This is the first in a three-part Pittsburgh Riverhounds 2016 season preview.
First, in this edition, I’ll take a closer look at the team’s roster assembled by Head Coach Mark Steffens and his staff as they prepare for the season opener on Saturday vs Rochester at Highmark Stadium.
As the team struggled in the preseason to score goals, there may be cause for some concern. Still, when running 19 to 21 players out for each scrimmage its hard to really measure how they will perform once season starts. We know this much — Steffens is an experienced coach with a resume that speaks for itself. He is a USL Hall of Famer who has won at this level who is building this roster to fit with his system. In his first season, the Hounds scored plenty of goals — and became better defensively as the season wore on, and scraped into the playoffs. Can they take the next step as a USL team and contend to be at the top of the standings? That will be up to this year’s team mixed with some core returning players and a lot of new faces.
Here’s my position-by-position breakdown of the Riverhonds 2016 roster.
James Bissue, Conor Branson, Mike Green, Alex Harlley, Marshall Hollingsworth*, Kevin Kerr, Nick Kolarac, Lebo Moloto, Stephen Okai, Ben Swanson*
*On loan from Columbus Crew SC
I’ll start with the area that the Riverhounds appear to have significant depth. Even if it means that they are losing two key players from a season ago, Rob Vincent (to DC United) and Danny Earls (on trial with Rochester).
First observation is that there are young, talented options to choose from to complement key returning players.
Returning to the fold, fourth-year Riverhounds mainstay Kevin Kerr has earned the opportunity to wear the captain’s armband after a breakout season in 2015. Kerr finished second in USL in assists. His work-rate is second to few — and he will free-lance a bit into spaces on the attacking side of the field, but he’ll likely be featured on the right flank.
As the 2015 season came to a close, it became clear that Lebo Moloto was coming into his own in the attacking center midfield position, providing the Riverhounds with a dynamic presence in the middle of the attack finishing with six goals and seven assists. Stephen Okai will also return in a holding midfield, and maybe this season we’ll see more of his strong leg and he’ll get some more shot attempts. Okai scored twice in the Hounds 3-0 preseason win over Ohio State. Mike Green is another returning player who seems to find a way into the starting XI and contribute in a variety of positions. Green has played in midfield, forward, and outside back in the past four seasons with the Hounds. This preseason he has been getting a look at defensive MF.
Steffens likes to use a 4-2-3-1 formation, particularly when the Hounds are attacking and playing forward. He has a number of younger, talented options to choose from to complement the mainstays Kerr, Moloto, Green and Okai. The two Columbus Crew players on loan, Ben Swanson and Marshall Hollingsworth, may find a lot of playing time. Swanson was slotted in defensive MF spot, while Hollingsworth played some at outside back, he seemed more comfortable on the flank too.
Togolese winger Alex Harlley, who played most recently with Atlanta Silverbacks in NASL, and Ghanian James Bissue, former Montreal Impact product, also provide legitimate depth to the midfield. It will be interesting how they will each find a way into the mix along with former West Allegheny standout Nicky Kolarac, who returns for his second year with the Hounds.. On Tuesday, the Hounds also announced the signing of Conor Branson, a defensive midfielder. Ironically, like Vincent, Branson is a native of England — and played college soccer at the University of Charleston (WV). And like Vincent, this is Branson’s first pro contract.
While on the surface, there is a good mix of talented players, the Hounds still lacked cohesion and chemistry in the preseason in midfield. There hasn’t been many points in preseason when they really knocked it around. And that was against college teams. If they are going to be the strong possession-based team that Steffens would like them to be, it might take a little bit of time for things to click.
Sergio Campbell^ , Willie Hunt, Jordan Murrell, Caleb Postlewait, Isaiah Schafer and Karsten Smith
While the midfield has depth, the back line may have the most question marks for the Hounds.
If you look around the USL, and see what teams finished highest in the standings, made the deepest runs in the playoffs, and won the league (Rochester), were the ones that conceded the fewest goals.
As the Riverhounds strive to bring an exciting and more open brand of soccer to Pittsburgh — Steffens also knows the importance of having a solid, reliable back line. But playing an open brand of play can put a strain on back line.
After early season growing pains, the Hounds defense appeared to right the ship last season when they were making a push in the last two months of the season to secure a playoff spot, posting multiple shutouts.
The Hounds gave up way too many goals on set pieces in 2015, and they’ve tried to address some of these shortcomings in offseason roster changes. The only returning player from last year’s unit will be Willie Hunt as both Sterling Flunder and Anthony Arena announced their retirements. Hunt moved between outside and center back — and may be asked to do that again this year. He was the team’s most steady defender along with Arena in 2015. In 4-2 playoff loss in OT vs NY Red Bulls II the 5’9″ defender also scored both goals, finishing set pieces in the box.
The rest of the back line is filled with players that have scattered pro experiences but each bring some intangibles.
Karsten Smith had 11 appearances with Ft. Lauderdale Strikers in 2015 and played 26 games with VPS (Finland club) in 2014. Like his new coach, Smith is a Long Island, NY native, who brings some size (6’3″) and some experience -and is likely a central defender with this team.
Another player that played briefly with VPS and is now with Pittsburgh is 25-year-old Isaiah Schafer from Lakewood, Colorado. Schafer has decent size (6’1″) and athleticism — and will likely be in contention for outside back spot.
Jordan Murrell, who is playing in his first year as a pro after playing for Syracuse University, started all preseason games and seems to fit well in the system as an outside back. Like Murrell, the Hounds signed Caleb Postlewait to his first pro contract after a successful career at Butler University. Like Murrell he can be slotted in an outside back spot. He was used in taking kicks on set pieces in preseason games — so he may be someone the Hounds may count on situationally early in his tenure.
Maybe the most intriguing player that’s been with the team all preseason (but not officially signed as of this post), is former UCONN standout and Jamaican Sergio Campbell, who was the first round pick of Columbus Crew in 2015 MLS SuperDraft. He only made one appearance with the Crew, and two with its 2015 USL partners, Austin Aztex. Campbell is another big body (6’3″), who has limited pro experience with a lot of upside. He also made two appearances with Jamaican National team.
Zak Boggs, Ryan Dodson, DuWayne Ewart^, Corey Hertzog, Romeo Parkes, Drew Russell
One position that the Hounds didn’t get much production from in 2015 was at forward, where they featured a target forward with three attacking midfielders. This offseason, they have mostly cleared the deck and have brought in a new crop of forwards with the exception of Drew Russell.
Russell, who also played for Steffens in Charlotte, had a few starts, but was mostly used off the bench late in games.
The remaining players on the roster are offseason signees, including a pair who played for Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL) – Zak Boggs and Corey Hertzog. Of the two, Hertzog, a Reading, PA native who led the nation in scoring at Penn State, has MLS experience (NY Red Bulls/Vancouver Whitecaps), and was among top goal scorers in a few other pro teams (Orlando City and Tampa Bay).
Boggs also has MLS experience having been drafted by New England. He took a break from soccer in 2012 to accept a Fulbright scholarship to study medical sciences at Leicester University in England. He returned to playing pro soccer for Steffens in Charlotte in 2014, then in Tampa last season.
Hertzog played limited minutes in the preseason –and Boggs found some playing time on the outside midfield in preseason too.
Romeo Parkes provides another talented option for the Hounds at striker. Jamaican Parkes helped Isidro Metapán to lift El Salvador’s Apertura championship in December 2014 with 10 goals.He has represented the Reggae Boyz at full national team level as well as at the Under-23 and U-20 brackets. Ryan Dodson is another young player brought in for his first pro contract after playing at the University of Denver. While he’s listed as a forward, he may find time playing other positions, like providing depth to the back line.
Finally, another player that has not officially signed, but showed some flashes of brilliance (and speed!) in preseason is 17-year old Canadian DuWayne Ewart. He scored a few goals — but also was shown off — getting a red card in the Hounds preseason loss to Michigan after a hard retaliation challenge. If the Hounds make it official — and he’s signs — he could be an impact player if the Hounds need more speed and open things up late in tightly contested games.
Hunter Gilstrap, Mauricio Vargas, Brenden Alfrey
After a 2015 season that had five different keepers in goal for the Hounds, Head Coach Steffens alluded this preseason to having more stability at the position.
In one of the first moves of the preseason, the Hounds brought back Hunter Gilstrap, who played in Pittsburgh from 2010 to 2014. Gilstrap was hired as the Riverhounds Development Academy Director of Goalkeeping — and resigned to play another season.
The 32-year old keeper will serve as a veteran presence while the Hounds added a pair of young goalies who have signed their first professional contracts: Costa Rican Mauricio Vargas and Pittsburgh-area native, former Central Catholic and Robert Morris product, Brenden Alfrey.
A season ago, the veteran, Ryan Thompson spent a lot of time away from Pittsburgh with Jamaican National Team, while Calle Brown, also in his first pro stint eventually became the team’s primary goalkeeper.
It appears that Gilstrap will provide continuity and will likely be the team’s starting keeper at the beginning of the season, while the Hounds are hoping that Vargas, who has played for Costa Rican National Team, has potential to become a top-flight pro keeper. The homegrown Alfrey will likely be the team’s third keeper as the coaching staff are excited about seeing his development and working with the team’s goalkeeping coach Jeroen Walstra.
After today’s media day, I’ll be back with Part II of the season preview with player / coach interviews, a look at the key dates and new things happening with the Riverhounds in the season ahead.