Where the 2018 season ended with the cold, rainy gloom of a playoff loss on penalty kicks, the Riverhounds began work for the 2019 season with the sun shining down on them.
Unseasonably warm weather greeted the Hounds for their first official practice of 2019, the second year under Bob Lilley, which allowed the coach to spread the field Monday and push his players for a two-hour session at Highmark Stadium, the first of many leading up to the club's 20th season opener March 16 at the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The Hounds began camp with a wide-open roster that has 13 players under contract, 10 who were with the team a year ago and three newcomers -- striker Steevan Dos Santos, defender Ryan James and rookie attacking midfielder Anthony Velarde. Working alongside that core group were 14 trialists who were invited to camp by Lilley and his staff, and with the Hounds likely to carry at least 20 players into the regular season, those invitees know they have a real chance to earn a contract if they are able to perform in practice and preseason matches over the next few weeks.
"It's good to get everyone in here, and we have a good group, a talented group. I think the trialists more than held their own," Lilley said after the first practice. "Some of our guys, it looked like their first day, so we're trying to wake them up as quickly as possible. They're safe, but I don't want them to feel too safe. I want the intensity high, and that's how we're going to make better evaluations."
Those evaluations started on Day One, as Lilley ended practice with a full-field scrimmage to see how the many pieces he has in camp will fit together. While part of the reason for scrimmaging so early is to help everyone begin working back to match fitness, Lilley also wants to see which of his new players is able to adjust quickly to the rigors of professional soccer at the USL level.
"We're already talking some tactics, because I want to see how quick these new guys pick stuff up. ... We're trying to balance letting them play and get in rhythm, but also doing some coaching knowing we've got our group here, and a lot of these guys on trial will be here," Lilley said. "We'll start to make some decisions this weekend to sign more players, but also to let some guys go and bring in others. We have a waiting list of some good pieces that we may bring in the second or third week."
One player who knows exactly how that process can work is second-year pro Thomas Vancaeyezeele, who came to the Hounds on trial midway through last preseason and not only landed a contract but went on to lead the club in minutes played in 2018. His durability and positional versatility led the club to pick up his option for 2019, making his spot on the team safe.
Yet, having been in the group without a contract during his first pro camp, the young French midfielder/defender has an added appreciation for what the invited players bring to the practice field.
"The trialists bring a little more intensity to training, because they're trying to get that contract. They're trying to prove themselves, but we have to prove ourselves, too. We're trying to win a spot (in the starting lineup) for the season," Vancaeyezeele said. "The trialists bring intensity, but they may be our future teammate, too. We welcome them and what they can do."
Regardless of contract status, there's no preferential treatment once the players step on the field, as Lilley will be just as quick to criticize an error by a 30-year-old veteran like Kevin Kerr or Kenardo Forbes as he is to point out ways the younger players can improve.
"When we're all here together, it's one team," defender Jordan Dover said. "It's not like the players who are signed are looking at the guys on trial saying 'I'm better than you.' It's all of us here for one goal, and we do have to play together on Friday, and obviously we want to get that result."
The Hounds rush into their nine-match preseason slate this weekend with a pair of college matches, as they host Cleveland State at 7 p.m. Friday and Division II Gannon at 1 p.m. Sunday. With two games, there will be plenty of minutes to go around and ample opportunity for the trialists and the contracted pros to put something good on tape for the coaches to evaluate.
"It is really good to get that chance early in the season, because we come here, and we're pretty much beating up on each other," Dover said. "Once that Friday game comes, we're excited to put what we've been doing on the pitch against someone else."
Making up the on-trial group are four forwards (Tommy Buono, Eddy Enowbi, Mark Forrest and Devyn Jambga), four midfielders (Kosti Moni, Hakan Redzep, Caleb Smith and Oliver White), five defenders (Tam Dimairo, Ryan Gallagher, Nadeer Ghantous, Brennan Ireland and Jordan Skelton) and a goalkeeper (David Greczek). Lilley assembled the group from far and wide, as the group includes four international players and four players with pro experience, though most of the group are players who just finished their college careers in 2018.
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