Practice was over — and most of the team had already made their way back to the locker room. There was a brisk wind coming off the Monongahela River and across the open, mostly empty pitch at Highmark Stadium on a frigid early February morning.
Only two players remained on the field, working on a drill, and with them, was Dave Brandt, putting in the extra time out in the cold — even after a two hour practice session.
Eventually, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds head coach made his way inside to take a few moments to talk with me (and eventually warm-up) — and together we covered an array of topics including his first off-season as a pro coach, the team’s partnership with the Columbus Crew, type of players he looks for, what tactics he may implore, and how things are going so far as the team he’s assembled has training together earlier than just about any other team in pro soccer in the U.S. — on any level.
You can find extended excerpts from the full interview below.
It’s still way too early to see what will be in store for this year’s edition of the Riverhounds, but it appears that Brandt is finally feeling comfortable in Pittsburgh after what he describes as a “sprint through the summer” in 2016 when he was hired in May to replace Mark Steffens.
Brandt inherited a tall task of steering a team in disarray, having to guide them through what would be a bumpy ride for the remainder of a season which saw its share of roster turnover, tough losses and ultimately finish in 14th place out of 15 teams in the USL Eastern Conference.
It was a season that the Riverhounds and their loyal fans would prefer to put behind them.
Brandt echoed this sentiment, living up to his reputation as a tireless worker right after the season ended — quickly putting together a roster of 23 players. By late December, Brandt had already had the core of the team he wanted, and was ready to start preseason as early as possible.
So, the Hounds did just that — beginning the preseason Monday, January 16 and by Groundhog Day when some MLS teams were just coming together and other USL teams were still very much looking at rosters in flux and having lots of players on trial, the Hounds had completed three weeks practicing together.
After the 2016 season ended, Brandt spent time assessing which players he would want to bring back, then got to work on building the roster from there. The long-time collegiate coach who guided Messiah College to multiple NCAA Division III National Championships, and then had continued success at Navy, feels that he’s had a productive four plus months since the last game was played in September at Highmark Stadium.
Brant also elaborated on some of the quality time he’s spent building a relationship with the Riverhounds Major League Soccer affiliate, Columbus Crew and their coaching staff led by Gregg Berhalter.
If you are a fan of pro soccer in Pittsburgh — and a Riverhounds supporter — you may be encouraged by Brandt’s approach, his enthusiasm and no-nonsense approach.
While there are still a lot of questions that remain about the team and as we get closer to the season opener I’ll get more of a feel of what we can expect from Brandt and the players. For now, we know that the Riverhounds have a coach that is putting in the work.
Pittsburgh Soccer Report’s John Krysinsky With Pittsburgh Riverhounds Head Coach Dave Brandt (2/3/2017)
First step. We had to decide who we would keep, and who we wouldn’t — and that’s not something that got solved in a week. Then the rest of it developed.The second part of the decision was what new guys would come into the team.We had two trials. First was an invite trial, and we ended up signing five from that one, then a couple out of the next one — and the rest came in different ways.It was very busy in the beginning of the off season, and didn’t stop until Christmas — and then we were pretty well set.
It wasn’t a policy or rule that we were going for only young guys. That being said, I’m a great believer in the young player. I think that guy has a lot to play for, to prove – I’m not saying the older players don’t — but often they’re more receptive and open to everything we want them to do, they play hard, and willing to go harder than they’ve ever played before.Yeah, we signed some younger guys — but our share of veterans too.
I’ve always said — I am a vision-oriented coach, and I know what I want things to look like. And when that’s the case, I want guys that fit what I am looking for — both on and off the field.What we measured was what type of person — from character standpoint. And of course, what type of player they are on the field standpoint.Those were two determining factors.
I can tell you, I talked at length with every player to get a strong measure to know who they were, and let them know more about who we were and what was going to happen.
The three internationals — Jamal (Jack), Ken(roy Howell) and Devaughn (Elliott) — we signed from watching tape, email exchanges and were all easy to talk to on phone. We had to determine if they’re were the right guys, we went over a lot — and wanted them to sign up and be on board with what we were doing. Sure, seeing them live is always better, but we watched a lot of tape on them.
That developed into a goal.I’m not sure if you looked at our intentions right after the season ended, that it would happen that way. But, as we started to go down that path. It was the intention to use preseason as instruction and preparation time as opposed to a trial period. If the right guys wouldn’t have been available, we would not have signed 23. In my opinion, the right guys were available — it was my preference to have a team going into preseason.
It’s a a two-year agreement — this is year two now.I spent a lot of time in Columbus, both at the end of their season and around (player) trials that they had. I was out there a bunch of time. I had spoken with (Columbus Head Coach and Sporting Director) Gregg Berhalter and those guys a ton, regularly and had some input on the draft and that sort of thing. I think the relationship has been really good. Those guys have been great — easy to work with that sort of thing.They’re still figuring things out right now, not knowing what their situation is, just like we are. Who stays. Who doesn’t. What’s best for everyone. That’s the piece we don’t have together yet — what happens but we’re working closely together.
It’s great to have a good, core group back from last year. Kevin (Kerr), Steve (Okai), Michael (Green), Corey (Hertzog), guys like that. Ryan Adeleye too, even though he’s not a long timer here.We brought them all back intentionally, on purpose.The most important thing is that they’re the right guy. That’s why they’re back. Having been here before and having been in the league. Going through last year has already shown to be really important and critical moving forward.
We’re pursuing something specific. I think it’s been a further evolution for me.Last year, we had a watered down version of what I wanted, and the group wasn’t capable of doing everything I wanted.Still, it’s been an evolution to what I want, and we have to do what works best.I am pretty committed to a 4-4-2, or it could be described or looked at as a 4-2-2-2 the way we play it.We want to be strong in terms of its emphasis of defensive structure. Regaining the ball quickly after the ball is lost and transitioning and countering.I think people are going to see us as working very hard to get behind the defense very quickly.
I was a forward when I played, so I just liked to sign a whole bunch of forwards.In all seriousness, that first group of signings included a lot of forwards, so people must have been wondering, what’s this guy thinking? I was looking overall to be 2-deep in every position on the team and we have a lot more options in the attack now.I did not think we were equipped with any depth at all behind Corey up front last year. That was until Chevaughn (Walsh) was signed. We didn’t have a whole lot up there — but I think that’s different this year.
It’s been a good three weeks. We’ve started preseason earlier that any other pro team that I know of in the country at any level We have to make sure — we don’t lull into the sense that it’s a long preseason — that we’ll figure it out. No, we have to figure it out now.It has been a busy, productive three weeks. I like where we are at.
Playing a mix (of college and pro teams) is fine. As early as we started preseason, nobody’s playing at that time, college or pro, it’s going to be five weeks of preseason before we play. It wasn’t possible to get anyone before Feb. 18 when we play vs North Carolina FC. I was able to contact and use some of my college relationships to try to schedule games.
We have seven lined up now, but it’s possible we may have an eighth between the last one scheduled vs Rochester (March 13) and the opener (on March 25 vs defending league champs NY Red Bulls II).
It was a sprint of a summer, but I am much more comfortable now. In the end I am happy to have a preseason with the team and on our way to getting to ground zero — game one.
A coherent effort and team that’s on one page, and makes sense.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.I can be an “evolver” too.
SHAMELESS YET APPROPRIATE PLUG OF THE WEEK – HOUNDS ARE SELLING THESE SHIRTS THROUGH THEIR MERCHANDISING DEPARTMENT…