to their place and play, where it’s a bigger field and we’ll have more time on the ball. We’ll be ready next time we play them.”
The Hounds and Indy meet twice more this season, Aug. 29 at Lucas Oil Stadium and Sept. 22 at Highmark.