Pittsburgh Soccer Report Riverhounds Season Preview
PART III – Keys To A Successful Season
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds begin a new season on Saturday against the defending USL champion Rochester Rhinos — and the coaches and players are eager to get things going.
As I reported yesterday in Part II of my season preview, Head Coach Mark Steffens has a clearer understanding of expectations this season.
“I told our guys, our goal is to get a home playoff game.” Do I tell the guys we are going to win a championship?”
“No,” said Mark Steffens, in his second year as head coach of the Riverhounds.
“It’s not unrealistic that we can win it, but to tell the guys we are going to is throwing out false promises. Do we have the quality to get on a roll? If our chemistry builds — yes — we can win this league,” added Steffens.
“That’s the way we feel this year.”
After many months of changes, transactions, signings, announcements, schedule release, more signings and watching somewhat disorientated preseason games – they’re finally ready to get things kicked off.
Without waiting any further, here are four things I believe will make for a successful season for the Riverhounds in 2016…
HAVING A BALANCED ATTACK
Last year the question was, how would the Riverhounds replace the team’s leading scorer in 2013 and 2014 – Jose Angulo?
Steffens initial response to that was he was hoping it would be by committee.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
The emergence of Rob Vincent, Kerr and then later in the year, Lebo Moloto becoming a more dynamic attacking midfielder provided a three-headed scoring monster for the Hounds. For much of the season they led the USL in scoring on the way to a 11-9-8 record and a playoff berth.
But teams adjusted. Prompting Steffens seek balance so he can have a team that can sustain a successful attacking team from the get-go.
“If you have one or two guys that you rely on to score, it makes it easier for the defenses to shut you down,” said Steffens.
“After Robbie (Vincent) had 16-17 goals, they were doubling him. That made it harder for us to score. We want to be able to have a lot of options to score this year.”
Beyond that, the rest of the 2015 Hounds stats sheet has a lot of zeros and low numbers in the goals column. This was particularly true at the forward position.
This off-season the Hounds addressed this. They brought in a mix of forwards that each bring a little something different.
Corey Hertzog, 25, is a veteran but has MLS experience (NY Red Bulls and Vancouver Whitecaps) – and has been a proven scorer in NASL and USL.
“This has been a system that I’m familiar with and played in last couple of years,” said Hertzog.
“Comfortable playing in the “nine” with the attacking midfielders we have – that can create a lot of chances for us. Hopefully if we can get some goals against a tough Rochester team. That will be a great confidence builder.”
The Riverhounds coach also spoke about using more subs earlier in the season, that some guys may not fully fit yet for 90 minutes. One of the players he was likely talking about was Hertzog, who was injured in practice in the preseason, his playing time was limited.
In addition to Hertzog, Romeo Parkes has been a proven scorer too and showed in the preseason that he is someone who will be a factor this season. Zak Boggs, another player with MLS and NASL experience, will be quality forward who could come off the bench or be a late game replacement.
Steffens spoke at media day about slightly changing some things systematically this year. He did also mention that the team could play primarily in a 4-3-3 formation. Last year, they were in more of a 4-2-3-1. He seems to be really high on having Columbus Crew’s 2016 Second Round SuperDraft pick Marshall Hollingsworth have an opportunity to be the guy on the left side of the midfield where Vincent was a year ago. Hollingsworth is a much different player, and a prime example of a player that will make this team different than last year.
“We have slightly different type players this year. Lot of athletic, young, hungry guys,” said Kerr. “It’s a different season, different players. But hopefully as season goes on we’ll get stronger and stronger.”
Unsigned Canadian teen DuWayne Ewart is a forward who adds blazing speed along with impressive raw ability and has the opportunity to develop into an impact player as the season goes on.
From the looks of it, Steffens and the Riverhounds coaching staff have put lot of good pieces in place to build a balanced attack.
DEFENDING FROM THE START OF SEASON
The Achilles Heel of the Hounds a season ago was the inability to defend for much of the season — with a some miscues and trouble stopping goal scoring opportunities from set pieces.
The coaching staff have overhauled the back line, with only one player, Willie Hunt, coming back.
The team also added three new goalkeepers — veteran Hunter Gilstrap, who played in Pittsburgh from 2010-14 and has returned after a season in Carolina, along with two young players Mauricio Vargas and Brenden Alfrey.
Hunt believes his most important role in making sure they are all on the same page.
“Communication is a big part of my role and for all the veteran leaders of this team,” said Hunt.
“I’m 28 now. Definitely ready to step into more of a leadership role. When I was younger I had some great veterans that I played with and learned a lot from them. That’s very important and hopefully I can do the same for our younger players.”
Gilstrap understand that it’s going to be a process to get everyone on the same page — but feels they are on their way.
It’s a challenge — getting to know new guys a bit and what they like and how to communicate with them. That’s going to take time,” said Gilstrap.
“It’s part of the process. Building trust is the most important thing. And we’re heading in the right direction.
Hunt will anchor a defensive unit that will have a lot of younger, inexperienced players but he feels will be up to the task.
There’s a lot of depth here – and chemistry is one of the most important thing. With many new guys, I don’t expect us to be firing on all cylinders in the beginning, but do expect to play hard and for each other — and that will be very important going forward,” said Hunt.
From the looks of it, the Hounds are going to surround Hunt with a lot of athletic, young guys eager to impress on the back line.
Last year’s first round SuperDraft selection of the Columbus Crew Sergio Campbell will likely partner with Hunt at center back.
“He brings something you can’t teach. He’s big, fast, and can get in the air,” said Hunt.
“They like that here – because we gave up lot of set piece goals last year and he’s very good at defending in the box and balls in the air.”
In the past week, Steffens spoke about making changes with what the line-up will look like. Hunt confirmed that two guys that will see a lot of time at the outside back spots are Drew Russell and Jordan Murrell.
“Drew stepped up a right back. He’s played a lot of places on the field for us, but he’s going to be an asset for us in the back line,” said Hunt.
In addition, with young players like 6-foot-3 Ryan Dodson and 6-foot-5 Karsten Smith – along with Caleb Posterwait who can help on taking free and corner kicks, the Hounds have size and depth to give then some decent back line options.
FINDING THE FORMULA
I believe if there was one word that came out of the mouth of Steffens repeatedly this preseason – it was chemistry.
A close second has been depth and work-rate.
So — I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if the Riverhounds — who had a chance to methodically build their roster in the off-season — can bring these things (chemistry, depth and work-rate) together they will one of the top teams in USL’s Eastern Conference.
I know it sounds cliche, but finding that formula is important.
Defending USL champion Rochester has its formula for success. It begins with defense and stifling opponents attacks — and they build from there.
Steffens has built a Hall-of-Fame resume by combining his formula of chemistry, depth and work-rate.
I’ve already previewed the roster and outlined the team’s depth, which Steffens and the players all feel is much deeper than previous years.
Steffens admitted that the team was not playing well as a unit especially after losing a second preseason match to a college team a few weeks ago.
But he keeps pressing his players to keep building chemistry on the field and believes it will pay off.
So what separates teams at this level of soccer?
Here’s what Steffens, a USL Hall of Fame Coach believes:
“The important part of being successful in this league is work-rate,” declared Steffens.
“Everyone has technical ability now. This league has gotten so good. Every player that comes in is going to be pretty technical player. Hopefully tactically they understand the game really well. ”
“But if can you get them to outwork the other team. Then you get the team so coordinated and so together that they are going to out-possess the other team, you are going to produce positive results.”
There you have it.
If you see things come together the way coach Steffens describes — the Hounds will be successful this year. If not — then it could be a frustrating season.
KEEPING UP WITH GROWTH
With the incredible growth of USL — which has expanded from 14 to 24 to 29 teams in the last three seasons — the Riverhounds will have to do their part to keep up and continue to grow its brand and continue to attract new fans.
With the announcement that new franchise FC Cincinnati has already sold 4,000 season tickets, while the Hounds have struggled to fill its 4,000 seat stadium at times, was a bit sobering.
While there are signs that the team continues to build its audience slowly — the last two seasons the attendance numbers leveled out.
There are new staff members in the Marketing, Sales and Communications department for the team that are working diligently to bring more fans to games. There still is a very minimum budget as the team moves forward in its second full year out of bankruptcy. There’s some experimentation in with branding the team as “Hounds” as opposed to traditional “Riverhounds.”
The team is marketing its own Beer (Hounds Golden Ale) — and working on establishing a Pub Partnership Program.
Its youth academy (Riverhounds Development Academy) continues to grow and is now placing large groups of young players into top level college programs.
I know there is going to be an effort to attract new fans through a variety of promotions and community-based nights celebrating various aspects of life in Pittsburgh. And I think I heard something about a “Yinzer Night” too — so we’ll see if something comes of that.
They’ll give away items (Scarf’s on Opening Night) — have live music and other entertainment — and look at some other cross promotions.
There’s much more work to do.
Ultimately, the team’s success on the field will certainly help drive ticket sales this season.
We saw that last year.
After the “Miracle on the Mon” win and momentum from an exciting US Open Cup match at Highmark Stadium in June, the team’s attendance numbers rose through the summer months.
Another Cup run would be nice.
A friendly against a known team — even the Columbus Crew — might help.
While they may start slow again this year, they will have to find a way to build attendance so that there are 3,500 at Highmark Stadium every game.
Until then, they will not be getting to the next level.
Last September in the final few games, when the Fall sports calendar and schools were back in session, attendance dipped even as the team were in a push to the playoffs.
Coach Steffens said that it’s his goal to have a home playoff game.
Now seeing a home playoff game (or two or three!) played before a packed house on the banks of the Mon — now that would be something to hang their hats on — and could the icing on the cake of a real successful season.
I’ll have my first season edition of “Breaking Down The Hounds” on Saturday, previewing the Riverhounds-Rhinos USL Opener.