Hounds taking the wheel vs. two-time champs


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Joe Greenspan -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Bob Lilley flipped my question on its head.

I set him up to talk about himself a bit. It's not his favorite thing to do, something I've noticed throughout the season, but it felt necessary as the Hounds prepared to face Louisville City FC on Saturday in the USL Eastern Conference semifinals.

Because before meeting with Lilley here at Highmark Stadium, I spoke with Hounds midfielder Robbie Mertz and goalkeeper Kyle Morton. When I probed them about their success down the stretch — you know, 9-0-3 in their last 12 (including last weeks' opening-round, 7-0 thrashing of Birmingham FC), allowing just two goals over that stretch to capture the No. 1 seed in the East — they turned to Lilley as the root of it all.

"He strives for absolute perfection and he usually comes up somewhere around excellence, and that's really good enough to get it done in this business," Mertz was telling me. "You're never going to have a perfect game. We won 7-0 last week against Birmingham, but it wasn't a perfect game. We're making adjustments, improvements all the time, and I think that's what gets us ready for every game."

You read that part about two goals allowed over the course of 12 games, right?

That's pretty sweet for a keeper. But Morton, despite setting a club record with 13 clean sheets overall in 2019, isn't feeling overly proud about the accomplishment. He knows exactly what goes into a shutout at this level, and he recognizes it can't happen without a total team effort.

"It's fantastic. It makes my life really easy," Morton said of the Hounds' defense and game plans during that same stretch. "I get a great view of the game, and it's really good. I think maybe three or four of those games I [didn't need to make] a save. It's made my life really easy."

Then there's Lilley back there, poking and prodding even when the score reads 7-0. As Mertz said, the goal for the 2019 edition of this club is perfection, and even in a shutout, there's work to be done.

"I think Bob just stays on us," Morton added. "Even at 5-0, he's still kind of coaching us in the locker room and even on the field in the second half. [There's] a lot of leadership with him, and a lot of leadership within the group as well. We're all kind of still going, still going and making sure each other are accountable."

And this is precisely why I went to Lilley with the goal of picking his brain a bit.

Coach, even in victory, even when the team is humming, I hear the same thing from your players: Improvements can be made. Mistakes were made, and the focus will shift to those before the next match. What is it about you, as a coach, that allows you to connect with your players and allow you to connect on that level?

"Well, listen," Lilley began, taking a brief pause.

Here comes the suplex. Lilley fielded the question, knew exactly where he wanted to go with it, then countered — for a full three and a half minutes.

In all its glory, Lunatics:

"They've done well, but I feel like they haven't always been given the credit," Lilley began. "Unfortunately, I'm always looking at the next game. We trailed most of these teams that everyone's talked about all year, and so, other than a few weeks ago — we've come into focus the last few weeks for teams — but I think they deserve a lot of credit. They've worked extremely hard to get themselves back in this position, to have a home game against all these teams in the East. And I think for them to continue to get credit or to get as much credit as they deserve, it's important for us to keep winning and to keep confirming why we're No. 1 in the East.

"That's the long and short of it. I don't want them to sell themselves short in any way. There's people out there that are going to say that because Louisville's the defending champs that we're the underdogs. That's crazy to me. I know what we're capable of, whether it's on this field or even on the road. There's no one that we take a backseat to. I think it's important that we continue to remind people that until it becomes ingrained in their brains ... There were six teams with eight to 10 games to go all thinking, 'Where are we going to finish?' Believe me, everyone was trying to do what we did, which was finish first in the East."

It's a long quote to be certain, but read it all. Digest it. Because getting Lilley to open up like that signifies the defining characteristic of this year's Hounds. They're the top seed — and now they're acting like it. Where that could be a problem, a breeding ground for overconfidence and a lack of focus, it all circles back to Lilley's intense preparation and craving for perfection.

And against Louisville, the two-time defending league champs, Saturday at Highmark Stadium? That underdog spirit Lilley mentions only intensifies. Louisville went 17-8-9 this year, with five of those eight losses coming on the road. It's a winnable game — as they all are for these Hounds at this point.

"They've done it two years in a row now, so they've been playing in these big games and got a good attacking piece and experienced front line," Morton said. "So it should be a fun game."

The Hounds went 1-0-1 against them this season, and the club is undefeated at home in 20 tries this year — 13-0-7.

And a draw won't be possible Saturday night with the conference finals on the line.

"We have a lot of work to do," Lilley said. "Our goals are a lot more than just winning the first playoff game at Highmark. It's a lot bigger than that."

It sure is, coach.

Win Saturday, and that will become abundantly clear as Pittsburgh comes one step closer to having its latest championship squad.

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