By John Krysinsky/NPSL.com
On the banks of the Monongahela River with Downtown Pittsburgh in the backdrop sits Highmark Stadium, the home of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, where on a late June evening, a confluence of former NPSL players could be found on the rosters of the USL Championship’s Atlantic Division showdown between the home side and New York Red Bulls II.
Now, in his fourth season at the helm of the Riverhounds SC, head coach Bob Lilley has navigated his team through an inauspicious start to the season, but thanks to contributions from some key NPSL alums, the Hounds are starting to hit their stride.
After a disappointing first-round playoff exit in 2020, Lilley spent a good part of the offseason and early preseason carefully rebuilding his club’s roster by adding personnel that would better align with some changes in his approach to tactics and desire to become more dynamic in the final third. In addition, Lilley was looking to build more quality depth on his roster, rebuild his back line with a whole new group of center backs, and have flexibility to use more players when facing the rigors of a 32-game schedule.
“We wanted to become more mobile,” Lilley said at the dawn of a new season. “It was a difficult decision. We made a decision to shift in what we want to do. We were just not good enough in the final third. This was one reason why we made some of the changes we made this off season.”
Outside of bringing back six returnees to the roster, Lilley wanted to bring on board more players who would fit his revamped system.
Among the additions to the Hounds roster would include NPSL alums Russell Cicerone (FC Buffalo), Shane Wiedt (Erie Commodores FC), Todd Wharton (RVA FC), Ezra Armstrong (FC Columbus), and Casey Bartlett-Scott (Erie Commodores FC).
Each of these players was brought to Pittsburgh as Lilley saw something special and unique that they each can contribute individually, but each were eager to buy into his concepts, known as ‘Lilleyball’ to those who follow the Hounds and his previous teams closely.
“Once you listen and focus on information, he wants you to be laser focused on the concepts that he’s trying to push out to give us,” Wiedt, who played for two seasons with Loudoun United before signing with Pittsburgh after spending much of the preseason as a trialist, said.
Wiedt played in Pittsburgh previously, as part of the revitalized University of Pittsburgh program under Jay Vidovich. After his contract with Loudoun United was not picked up, he spent the offseason working on his game and fitness to earn another contract elsewhere.
“If you don’t have a team or a contract lined up it can be a little uncertain, can be scary,” Wiedt explained. “I was plugging away, working on things. Thank goodness I had guys around me that I could work with, that were pros. Eventually, I had an opportunity to earn a contract on trial, that was good. Being back here in Pittsburgh is comforting because I was here for about a year or so (at Pitt).”
One position that the Hounds still needed to shore up during the preseason was center back, Wiedt’s natural position. In his three years at the University of Akron before transferring to Pitt in 2018, Wiedt didn’t see a lot of playing time.
It was his experience with NPSL’s Erie Commodores that enabled him to continue to get high-level playing experience.
“It was a good experience,” Wiedt said. “Definitely a way to get good games in. I didn’t get a ton of experience in my early years of college. It was a nice way to play with really good players and get some high-level competition under my belt.”
By the time Wiedt transferred to Pitt, he had additional confidence to become a key contributor to a program that was just beginning to become a prominent contender in NCAA Division I men’s soccer.
“I got there in the middle of the building block,” Wiedt said. “I’d like to say I helped lay a bit more of the foundation. Jay and the coaching staff definitely helped push me and develop me. Fine-tuning some different parts of my game.”
Once he reached the pros, Wiedt continued to get thrown into the fire, where he made 20 appearances, and he scored his first professional goal for Loudoun during the shortened 2020 season.
Now in his third professional season, Wiedt’s become one of the Hounds’ most reliable defenders and leaders in appearances and minutes played.
“I didn’t want to just get a contract,” Wiedt said. “I wanted to get a starting position. I would do everything I could to soak in everything he (Lilley) had to say and implement that in my game.”
While Wiedt was brought in to fortify the back line, Russell Cicerone and Todd Wharton, previously teammates at Saint Louis FC, were both brought on board as proven commodities in the USL Championship who Lilley saw as guys who could be key pieces to a championship-caliber team.
In the match against NY Red Bulls II, Wiedt, Cicerone, and Wharton started for the Hounds, while Armstrong and Bartlett-Scott remained off the selection sheet. Ironically, each of the three former NPSL players who started were involved in the game’s three goals. Cicerone had an assist and Wiedt was on the end of NY Red Bulls II’s tally on an unfortunate own goal.
It was Wharton who had the game’s highlight goal, his first on the season and as a Riverhound.
While he typically sits deeper as a holding midfielder, Wharton took advantage of a shot opportunity after his teammate Albert Dikwa’s shot banged off the left post and the ball came right back to him.
The former University of Virginia product then hit a bending shot to the left of the keeper to give the Hounds a 1-0 lead.
Wharton, who typically registers very high passing accuracy, has played deeper in the midfield at times this year for Pittsburgh, and even on one occasion, Lilley put him on the back line when they were playing down a man in a 1-0 loss to Austin Bold FC.
“I want to help anyway I can,” Wharton added then shared his thoughts on taking on a leadership role as he’s become a veteran in the league. “Be a team first guy. Whether I am in the midfield or the backline. This league is pretty crazy. You can’t get too high. Or too low.”
The Richmond, VA, native was part of the Virginia Cavaliers’ NCAA Championship victory in his junior season of 2014, scoring 11 goals in 85 matches during his four years in Charlottesville.
It was in the NPSL, when he was part of the RVA FC squad that won the 2013 NPSL National Championship, Wharton found an even higher ceiling and standard to elevate his game.
“It was a lot of fun,” Wharton said. “We brought together some top players from UVA and VCU (Virginia Commonwealth). We had high-level players at Virginia colleges. Our team was so good that the training sessions were better than the games sometimes. That was a great time to stay sharp in the summer and come back – be fit. It was the most fit I was heading back to play another college season.”
Despite his accomplishments at UVA and experience with RVA FC, Wharton went undrafted in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, leading him to sign with Rio Grande Valley as a free agent. Prior to his two seasons in St. Louis, Wharton paid his pro soccer dues by logging in more than 70 appearances with Rio Grande Valley and Portland Timbers 2.
In 2020, with Saint Louis, Wharton appeared in all but one match, as SLFC qualified for the 2020 playoffs on the final day of the season and reached the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Now, the 27-year-old Wharton is in a spot where he can use his versatility, where he’s part of a midfield alongside a 23-year old upstart in Danny Griffin and the savvy veteran and USL Championship’s all-time assists leader, Kenardo Forbes.
“Kenny (Forbes) is really fun to play with,” Wharton said. “Danny Griffin is good at covering ground. It’s getting easier to play with those guys as the season progresses. We have about 20 games still to play this regular season. I am excited about what we can do.”
If Wiedt has helped provide a key cog in the back and Wharton is a steadying presence in the middle for the Hounds, it’s Cicerone who thus far in the 2021 season has answered Lilley’s call for more dynamic play at the top of the attack.
After 10 games, Cicerone is having his best start of his professional career, as he’s been the Hounds leading goal scorer with five.
The Michigan native has always had to push hard to make a name for himself.
“Nothing’s ever really come easy,” Cicerone said. “I went to (University of) Buffalo, a MAC (Midwestern Athletic Conference) school. I had a tremendous experience there. I always had to fight for everything I’ve gotten.”
As a collegiate player, Cicerone scored 42 goals and 22 assists in 71 games for the Bulls from 2013-16. After an excellent freshman season, Cicerone still felt like he needed something else to help take his game to another level.
In the summer of 2014, Cicerone joined on to be part of FC Buffalo’s NPSL squad.
“The environment they put us in, it was high-level training and definitely prepared me for the next college season, in which I went on to have an excellent sophomore season,” Cicerone said.
Reflecting on his summer with FC Buffalo, Cicerone enjoyed every moment.
“I had a great season,” Cicerone boasted. “I set the single season goal record there and was named to the All-NPSL Team. It was a great experience. It was awesome to play for FC Buffalo, they get a ton of fans. The owners make it a great environment. From my experience, the people of Buffalo love their soccer.”
“If you’re a young player looking for high-level playing experiences, that’s a place I would recommend going,” Cicerone added.
Coming out of college, Cicerone was drafted by the Portland Timbers, but then spent the next four seasons competing in the USL Championship, with Portland, FC Cincinnati, and the last two with Saint Louis FC.
With the versatility to play on the wing or in a central role, Cicerone scored five goals in each of the 2019 and 2020 seasons while totaling 49 appearances for Saint Louis. In Pittsburgh, it appears that the Motor City native has taken his game to an even higher gear and may have found a place where he can thrive on a championship-caliber contender.
“I’d been playing mostly as a winger for most clubs,” Cicerone stated. “Bob likes to switch formations. He’s asking a lot more of me, whether it’s to go through the middle, play it in the center of midfield or sometimes play as a winger. I’ve been able to do different things with my runs. Finding different ways to be dangerous.”
“I read the game pretty well, so I can see the weak spots of the defense, whether they’re dropping or keeping the ball in front of them, or if they’re going to step up, making the runs behind,” Cicerone said. “I can be dangerous in both of those types of ways.”
After a sluggish start, the Riverhounds SC are starting to look like a dangerous threat to challenge once again for supremacy in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference.
Lilley has said they’ll need every player on the roster to help them get to the finish line.
While he’s only made one appearance for Pittsburgh in 2021, Ezra Armstrong provides more depth at outside back and on the wing, while Casey Bartlett-Scott will be a center back option. Armstrong is just 22 years of age, and had his NPSL experience with Columbus FC prior to lower-division experiences in Denmark and Germany in 2019 and 2022. Bartlett-Scott got off to a late start with the club due to visa issues with getting back into the United States from his native England. The former Erie Commodore, who once played against the Riverhounds in an US Open Cup match in 2018, did finally make it to Pittsburgh, where he’s been with the club since mid-May.
“There are so many good young players out there,” Lilley said. “It’s really hard for us to scout during our season, but we do our best to keep up and stay on top of things. We have good relationships with coaches, but young players can only benefit from playing in lower division leagues. The NPSL is an excellent avenue to go.”
Lilley and his staff work tirelessly in the off season in staying in contact with college coaches and agents, while also watching a lot of film.
“There are a lot of avenues out there,” Lilley added. “We have to continue raising the bar here in the U.S. If we’re going to be a top country and produce top-level talent, we’re going to need players to have opportunities to play in more places where they can get better. We have to keep raising the standards.”
As the Hounds have raised their organizational standard for winning and elevated their success under Lilley in the last four years, Pittsburgh has now become a destination place for many aspiring professionals and those who got a head start on their careers playing for NPSL clubs.
“It’s been a very professional environment thus far,” Cicerone said. “There’s great chemistry here – and it’s a great environment to get better every day and to be one of the top teams in the USL (Championship).”
With a roster that boasts a handful of players and significant contributors who’ve benefited from playing in the NPSL, Lilley and many other high-level pro coaches are glad the NPSL has provided players like Russell Cicerone, Todd Wharton, and Shane Wiedt with the opportunities they needed in critical moments of their development.
Lilley, who has become a coaching icon at the second and third division level, wants them to keep coming his way.
“Lower division soccer is the lifeblood of soccer in this country.”
Photo Credit: Brent Durken/NPSL.com