Hounds continue climb, shut out New York


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Riverhounds midfielder Thomas Vancaeyezeele goes up for a header against New York Red Bulls II at Highmark Stadium – CHRIS COWGER / RIVERHOUNDS SC

"It's nice to get wins. We have three points two weeks in a row. That's really positive for us."

Riverhounds head coach Bob Lilley offered that statement with a grin, his lips forming an uncharacteristic post-match smile on the Highmark Stadium turf. Lilley, gathered with reporters after the team's 3-0 victory over New York Red Bulls II, showed it all right up there, in those three sentences laced together above.

Because this season, the Hounds haven't had too much to smile about. There hasn't been much positivity or happiness after the final whistle. There's been disappointment and frustration, "almost" and "could have." The team's offered glimpses, sure, but overall, it's been ... lackluster.

But now? Now the team is starting to show its potential. The 3-0 victory Saturday evening over New York Red Bulls II comes on the heels of a 5-0 thrashing of Atlanta United 2 last week in Georgia, a win that gave the Hounds 200 victories all-time.

While No. 200 marked a special occasion, and while the margin of victory was larger there, this 3-0 win Saturday, over a 9-4-2, third-place squad, is even better.

And that's why Lilley couldn't help himself with that smile.

"This is a good group," Lilley was saying of his team. "They want to make traction, They want to get back to the top of the table. We dug a hole [earlier this season]. Now we're hopefully going to keep digging to get out of it."

Among those bringing their shovels to work at Highmark Stadium for the Hounds were forward Steevan Dos Santos and goalkeeper Kyle Morton. For the second straight week, Dos Santos found the back of the net, and for the second straight week, Morton prevented the opposition from doing the same.

That's a recipe for success on the pitch, ladies and gentlemen.

"It's always great when the team is winning," Dos Santos was telling me after the match. "We knew that at the beginning we had some ties that we shouldn't have had. But it's like the coach said, we weren't playing good. And sometimes we were being unlucky in some games, but the game before and this game everything came together. We scored a lot of goals and we didn't concede goals."

For his part, Morton isn't taking too much credit. While he acknowledges finding some confidence and beginning to feel like himself in goal again, he's quick to turn the attention to his teammates and to the Hounds' defensive efforts.

"I wouldn't say it's much of a groove," Morton was saying. "It's just getting confidence back. I just feel like I'm playing like myself again like last year before my surgery. The guys are giving me a lot of confidence, too. They're making it really easy for me the last couple games, so a lot of credit to them."

Well, Morton wouldn't call it a "groove," but I will. And Dos Santos wasn't far behind:

Point is: The Hounds are finding themselves right now. Granted, as Lilley noted, both Atlanta United 2 and New York Red Bulls II play an aggressive, high-risk style of soccer, and that leaves openings. The Hounds, to their credit, have shown an ability to exploit those openings and to turn small mistakes into huge gains.

But even in doing so — and even with all that smiling — Lilley is quick to go full coach-mode on us. He knows there's work to be done, and that's never far from his mind. Now 4-2-7, the Hounds sit at No. 10 in the USL Eastern Conference standings. Not bad — and certainly better than two weeks ago — but not where the team wants to be, either.

"To me, it wasn't a great first half," Lilley said. "We actually went over at halftime what we worked on all week, because I felt like we didn't nail it. Our shape, at times, was poor defensively and I think that caused us a lot of problems in the first half. We just happened to get the goal. I thought the second half we were better with that, and we were much more solid as a group."

Now, the challenge becomes maintaining this momentum as a unit. It's easy to stay hungry when you're tying close matches and suffering tough breaks as the Hounds were just a few weeks ago. That's naturally frustrating and motivating. But now, with two blowouts in the rear-view, Lilley expects his crew to carry the same intensity.

Winning's great. So they intend to do more of it.

"We won 5-0 last week, but they worked hard this week," Lilley said. "It helps to have Red Bull coming to town for sure. That gets their attention, but they did do the work and they didn't take anything for granted ... It's habits. It's having intention: How we train, how we play. We're by no means in a great spot in the league standings, so we have a lot of work in front of us regardless. It doesn't surprise me that we're getting some wins now because they could've come three weeks ago or four weeks ago. I think we've been training better and we've been getting closer. Now we're reaping some of those rewards."

• After getting tangled up with New York Red Bulls II's Jordan Scarlett and remaining down on the turf for a few minutes, Neco Brett returned to the pitch ... and did this:

"Neco's shot, it's a really tough play for the goalkeeper," Morton was saying of the goal. "It's kind of in-between, and he had a really, really good finish. It's really tough to do, to get it up and over and down into the net like that.

• Dos Santos added the team's second goal on a header, while midfielder Thomas Vancaeyezeele added the third and final with this:

• Despite the 3-0 win, the Riverhounds only tallied one more total shot (11) than Red Bulls II. Both teams had five shots on target.

• Red Bulls II won the possession game, 56.3 percent to 43.7 percent.

•  The Hounds dominated with five corners to Red Bulls II's two and five headers to Red Bulls II's one.

• Ringing up back-to-back clean sheets has its benefits. See: This fan club waiting for Morton after the game:

• This is necessary stuff. In the ongoing marinara vs. ranch debate, Highmark Stadium makes a strong play. Check it out:

• Next up: The Hounds will face Birmingham Legion FC (3-8-4, 13th in USL Eastern Conference) Saturday, June 29, at 7 p.m. ET inside Highmark Stadium. That's a good opportunity to put together three straight wins for the home team. Tickets are available here.

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