If there was any doubt as to why Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley is so highly regarded by his peers in the USL Championship, Sunday provided yet another illustration.
Fielding a lineup that included only five players that had started for the Hounds in their final game of the 2019 season, the visitors harried and hassled Louisville City FC all over the field to come away with a 3-1 victory, spoiling the party for Louisville City FC as it officially opened Lynn Family Stadium while setting down its own marker for the new campaign.
Meet the new Hounds, same as the old Hounds.
“It was a gutsy performance and a collective performance,” said Lilley after the game. “I thought we did an effective job managing the game once we got the two-goal lead. We didn’t give a ton of clear-cut chances and we made it hard for them. In the second half, I’m really proud of how they responded to get in front and bring home the three points.”
In a city that has revered toughness with a side of flair in its teams over the years, the Hounds have both in abundance. Under pressure after conceding in the 18th minute on a fine strike by Speedy Williams, the Hounds progressively bent the game their way. The visitors redrew the battle lines and as the Hounds pressed higher, forcing Louisville to find a way through, the hosts had difficulty finding an answer.
And then as the second half began, the Hounds’ pressure saw the three-time Eastern Conference title-holders break down completely.
Both Oscar Jimenez and Jimmy Ockford produced disastrous backwards passes to no-one in particular that Ropapa Mensah seized on. The former Nashville SC striker – astutely picked up this offseason as a potential replacement for Neco Brett – showed ideal timing to turn both errors into goals for Robbie Mertz and Anthony Velarde.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley guides his team during its 3-1 victory against Louisville City FC on Sunday at Lynn Family Stadium. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Fifty-one minutes into their season, Pittsburgh had made its opening statement.
“I think we started the second half really well with the attitude that we’re here to win the game and we’re going to make it hard,” said Lilley. “There were two great goals. We made the extra passes. Ropapa [Mensah] held on to the ball and found the right runners going forward in Robbie [Mertz] and Anthony [Velarde].”
In some ways, Mensah’s performance was reflective of the collective effort Lilley demands. The Ghanaian may have competed for more aerials (13) than attempted passes (9) over the 90 minutes, but the willingness to work as the first line of confrontation and attempt to hold up play for teammates was another illustration of the ability Lilley has to get players to commit to each other so consistently year-in and year-out.
It’s a demanding way to play – especially given Sunday’s high temperatures in the late afternoon with players tanks not yet full given the training regimen’s they’ve been forced to maintain over recent months – but the desire to do the work by the players is reflective of the coach. Players may cycle in and out of Lilley’s squad each year – although key lieutenants are still in place in the likes of Kenardo Forbes, Jordan Dover and Thomas Vancaeyezeele – but those arriving do so in the knowledge they will become better for the coaching they’ll get under Lilley’s watchful eye.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC players celebrate after scoring against Louisville City FC during a 3-1 victory at Lynn Family Stadium on Sunday evening. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
It’s an ability that’s drawn admiration from the rest of the league. This preseason, when the Championship’s Head Coaches were asked in an anonymous survey by The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter which of their peers past and present they most admired, Lilley garnered 10 votes, more than double his nearest rival.
And it’s an ability that means the Hounds are not only going to be the team to beat in Group F of the Championship’s reconfigured season, but will also be one of the hardest to take on as the season progresses.