After conducting interviews with coaches and others involved in youth soccer development programs and clubs in our area in the past few months leading up to this year’s College National Letter of Intent Day, many of the same themes kept rising to the surface.
The consensus from almost all coaches and club representatives gathered from these conversations is that while overall progress has been made and soccer has come a long way in our area, more cooperation and much work still needs to be done — primarily in providing the best players with more direct paths to reach the highest levels.
This prompted me to take a harder look at why our region has come up short in producing elite players — but also see what’s being done about this.
Some of these challenges curtailing growth of the youth system in Western PA have ranged from not having a central training center or a top-level U.S. Soccer sanctioned development academy in this region to a lack of alignment and cohesion among our local clubs which has been cited as a barrier that may have kept some top players from reaching higher levels.
While the creation of Pittsburgh Riverhounds Developmental Academy (RDA) had positive and pretty ambitious intentions when formed in 2007 — even its own Director of Player Development, Jason Kutney has recently admitted that its creation caused a greater rift and divide in the youth soccer community in our area.
“It is a business. People’s livelihoods have been at stake. It has become without a doubt a tenuous situation,” said Kutney, a former Riverhounds and Duquesne University player.
“Without any question the formation of our youth academy started that tough strain of relationships in the area. We understand that, and we own up to it.”
Despite this hodgepodge of Pittsburgh-area soccer youth organizations and clubs in recent years, there have also been some glimpses of progress.
- Gibsonia native Meghan Klingenberg‘s prominent role as a starter on the USWNT’s 2015 World Cup winning team has had a ripple effect — particularly with young females — providing an example that a local player can make it to the top.
“That makes a big difference,” added Kutney.
“If you can get a young player out of this area to reach the pinnacle of the game, whether it’s the men’s or women’s side, there’s cascade to the rest.”
“We’re trying our best, just like the other clubs in the area to get those two or three players catapulted to the highest level possible to see what the benefits are that trickle-down to all the rest.”
- Having local clubs like Century United and RDA host College Showcase events at new facilities like Cool Springs Sports Complex and Highmark Stadium which draw top-level teams and many coaches to come to Pittsburgh can only help create greater exposure for area players and programs. (Click here to see my feature on Feb. 2017 Century United College Showcase)
- National Letter of Intent Day and the days that followed this and in recent years have shown top players from our area are not only signing to play for some of the best college programs around the country, but a number of them have chosen to stay home to providing a boost to local programs such as Pitt and Duquesne. (Click here to see our compiled list of NLI day commits)
- The Riverhounds Development Academy (RDA) in conjunction with a newly formed non-profit called “Friends of Professional Soccer in Pittsburgh” formally announced last Fall something that’s been in the works for some time, a partnership with Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County to build a soccer complex alongside the Montour Trail on 78 acres of land in Western Allegheny County.
- Last but not least, Columbus Crew SC Academy are beginning to take up residence in these parts.
CREW ACADEMY SETTING UP SHOP IN PITTSBURGH
Not only are the Columbus Crew entering the second year of an affiliation with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at the pro level, but they are starting to put their footprints in youth player development in Western Pennsylvania.
“We look at Pittsburgh as an untapped market,” said Dennis Sanchez, Columbus Crew SC Academy General Manager.
“It started with my predecessor, but we recognize Pittsburgh as having a lot of potential more than anything else. The players speak for themselves and the coaches too.”
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.
The Crew have begun to work on building bridges to develop a pathway to its Youth Academy with Western Pennsylvania. While our region has never been confused with places like California, Ohio, New Jersey or even Eastern PA for producing top tier soccer players, the Crew are extending their reach and forming more partnerships with Pittsburgh-area youth programs.
“What we want to do is help this area, and we feel that there’s decent amount of players. A big issue has been that many players are spread out here, and what we have to do is provide the right opportunities for these players to find the right pathway to the next level,” said Sanchez, recently during a visit to the Boys College Showcase hosted by Century United at Cool Springs Soccer Complex in Bethel Park.”
“To be fair, I’ve only been to Pittsburgh a few times now, but the future is bright. We still have to look at what’s best for the individual (players) but we want to work with everyone.”
“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. 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.”
“In the past everyone was pretty protective of their players,” said Larry Fingers, Director of College Recruitment and coach for Century United.
“But, the bottom line is that there have been no options for players in our area to have direct access to the highest levels.”
“We all want to get players to the same destination — and now the good news is that with the Crew’s involvement — this is a new, progressive thing that could very well be a game-changer for soccer in our area,” added Fingers.
“That’s what starts to bring everyone together,” said Sanchez.
“There has to be an openness to our efforts, and the message I’ve received from all those here is that people are looking for that next step.
“What we’re going to do is let it happen organically, take it slow, and do it the right way.”
CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE INTERVIEWS WITH JASON KUTNEY and DENNIS SANCHEZ, BE SURE TO LISTEN TO THE LATEST EDITION OF THE PITTSBURGH SCHOLASTIC SOCCER SHOW