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Number of Hounds to feel at home on road trip

By Anthony Picardi, 05/05/18, 4:00PM EDT

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For someone known as “The Cheetah,” aggressiveness was already in his nature.

Charging an opposing Atlanta United 2 player in possession of the ball, Christiano François stole the sphere before sprinting along the end line into the penalty area. Once he captured the attention of the Atlanta backline, the midfielder sent a pass to Neco Brett, who then released a left-footed shot into the back of the net.

Although happening in the 26th minute of the match, this assist led to the eventual game-winning goal in Pittsburgh’s 1-0 win against the USL newcomer.

“Every time I come out, I just want to score or get an assist because that’s my job as a winger,” François said after the match. “That’s why the coach plays me because he believes in me. Every time I come out, I have to give a good performance to help the team win.”

After recording his first assist of the season, François, as well as a number of other professional team members, will return to familiar territory, as Riverhounds SC (3-0-3) will clash with Toronto FC II (0-4-2) at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Marina Auto Stadium in Rochester, New York.

In addition to the attacking winger, players Jordan Dover, Kenardo Forbes, Ray Lee, Dan Lynd, Kyle Morton and Todd Pratzner, as well as head coach Bob Lilley and assistant coach Mark Pulisic will have a homecoming to their old venue, formerly known as Capelli Sport Stadium.

“Bob and I had a good year last year,” Pulisic said. “Unfortunately, things didn’t work out for [Rochester Rhinos] to continue as a club, but we have fond memories of the stadium there, the people and the fans of Rochester.”

Now that Lilley and Pulisic are in Pittsburgh, the team’s performance thus far has mirrored that of old Rhinos teams. On the defensive side of the ball, the Hounds have exhibited exceptional play and rank No. 1 in the Eastern Conference with five clean sheets – one season after Rochester finished second in the conference with 14 shutouts.

Offensively, Pittsburgh has generated much of its pressure from its wingers. Kevin Kerr (12) and François (7) rank first and second on the club in chances created. Playing into this statistic is an array of crosses the team has sent from the outside into the penalty box this season.

Leading up to their match against Toronto FC II this Saturday, the Hounds drilled this approach during a training session. Wingers and other outside position players cycled through drills while sending the ball into the box to central players and forwards.

“We definitely stress the ability to get in behind defenses,” Pulisic said. “The ways to get in behind are not just straight central balls, so we utilize our wide defenders. When we have someone with pace, like Christiano, we like to get him wide sometimes and get in behind.”

As outside midfielders and defenders may streak down the field, it places added responsibility on the team’s center backs to defend against quick counterattacks from the opposition. As defender Joe Greenspan has missed time due to an injured calf, Tobi Adewole and Pratzner have largely held down the center of the backline.

Adewole and Pratzner have combined for 37 percent of the club’s clearances this season. The duo also has started five games together, four of which resulted in a Pittsburgh clean sheet.

“Sometimes it takes a couple times to get used to playing with another guy, but right from the beginning I think we formed a good partnership,” Pratzner said about playing with Adewole. “It’s easy to work with him, and I’m enjoying playing beside him.”

Both of these center backs, as well as the entire team, will aim to shut out Toronto once again this season after defeating the foe 4-0 earlier this campaign. In past meetings, Pittsburgh has been tremendously successful against Toronto and holds a 6-0-2 all-time record in series history.

“We don’t want the guys to get too complacent,” Pulisic said. “We need to sharpen up both areas – both on the defensive end and on the attacking end. Just continue to get better.”