An affiliate partnership announced Wednesday between the Columbus Crew and Pittsburgh Riverhounds strikes me as one that makes a lot of sense for both franchises.
But it would be entirely understandable to be skeptical about all of this.
That’s because two years ago, I was writing a similar story regarding the Riverhounds first-affiliation with an MLS team, and representatives from two teams involved were saying the same things.
In the past few years since, both the Riverhounds and Crew have worked through some growing pains in finding an ideal suitor for a long-term MLS-USL partnership.
They’ve each danced with a few others in the last few years. But, maybe they’ve found the right partner this time.
Two years ago, the Riverhounds, who play in United Soccer League (USL), third division in U.S. Soccer pyramid, had entered into an affiliation agreement with Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo.
It was the beginning stages of a MLS-USL partnership in which every MLS franchise would be required to either start their own USL franchise or find an affiliate partner in USL by 2016. The rapidly expanding USL will boast 28 franchises next season.
At the time, there was a great sense of excitement that this new-found partnership between the Hounds-Dynamo would provide more legitimacy and a boost to the Riverhounds franchise, which had just completed its first season in Highmark Stadium. The Dynamo had been a very successful MLS franchise — with a three-year run that included back-to-back MLS Cup runner up finishes and then a Conference Finalist.
It turned out to be a partnership that proved to be less-than-ideal for both parties.
The Hounds would be mired in bankruptcy proceedings for much of 2014, got off to a terrible start and then fired their coach. With the prospects of using players from Houston appealing, especially in light of their financial situation, the Hounds never seemed to get on the same page with their affiliate. The Dynamo also went through a difficult season that included many injuries and missing the playoffs for the second time in franchise history.
During that 2014 season, the Hounds only utilized the services of two key players from Houston with any regularity: defender Anthony Arena and goalie Mike Lisch. Other players, including former Dynamo first-round 2013 MLS SuperDraft pick, Jason Johnson, played sporadically for the Hounds.
Arena would sign and play exclusively with the Riverhounds in 2015.
The prospects of a continued partnership with Houston, or another MLS affiliation turned off the Riverhounds’ new leadership as they were looking to help the franchise forge a new identity as they entered the 2015 season.
Last December, then Riverhounds President Richard Nightingale, and new Head Coach Mark Steffens were eager to embark at that time without a partner.
The Dynamo found another willing partner in the Charleston Battery.
Meanwhile, the Crew had originally partnered with the Dayton’s USL team, but the Dutch Lions left USL after 2014 for Premier Development League. The Crew had to go to Texas, where the Austin Aztex were a starting a USL expansion team as its new affiliate.
After one season, the Aztex announced that they were suspending operations, leaving its long-term future in doubt.
As the Crew and Riverhounds looked at each other, the more it seemed to make sense to affiliate — and the coaches found they were pretty similar — even beyond the unifying black and gold colors and close geographical distance it was all about the soccer.
Columbus Head Coach Gregg Berhalter‘s system mirrors what the Riverhounds have used under Steffens.
Columbus, 2015 MLS Runner-Up, have mostly utilized a 4-5-1.
Berhalter, who played for L.A. Galaxy, but also oversees in Holland, uses a Dutch-based system that requires 11 players getting on the ball, playing in combinations, including outside backs in the attack, and opening up play that provides for 2-v-1 and 3-v-2 match-ups whenever possible.
Under Berhalter, the Crew have been a possession-oriented team, building out of the back and passing through the lines and through pressure.
Sound familiar Pittsburgh soccer fans?
The Riverhounds mostly employed 4-2-3-1 under Steffens to the tune of being one of the highest scoring outfits in USL in 2015. The 4-2-3-1 and 4-5-1 are essentially the same with a few differences depending on personnel and situations.
The Hounds exploited the talents of Kevin Kerr and Rob Vincent in its 4-2-3-1 system to create match-ups and scoring opportunities.
Naturally, playing in systems that utilize similar tactics on the field will be beneficial for players from Columbus who will come to play in Pittsburgh under Steffens, a USL Hall of Fame coach who has been successful at the pro level for two decades.
“We’re like-minded in our philosophies,” said Berhalter. “Mark (Steffens) is focused on making players better. We want to put our players in a good environment. That is very important to us. When we looked at the Riverhounds, they checked all of the boxes.”
Proximity is another big reason both sides are enamored with this affiliation.
“It’s much more convenient, even for our guys,” said Berhalter. “Pittsburgh is close and that helps.”
Being closer will certainly cut down on travel costs if Crew players need to be called one way or another, but both coaches were optimistic that they will be able to forge success through mutual interests.
“But that’s not what it was all about,” said Berhalter when asked about close distance between the two cities.
“They are an ambitious organization that is headed in the right direction. We want Pittsburgh to have success,”
“From our end, we want to be able to provide young players with playing opportunities, but also to give guys a chance to get into match fitness and to come back from injuries.”
Steffens mentioned that he is aware of the negative pitfalls that have come with previous affiliations, but feels they can overcome them.
“There has to be open communication. Between the franchises, and between the coaching staff and the players that are coming in,” said Steffens. “Otherwise, it could be very difficult.”
Steffens echoed Berhalter’s enthusiasm and willingness to make this work.
“We’re excited for a number of reasons. One is proximity. Another is their coaching staff — we can learn a lot from what they do in watching and participating in their training. We’re very similar in our approach. And off the field too. We want high character players. Winning is a by-product of excellence.”
Berhalter was asked about which players, if any, he has in mind that could be playing in Pittsburgh next season, but did say that the teams would make these decisions together.
How Columbus’ roster takes shape in the off season and what transpires in the early preseason, were factors that Berhalter said he will weigh in this decision.
The Riverhounds said they have made some player signings, but can’t release any information until approved by USL. We do know they have Vincent and Kerr under contract for another year, but the rest of the roster is anyone’s guess at this point.
Based on most recent personnel, I am sure that Steffens’ (and Riverhounds fans) wish list from Columbus may include a forward that is a good fit for his system that could provide more production along with depth in the back line and in goal (as both Ryan Thompson and Calle Brown will not be returning).
If Columbus provides a forward that could play well with Kerr and Vincent (and whoever plays attacking mid), the Riverhounds can add an important dimension to their attack.
We’ll have to wait and see how it all pans out, but after first look, this strikes me as a partnership that has a lot of potential to be a prosperous, long-term relationship.