Bob Lilley, the pragmatist, puts Pittsburgh Riverhounds' Cinderella Open Cup run in perspective

Bob Lilley leads his Pittsburgh Riverhounds into the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals at MLS-leading FC Cincinnati. A David-and-Goliath matchup? The 'Hounds have already beaten two other MLS teams with winning records, the New England Revolution (below) and Columbus Crew, in previous rounds. Photos: Andrew Katsampes/ISI Photos

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Long, draining bus trips to away matches are the stuff of legend in lower-division soccer, where the daily grind tends to be a bit more abrasive than in the top flight.

But the modern USL Championship requires a great deal more air travel than the old days, and not necessarily via the friendliest of skies. So Bob Lilley and his Pittsburgh Riverhounds are more than happy to be making the 290-mile journey to Cincinnati overland for Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal vs. MLS-leading FC Cincinnati.

“We’ll go on a bus – much easier,” Lilley explained to Soccer America in a one-on-one conversation last week. “You go straight to the hotel, you're not waiting for bags at the airport for an hour. For us, this will be one of the easier trips.

“We fly a lot in our league. Most of our trips are flights, but there's layovers, we're not always flying at the ideal times and there's costs associated in all of that. So this is a nice trip, four and a half hours up the road – Cincy is a piece of cake for us.”

That latter phrase doesn’t quite apply to the on-field component of this fixture, arguably the definitive David-and-Goliath matchup of this round. FCC is eight points clear atop the MLS Supporters’ Shield standings, has lost just once all season and are a perfect 9-0-0 at TQL Stadium, having added a rugged defensive solidity to the attack led by Lucho Acosta and Brandon Vazquez.

Even with the Riverhounds riding a nine-game unbeaten streak (7-0-2) across all competitions that’s powered them up to second place in their conference, they will be pronounced underdogs.

“We're going to have to be able to hang on to the ball at times. It's really hard to chase for extended periods of time,” said Lilley. “There has to be intent, an ability to hurt them as well, to keep them honest. So we're going to go play. I mean, we won't sit back. We'll try to get pressure when we can.

“Certainly, we know that we've got to be willing to send guys forward if we're looking to score goals, and hopefully we can continue to do a good job defending as a team. We are quite good collectively when we defend as a team, and we're tough to break down.”

That said, the ‘Hounds pushed Cincy to extra time when they met in last year’s USOC third round before falling 2-0. They showed impressive tenacity and resourcefulness to knock off the New England Revolution and Columbus Crew in previous rounds of the 2023 Open Cup. And in Lilley they are led by the most consistently successful coach in contemporary USL history.

With a career-winning percentage north of 66% across six different clubs dating back to 2001, he might just be the best U.S. or Canadian coach never to get a chance to show his quality in MLS. Don’t expect him to throw his own name in any rings, though.

“I don't really want to address that,” he said when asked about the topic. “I think it takes the focus off of the group and the team, the game. I'm happy here in Pittsburgh. Tuffy’s been great to let me come in and build this. He’s been very supportive in giving us the resources here to turn things around in Pittsburgh and it's just nice to see that the club's moving forward in an aggressive manner.”

That would be Tuffy Shallenberger, the local construction magnate who has steered the Riverhounds away from perennial instability since purchasing the club in 2013, bankrolling a new training facility and a youth academy system. Since Lilley’s arrival ahead of the 2018 campaign, Pittsburgh have made the USL playoffs every year, growing increasingly optimistic of connecting with a region already spoiled for professional sports.

“The front office have more staff and we're bringing more eyeballs to the team, fans in the stands, there's sponsorships – everything that we're doing, we're transitioning into a much bigger club than just the neighborhood team,” said Lilley. “Pittsburgh’s a big city and it's a competitive market that you've got to perform well, and you've got to continue to push the envelope when you got the Steelers and the Penguins and the Pirates.

“Everything [Shallenberger’s] put into it, to see the club having success, not just on the field but from a business standpoint and also trying to get into not just Pittsburgh, but we're starting to resonate throughout all of western Pennsylvania.”

As alluring as Cinderella cup runs can be for teams and their supporters – and Lilley calls the current one “galvanizing for the whole group” – he’s surprisingly pragmatic about their ephemeral nature compared to the week-to-week work of league play. Hence his desire to keep a balanced approach as the ‘Hounds juggle a hectic schedule.

“Our success in Pittsburgh is generally not going to be measured by if we can beat five or six MLS opponents on the way to an Open Cup,” said Lilley “I mean, the probability of that occurrence is very slim, especially in the modern day setup of how the Open Cup is run. Certainly there's encouragement from how Sacramento [Republic] did last year. But every year the measuring stick for us is trying to win a championship in USL. Every year there’s a champion in the USL; you're not going to have a USL winner of the Open Cup every year.”

He points to a cold mathematical reality shaped by MLS’s constant waves of expansion to 30 clubs and counting: A would-be Cinderella like Pittsburgh will generally have to beat four to six top-flight opponents to lift the Cup, with tougher starting XIs in the latter rounds.

“I think it's always going to be competitive in the round of 32, round of 16,” he noted. “You'll continue to see upsets because I think MLS teams, with their schedules and playing more games and more competitions, they'll always use a lot of their roster.

“The rare feats will be at this stage – quarterfinals, semifinals, finals. That's the real trick, is can you win those biggest games where you are going to start to see more regulars and a stronger focus? With five games to go, teams aren't looking at the trophy so much. you get down to the late stages, those MLS teams are saying OK, three more wins in the cup, that's a trophy for the trophy case.”

Given both his track record of success and the way he’s been chronically overlooked when it comes to MLS coaching vacancies, Lilley would seem to be a major beneficiary of a promotion/relegation system. Even there, though, his life experiences have made him aware of the full complexities of the debate.

“When you look at the investment that owners put into clubs, they are going to protect that. Everyone wants promotion, nobody wants relegation, right? So that's one of the challenges. I think that's the hurdle that we have to overcome,” he said. “At some point, MLS can’t expand forever, but there are some really big cities in our league.

“Infrastructure sometimes for certain teams may be an issue, but if they can do it in other countries, I mean, the U.S. is the land of infrastructure. So I'm sure those things can be solved. I wouldn't say I'm a proponent or up on my soapbox, but I can see value in that. But I also understand that as much as many people may want it or see it as the right thing to do, it's a little bit more complicated. When you're holding the best seat at the table. you're not always willing to sit at the secondary table.”

Whatever happens at the top tier, Lilley cherishes the daily work of guiding and improving players, preparing them to rise through the ranks and take their talents to bigger stages. He sounds content to plug away in Pittsburgh, helping the Riverhounds grow for the long term – though another Cupset or two wouldn’t hurt.

“Hopefully,” he said, “we can we can keep the dream alive going into Cincinnati and see if we can get further down the road in the Cup.”

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