Don’t talk to Riverhounds coach Bob Lilley about his team still being undefeated in USL play. Until his team starts putting games away, that streak is meaningless to him.
“Everyone’s caught up in this unbeaten streak. To me, it’s hogwash. You’re still unbeaten, but (a draw) is two dropped points. I don’t know why everyone is excited about that. It doesn’t mean anything,” Lilley said. “If you’re 9-0-2 and at the top of the table, that’s one thing, but we can’t even get in the top three in our conference because we can’t get three points because we can’t take care of our home games.”
That statement was the denouement of a 12-minute postgame rant by Lilley, which was sparked by the Hounds failing once again to score on in-state rival Penn FC, instead settling for another 0-0 draw Saturday at Highmark Stadium.
Though the Hounds (4-0-6) still have yet to lose or concede at home in a USL match, they now have 18 points out of a possible 30, which has them mired in fourth when even a 6-0-4 mark would be good enough for first in the Eastern Conference.
“This, to me, is a loss. A draw at home is definitely a loss,” Lilley said.
Few parts of the game were spared in Lilley’s commentary, from attitude to execution, from players to coaches, and it’s hard to argue with much of his assessment.
1. Chances go begging to be finished.
The Hounds met Penn FC once already and played a scoreless 90 minutes on March 31, and much like that first meeting, the Hounds had chances to score but couldn’t seal the deal.
To be fair, Penn FC goalie Romuald Peiser made five saves, most of the challenging variety, but it isn’t the shots on target bothering Lilley. The Hounds had 13 total shots and 56 percent of possession in the match, but the team was missing something — sometimes quality, sometimes killer instinct — when close to the goal.
“As long as we’re getting chances, usually I’m pretty positive, but we’re wasting chances that can’t be wasted. Headers from 6-to-8 yards that we can’t hit at the rectangle, Kevin (Kerr) has got one at the end of the first half and can’t hit the frame, Romeo (Parkes) has one at the end of the game, balls across the box, we could have had four or five (goals) again,” Lilley said in a run-on sentence chock full of missed opportunities.
The two chances Lilley singled out both came on rebounds after saves by Peiser. Kerr couldn’t keep a bouncing ball down after Parkes made a beautiful turn and run down the right side to create his shot, while Parkes had a sliver of the net to look at after the stop of a Joe Holland shot in second-half stoppage time but pushed his shot wide of the right post.
Apart from those prime opportunities, center back Hugh Roberts twice elevated above the crowd to win headers cleanly off set pieces, but he couldn’t hit the target. Thomas Vancaeyezeele also had a late-first-half header that went wide after Penn FC failed to move their line up quickly enough from a throw-in near the corner, leaving Vancaeyezeele onside and only loosely marked on a cross from Connor Maloney.
“On every set piece, I consider myself a forward, and they might have designed plays for me sometimes, too. I consider myself a threat, and a set piece could change the game. If I could have put one on frame, that could have changed the game,” Roberts said. “(On one), I was kind of moving backwards a little bit and trying to be too perfect trying put in the the right corner perfectly. You’ve just got to put it on frame sometimes.”
2. Strong play bookends a lull in the middle.
Based of the opening moments of the game, a 0-0 draw wouldn’t have seemed a likely result to most observers, Lilley included.
“I thought we were fantastic for the first 15 minutes, but then we mostly played average for the rest of the half,” the coach said, “and then we started the second half average and were mostly average-to-poor until the last 20 minutes, when we chased the game and had a few interesting moments.”
Lilley made moves to create an offensive spark, first bringing on Kenardo Forbes in the 62nd minute to replace Bakie Goodman, then introducing Neco Brett for Ben Zemanski in a move that shifted the formation from a starting 5-3-2 to a 4-2-3-1 by having Vancaeyezeele move up from the back line into a pairing with Forbes.
By the time he made his third change — a Holland-for-Maloney change that put Vancaeyezeele at right back — the formation looked at times to be a flat 4-2-4 with Kerr, Brett, Parkes and Christiano François all pushing to get behind Penn FC. The move worked to create late chances, but the urgency came too late to make an impact.
“If we play full-out from start to finish, maybe we can double our chances and maybe we’ll find a way to get something in the back of the net,” Lilley said. “I still think we were the better team, and we had the better chances, but that doesn’t get you anywhere.”
3. Players receive the 90-minute message.
Before meeting with the media, Lilley spoke at length with his players, and the message about the lull in intensity was received.
“We’re trying to put our foot down on the pedal the whole game and trying to shove it down their throat trying to get this victory,” Roberts said. “At times, you could see guys putting their head down, but we can never put our heads down. We know this is the type of game you get in soccer sometimes, but we’ve got to keep creating chances upon chances, and that’s our mentality no matter what time of the game it is. We’re trying to fight, trying to get these goals.”
No player is going to play a perfect 90 minutes. Even Roberts, one of the few players Lilley had some praise for after the match, went through a rough patch to begin the second half when he twice had time on the ball and hit passes that went straight to Penn FC players.
But getting effort and playing smartly for the full 90 are the two main things Lilley is seeking, and he didn’t get that against Penn FC.
“We’re soft right now, in terms of putting the hammer down when a team’s in trouble,” Lilley said. “There hasn’t been enough desire and pure will to go after it. We’ve got to find another gear.”
Perhaps the only player to not have a visible let-down moment in the match was goalkeeper Dan Lynd, who saved the Hounds from defeat on a long-range shot by Richard Menjivar in the 83rd minute. By far Penn FC’s best shot of the four they had in the game, Menjivar’s attempt came when the Hounds’ defenders dropped too far off the ball — another Lilley complaint after the match — and it appeared he had the right side of the net picked out.
Lynd dove and got the slightest touch on the ball at full extension to his left, which pushed it off the right upright. The rebound bounced straight back into play and hit Lynd on the ground, but fortunately, it rolled back out of play for a corner kick and not into the net.
4. Lilley wants effort led by veterans.
The coach’s postgame unhappiness at one point turned to his team’s leadership, and few players were spared from the criticism.
“Some of it is personalities. Romeo, he’ll get chances, but frankly, he doesn’t do the extra work after training. He’s got to bury it and hit the target, but if you’re not working at it all the time, you’re going to miss it under pressure. Christiano, he runs a lot, and he’s a hard-working kid, but tactically, he’s got to get better,” Lilley said.
“We all have to step up. Staff included, coaches included, but we need our older players to make good decisions and drive the group. Right now, that’s not happening, and that’s what happened in the past in Pittsburgh. They weren’t driven anywhere. And that’s not just to single out (captain) Kevin Kerr, it’s all the senior players. That’s more than just Kevin.
“I have to look at the leadership, and maybe the leadership starts with me. I’m going to check myself and see what I can do to light a fire, because this is not what we should be doing. It’s us not being accountable as a team.”
Lilley even went so far as to say he wanted his players to read his postgame comments and reflect on them to see if they felt his criticism was true. He repeated a belief that the team can compete to be at the top of the Eastern Conference, but he said right now, the level of effort is only “decent… and decent doesn’t get you anywhere.”
“It’s their job to go out and compete. Most of them were operating at 70 percent of their ability level tonight, and you’re not going to win games that way,” Lilley said.
To that end, both Kerr and Zemanski were sitting with Lilley long after the team’s postgame meal, listening and discussing issues with the coach well more than two hours after the game. What impact that will have going into a Wednesday night matchup against Nashville SC will be seen after two more days of training.
5. A disappointing but fitting end.
For all that didn’t go right, the Hounds nearly came away with a last-minute winner.
Barely a minute after Parkes’ late miss, Holland took possession about 40 yards from the goal with Penn FC on its heels. The substitute threaded a pass between the Penn defenders at the top of the box to the feet of Brett, who took a touch and buried the ball in the back of the net. Celebrations briefly began, only to be muted when players realized the offside flag was up and the goal was disallowed.
Holland was visibly livid with the call, and he was probably saved a caution for dissent only because referee Ismir Pekmic already had the yellow card coming out for Brett, who had taken off his jersey in celebration. While replays — none of which had a good angle — showed it likely was the correct call, that didn’t spare Pekmic and his crew from hearing a shower of boos from the crowd at probably their loudest moment of the match.
The ensuing free kick was the final touch of the game, and while the Hounds remain unbeaten, they also now are winless in their past four matches in all competitions.