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Kevin Kerr: Hounds’ venerable soccer warrior at home in Pittsburgh

Kevin Kerr enters his sixth season with the Riverhounds in 2018

Kevin Kerr: Hounds’ venerable soccer warrior at home in Pittsburgh

Since the Pittsburgh Riverhounds moved into Highmark Stadium in 2013, there’s been one primary constant — Kevin Kerr.

The franchise’s stabilizing force has been a player who was born from Scottish and English parents — but grew up in Germany where he honed his soccer skills — but has now made himself a fixture in Western Pennsylvania for the past six years — and counting.

Kerr is now very much at home in Pittsburgh.

“I’m really happy here. I never look too far into the future,” Kerr said a few years ago after signing a new contract in 2015.

With 135 appearances heading into his sixth season with the club, scoring 22 goals in this span, Kerr has stuck around long enough to become the most recognizable pro soccer in our region.

Driving around the City in the past month, you might notice the Hounds are using an image of the Scotsman in his trademark ‘bow and arrow pose on promotional billboards scattered around area roadways in advance of the team’s home opener on March 31 vs Penn FC.

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STEADY, CONSTANT WARRIOR 

Even in the midst of a difficult season a year ago, the Hounds could always rely on its captain to continue to play with high level of intensity and bring to the club a high level of professionalism, setting the standard for everyone else on the team.

“Kevin is a great player. His pedigree speaks for itself and the career he’s had,” Joe Greenspan, Hounds defender, said. “He’s one of those guys comes into training every day, and holds himself to a standard. He sets an example. The other guys see when Kevin is on his game, and they know they have to elevate to that or they’ll fall behind the curve.”

Kevin Kerr

Whether it was delivering a perfect ball into the box to Corey Hertzog in the 90th minute to provide the Hounds with its first win in Charleston since 2011, or making a second effort play to put the game-winner against Bethlehem Steel FC, Kerr made his presence felt in 2017 as the team’s captain for the second year.

“I am just real happy that though all the changes in the different (coaching) staffs, they’ve all recognized what he brings. Sometimes that can be easy to miss,” Hunter Gilstrap, who was Kerr’s teammate for three years, and now the team’s goalkeepers coach.

“Then you see that final little piece of brilliance. Maybe it’s that assist, or an important goal. He’s not going to score 15 goals a season but he’s going to score a handful and they’re going to be important ones.”

WELL-TRAVELED SCOT – WITH GERMAN INFLUENCE

As previously mentioned, Kerr was born from Scottish and English parents, and grew up in Bielefeld, Germany and played for Arminia’s youth system, U23 side, and first team from 2003-2011.

Before making a home in Bielefeld, Kerr and his family moved around quite a bit as a youngster.

As a son of a British military man, he and his family moved all over the Western European map. He was born in Germany [Münster], lived there for six months, but went back to England, then to Holland and Belgium.

Then, when Kerr turned 11, they settled in Germany when his father found a new post in the industrial city of Bielefeld — where he found a soccer home training with Arminia Bielefeld.

“There’s no better place to grow up playing football. I genuinely believe that. And if you look at those boys in the national team who picked up the World Cup (in 2014),” Kerr recalled. “I mostly grew up with the majority of them – playing against or training with them. Yeah, I feel like it gave me a massive head start in the football world.”

When asked what he considers himself, there’s little hesitation.

“My mum’s English, my dad’s Scottish. 50-50, you know. I was born in a British hospital on a British base,” Kerr once said in 2015 Travis Timmons’ article in Bundasliga Fanatic. “I don’t consider myself 100% German – I’m really happy to have lived there, spent that time there, and I have unbelievably good friends there, but yeah, I’m … British.”

After a brief stint with AGOOV Apeldoorn in Holland, Kerr returned to Germany and played from 2012-13 for SC Wiedenbrück.

It would be a friendship with an American, Matt Dallman, who he played with Arminia Bielefeld U23 team for a few years, that would eventually bring him over to North America.

Even as Dallman moved on to another Bundasliga club, Sportfreunde Siegen, they remained in touch. When Dallman came back to the United States in 2012, after first spending time in camp with then MLS entity Chivas USA, he was released. Dallman’s girlfriend was from Pittsburgh — and found a good opportunity to move and join the Riverhounds that July. Dallman would make four appearances with Pittsburgh that season, but as the club headed into a new home in 2013, they were looking for some quality players to build the team around.

At the time, Kerr was still with SC Wiedenbrück but contemplating his options — and maybe even moving on with his life and away from playing — as all he’d ever known was soccer.

He even thought it might be time to go to school.

COMING TO AMERICA 

Dallman stayed in contact with Kerr, and convinced him to come give it a try with Hounds and get a chance to see a new country.

“It literally happened overnight. I was sitting at home and thought, “You know, I’m going to do it.” They said, “Sure come over and we’ll have a look.” Kerr said. “I packed my bags. I had my flat packed up in, like, 3-4 days. And I was on the flight over on January 4th. A week later, they offered me a deal.”

Kerr and Dallman would be among the core group of players that the Hounds would build around, along with Rob Vincent, Gilstrap and Jose Angulo under Head Coach Justin Evans that had a successful inaugural season in Highmark Stadium, earning a playoff berth.

“He came over and trained. You can tell he was a great player, but it took him a couple of years to develop a relationship to get to know him, but he sort of very quickly – really got into the culture here,” Gilstrap said.

The first two seasons, Kerr was mostly a solid, quality role player in the central midfield — a spot where he had played for much of his career.

Standing at a little more than 5-foot-7 inches tall, Kerr isn’t exactly the type of player that is going to intimidate opponents with his physical stature, but his never-ending work-rate and his passion for roaming around the pitch to exploit openings and opponents’ weaknesses, Kerr would begin to really find his niche with the Hounds.

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It was in the latter stages of the 2014 season when Kerr, along with fellow Brits, Vincent and Danny Earls, his game found a transformation from a steady, holding midfielder to a dangerous player in the final third.

“Kevin and I had a great relationship over the 3 years I was there. Both on and off the field,” Vincent said recently.

“I think most people look at 2015, and rightly so but I think the end of the 2014 season really set that on-field relationship in motion. (It was) the second half of a difficult season and the coaching staff switched to a three-man midfield of Kevin, Danny and I. Performances and results improved and I think that really was the foundation for next season’s fast start.”

When the 2015 season began, the Hounds had a new coach, Mark Steffens, a USL Hall of Famer, who tweaked some things, and suddenly Kerr and Vincent were thriving in the attack.

To say they got off to a good start that season would be an understatement. The duo combined for all five goals in the team’s opening win against Harrisburg that would set the tone for the season in which the Hounds would become one of the league’s highest scoring outfits.

“Mark came in and changed the system slightly but the relationship was already in place. A lot of people have asked me why we were so productive in 2015. It’s really difficult to say. I think it was just a culmination of a lot of things falling in to place at the right time,” Vincent explained. “Soccer is a game of moments. In the early stages of the season, particularly in the home opener we capitalized on certain moments. That gave us the confidence to kick on.”

Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr were the Riverhounds 2015 scoring leaders

Playing as attacking midfielders in the wider spots in Steffens’ 4-2-3-1 formation, Vincent and Kerr would earn All-USL honors — Vincent on the first team and Kerr would score 10 goals and add eight assists to earn a spot on the second team as the Hounds had the club’s most successful season in recent memory.

“Remember, we had started the previous two seasons very slowly, so all of a sudden there was an optimism around the place. And tie that in with the freedom Mark was giving us, it created a perfect environment for not just us, but the whole team,” Vincent added. “We just happened to be the two players getting on the score sheet. It was a lot of fun though. Probably the most enjoyable period of my career, and maybe he’d agree with that.”

That season included a solid U.S. Open Cup run — beating Tampa Bay Rowdies then falling to DC United in overtime in a festive, packed atmosphere at Highmark Stadium, then playing in a series of unforgettable matches in the first ever Keystone Derby Cup series.

It was Kerr who scored the game winner of the team’s most fabled victory — the ‘Miracle on the Mon’ 6-5 win over Harrisburg that May in which they came back from a 5-3 deficit in stoppage time.

“I still get goosebumps thinking about that game,” Vincent said recently on MonGoals ‘Of soccer and steel’ Podcast. “When Kevin scored that final goal, we all ran over to the corner and even though we had played for 96-97 minutes, I felt like I was going to explode. It was something that we’ll never forget.”

While 2015 was a positive campaign, that season ended with a bitter playoff defeat — a 4-2 overtime loss at New York Red Bulls II at Red Bull Arena.

The Vincent-Kerr duo would split in 2016 when Vincent earned a spot with MLS’ DC United, who bought out his contract with Pittsburgh.

Without Vincent, Kerr became the Hounds captain through a pair of tough seasons that followed in 2016 and 2017 that saw a coaching change from Steffens, who was fired in May 2016 after a poor start, to Dave Brandt.

Through it all, Kerr has remained a Riverhound.

As part of a group of players who not only played but also were a part of the team’s youth program Riverhounds Development Academy — Kerr’s influence goes beyond the playing field — and into the soccer community here in Pittsburgh.

“It took him a couple of years to develop a relationship to get to know him, but he sort of very quickly – really got into the culture here,” Gilstrap said.

“Meeting (now his wife, who is from Pittsburgh) and getting involved with the Academy. These are the old guard with the Riverhounds, we did that – we were heavily involved with the youth – our whole life was Riverhounds. Kevin is the last player who’s came from that model. Because of that, when you do that for a couple of years, you become connected to this place.”

Kerr has coached various boys and girls groups — namely the Girls ’99 squad that has won multiple National tournaments and he also has participated in the Hounds community soccer clinics.

In late Feburary, the Hounds rolled out a new logo, a new set of uniforms for the season ahead, and made some other announcements including the expansion of Highmark Stadium, and road games being covered on local television network (Pittsburgh’s CW).

It’s all a far cry from what Kerr experienced when he first arrived, but he’s grateful to see the Hounds have a dedicated owner in Tuffy Shallenberger, and what appears to be a much better foundation than ever.

“It’s been a rough ride the past five years. He (Shallenberger) has enough stress in his life and he could have walked at any point,” Kerr explained. “But when he came in he made a couple of vows — and you know — he’s kept his word. Now, we have to go out and do our part — and produce some results on the field.”

A NEW SEASON, A NEW OPTIMISM, BUT THE SAME CONSTANT KERR

A new season brings a new found optimism, and Kerr remains the team’s constant shooting star.

“Every year some of us wonder, is Kevin going to be able to do it this year. Is Kevin going to be able to do it?,” Gilstrap said. “And so far again this year, Kevin has shown he’s valuable. We need him on the field. He gets older, it gets harder. We’ll see what this year looks like but I think he’s going to still be there for those key moments for the club. And now, with an impressive supporting cast – we’re not totally reliant on him, or him and Robbie Vincent or him and Corey Hertzog.”

That’s what new coach Bob Lilley wants probably more than anything else.

Early in the preseason, Lilley made it clear he didn’t want the Hounds to be solely reliant on any one player.

“Last year, there wasn’t enough urgency. Last year’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds, from my view, were a little bit of Kevin (Kerr) and Corey (Hertzog) show,” Lilley said. “To win in this league, you need a lot of guys playing at a high level. It’s not a knock on any of those guys, they’re all-league players. but I want more players that will have influence in the biggest moments in the biggest times. And that builds a stronger team.”

That being said, Lilley knows that Kerr is an important piece of the puzzle, and loves the standard that he sets day-in and day-out.

“We have to find him ways to get him more involved. And being aware of finding him. He can deliver a ball. He’s a good finisher when he gets a chance. He’s been working hard – he’s trained really hard for preseason. Habits are good. His work ethic is good. Are there things he can get better? He’s accepting the work. He’s trying to learn just like everyone else what I want, and shown a high level of professionalism to do the work. I am happy with what he’s doing,” Lilley said.

“They’re all trying to figure it out. This is a new team. We’re going to play differently than we did in Rochester and way things were done here in the past, but Kevin’s been solid, I want to make sure everyone’s putting in the same effort he does every day.”

Now, playing for his fifth coach in six years in Pittsburgh, Kerr is feeling good about the season ahead under a coach that’s not afraid to do anything get his players’ attention.

“He’s forever trying to get his point across. He’ll use anything for visuals — and find the nearest things,” Kerr said when asked about Lilley using water bottles as props to go over strategy during a preseason halftime talk.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s the last time you see that kind of thing. In fairness, it made perfect sense.”

Lilley, who has won second division championships with Rochester and also previously in Vancouver, has followed a process where he has methodically built his roster since arriving in November, signing 12 players initially in December and January, including Kerr.

Now, as the Hounds begin the season on Saturday at Nashville after a rigorous preseason, the roster has reached 22 players and a season with new-found optimism.

“It’s a really, really good group. Bunch of guys he brought over from Rochester. All sound boys — tough, tough pros that they have respect for the gaffer. Credit to Bob,” Kerr said.

While Lilley will be relying on players brought in from Rochester to help with understanding what he wants, Kerr provides another layer of leadership and remains a common thread for one of USL’s historical franchises.

“That’s one’s aspect of his game that I appreciate. He comes in like a good professional should, and does his duty and is a no-nonsense. He’s not out, drinking all hours of the night or coming in not fit. He’s ready to go every single day,” Greenspan said. “Another aspect is he’s been in a bunch of locker rooms. He knows how to interact with the guys. A big part of it is that he’s a good guy, knows what it takes to get along with everyone, and knowing when to push back, push buttons a little bit and get more out of players. It’s bit of a mixture of both. Setting the standard yourself and holding others accountable.”

When it comes to the standard for all Riverhounds players that follow in Pittsburgh, it’s Kevin Kerr who sets the bar.

If the Hounds can reach new heights in 2018 — it would be only fitting that they’ll have their most venerable warrior leading the way.

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, and more. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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