A year ago we had to put forth a revised edition of our Annual media predictions for the Riverhounds SC and USL season due to COVID-19 putting an abrupt halt on the season in March, and not resuming until late July.
This year, it appears the USL Championship is forging full-speed ahead (and has already started playing regular season matches) with its 2021 season.
With that in mind, we’ve assembled our team of contributors to make their predictions once again, getting their responses to gauge their thoughts on how the Riverhounds SC will do this coming season, with a focus on the Atlantic Division slate.
For an unabridged look at the eight-team Atlantic Division, check out our preview below.
USL Championship Atlantic Division Preview: Familiarity breeds contempt
Special thanks to Mark Goodman, Rachael Kriger, Matt Gajtka Matt Popchock Jordan Smith and Matt Harkins for contributing to this year’s predictions.
So, here we go with our annual predictions.
Question 1: How many points will the Hounds reach this season/where they will finish in the Atlantic Division?
Jordan Smith: With the Riverhounds in the new Atlantic Division, it almost reminds me of the NHL’s decision to have four different divisions during this season. Going into the Penguins season, out of 8 teams in the division, I figured they were top four but wasn’t sure where they’d finish. I think the same of the Riverhounds. I don’t think they’ll finish first but I see them finishing second in the division. After losing Mertz, De Santos and Mensah, I think the offense might need some time to get chemistry built and have consistent performances. I say they go 20-8-4 in a 32 game season. So, that’ll be 64 points on the year.
Mark Goodman: Boy that’s hard to predict this year. I think I say that every year. USL is a trip, man. 59 points? It feels like the Hounds have a ton of roster turnover at some key positions – new strikers, no Robbie Mertz, no Ryan James, three new centerbacks – those are all things that make me worry. But they have Bob Lilley, Kenny Forbes, Danny Griffin, and two experienced fullbacks in Dani Rovira and Jordan Dover. The rest of the East and the (new) Atlantic Division. Tamba Bay Rowdies and NYRB II are likely to be good as usual; Charlotte and Loudoun will likely be bad, and Miami, Charleston and Hartford are unpredictable. I think a top-three finish for the Hounds, on something around 56 to 60 points through 32 games seems a good bet. But I wouldn’t bet against 66 points and winning the Eastern Conference either.
Matt Popchock: The last proper (pre-pandemic) USL season ended with the Riverhounds grabbing two-thirds of the possible points on their schedule. Based solely on the remarkable and, by now, well-documented consistency of Bob Lilley at the helm, the Hounds are capable of replicating that feat in 2021, which would equate to 64 points. They still carry the burden of proof in terms of their ability to get past reigning Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay, but I would hazard the guess that those 64 points, minimally, will be good for a second-place finish in the Atlantic. Last year, we wondered how the Riverhounds would be able to get by after a winter of significant roster turnover, and their ability to develop a strong chemistry over a truncated season was impressive. Faced with that same rhetorical question this year, “LilleyBall” will find an answer once again.
Rachael Kriger: I feel like a broken record every year when I say this, but with how much roster turnover this club seemingly always has, I never have a good guess for these questions. Now, add in completely different groups, sections, whatever you want to call it! I think the Riverhounds will accumulate 55 points, notching a spot in the playoffs, and making some sort of run. I think the teams in this grouping are wildcards, so give me the Riverhounds in third place. Bronze medal!
Matt Gajtka: I think the Hounds go 18-6-8 for 59 points and a second-place finish to Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division. I’m not sure this will be Bob Lilley’s best Pittsburgh team, but I still think it’s better than most in the division. Tough (as usual) to start with two games on the road — especially longer trips to probable contenders Tampa Bay and Hartford — although the following five matchups should provide a chance to bank some early points and take a little edge off.
Matt Harkins: Anything less than a top four finish in the Atlantic Division this season should be considered a failure of a season. I think the biggest competition for the top of this division for the Riverhounds are the Tampa Bay Rowdies and New York Red Bulls II. Expectations for this year’s team in this division should be the same as recent seasons, a Top Two finish, if not winning it outright. How many points will that take? I’m going to give it a ballpark range here and say between 60-65 points will be needed to win the Atlantic Division this year with the Riverhounds and Tampa Bay Rowdies battling for the top spot all season.
Krysinsky: I am buying what Bob Lilley is selling when he talks about this division going to be tougher than it may look to some. I see the Hounds finishing in the top four — and wavering somewhere between 2nd and 3rd place when it’s all said and done, with a 61-point campaign (18-7-7)
Q2: Who will be the Riverhounds SC’s leading scorer?
Harkins: I think Kenardo Forbes is going to be who the offense runs through this year and in turn he is going to set up more scoring chances than convert opportunities. I expect Anthony Velarde to step up and fill the shoes of Robbie Mertz from the past two seasons and can see him with more consistent playing time being a goal scoring threat
Goodman: I don’t think we’re going to have one big scorer – I expect a very close three way battle between Danny Griffin, Albert Dikwa, and Josh Gatt, with each finding 5 to 7 goals a piece.
Smith: I think Albert Dikwa is the man to get the most goals for the Hounds. He seems to always find the ball in the box and finish it off. I’m hoping he gets at least 14 goals this season. I can see Kenardo Forbes leading the team in points as he’ll get many assists. I expect to see breakout seasons from Anthony Velarde and Danny Griffin.
Kriger: Ah roster turnover. The safe bet is always going with a player that is returning, at least in my history of doing these predictions. I’m going to do that again. Give me Anthony Velarde — congratulations on your off-season marriage! — with 11 goals.
Popchock: The Hounds have made one or two interesting additions on the attacking side of the pitch, but I’m going to give the nod to Albert Dikwa, one of last season’s late arrivals. Dikwa gave us very noticeable glimpses of his potential toward the end of 2020, and he scored a pretty big goal in the home finale to keep the team’s hopes of a group title alive at that point. To me, it felt like he was really knocking on the door, right on the verge of breaking out, and my gut tells me that this year, in a bigger role over a full season, with less competition for playing time, he’ll knock the door down.
Gatjka: I was waiting all last summer for Albert Dikwa to show up … and I wasn’t disappointed when he finally did. He provides the work rate of a Steevan Dos Santos with the burst of Ropapa Mensah; since both of those gentlemen have moved on, the Hounds will need a little of both up front. Plenty of options to pick from with a crowded forward corps, but I’d bet on Dikwa getting to double digits anyway. He earned Lilley’s trust last season, so that gives him a head start over any newcomers.
Krysinsky: While many signs point to Dikwa to be the team’s leading scorer this season, and for good reason, we can’t discount the addition of Alex Dixon to this squad too. If the Hounds play with three forwards, Dikwa will likely be the starting central forward. Josh Gatt, Russell Cicerone and Dixon provide dynamic options at the top and on the wings too — and my guess is that the rotation could have one of them, along with San Jose’s first-round SuperDraft pick Tommy Williamson and when opportunities arise — 17 year-old Wyatt Borso too as second half subs when necessary. Remember, the USL Championship is sticking with five subs rule plus they’ve also created room for two concussion related subs too. Dixon scored six goals in 12 games last season with Hartford. If he’s a part of this rotation, I could see him and Dikwa both picking up double-digit goals. I’ll pick Dixon to lead the Hounds with 12 goals this season and Dikwa coming in with 10.
Q3: Which new player are you most interested to see this year?
Kriger: In honor of Rabbi Mark and my good friend Matt Pollard, I’m going to go with former Colorado Rapids player Josh Gatt. A veteran with a lot of different experiences in various leagues/countries, I’m excited to see what he can bring to the team. He’ll need to gel early with Kenardo Forbes. That would be a dynamic partnership if they can get on the same page early.
Gatjka: The Hounds don’t get many MLS loans, so my easy pick here is Tommy Williamson. Usually college players bring a little more certainty than prospects who come straight from the academy level, but even here the track record is nebulous, since Williamson’s Cal Bears sat out the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19. Obviously San Jose saw something in Williamson, and the fact that Lilley was willing to take on his first outfield loanee as Hounds’ manager tells you the potential that’s there.
Popchock: Well, once again, we’re sitting here wondering where the goals are going to come from after all the off-season roster attrition. One x-factor, if you will, seems to be Josh Gatt, one of the Riverhounds with the most significant volume of pro experience coming into Pittsburgh, and a history of previously untapped potential. But I’m going to keep my eye on Russell Cicerone, another seasoned veteran, because I think Bob Lilley sees a lot of potential in him, too. Cicerone comes over from the dissolved St. Louis side after posting very consistent offensive numbers over there, and previously, he played for FC Cincinnati’s last USL squad. He adds some versatility to the Hounds up front, and versatility, with this club, is never a bad thing.
JS: Why wouldn’t I be excited to see Wyatt Borso? He’s younger than me. He’s 17 and is a top 10 forward recruit in America. He’ll be going to Notre Dame soon playing D1. He surely seems like a player that’ll be in the MLS sooner rather than later. I hope the fans get a chance to cheer on a high schooler dicing out defenders and putting goals past tons of grown men. He’ll be a fan favorite for sure.
Harkins: You can call this the easy answer if you want, but it’s the answer that could provide a lot for the Riverhounds this season. Tommy Williamson, who the Riverhounds got on loan from the San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS this season, was the 12th overall pick in this year’s MLS SuperDraft. That right there is enough for me to watch him play, someone thought that highly of him to take him in the first round. With the PAC-12 not playing soccer last season due to COVID-19, we have to look back at 2019 when he scored 9 goals in 18 games as a Junior. Will he be more of an offensive threat? Or someone that can facilitate and allow Kenardo Forbes to work his magic more with the ball to get prime scoring chances?
Goodman: As a person that has covered the Colorado Rapids, I’m clearly interested in Mekeil Williams and Joshua Gatt. Both are talented guys with twisty turny career paths. Both have played abroad extensively, and in some interesting places – Germany, Denmark, Guatemala.
Bob Lilley has a talent for picking good young players, so I think Louis Perez and Tommy Williamson are worth keeping an eye on too.
Krysinsky: I am very interested to see what transpires with all of these forwards and how they’ll be part of the rotations and lineups from game-to-game. However, the position that will rely on all new players is center back. I am most interested, especially early in the season, to see how they come together and how Bob Lilley will use them this year without a unicorn talent that was Thomas Vanceayezeele directing traffic out of the back. Will Mekeil Williams become a regular center back? Or, if the Hounds can rely on Preston Kilwien, Shane Wiedt and Jelani Peters (and Casey Bartlett-Scott when ever he makes it to Pittsburgh) to take on center back roles, then Williams could slide to left back where he’s played most of his career. All except Bartlett-Scott have pro experience, but how well will they work as a unit? Will Lilley settle on a steady rotation or will he have same musical chairs with this position he had last season? Lots of questions, I know, so I am looking forward to see how this plays out.
Q4: What four Atlantic Division teams will make the USL Cup playoffs?
Goodman: Riverhounds, Red Bull II, Rowdies, and then it’s a total crapshoot for fourth. There’s a lot of buzz about the players Miami has signed this year like Speedy Williams, Christiano Francois, and the Karma Chameleon himself, Paco Craig. But this roster has just one player under 27, a bunch of thirty-year olds, and too many guys whose last club was ‘Unattached FC’. Hartford has Bradford Jamieson IV and one of the best keepers in USL, Jeff Caldwell, but the rest of the roster is thin. Loudoun did not put it together last year, but there’s so much damn talent on that team and especially a ton of speed. So, I’ll say Loudoun gets that final playoff spot.
Harkins: I think you can write it in now with pen, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Pittsburgh Riverhounds are locks to be two of the teams moving on into the postseason from this division, who will the other two be is the bigger question. I think New York Red Bulls II will be the third team and the battle for the fourth spot will be between the Charleston Battery and Hartford Athletic. But, if you are going to make me choose the four right now, I’m going to go with Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, New York and Hartford.
Popchock: For my money, this is still the best of the “Group F” teams from last year’s makeshift alignment. One aberrant, and horribly timed, home loss that basically cost them a group championship doesn’t change my mind on that. Some might say the two Florida entrants, the Rowdies and Miami FC–er, excuse me: THE Miami FC–“won” the off-season, but we all know that translating that into actual, regular-season success is something wholly other. Again, I think Tampa and Pittsburgh will slug it out for that top spot, so bet on playoff football returning to Highmark in 2021, and in the meantime, my sleeper team in the Atlantic is Loudoun United. In 2020, they were a young, fast side that seemed to match up better with the Hounds as the season went on, and it struck me as one that could present problems later on, when those youngsters grow up a bit. I’ve got to respect Hartford, coming off that aforementioned group championship it stole from Pittsburgh, though the Athletic have some pretty big off-season losses of their own with which to grapple. If they can rise above that, I could see them pulling the rug out from under Miami for that last playoff spot. (Just don’t make me hum “Brass Bonanza.”)
Kriger: Good question, given the wildcard status of a lot of these teams. Hartford Athletic will take first, followed by the Miami FC, put the Riverhounds in at third place and then rounding out the group — let’s go pure chaos and give me Tampa Bay sliding down from their ranking last year.
Gatjka: I see Tampa Bay Rowdies taking the division by a couple of points over the Hounds. I like Hartford for third place and — in some Old Guard Shield solidarity — I’ll land on Charleston to hold off Loudoun for the fourth and final playoff spot. Going out on a limb here and saying that Red Bulls II has another down year. Miami isn’t ready yet and Charlotte is just perpetually blah.
Smith: I think the Riverhounds, Charleston Battery, Charlotte Independence, and Tampa Bay Rowdies make the playoffs. Hartford Athletic sits on the outside of the playoffs barely missing.
Krysinsky: 1.) Tampa Bay Rowdies 2.) Pittsburgh Riverhounds 3.) Hartford Athletic 4.) Charleston Battery
Charlotte may have their struggles, but Mike Jeffries has always found a way to field possession-oriented teams that are competitive. Miami FC might have talent, but wondering how they can navigate a 32-game grind with an older roster. Loudoun and NY Red Bulls II are fielding rosters with lots of young talent but even the Baby Bulls (this may be hard to believe) are getting younger this year, so how quickly they can adjust and be competitive on a regular basis in the division is still a bit unknown.
John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of ‘Miracle on the Mon’ — a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).