When you look around the professional sports landscape in the United States it’s hard to find many athletes who are also serving our nation’s military.
Joe Greenspan is one of those rarities.
This past off season when Greenspan’s option on his contract with the Minnesota United FC of Major League Soccer was not picked up, Pittsburgh Riverhounds coach Bob Lilley didn’t waste any time trying to pick up a player who has grown to become a solid professional soccer player while completing his service with the United States Navy.
Last year, Greenspan played 10 games with the Hounds on loan from the Loons.
This year, he’ll be fully entrenched and docked in Pittsburgh as a full time player with the Hounds.
“I was really excited when Bob reached out to me,” Greenspan said. “He really laid out what his vision was going to be, and how I would fit into that. I am excited about that because for the first time in my professional career, a coach came to me and told me ‘here’s what I want to do, and here’s your role in it’.”
Throughout the preseason the towering Greenspan’s been a solid force in the middle of the Hounds back line — as he’s in command in the back, not fazed in one-on-one situations and serving as a vocal leader of the defending corps.
“We’re excited to have Joe join the team,” Lilley added. “I really like his skillset for a center back – he’s a good ball winner, reads the game well and has great leadership qualities. Joe’s going to be a great fit for us and someone that can turn into a top-end player for our team and in this league.”
Lilley’s counting on the former Naval Academy standout to fortify the core of the back line.
“We feel like he’s got an edge to his game, he’s a young player. He’s trying to find his identity, and he’s going to be asked more this year than he’s been asked any time in his career,” Lilley said. “He’s resilient. I need someone in the back to lead, and that’s the expectation. He’s been handling a lot of intel from me.”
Handling soccer intel should be no problem for Greenspan — after all he’s a member of the United States Naval Academy’s Class of 2015, and among his military duties included being commissioned as a Surface Warfare Officer on the U.S. Naval destroyer USS Sampson as he was fulfilling his active duty requirement in San Diego in charge of a division of 20 sailors on the USS Sampson, doing training exercises in the Pacific Ocean.
Greenspan played at Navy under the Riverhounds’ previous coach Dave Brandt, and in that time, he went from being a raw, lanky striker, to a take-charge center back.
“He started as a freshman up top at forward and showed great promise,” Brandt said last year when Greenspan returned to play for his Navy coach in the pros. “That’s where we assumed he’d play four years.”
The Westfield, N.J. native battled back and leg injuries, which caused him to lose his starting job as a forward. As the calendar flipped to his junior year, it appeared as if he would remain in a backup role – that is until the Midshipmen had a spot open up on their back line.
“I’m on my way to practice in preseason and I’m like ‘you know what, I think we should look at Joe at center back,’” Brandt said. “It took seven minutes before we said ‘well, that’ll work.’”
Once Greenspan made the shift to defense, there was no looking back. He was named All-American and Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year in both his junior and senior campaigns.
Upon graduation, Greenspan was prepared to juggle his professional soccer ambitions with his Naval service.
“My first year and a half I was in active duty, and you can’t graduate from the Naval Academy early, so most people drafted gradated in December, and had the preseason. I got drafted and didn’t graduate until the Spring,” Greenspan explained. “A week or two after, I was on active duty in recruiting office in Denver for six months. At the end of that season I was stationed on USS Sampson in San Diego on active duty on the destroyer for six or seven months.”
It was at that point Greenspan was still looking at another three and a half years of active duty with the prospects of his soccer career being put on hold.
As Greenspan, who was drafted by Colorado Rapids in 2015 before being traded to Minnesota prior to the 2017 season, was fulfilling the Navy’s required five years of active service upon graduation, other Navy grads were running into the same rules.
Keenan Reynolds had set NCAA football records at Navy in 2015 and was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2016 NFL draft. Reynolds, and fellow players Chris Swain of the San Diego Chargers and Joe Cardona of the New England Patriots, helped pave the way in May 2016 for a Navy policy switch that reached the U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
“Luckily, the higher ups in the Navy and the government made the decision to say we are going to let the guys make careers as professional athletes, while also serving as reservists,” Greenspan said. “I’m grateful for that opportunity they afforded me.”
Once allowed to serve as a reservist, Greenspan returned to the Rapids in July 2016, but was sent to USL clubs on loan to gain valuable playing minutes, first with the Colorado Switchbacks, then to Charlotte Independence.
Though it appeared that after a trade to the expansion Minnesota franchise, Greenspan would have a chance to stay in one place, he still found himself moving around quite a bit in 2017. He played four games with the Loons, starting three, but suffered a concussion at mid season that kept him out of the line-up and dimmed his chances to compete for more playing time with his second MLS club.
Despite all the moving around — last season when he came to Pittsburgh and played under his former college coach, is where he really shone. Greenspan was in the line-up for four clean sheets in 10 starts and finished fourth on the club with 66 clearances (keeping in mind that he only played one third of the team’s games).
Greenspan’s efforts saw him earn Team of the Week honors twice, as well as earning a Player of the Month nomination for the month of May.
The Midshipman’s presence in the early part of the 2017 season provided just what was needed for a Hounds team to overcome defensive lapses earlier that season.
“He solidified our back and bought us a little time to develop options for our squad. It was a positive thing for us and for him,” Brandt said of Greenspan after his first stint early last season.
The Hounds captain the past two seasons Kevin Kerr was also high on the big guy’s presence as well, raving about his contributions at the time.
“Greenspan was top drawer from the minute he walked in here to the minute he left,” Kerr said after Greenspan’s first departure in 2017.
After recovering from injuries after action in Minnesota, Greenspan returned to the Hounds at the tail end of the season, but it was too late to be a part of a season that turned downward without a win in September and October.
All the while, Greenspan gained a lot from his MLS experiences — a lot that he’ll bring to Pittsburgh.
“There are some things I liked, some things I didn’t. No matter where you go in life there will always be positives and negatives. In Minnesota it was a bit more on the fly — we had a completely new group of players together with an expansion franchise. It was almost like a power vacuum in the locker room, and not so much in a bad way, in a sense that there weren’t guys that had been there for years and veterans. We did have veterans, but we struggled and as the season went along,” Greenspan shared. “Colorado definitely had positives and negatives too. There was a pretty set structure. You had the veterans in the locker room. You had the guys that were leaders and when I came in. Guys like Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard were there — and these guys were bringing it every single day in training. As a rookie you learn really quickly and learn so much being around them and what it takes to play at that level. Jermaine was the kind of guy that wasn’t afraid to tell you if you weren’t working hard enough. I never saw anyone working their butt off everyday the way he did.”
This year, Lilley and the Hounds are banking on Greenspan to set the same type of tone to help a franchise that has underachieved in the Highmark Stadium era and has missed the USL playoffs in three of the past four years.
“Lot of it is – dealing with people,” Greenspan explained when asked about what he’s learned about leadership both on and off the soccer field.
“Being in Colorado for a couple of years, on the destroyer in San Diego, and doing my duties in Denver, Minneapolis and now in Pittsburgh, And the soccer experiences too from Denver, to Minnesota and now here. I’ve been exposed to so many types of leadership, it’s a matter of me picking and choosing — what works and what doesn’t work — and forming my own brand. Everyone does that with the different people they interact with, live with. My life experiences have been fantastic, and hopefully I can bring my leadership into this group — and help us get to the playoffs and maybe win a championship.”
With a work-ethic formed in his blue-collar Jersey roots and through the rigors of four years of attending a world-renown military Academy, Greenspan points to the grind of the preseason as an important starting point for this year’s edition of the Riverhounds.
“Every preseason can be tough. It’s a lot of long days, lot of hard work,” Greenspan said. “There’s some push and pull. We’ve all played in different places and different coaches. So it’s a matter of in preseason figuring out what coaches want, and how to best do what they want. It’s going well though. We’re figuring things out and going in positive direction.”
With three young goalkeepers tabbed to take on the net minding duties in front of the back line, it’s probably a good thing that Lilley has also brought in veterans from his most recent Rochester teams to solidify the back line and midfield. This is evident with the acquisition of Ray Lee and Jordan Dover , who were with Rochester in 2017, while another young player, Tobi Adewole who had a solid rookie campaign with the Hounds last year, will join Greenspan as cornerstones of a defensive unit that is still working out the kinks as preseason continues. The Hounds are still looking to sign a few more defensive players.
Greenspan sounds very much like a player who’s going to do his part set high standards for the back line — and the entire team.
“Being a center back, no matter what you have to be loud, you have to be organized, putting guys in the right places. There’s another dimension too, you have to come out, you have to be the energy and sometimes you’re not going to have not only going to have 11 guys on their game every time, and you’re going to have a good core seven or eight players that lead by example and pick those other guys up,” Greenspan said. “Maybe not feeling good, their touch is off, what ever the case may be. Bit of it is vocal. A bit of it is organizing. The other half is coming in and doing your job ever day and holding yourself to a standard. Others see that, and others have to elevate to that standard to be performing as they should be.”
“Being that I am actively in the service, I bumped up some drills this Spring, loading up my January when I worked for a couple of weeks so I had preseason first month or two freed before I jump back into reserves. I will still have to figure out what my role will be here (in Pittsburgh), but I’ll be based out of NOCS Pittsburgh (in Coraopolis),” Greenspan said. “Then obviously will work once a month on weekends. In Minneapolis I had to work around our days off. We’ll be pretty busy on weekends, so it’s a matter of scheduling around that. I’ll be working on weekdays, and getting in and when I can help.”
“It’s a great city overall. Pittsburgh is a sports city. People love their sports. Last year, playing on summer nights at Highmark Stadium, under the lights, with City cross the river — you can feel the energy — especially when we put some wins together,” Greenspan said. “Expectations should be high. We should definitely make the playoffs. If we put work in every day. Put in honest effort with the guys we have in the locker room I don’t think we should have any trouble being in contention.”