In February, following extensive interviews with local area coaches and representatives from various clubs and the General Manager of Columbus Crew’s Academy, Dennis Sanchez, we reported here on Pittsburgh Soccer Report that the Columbus Crew Academy was working on ways to formerly develop player identification centers in Western Pennsylvania.
Last week, official word came from the Riverhounds Developmental Academy (RDA), announcing a formal partnership with the Crew’s Academy.
“Columbus Crew SC is excited to commence our partnership with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Development Academy,” Crew SC Academy General Manager Dennis Sanchez said through a statement.
“Their organization’s vision for player development coupled with their investments have laid the foundation for success in this area. Joining the Riverhounds allows us to collaboratively support each other and provide opportunities for players to further extend their development.”
According to Thursday’s announcement, this partnership will see the establishment of identification-based training centers, facilitated by the Riverhounds in the Western Pennsylvania market, which will aim to put select local players into an environment in which they can regularly compete in front of Crew SC Academy technical staff.
As an extension of one of Major League Soccer’s original pro soccer franchises, the Crew SC Academy is a charter member of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Supported by the U.S. National Teams, it is the top level of competition in the country for youth soccer players. At the pro level, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, a second division team in United Soccer League, are currently in the second year of an affiliation with Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew SC.
According to this announcement, these training centers will operate during several intervals throughout the year, helping the Crew SC Academy identify and monitor the development of Academy male prospects all within the Pittsburgh market.
“One of the main goals of our relationship with Crew SC Academy is to open local access to players in Western Pennsylvania who aspire to play at the highest levels,” said Jason Kutney, Riverhounds Sporting Director. “But within a structured framework that is both healthy for the families and effective for the growth of the game. This will help Crew SC Academy in identifying talent, all while better serving the local youth players and coaches.”
BOYS TO MEN
Sanchez also reiterated in his interview in February, that this is strictly a partnership focused on boys players as the Crew’s youth academy’s purpose is to provide identification and develop a feeder program to develop homegrown players and create technical training centers from the youth level all the way up to Major League Soccer (MLS) level.
While the RDA has had considerable success in its first decade with producing a strong female program, it has admittedly been a little slower to build stronger pool of boys players from our region specifically within its set-up that includes both training and travel teams.
With this partnership with the Crew, the RDA is hoping that the momentum in this area will swing upward. Western PA has only occasionally produced players that are playing at the highest levels of the game, but both Sanchez and Kutney believe that the Pittsburgh region provides an untapped market with tons of potential.
(For the record: Beaver’s Josh Turnley , who attended Georgetown and now plays for LA Galaxy/LA Galaxy II, is the only current player from the region who has appeared for a Major League Soccer team this season)
“Not all local players can travel hundreds of miles for an identification opportunity on a weeknight. Not all players can afford to compete for elite teams in the area. Too often, those players slip through the cracks,” Kutney explained. “As part of this effort, we are attempting to create an efficient system that can work for more players, not less. It is a large undertaking but it can produce many positive results and this is a step in that direction.”
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME
While these training centers in Pittsburgh have not been formally identified in the initial announcement, or from talking with Kutney this week as he didn’t want to dive too deep into all details of upcoming investments, but we do know where Sanchez pointed out in his statement where the RDA have “made investments that have laid the foundation.”
“We are in the process of expanding facilities in the east location (in Connellsville) and, as you know, the complex being constructed in Coraopolis will offer resources that our club will be able to utilize for a host of programming. Beyond this, we are adding full-time staffing to focus upon the necessary growth in relationships/partnerships to facilitate a platform that extends benefits to players beyond just those in the RDA.
On the facility Kutney referenced in Coraopolis, a newly formed non-profit called “Friends of Professional Soccer in Pittsburgh” has partnered with Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County to complete a soccer complex alongside the Montour Trail on 78 acres of land in Western Allegheny County.
The group, which is a 501-c-3 non-profit, has an appointed Board of Directors, and is headed by Riverhounds owner Tuffy Shallenberger, as a spokesman from Allegheny County Economic Development Department, Robert Hurley told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in May 2016, that the development and management deal reached between the parties will give some usage rights to the recreational teams affiliated with the Riverhounds, while they are still were determining the complex’s availability to the public.
In a discussion with Academy Director Scott Gibson prior to the official announcement on the Crew partnership, he mentioned this facility could be ready for use as early as September.
“Yes, we are hoping for Fall,” said Gibson. “It’s going to be a technical training facility that we’ve been lacking and have aspired to have here in Pittsburgh for some time. It will provide something that will be an ideal training site for all teams in our area from the youth level all the way to the pro team.”
WHERE WILL PLAYERS COME FROM?
Although this news of the Crew-Hounds Academy partnership was announced on Thursday, the involvement and participation from all of the existing area clubs and organizations in the Pittsburgh area (i.e.: Century United, Arsenal, Beadling, Northern Steel, etc.) in identifying top players was not directly mentioned.
In following up with Kutney on this topic, he responded in more detail this week.
“The training centers will involve players from within, and outside of, the RDA,” Kutney said. “This balance, and the overall process of player identification, will be unveiled in the near future. There are ongoing efforts to collaborate with clubs in the area, as this is an important step forward for the game.”
Sanchez acknowledged in February that he was hoping that all organizations in the Pittsburgh area would work together to identify top players.
“When we think about America, and how we can make the game grow. If we were only to align with one club we’d be doing ourselves a disservice — a detriment to Pittsburgh and to Columbus,” Sanchez said at the time. “Our mentality is to work with everyone together — under the same umbrella. As long as we put the individual needs of the players first, we can make great strides.”
The consensus and understanding with all of these clubs would be that there would be cooperation to identify the top players, and ensure that they would be involved in the process at the Crew Academy-based training centers in the Pittsburgh region.
“There are quality players all over the place in this area, and in this country for that matter. It is a real challenge to identify those special players based upon shear size of territory, but many other factors affect this as well,” Kutney said.
On Wednesday, the Hounds announced that two members from its boys side, Austin Rocke of the 02 Boys and Cameron Hernandez of the 05 Boys, have officially signed with Columbus Crew SC Academy for the 2017-18 US Development Academy season.
Rocke and Hernandez are the first two players from the Hounds youth system to have taken steps to secure spots on the US Development Academy rosters for its MLS affiliate.
With making these commitments, significant changes will be coming for each young player and their respective families, as they’ve chosen two different paths offered by this partnership.
Rocke, 15, taking advantage of the co-development platform brokered between RDA and Crew SC Academy, will remain with RDA for a portion of his annual training load while earning a spot on the roster as a full-time development academy player with Crew SC Academy. This move will strike a healthy balance for the player and family, limiting weekly travel between Pittsburgh and Columbus while maintaining an active relationship with both clubs through his high school years.
Hernandez, 12, originally joined RDA when he was 3 years old as a member of its Futures Academy. Now, the Hernandez family will move from Pittsburgh to live in Columbus on a full-time basis, offering Cameron total access to Crew SC Academy training and resources. Recently, the young midfielder participated on the Crew SC Academy Under-12 side at the MLS Generation Adidas Cup in Dallas.
AN ALLIANCE FROM YOUTH TO PROS
With partnerships at both the academy, and professional levels, the Hounds and Crew are solidifying their continuing alliance. The current affiliation between the professional clubs was established as a two-year arrangement in 2016. There is no official word that the two will continue this affiliation beyond this season.
Riverhounds head coach Dave Brandt spoke earlier in the year about having spent time in the off season months with Columbus Crew’s coaching staff and Sporting Director/Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, to build on the relationship, have a greater understanding of what the Crew are doing in training and tactically.
Thus far this season, the Hounds brought in Crew players on loan, primarily Marshall Hollingsworth, Abuchi Obinwa, Ben Swanson (prior to season ending injury), Lalas Abubaker and Conor Maloney training and playing in games. For the second consecutive season, Hollingsworth has been the players who’s played extensively in Pittsburgh, while the others have played sporadically.
The Hounds hope that the foundation being established with the Crew, will provide the building blocks to provide more formal pathways to the highest levels of soccer for local players, and maybe someday, they can produce enough players that can feed into their own pro team.
For now, that reality remains a number of years away.
And, for now, the Hounds can showcase the Crew’s young players with their first cracks at playing at the pro level, as they can gain valuable playing time and in-game experience and build match fitness.
As both sides appear eager to see this relationship grow in the coming years, it will also be very interesting to watch how the pro team in Pittsburgh, with limited resources, evolves as the Crew become more and more involved in the region.
The Hounds continue to operate as an independent USL franchise, but Brandt has been working without a personnel director or general manager. Recently, there have been other organizations in USL (Reno 1868 with San Jose Earthquakes and El Paso with Houston Dynamo) that have ‘hybrid” arrangements where the local clubs manage day-to-day operations, but the MLS partners handle the oversight of the on-the-field management, player scouting and development.
While it may seem unlikely that this will happen here in Pittsburgh, this remains an intriguing option and could be a fruitful arrangement if the Riverhounds seek more support as the professional soccer landscape continues to grow and expand by leaps and bounds.
On the other side of the equation, the Crew would also have to be fully invested, as Houston and San Jose are with their USL partner franchises.
The ‘hybrid’ set-up would allow the Pittsburgh front office with a chance to focus and pump in its resources to manage the day-to-day and business side of operations, while the team’s coaching staff would be working even more closely and in-line with the MLS organization, which could potentially take the lead in all soccer operations including player acquisition, technical training — and common tactical approaches.
Still, first things first, as the RDA and Crew are taking small steps in the coming months.
Over the course of this past year, RDA and other local clubs have sent various groups of players to Columbus for training opportunities while also hosting Sanchez in Pittsburgh for further player evaluations.
“For now, the development and launch of the training centers is our focus,” Kutney said.
“We are working on developing partnerships at the grassroots level to support the overall initiative. There are more significant plans for the longer term, but we must be pragmatic in walking before we run.”
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