Seventeen games down, 17 to go, and the Riverhounds have no complaints about where they stand.
The Hounds begin the second half of their USL schedule when they host the Charleston Battery at 7 p.m. Saturday at Highmark Stadium, and the matchup between two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference — who last month played to a scoreless draw in South Carolina — will be yet another good measuring stick to see if the Hounds really are a title contender.
While it is the midway point for the Hounds (9-1-7), most of the USL is already well into the second half of their schedule; East-leading FC Cincinnati (12-3-5), for instance, has already played 20 games. With 34 points — two fewer than they had in all of a 32-game season last year — the Hounds would trail only West-leading Real Monarchs SLC if they won each of their games in hand.
Ask any person around the Hounds — coach, player or fan — and there’s certainly going to be more good said than bad. Perhaps the best person to ask is the longest-tenured Hounds player, midfielder Kevin Kerr, who in his six seasons with the team has seen two first-round playoff losses, three seasons of missing the playoffs, the team entering and emerging from bankruptcy and four coaching changes.
Even for a coach like Bob Lilley, who Kerr said brought in higher demands and expectations than the Hounds’ previous bosses, the first half of the season has had far more positives than negatives.
“I’m really happy with where we sit in the table, and I’m happy with the progress we’ve made,” Lilley said. “I think there’s a lot of things we can still improve, and I think at times we’ve lacked a little bit of quality and decision-making. I’m not sure anyone could have envisioned just losing one game, but of those seven draws, some of those are games we know we could have won.”
The midway point provides a good opportunity to provide a report card on the team, and the best way to go about that will be to look at the players in the position groups where they’re usually deployed.
GOALKEEPERS — B
Essentially, this is an evaluation of Dan Lynd, who has started every game for the Hounds in goal since mid-May. Lynd got his feet wet with 10 USL matches last season for Lilley with the Rochester Rhinos, but he has taken the job and not let go in Pittsburgh.
The raw numbers are excellent, which is to be expected for a team that has allowed seven league goals. Lynd’s nine shutouts are tied with Nashville’s Matt Pickens for the league lead, and he has stopped 80 percent of the shots he has faced (28 of 35).
There is room for improvement. Lynd will be the first to admit that he cost the team two points with a pair of errors in the 2-2 draw at Tampa Bay, but he has rebounded by allowing just two goals since that May 19 match. And Lynd’s distribution has been sub-par at times. His 34.3 percent pass completion rate is near the bottom among regular starters and 10-15 percent below most of the East’s other top goalkeepers.
But Lynd has been what the Hounds needed, especially since Kyle Morton went down — likely for the season — with a knee injury. But should he begin to struggle, the Hounds’ only other option is Mike Kirk, whose only outing was the U.S. Open Cup win over the Erie Commodores.
CENTRAL DEFENDERS — A-
How can the league’s top defense not get an A? Perhaps Lilley’s tough evaluation style is rubbing off. The largely sound unit has had some questionable moments, but they have been few and far between.
“I think, defensively, we still have had some moments where we don’t get pressure on the ball in our defensive end, and teams are splitting us, but I think our defenders’ ability to cover for each other and challenge the initial balls in has gotten better. They’re definitely playing more collectively in the back than we were,” Lilley said.
Joe Greenspan has shown exactly why the Hounds signed him as a free agent out of MLS, as the team has yet to concede a goal with him on the field. Hugh Roberts began the season slow as a later signing, but since working his way regularly into the starting lineup, he has been the Hounds’ best defender in the air. Todd Pratzner has been solid, showing why Lilley brought him down from Rochester, and Tobi Adewole has made strides forward in his second year with the Hounds.
While the defense might have to thank some poor finishing recently by New York and North Carolina to have amassed 12 shutouts, the way they scrambled to hang on for a 1-0 win at Louisville, even when not playing well in the final 15 minutes, showed they can survive on effort when the structure has a momentary lapse.
WING BACKS/OUTSIDE MIDFIELDERS — B+
As Lilley’s most-used formation morphs between a 5-4-1 and a 3-4-3, the name of the positions filled by Jordan Dover and Ray Lee can vary, sometimes even being traditional outside backs when the Hounds have gone to four players across the back line. What hasn’t changed is the consistency from the two players Lilley brought with him from the Rhinos.
When tested by some of the league’s top wingers, such as Cincinnati’s Emmanuel Ledesma or Indy’s Ayoze Garcia, Lee and Dover have been up to the test defensively. When going forward, there have been games when Lee and Dover have been the Hounds’ most effective creators, utilizing overlapping runs and sending in dangerous crosses.
What keeps the group from getting an A is that sometimes that duo’s crosses lack the incisiveness needed to be effective, instead becoming easy clearances for defenders. Depth is also a concern at the position. Andrew Lubahn has been effective, sometimes in spectacular fashion, as an option off the bench, but he also has vanished at times when given a chance to start. Columbus Crew loanee Connor Maloney also saw some time at the position, but Lee and Dover remain the team’s clear best options at the spot.
CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS — B+
Let’s begin by laughing at the 23 MLS teams who passed on drafting Thomas Vancaeyezeele, even after seeing him at the MLS Combine. The center back-turned-holding midfielder has played every USL minute for the Hounds and has been been one of the league’s top rookies — far better than most of the MLS-drafted players now playing in USL on loan.
Kenardo Forbes continues to impress with his ability to maintain and distribute the ball to all areas of the park. Mouhamed Dabo is a fearless — sometimes reckless — wrecking ball for opposing attacks, and Ben Zemanski has struggled with fitness but shows his top-division pedigree when he is able to play.
If there is one flaw to the group, it’s that goals won’t be coming with regularity from it. Vancaeyezeele has two, and Forbes had the timely late winner in Louisville, but even that wasn’t a particularly well-taken strike. Joe Holland is a player the Hounds hoped could provide scoring, but Lilley has been hesitant to deploy him too often because of defensive concerns.
All-in-all, the central midfielders might be the team’s best group by the end of the season, but to do so will require more consistent link-up play with the attacking players while maintaining their strong grasp on their responsibilities on defense and maintaining possession.
WINGERS/STRIKERS — C+
It’s far from the scoring droughts the team experienced at times during the past two seasons, but 21 goals in 17 matches isn’t exactly a blistering pace, either.
Neco Brett has been exactly what the Hounds wanted when they signed the former Robert Morris star, and his eight goals put him on pace for a top-five season in club history.
Romeo Parkes certainly should have more than three goals on the season, but his physical tools make him incredibly valuable, and he has done excellent work as a playmaker and making runs that stretch the defense. One gets the sense if he can find the net a couple times in succession, a run like his five goals in five matches in 2016 is just waiting to happen.
On the wings, Kerr and Christiano François have both been up-and-down, but more up than down. Kerr still can’t find the net consistently like he did in 2015, and François has missed the net with a handful of point-blank shots. Both have provided adequate service to set up teammates, however, and Kerr remains capable of helping back defensively or tucking into a more central role when needed.
But in the end, attacking players are judged by the scoreboard, and the players are aware of that. To understand why the group only rates as a C+, one only needs to see the two scoreless draws against Penn FC, where the Hounds were unable to crack a team outside the playoff line in 180 minutes.
“We just need to be a little bit better on the ball all around. We work on it a lot, and we defend fantastically well. All 11 boys work extremely hard without the ball,” Kerr said. “It would be good to see a little more composure when we have the ball, keep it for longer stretches and start to create more opportunities. It’s the final piece of the puzzle, and I’ve always thought it’s the hardest piece, but we have the talent there.”
OVERALL — B+
Second place is fine, but Lilley wants to challenge for the top, and the Hounds must be careful being only nine points above the playoff cutoff line (though their games in hand skew that number).
“We want to position ourselves for a good run in the playoffs, and that means we continue to move forward. It’s the dog days of summer now, and we have to show even a stronger mentality than we already have,” Lilley said.
“We’ve shown a grittiness, a mental toughness to our team. We’ve battled and performed well on the road. … We’re obviously competing well, but we’re not finding the goal enough, or one mistake is costing us. We’re 9-1-7, but that means we’ve dropped points in eight out of 17 games.”
As winners in three straight and unbeaten in their last six games, the Hounds bring momentum into a physically demanding stretch — after hosting Charleston, the team has 13 games in two months from July 28 to Sept. 29. But if they can maintain their level of play from the first half, the Hounds will be hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2006 and the first ever at Highmark Stadium.