Pittsburgh Riverhounds 2022 Season Preview
2021 was supposed to end differently. The fans hoped for it. The players yearned for it. It was supposed to end in a playoff run for a team finding its top form in the stretch. It ended in a whimper as one of the final shutdowns in professional sports as the pandemic began to ease and life returned to some normalcy. It wasn't supposed to go that way.
The 2022 offseason was a sign from Riverhounds owner Tuffy Shallenberger, manager Bob Lilley and their staff to the fanbase and the USL at large--The Riverhounds aren't here to mess around. They're here to compete at the elite level of the USL Championship. Not just the Eastern Conference, but at the top of the league. The Riverhounds set out on a mission to re-sign, re-tool and re-load.
The result was a roster that, on paper, has to be among the favorites to contend at the top of the table in 2022. Almost the entire core from 2021 was brought back, including leading scorer Russell Cicerone. Firepower was added up top in Dane Kelly, the all time leading goalscorer in USL. The midfield was bolstered. The backline is nearly intact. Goalkeeper is a battle and a spot remains open there, but the team has enough to cover for the moment until the competition is settled. The newcomers bring a range of experience and talents to make the Riverhounds a serious player in 2022.
Goalkeeper: Do The Limbo Dance
The 'Hounds lost Danny Vitiello, who was counted amongst the top 'keepers in USL. That left a big hole and question mark but was solved when Kevin Silva, a native of Bethlehem, PA who had spent time with TFC, Hearts and was one of the top young goalkeepers in the country was signed. There is also Chase Vosvick, a first year pro out of Loyola(MD). A third netminder, one with significantly more pro experience in match situations, has to be one of the remaining priorities for Bob Lilley at this stage of the game.
Yes, we dropped a Hasselhoff song for the tagline, for those wondering.
Grade: C. Losing Vitiello hurt. Silva has the pedigree and potential. Vosvick has pushed him from what it seems in the pre-season, but they're both lacking experience and the team is a touch unsettled in this spot.
Defenders: The Big Boys Are Back.
The Riverhounds centerbacks may be the toughest in the Eastern Conference and one of the best units in the league. The return of T&T Internationals Mekeil Williams and Jelani Peters give the 'Hounds a unit that can compete at levels beyond the USL. Toss in rock solid Shane Weidt, who saw action in all of the 'Hounds matches in 2021--and they're set at CB. Arturo Ordonez(Univ. of Pittsburgh) and Nathan DosSantos(Marshall U), both were taken in the MLS College Draft and found their way to Pittsburgh after initial winter camps with the MLS sides who selected them. They are here to provide coverage, learn on the job in year one and show they can win further contracts.
At outside back, there are a plethora of options. Dani Rovira is a known commodity to Riverhounds supporters and can play in back or in the midfield positions, but the rest of the options are all new to Pittsburgh. The most experienced of the lot is Robby Dambrot, the son of Duquesne MBB coach Keith Dambrot, who arrived from Loudoun United in the winter. The most interesting option amongst the remainder of the newcomers is Jesse Williams. Williams has broken through the T&T youth ranks to join his fellow countrymen Peters and Williams in the senior national team pool and came to Pittsburgh after a spell in Northern Ireland.
Grade: B+. The Riverhounds have depth and options at each position across the back. They returned three key pieces at CB and added talented players and prospects. They will have to provide cover while the goalkeeper situation settles.
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Midfield: King Kenardo returns. Nothing Else Matters....Okay, now, seriously...
Kenardo Forbes is the elder statesman of the Riverhounds and remains the leader in the center of the park. Bob Lilley will look to Forbes to once again shoulder the load leading his midfield. Sure, he's on the wrong side of 30. Sure, he's lost a step from when he first arrived. You can't make up for his experience, leadership and match fitness. He's still got the positional awareness, the "Soccer IQ", if you will...That makes him eternally valuable.
Danny Griffin has burst on the scene as Mr. Reliable for Bob Lilley in his time in Pittsburgh. Griffin is appearing to be the heir apparent to King Kenardo. As his development continues, Griffin is becoming a "keep at all costs" player for the Hounds. Griffin could easily see interest from MLS or from some smaller top flights abroad(Think places like Finland) before its all said and done. He's a must have. The Ironman. He's Forbes, just 10 years younger.
Angelo Kelly Rosales arrives from the Charleston Battery with 100 pro matches under his belt and is another pesky player. He led the Battery in minutes played, tackles and interceptions in 2021. Another menace in the center for Bob Lilley means that there is now quality coverage for Griffin and Forbes that was lacking in 2021. If Bob really wants to park the bus--Which we know that he's adept at once he's got a second half lead---Expect the three of them clogging the center at the same time as they burn the clock.
Grade: B+. They kept their two defensive midfielders and added Kelly-Rosales and first year pro Marc Ybarra. They've got plenty of depth in the center of the park. There may be another signing on the way, from what it appears, that would push this to an A.
Attackers: The Rich Got Richer.
Keeping your leading scorer, who set the league ablaze the previous year, is a near impossibility in the USL. Bigger paydays come calling within the league. Sometimes from higher levels. You just don't keep a big scorer. Unless, of course, your manager is Bob Lilley.
Russell Cicerone, who torched the USL in 2021, scoring 16 goals and adding 8 assists, is back. That's good for a B right out the gate on the grade.
But wait...Behind Door #2....
Alex Dixon and Albert Dikwa return. Dixon has blazing pace and over a decade of pro experience. He performed admirably in 2021 and created space and opportunities for Cicerone to be as lethal as he was in front of goal. Dixon added 9 goals and 9 assists himself in a stellar campaign.
Dikwa suffered an injury midway through 2021 that limited him to just half the matches, but his form in 2020 and early 2021 warranted a return for this season and should he be able to find confidence and fitness, he'll be another option up top for Lilley.
This returning trio gets you to a B+
Bob Barker says its time to look behind Door #3....
Dane Kelly. The All Time Leading Scorer in USL Championship history with 99 goals, arrived in the Steel City. Kelly has been a fantastic finisher throughout his career and brings extensive experience in the USL and also from his stops with DC United, Tivoli Gardens(Jamaica) and Bnei Sakhnin in the Israeli top flight. There's really nothing else to say. Lilley got the signing of the offseason. A poacher.
That gets you to an A+.
But wait! We've got enough icing on the cake to be a masterpiece from Carlo's Bake Shop(Remember that character from TV??)
As if those options weren't plentiful---The Riverhounds were able to retain the services of teenager Wyatt Borso. Borso signed a USL Academy contract in 2021, retaining his amateur status, as he's committed to Notre Dame. For Borso, as his development continues, a question may come up this year...Does he go play for the Irish or does he sign a contract, be it in Pittsburgh or elsewhere? His trajectory could point that high. He's a big bodied kid who was unafraid in his cameo appearances for the 'Hounds in 2021.
William Eyang rounds out the spoils up top. He spent time with Union Douala in his native Cameroon and had a run out with Swedish lower league side Bodens. He has spent much of his time stateside at NPSL and UPSL sides. He won the Golden Boot in the 2021 spring season in the UPSL for the Florida Tropics. A touch of an "unknown" coming into the season, nevertheless, he's got a resume and if Lilley sees something, then something must be there.
Grade: Off The Charts. An A+ isn't even high enough for the type of attacking options that Bob Lilley has at his disposal in 2022. By USL standard, he's a rich man.
Safe to say, the bar is high at Highmark Stadium in 2022. Making the playoffs is now an expectation for the Riverhounds. The management, the technical staff, the players and fans all should expect to be "above the line".
The question for this season is "How high is the bar?" Winning the Eastern Conference should be in the discussion for everyone involved.
This team has the depth and the talent. There will be one or two more pieces brought in and its no secret that the 'Hounds are shopping for a 'keeper. Bob Lilley always finds some diamonds in the rough, but the 22 players they have now will likely make up the squad. I wouldn't envision more than 24 at its largest. Lilley keeps a lean, mean machine.
We'll see you On The 'Mon in just a few days!
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