Bob Lilley: Eagle-Eyed Architect of the Pittsburgh Miracle

Coach Bob Lilley is one of the most-respected names in the North American lower leagues – and the no-frills veteran has his Pittsburgh Riverhounds hitting the high notes in the 2023 U.S. Open Cup.
By: Jonah Fontela

There’s not a thing flashy about Bob Lilley.

He’s there on the touchline in an oversized sweatshirt and track bottoms, baseball cap pulled down low over his brow. Behind his horn-rimmed glasses are the keenest of eyes – taking in the whole of the game down to its subatomic details.

“I try not ever to get too high or too low,” said the 57-year-old Lilley, oozing calm even in the midst of an historic run for his second-division Pittsburgh Riverhounds, who’ve beaten two teams from Major League Soccer to reach the Open Cup Quarterfinals. “I’ve been around a while and I try to be steady.”

It’s that steadiness, allied to a deep knowledge of the unique ecosystem of North America’s lower leagues, that have seen the former George Mason University midfielder become an American coaching icon. When passions bubble over in a game, or out at training, you might see Lilley, the longest-tenured coach in USL history, strike one of his signature poses: Arms wide, pleading, head tilted in mild dismay.

Practical Matters & a Magical Run

Lilley is a man ruled by practical impulses.

He allows himself only brief moments to ponder the overall meaning of his Riverhounds’ magical Cup run. To talk about how his players, toiling most of their careers away from large-scale public consideration, deserve a moment to shine. But mostly Coach Bob, as he’s known around the club, is concerned with the nuts-and-bolts reality of plotting the best possible route to victory.

Whether against the New England Revolution on the road in Foxborough or at home – in front of a record crowd up against the Columbus Crew in the Round of 16 — Lilley’s twice now found the key to unlock unlikely victory against heavily-favored clubs from the country’s top flight.

“You can’t just get conservative,” said Lilley, highlighting some of the details that saw his side become the first lower-league team in the Open Cup’s long history to earn two straight shutouts over MLS opposition. “If you’re not running forward and you’re just trying to steal something off the other team, you’re going to have to be very lucky to get anything.

The Riverhounds have a chance to beat a third MLS team in the 2023 Open Cup -- in the Quarterfinal in Cincinnati

“You’re asking for trouble like that,” said the coach, happy to talk ahead of the next massive test. It’s a Quarterfinal on the road against MLS’ eastern conference leaders FC Cincinnati. 

Luck is too vague a notion for the studious coach, who likes to take you under the hood where he does the tinkering. In Lilley World, games are won and lost in the preparation – on the training pitch and in the video-review room. And when the stars align to allow it, like this year, history’s made there too.

In both wins, over the Revs and the Crew, these strivers from Pittsburgh – who sit in a four-way tie for second-place in the USL Championship – won with the aid of first-half goals. And a 90+-minute willingness to engage the opponent all over the field.

The Hounds celebrate a famous night – a second win over an MLS side (the Columbus Crew) in the 2023 Open Cup

Lilley’s teams are hard. They’re full of grit and a willingness to get right up into your face – no matter who you are. “Keeping [opposing] teams honest” is stressed. It has been all the way back to the coach’s rookie season with the Hershey Wildcats in 1997, and with the USL iterations of the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps – then again at the Detroit Ignition and Rochester Rhinos.

He took it all with him when he signed on in 2018 with Pittsburgh – where he’s guided the team to the playoffs every season.

Forging Pittsburgh in the Lilley Mold

The 2023 Riverhounds are well suited to the underdog role in Cup competition.  

“Some of these MLS teams, if you give them space, and with the caliber of players they have, can really hurt you,” said Lilley, who admits it doesn’t always “have to be pretty” out there. 

“One way to take the forwards out of the rhythm is make them have to chase back and defend a little – if they don’t, you’ll get chances,” he added. “We play the game with a positive mindset. We get our wing-backs up. You’ve got to land some blows, you know?”

Lilley got the better of American soccer legend Bruce Arena in the Round of 32

Lilley’s players love him.

Danny Griffin, scorer of the winner against the Revolution and a tireless engine for the Hounds, oozes a deep affection for his boss.

“He’s so respected in the game,” said the 24-year-old midfielder, who Lilley describes as a “problem solver” who “plays much bigger” than his 5foot8/155lb frame. “Coach Bob believes in you, that you can do things you weren’t sure about. And you know just how much he wants it.”

What Lilley wants, most of all, is to win. And he’s done it everywhere he’s been.

His overall win % is 67 over 22 years of professional coaching. Those numbers haven’t gone unnoticed in Major League Soccer’s rarefied air. He’s interviewed with several clubs, including, coincidentally, the New England Revolution and Columbus Crew.

But Lilley’s not the kind to go tilting at windmills. In his lifelong hunt of wins – and a way of playing the game that stands the test of time – he’s curiously devoid of ego.

Lilley is known as an able guide for younger players

“My heart and mind are here,” said the coach of his decision to stay in Pittsburgh in 2021 when his contract was up.

One of the only times he lets himself be expansive, to see the bigger possibilities alive in the game and the Cup, is when he talks about what this run might mean to the Riverhounds as an organization. Out there on what he calls “the fringes of Pittsburgh’s sporting scene” since 1999, the club – and its majestic Highmark stadium – is suddenly bathed in attention.

Pittsburgh in the Spotlight

“It’s important for the club,” he said after the win at home against the Crew – another “big night” like he understatedly called the one in New England. “To pack the house. To have an MLS team here. To introduce the game to more people. There was a real energy in the building.

“Soccer here in Pittsburgh deserves to be…connected to the soccer nation as a whole,” Lilley said with a signature shrug. “That’s why I’m excited about it [this Open Cup run].”

Lilley knows that the road to a second-tier team winning the Open Cup is a herculean task.

Smaller rosters, far less money than the MLS juggernauts, and punishing travel schedules are just a few of the reasons why no one has done it since his former club, the Rochester Rhinos, in 1999. But USL league mates Sacramento Republic’s run to last year’s Final is a reason for hope.

The Hounds (and Birmingham’s Legion) surviving to this year’s Quarterfinal stage is another.

“The odds of winning the Cup, for a second-division team, are astronomical,” Lilley said, tempering expectations but with a gleam in his eye as he plots the angles. “I’m confident that my guys can step up when needed. This [run] is something they all want to be a part of.”

He added with a nod: “It’s not likely we’ll be able to beat five MLS teams, which is probably what we’d need to have happen…”  

The but is implied.

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.