It would be easy after consecutive wins to think all is well. And it’s easy to look at the standings, see the Riverhounds in second place in the USL’s Eastern Conference and assume the team is playing at a high level.
Bob Lilley sees those things, but he’s thinking about a bigger picture.
With 13 matches remaining over two months in the regular season, Lilley sees his Hounds currently at a plateau with their level of play, and entering Sunday’s late-afternoon meeting with Bethlehem Steel, the coach wants his team to shift into another gear to possibly chase down East-leading FC Cincinnati or at least hit the playoff playing their best soccer.
Lilley wasn’t all critical of his team when he spoke with DKPittsburghSports.com after the team’s practice Friday at Highmark Stadium, and certainly the Hounds have done many things right to amass a 11-3-7 record.
“It’s tough to fault our guys for their general work habits, because I know we push them, and they work hard,” Lilley said. “But now, it’s, hey, we’ve got to be accountable, too. There needs to be quality. There needs to be good decisions. Some of you are working, but you’re not taking responsibility for giving balls away that don’t need to be. … If they’re being stubborn or reckless, that doesn’t really help us, either.”
Lilley went on to illustrate what he meant and what was focused on in practice this week using one of his hardest-working players on the field, Christiano François, as the example. François has the motor and willingness to press forward, Lilley said, but sometimes it runs him — and the team — into trouble.
When the Hounds’ opponents have possession in their own half, sometimes their only option is a big cross-field pass from one defender to the other, or, in some cases, back to the goalkeeper and out the other side. Naturally, that opposing player receiving the ball is unmarked, but in a position of no danger, so the Hounds usually can shift their coverage from side-to-side before he presents any trouble.
Sometimes, however, the winger on the opposite side — François in Lilley’s example — can become overzealous and pursue all the way to the ball. The result is a gap in defensive coverage opening behind the player on the wing, allowing opponents an easy path into attack.
Lilley provided that as just one example of where the Hounds’ defensive breakdowns occur; the same scenario can play out in the defensive half when the center backs aren’t in position to give the wing backs cover. Much of Lilley’s frustration after matches stems from his team coming under too much unnecessary pressure and not regaining possession because of mistakes they have covered since the start of preseason.
“When you’re at the bottom of the table, everything’s negative, and when you’re near the top of the table, everything’s at least somewhat positive,” the coach said. “But the way I look at it, there are some issues that should’ve been cleaned up in preseason and we’re still not tidy in these areas. Some of the things we’ve been working on since February, but there’s ebbs and flows in the season. … I think where we get ourselves in trouble is where we’re not diligent on the details.”
Bethlehem (9-9-6) comes into the match with the Hounds riding a three-game winning streak and with young, speedy personnel like 18-year-old Michee Ngalina and an experienced end-to-end midfielder in James Chambers who can exploit the sort of mistakes Lilley described.
“When we’re dictating the rhythm of the game, we’re able to generate quality chances in each half and limit the looks of the other team, and that’s when we’re at our best,” Lilley said. “I think there’s teams in this league we can beat in a wide-open game, but there’s teams we can’t.”
Lilley said he thinks his team realizes the sort of challenge Bethlehem poses, especially considering their last road trip came against another team near the playoff cut line, North Carolina FC, who played with a much greater sense of urgency than the Hounds to deal them a 2-1 loss.
However, if the defensive lapses that were a focus this week in practice don’t get fixed, Lilley said he would have to consider lineup changes to find players who can defend as a team.
“Are we ready to crack through this plateau? Are we ready to push ourselves to bigger and better heights? I think that’s currently where we are, and we’re definitely stressing it to them. … Sometimes when we talk tactics, I say either you don’t understand, or you’re choosing to ignore what we’re asking you to do,” Lilley said, chuckling at the thought of the second option. “Neither of them are good scenarios.”