Takeaways and player ratings: Cicerone-Dixon combo pulls Hounds out of funk
After three straight losses and a six-game winless streak, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC earned a well-deserved 3-0 victory on the road against NY Red Bulls II on Friday.
FINAL: Riverhounds SC 3, NY Red Bulls II 0
These were three vital points for the Hounds, who ultimately did not lose ground in the USL Championship Eastern Conference standings. Teams at the top of the standings continue to rack up points, with Louisville City FC, Tampa Bay and Detroit adding three points over the weekend.
Currently, Pittsburgh (8-6-3, 27 points) sits in fifth place in a crowded and competitive first half. It was their first road win since early April. Despite going 5-1-1 at home, the Hounds are just 3-6-2 in league play on the road this season.
Convincingly beating the NY Red Bulls II became the expectation. The Hounds have now won seven consecutive games in the series dating back to 2019, outscoring the organization’s second-place Major League Soccer team by a total of 19-3 in that span.
The Hounds did it once again as they straddled the bottom of the pack of their dynamic attacking duo, Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon, with veteran Kenardo Forbes orchestrating things down the middle like a maestro. They took a fairly straightforward approach, playing even more straight-forward than they have all season, while getting back to basics with spirited physicality (they took 17 fouls and had four yellow cards) and a relentless team performance of 90 minutes.
Can’t say it was the best 3-0 win you’ll ever see, but it was effective, thanks in part to the dynamic duo of Cicerone and Dixon.
As the Hounds turn the page and look to build on that victory that capped the first half of the league season, they will need to improve in other areas and be more consistent, but for their hopes of regaining the status as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, they took a positive step forward.
Training, tactics and personnel
True to form, the Hounds changed their formation yet again, this time resorting to a 3-5-2 (also turning into 5-2-1-2 at times), which officially put Cicerone on the first line. Even as a wide attacking midfielder and striker at different times in various formations, looking at the average positions of all Hounds players this year, Cicerone has always been in the top spots in every game.
On Friday, Cicerone and Albert Dikwa started as the two strikers, with a fluid central midfield trio that included Danny Griffin, who is by far (again) the team leader within minutes, Kenardo Forbes and Dani Rovira . Beyond that were Dixon and Toby Sims, making his first USL Championship start.
The group of three centre-backs included the three defenders who have played the most minutes this season so far: Arturo Ordonez, Shane Wiedt and Jelani Peters, supported by Jahmali Waite in goal.
In the second half, the Hounds used their full allocation of subs, including veterans Mekeil Williams and Dane Kelly in the 67th minute (for Rovira and Peters). Luke Biasi and Jesse Williams joined the party in the 75th minute (for Toby Sims and Albert Dikwa).
Angelo Kelly-Rosales made his 100th USL Championship appearance when he came on as the Hounds’ final substitute in the 84th minute, for Kenardo Forbes.
The Cicerone-Dixon combo strikes again
The Hounds were on their feet for most of the game, although that meant they conceded possession to the Red Bulls (which is unusual as the Red Bulls’ system is based on a fast pace and counter-attacking style ).
Even during the Hounds’ toughest period of play until June, Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon remained in solid form, providing the most consistent pressure on opposing defenders. Even though Dixon missed some time with the birth of his newborn baby, he was able to get back into the mix without missing a beat.
Eventually, they were bound to contribute again to a winning effort.
They did it on Friday.
The Hounds countered possession by NYRBII looking to play straight and grab opportunities to score early in the spaces and when they could get 1v1, 2v1 chances with Cicerone and Dixon pushing their way into the open spaces.
On a night when Danny Griffin and Kenardo Forbes combined for 54 passes, with unusual pass accuracy totals below 70%, they tried their luck with longer balls and playing through wider channels. And from the width, Toby Sims and Dixon also sent a bunch of longer passes forward (15 of 39 total passes were of the longer variety). More bombs came from the back line as well, with Shane Wiedt in particular standing out by sending 9 long balls on his total of 15 passes.
Dixon scored early in the 12th minute when Forbes threw a fabulous (longer) ball to him down the left side. With all manner of New Jersey real estate at his disposal, Dix worked his way into the box for a superb right-footed finish.
It was Forbes’ 50th career assist for the USL Championship, increasing his league record total.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) July 1, 2022
The guy who was really busy on Friday was Cicerone.
Once again proving he is the engine that never stops, involved in 21 duels (won only five) but enjoyed his moments, with three shots on target, converting twice and creating two chances.
The Hounds clinched the brace, Dixon then Cicerone with Forbes setting the table in the 19th minute (although for the second goal, Forbes was not credited with the assist) as Baby Bulls keeper AJ Marcucci got a touch on the ball to deny a first attempt, but Cicerone’s persistence paid off again, as he was able to turn the corner and finish from a sharp angle.
Then, in the second half, after Pittsburgh really stepped up their physical presence against the younger guys, as they picked up three yellow cards in 11 minutes and a fourth in the 64th minute.
Meanwhile, Cicerone, still in hiding, continued to find the seams in the stretched Red Bulls II back line, punching a few times when things opened up, and put the game out of reach with a highlight reel, a powerful shot that blasted past Carrucci, and into the tight side 90 rod.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) July 1, 2022
Overall, Pittsburgh held a 15-7 shooting advantage,
Halfway through the season, Cicerone rocketed to the top of the team with seven goals after his brace on Friday, while Dixon is the team leader with six assists.
The duo are set to approach or even surpass last season’s impressive totals, when Dixon netted nine goals and nine assists, while Cicerone led the team with 16 goals and also eight assists.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) July 2, 2022
Whatever the tactical approach from game to game, it will be essential for the Hounds to ensure that Dixon and Cicerone have the ball at their feet consistently in and around the box.
When they do, good things happen.
|26||Wait||GC||5.5||Only needed to make a backup|
|27||Stones||DF||5.5||yellow card; won 7/11 duels (including 6/8 in the air)|
|15||order||DF||6||Most accurate passer on team (81%) on 25 passes; won 2/5 duels|
|3||Wiedt||DF||6||also won duels 7/11|
|4||Rovira 67’||FM||6.5||To help; yellow card; showed why Bob Lilley sometimes moved him to CMF this season. Superb ball in space for Cicerone’s 2nd goal|
|16||sims||FM||6.5||I thought he brought more physical presence to the wing location opposite Dixon. Chance created and had two unsuccessful crosses.|
|11||Forbes (C) 74||FM||seven||rare under 70% passing accuracy on just 23 passes, but picked his spots, had 5 interceptions.|
|seven||Dixon||FM||7.5||GOAL: Three of four shots on target|
|9||Dikwa||F.W.||6||Another solid appearance, not spectacular. Solid work rate and doing dirty work. Won 4/7 duels.|
|ten||Cicero 74’||F.W.||7.5||TWO GOALS ; leave it in the field for 90 minutes, and good things usually happen|
|29||D. Kelly||67′||n/a||minutes recorded the USLC’s top scorer’s last four games: 20, 45, 24, 24. Clear indication of load management in the middle of a long season.|
|23||jesse williams||75′||Nice to see a 20 year old getting some game time|