Year in Review: Looking Back at the Hounds' Best of 2021
The top goals, plays, players and games from an entertaining season of Hounds soccer
Having already looked back on the entirety of the 2021 season, it's time to pick out the moments, players and plays that made it a memorable year for the Hounds.
Just as we did at midseason, our postseason "awards" will highlight the peak performances that helped the club to its second-highest win total in team history. While a few of these winners held their spot from the first 16 games, the second half of the season was chock full of big plays and thrilling games in a loaded Atlantic Division.
The Hounds did clinch their fourth consecutive playoff berth in 2021, and the night of that clinching gives us a fitting place to start as we look back:
Best Save - Danny Vitiello, Oct. 10 vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies
A big part of Vitiello's Golden Glove-winning 2020 season was a pair of penalty kick saves that established him as a proficient stopper of spot kicks.
In 2021, however, Vitiello only faced four penalty kicks in his 27 starts. He was beaten by the first three, but the save he got couldn't have come at a better time.
With the Hounds holding a 1-0 lead in a match where a win over the division-leading Rowdies would secure a postseason spot, Vitiello was put to the test by Tampa Bay's Leo Fernandes. The Hounds keeper stood his ground before diving low and to his left, stopping the left-footed shot and watching as a pressured rebound attempt sailed high.
The save reignited a tense Highmark Stadium crowd, and the Hounds would go on to claim a 2-0 win and book their playoff spot.
Best Assist - Alex Dixon, May 28 at New York Red Bulls II
It happened in just the fourth game of the year, but it was a sign of what was to come from Dixon, who finished as the team's top playmaker with nine assists.
On an unusually cold spring night in New Jersey, Dixon linked up in the rain with Russell Cicerone by playing a no-look backheel pass to create the final goal of a 3-0 win, the Hounds' first victory of the season.
While the Hounds had plenty of good ball movement on the way to scoring 52 goals this season, the anticipation and creativity shown by Dixon put this assist at the top of the heap.
Best Goal - Alex Dixon, Sept. 25 vs. Charleston Battery
Dixon also gets the nod for the year's top goal for a thumping volley that ended the scoring in a 3-3 draw at Highmark Stadium - the only Hounds game of the year to feature six goals.
Making the goal even more special was the assist from Tommy Williamson, an overhead kick that easily could have been the "Best Assist" winner. The setup put the ball right in the path of Dixon, who drilled his shot into the net while absorbing contact from the Battery defense.
As it turned out, the defender took the worst of the collision while Dixon raced back in celebration, and the goal secured both a draw for the Hounds and the No. 3 spot on that night's top 10 plays on ESPN's SportsCenter.
Best Defensive Player - Danny Vitiello
This was one of the harder categories to select, as center backs Shane Wiedt and Mekeil Williams both had mostly steady seasons, Dani Rovira was a critical utility man in multiple positions, and Jelani Peters came on strong in the second half after his return from a July international debut with Trinidad & Tobago at the Gold Cup.
But when it came down to crunch time, the one player who never left the field was the man in the No. 1 goalkeeper shirt for the Hounds.
Vitiello started the final eight games for the team and 27 of 32 overall for the Hounds, as he posted his second straight season with a goals-against average of under one - 0.96. His 15 wins in net were the second-most in a season in team history, and three of his nine clean sheets came in the month of October.
Best Offensive Player - Russell Cicerone
We gave the midseason award in this category to Cicerone after a team-leading seven goals at the midway point. All he did from there was raise the production in the second half even more.
Cicerone had the finishing touch all season for the Hounds, scoring a career-best 16 goals, which goes down as the third-best regular season in Hounds history. His biggest match came Aug. 22 against Atlanta United 2, when the fifth-year pro scored his first professional hat trick in a 4-1 win.
In addition to his goal scoring, Cicerone finished second on the team with eight assists - also a career best - and he proved to be quite durable by appearing in every match and starting 28 of the 32. That year-long excellence made Cicerone a deserving winner of the Steel Army Player of the Year award, a selection we won't dispute, even if we went a different direction....
Team MVP - Danny Griffin
He doesn't have the scoring numbers of a Dixon or Cicerone, nor does he come with the same flash of a multiple-time All-USL player like Kenardo Forbes, but when the comes to the "value" in MVP, Griffin had a season that made life simpler for so many of the players around him.
The hard-working second-year pro took over the holding midfield role that in previous seasons under Bob Lilley was usually filled by Forbes or the since-departed Thomas Vancaeyezeele, and Griffin made that job his own, playing all but 12 minutes of the season. The 12 he missed? That was simply to protect him having been booked and with the team safely ahead 3-1.
Numbers spell out the workload Griffin took on. With 65 tackles (second on team), 155 duels won (most), 1,611 passes (most, and completed at an 80 percent clip, fourth-best on the team) and 22 clearances, Griffin was everywhere, and he even added two goals and an assist when he got himself forward.
But even outside the numbers, Griffin's value was in how he was able to provide cover and protection for an entirely new back line in 2021, and how his command of the holding role allowed Forbes to get forward more often and get his creativity involved with the attack.
Because of the sheer amount of ground he covered each match, it's quite possible that he - not Forbes or Cicerone - would have been the one player who couldn't have been replaced had he missed any time, and for that reason, he gets our MVP nod.
Game of the Year - Oct. 10 at Highmark Stadium; Riverhounds SC 2, Tampa Bay Rowdies 0
Already mentioned as the game that featured our Save of the Year, the playoff-clinching victory over the eventual Atlantic Division winners was a perfect example of this team's potential when they were clicking on all cylinders.
The match started out begin played tightly, which was to be expected with two contenders who played to a 0-0 draw in their previous meeting. Former Hounds striker Steevan Dos Santos nearly put the visitors ahead with a header that went off the crossbar but stayed out after being cleared away by Wiedt, but it was the Hounds to took a halftime lead when Williamson poached a goal by being in perfect position to cash in a misplayed ball by the Rowdies' Jordan Scarlett.
The second half began with Vitiello's penalty save after he was whistled for taking down Dos Santos in the box, and in the 72nd minute, Dixon got the best of all-USL defender Forrest Lasso to draw a penalty for the Hounds, which Cicerone converted for the 2-0 lead.
Take a look back at the highlights from that match to conclude our run through the Best of 2021.
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