I spent some time at Highmark Stadium on Wednesday, in addition to being there for National Signing Day festivities, even though the preseason hasn’t officially begun, I was originally hoping to catch a player or two. But, there were no sessions or any of the pro players around (until Kevin Kerr came later for the National Signing Day festivities).
Still, I managed to catch up on some things with the club as they prepare for the season ahead.
ARENA, HULINGS NOT RETURNING
You could make a strong case that Anthony Arena was the Riverhounds’ top defensive player the past two seasons.
The 25-year old former Houston Dynamo and Wake Forest graduate sent this tweet on Wednesday, essentially announcing that he will not be playing soccer this year. Riverhounds officials that I spoke with said that he has indeed moved on, securing a job in the New York City area where he had moved.
Arena’s steady presence in the middle will be missed, as he played 16 games for the Hounds while on loan from the Houston Dynamo in 2014, earning the team’s Defensive Player of the Year honors. Then last year under contract with the Riverhounds, Arena played in 24 of the team’s 28 league games, scoring two goals and anchoring a defense that showed steady improvement as the season went along. In the Hounds push to earn a spot in the USL playoffs in 2015, Arena and the back line were in top form with a big shutout win at Louisville, and surrendering only four goals in the final five games.
On a bit of a side note, I was really happy have Arena, along with two other players, as they were gracious enough to make multiple visits to Children’s Hospital, with little fanfare, to hang out with a patient at who was a big soccer fan while he was going through a tough time.
Arena and a couple other teammates (Fejiro Okiomah and Mike Green) were more than happy to oblige when Children’s staff reached out to the Riverhounds.
The patient could not have been more excited to to make new friends with a few pro soccer players.
Also, I had received word yesterday that Ryan Hulings will also not be returning to the fold.
After playing for the Hounds PDL team in 2014, Hulings found a spot on the pro team as the team’s third goalkeeper last season. A pair of injuries to Ryan Thompson and Calle Brown forced Hulings into the spotlight, and he was the winning goalkeeper in some of the biggest and most memorable wins in the 2015 season.
Hulings posted a shutout in the Hounds dramatic 1-0 win over Tampa Bay Rowdies in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at Highmark Stadium on May 17. He was also the goalkeeper of record in Pittsburgh’s epic “Miracle on the Mon” come-from-behind 6-5 win over Harrisburg.
You can keep track with the latest updates to the team’s roster on Pittsburgh Soccer Report’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds page.
Team officials hinted that in addition to the current roster make-up that includes 13 returning and newly signed players, the Hounds hope to reach a total of 20 players signed for their roster. This will not include additions from the team’s affiliation with the Columbus Crew.
The two losses of Arena and Hulings suddenly leave a bit of a void in terms of the team’s back line. Returning will be long-time Riverhounds Sterling Flunder, but the Hounds have lost at least two of their starters from 2015 in Arena and Willie Hunt, who anchored the team’s back line. The signing of Karsten Smith is a signal that he could likely catapult into one of the starting center back spots. It’s likely that the remaining signings will likely be shoring up the back line.
USL MVP / FORMER HOUND FONDY LEAVES LOUISVILLE CITY
In a bit of a surprise this week, as reported by Louisville Courier-Journal, former Riverhounds forward, and last year’s USL MVP and Golden Boot winner, Matt Fondy, will be moving on to NASL’s Jacksonville Armada.
This makes things interesting and adds another twist in the battle between the second division NASL and third division USL, which is affiliated with Major League Soccer. While the NASL still holds second division status, most of its teams didn’t fare as well last season against USL teams in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. But seeing one of their teams buy out the contract of the USL’s reigning MVP, shows that NASL are desperate to hold on to second division status.
ON THE BUSINESS SIDE
The Riverhounds are operating without a regular, full-time president, as team owner Tuffy Shallenberger remains in the interim role as the team’s president.
While the coaching staff remains intact, new to the team’s administrative staff is Jodi Witte, who is the team’s Director of Sales – Corporate Partnerships. Witte comes to the Riverhounds from the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Department/IMG and has also worked in numerous roles in sponsorship procurement in North Carolina.
Witte shared that the team has brought back every sponsor from the 2015 campaign, giving the Hounds 100% retention rate with their existing corporate partners. This is a good sign as the team enters its second full pro season after being in bankruptcy.
The team still has their share of obstacles and economic limitations, but there remains a lot of optimism.
Among the challenges that Witte acknowledged that she and the Hounds have for 2016 — will be filling Highmark Stadium for every home game.
The USL schedule was a bit kinder to the Hounds this season, as there will not be any March home games nor will there be any daytime kickoffs (all 7 p.m.).
Without giving too much away, it appears the Riverhounds will be embarking on developing more cross-marketing ventures and promotions that will be aimed at drawing non-traditional and new fans to Highmark Stadium.
There will likely be an announcement (later in Feb or early March) with a full-promotional schedule in the coming weeks. There are some fun promotional nights on a scale that we have not really seen before.
It will be interesting to see how it goes.