If you are like me, and you have watched the Pittsburgh Riverhounds closely in the past half decade or so, you’ll probably equate this experience as watching a roller coaster ride.
Pittsburgh’s pro soccer team has had four coaches in the past four years, two seasons reaching the USL playoffs with Quarterfinal round exits, and another two seasons which saw the bottom fall out despite fairly lofty expectations. Throw in a bankruptcy filing primarily due to cost overruns from Highmark Stadium and an ownership change — along with slightly declining attendance — and it’s made for some turbulent and unpredictable times for the small, but faithful soccer fan base in Western Pennsylvania. Despite some remarkable moments and performances scattered during the course of this time, the franchise has clearly underachieved.
Now, here we are at the start of the 2017 season, and the Riverhounds have a chance to start over — once again.
The biggest questions about this franchise are two-fold — can they build a consistent winner and can they get more fans in what is a great sports town to rally behind this team and embrace the world’s most popular sport in larger numbers?
In this season preview feature — I’ll stay “on the field” — and mostly tackle the first question.
Team owner Tuffy Shallenberger has his man, Dave Brandt, a head coach that’s put his imprint all over this team in the off-season.
The successful former college coach at Navy and Messiah College got a crash course in coaching in the pro ranks in 2016 — coming to Pittsburgh in late May after a poor start under USL Hall of Fame coach Mark Steffens prompted Shallenberger to make a change. Even with a new coach, the Hounds never recovered and mired through a difficult 2016 campaign in which the team didn’t win a single game against an opponent with a winning record.
When the off-season began, Brandt went to work to assemble a roster that would fit what he wanted. Eager to get started early, Brandt also began the team’s preseason with 23 players signed in mid-January. He has added a few more players since, and picked up a few more players on loan from Major League Soccer affiliate Columbus Crew.
Two months after preseason began, after strong performances in scrimmages against college sides, book-ended by matches versus pro teams that included a draw at North Carlolina FC (NASL) and friendlies against rivals Rochester Rhinos (5-1 loss in indoors, extended play game) and affiliate Columbus Crew (3-2 loss on Tuesday), the Hounds are primed to take the field in the highly anticipated season opener on Saturday against the defending USL Champions New York Red Bulls II.
While the Hounds are starting over, they’re going to do so with some familiar faces.
Brandt has brought back a core group of returning players that include Kevin Kerr (5th season in Pittsburgh), Corey Hertzog (2nd season after leading team with 13 goals in 2016), Mike Green (longest tenured Hound), Danny Earls (back for his fourth season in Pittsburgh, but will sit out early part of season while serving suspension), Stephen Okai, 2016 mid-season pick-ups Ryan Adeleye and Chevaughn Walsh and the Thompson brothers, Jack Thompson and Nick Thompson.
The Riverhounds also enter the second year of affiliation with the Crew. While the teams and cities share black and gold primary colors, the Hounds and Crew continued to develop a stronger relationship in the off-season, beyond simply loaning players back and forth.
Brandt even said that he spent time with Gregg Berhalter and the Crew staff. Last month, Pittsburgh Soccer Report featured Crew Academy’s growth into our region at the youth level, developing relationships not only with the Riverhounds Development Academy, but a multitude of clubs and programs
It will be very interesting to see how this relationship continues to develop in the coming year or so.
As for the players on loan from Columbus, Ben Swanson, Marshall Hollingsworth and Cristian Martinez will return to Pittsburgh as Berhalter believes that this will be the best place for each to continue to develop and get quality minutes. A fourth player, Abuchi Obinwa, a young midfielder, will also likely be added to the Hounds roster soon, as he played with Pittsburgh in the team’s closed friendly in Ohio on Tuesday.
There are a lot of new players that were signed in the off-season — a combination that includes three new international players and a handful of recent college and MSL SuperDraft selections.
Through the course of the preseason, I did my best to keep up with all of the roster updates/movement.
For complete roster and capsules on each player clicking here to read POSITION-BY-POSITION LOOK AT UPDATED RIVERHOUNDS ROSTER.
The reality here is — the Hounds are a team undergoing a transition and the competition in the USL’s Eastern Conference will be no walk in the park. It’s been clear through preseason, in interviews and in watching the team play, that the players have bought into Brandt’s system and have developed team cohesion and unity early on, but will that be enough?
Do they have enough talent and the right pieces in place to be a contender?
As the conference expands to 15 teams and adds two quality teams that left NASL (Ottawa and Tampa Bay) to replace a pair that were floundering (FC Montreal and Wilmington). Another team added back to the Eastern Conference will be St. Louis FC that includes former Hounds striker Jose Angulo and coached by Preki, who led Sacramento to a USL title in 2014. Pittsburgh finished 13th out of 14 teams last season, and will need to finish in eighth place or higher this season to qualify for the playoffs and show that progress is being made.
We’ll know early on where they stand — as they take on two quality opponents right away at home. The opener will be against the defending champions NYRBII who handily beat the Hounds twice last year, and then FC Cincinnati team that also defeated Pittsburgh twice and drew another, comes to Highmark Stadium on April 1.
Brandt — who was a big advocate of having high pressing teams in his college years, has admitted that he’s evolved as a coach in the past year. He talked to me in the preseason about his team being a counter-attacking unit, that will employ some variations of a 4-4-2 formation or a 4-2-2-2. My interpretation is that Brandt is not discounting possession, but he’s preparing to make life difficult for the opposition by having a team that will be opportunistic, focused and will counter efficiently.
With a combination of proven, veteran scorers in Hertzog and Kerr and any one of the younger players or newcomers like Key Banjo, Kenroy Howell, Devaughn Elliott, John Manga and Chevaughn Walsh, Brandt is counting on this combination of forwards and attacking midfielders to be dangerous in the final third, and have the ability to strike quickly.
One of the biggest questions heading into the season opener will be with the team’s new back line and goalkeepers.
Last year the defense was anchored by the likes of Sergio Campbell, Willie Hunt and Adeleye, and could never find steady play from the outside backs. Philadelphia Union 2016 SuperDraft selection Taylor Washington was signed after playing 29 games for Bethlehem Steel FC a year ago to take one of the outside back spots, and the Hounds also signed veteran Rich Balcher (played with Ottawa last season) to contribute as an outside back too. Jamal Jack, who played in El Salvador last season, and at 29, is now the team’s oldest player, appears to be the partner at center back with Adeleye. The Thompson brothers have each seen time working with the back line during the preseason as well, and can provide depth. There’s also a chance that when Earls returns, the left-footed veteran with terrific service ability, could slide into an outside back spot, especially if Brandt is comfortable with his defensive midfield depth that includes Green, Okai, Swanson, Victor Souto and the well-traveled Bryan Arguez.
With a rigorous 32-game schedule that stretches to mid-October, it will be a grind and the bar for reaching the playoffs will likely be set around 45 to 48 points, and at least 10 to 12 wins will have to be what the Hounds will need to get to. Winning a third of their games doesn’t seem that impressive, but for a team that won only six a year ago, would be a reasonable goal.
Brandt will tell you that he’s focused on one practice at a time — and won’t be looking too far ahead.
His vision for the 2017 Pittsburgh Riverhounds is pretty clear.
“It’s going to be a coherent effort and team that’s on one page, and makes sense,” said Brandt.
“We’ll have a big emphasis on defensive structure and counter attacking to get behind the defense, which is a big change for me — an evolution for me.”
“It should be pretty exciting.”
Pittsburgh Soccer Report will be there every step of the way this season.
Our Riverhounds 2017 coverage will include:
- Breaking Down the Hounds – pregame feature that provides a unique look at each game and more on the opponents
- Game Day Coverage — we’ll be on site of all home games and occasional road games — occasionally filing a traditional “game story”
- Post-game “What We Learned” feature as Pittsburgh Soccer Report’s John Krysinsky breaks down each game of the season
- #PghSoccer Series video features in partnership with Nick Milliron, capturing some of the best highlights, interviews and sounds of the season.
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