After a difficult 2014 season, and once the hurdle of bankruptcy had cleared under the direction of new ownership, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds made it a priority to build a top flight front office and bring in a coach with a proven track record of success at the pro level.
In December, 2014, they brought in a former Nike executive Richard Nightingale as President, and Mark Steffens as the team’s head coach.
Together, Nightingale and Steffens brought a breath of positive energy to a franchise that had come off a very rough year — and clearing the hurdle of bankruptcy and a season that was marred a disastrous start (not winning until June) and the team didn’t qualify for the playoffs despite winning eight of their final 13 games.
Never one to be considered a high-energy guy nor one to speak too loudly — Steffens instead brought his own humble, workmanlike and very professional approach to leading the team.
As Nightingale laid the foundation for seeing the organization strive for new heights — and Steffens oversaw a cultural change and renaissance on the field.
Steffens brought to Pittsburgh a track record of previous success that included two USL Championships — and two Coach of the Year honors — and already had become a USL Hall of Fame coach with the Charlotte Eagles.
Upon arriving when asked about the possibility of rebuilding, Steffens, who found success with one of the smallest payrolls annually at Charlotte, pointed out that it’s not something he likes to hear.
“It (rebuilding), means that we must be bad. I believe we have good players already, and we will build a strong team. I am excited to get started!” exclaimed Steffens at his introductory press conference.
One of Steffens’ best contributions to the Riverhounds may have been his ability to get the most out of returning players like Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr, who had breakout seasons, and nurturing the growth of young stars like Calle Brown and Lebo Moloto.
“Mark came in at a difficult time and morale was pretty low and he immediately instilled a fresh mindset among the players and at the club,” said Vincent, former Riverhounds midfielder who now plays for DC United of Major League Soccer.
Heading into a new campaign in 2015, the Hounds were looking to get off to a good start after a number of poor starts in previous seasons. Sure enough, playing in a possession based system — and utilizing every inch of the field — Kerr and Vincent came out firing and clicking on all cylinders with a 5-2 smashing defeat of Keystone Derby rivals, City Islanders.
“He gave me a freedom to play, to be creative and to get forward and score goals,” added Vincent, who scored 22 goals in all competitions for the Hounds.
“I wouldn’t have had the season I had last year were it not for the trust he had in me and I have a lot of respect for the job Mark did during my time there.”
It was an up-and-down season, but Steffens stayed the course.
The Mark Steffens-led Riverhounds were one of the highest scoring — and most exciting units they’ve ever had since their first year in 1999. While the team struggled defensively in the beginning, there was never a time that they lacked confidence and the ability to come from behind.
The team pulled through, becoming better defensively and earned a playoff spot after an 11-9-8 league record — and earning the first-ever Keystone Derby Cup in a series of unforgettable, dramatic games by beating City Islanders on the last game of the season in Harrisburg. In addition, the Hounds also made a memorable run in the U.S. Open Cup to the fourth round.
After the final game of the regular season ended, and the Hounds earned an elusive playoff spot, I immediately went over to interview Steffens on the field. What stood out to me during this conversation was how happy he was to let his players and the fans really take in the celebration — and enjoy the moment — while he stayed in the background.
It’s not Mark Steffens’ style to be front and center — and look for or want to be in the spotlight. It wasn’t his style to be pumping his fist and giving high fives.
A difficult start in 2016 seemed to negate a lot of the positives that came from Steffens’ first season in Pittsburgh.
The team struggled especially in generating the same dangerous attack they had the year before. Things went from bad to worse — losing at home four times and made even worse by the Romeo Parkes’ kicking incident that went viral and losing to an amateur team in the Open Cup.
Still, Steffens faced the fire, and handled everything with resolve and humility.
He was telling us that he was being patient with the team — and believed that the team would turn things around.
I had even written a column last week posing the question — should Steffens be on the hot seat for the team’s poor play?
Without results, owner Tuffy Shallenberger and his brain trust — finally made the decision to cut Steffens loose.
Apparently on Friday, Steffens was informed of his fate, yet he still had the opportunity to coach one final game.
By Saturday, some of the players were aware of the changes that were going to be taking place, so Steffens addressed them before the game.
Having struggled to score a goal for nearly three full games — since Parkes scored in the first half of his meltdown game on May 7 — the Hounds played hard against Toronto FC II. It was a performance that was indicative of a Mark Steffens coached team.
They were strong in possession. Very much in composure. Always looking to play the ball forward — and stretching the field with diagonal passes from one side to another.
In addition, there were more short, one-two touch passes and balls were getting whipped in from corners — setting up a number of corner kicks.
“I wasn’t sure — saying at halftime — ‘here we go again’,” said Steffens, about his team’s ability to dominate play in the middle of the field, but not in the final third.
Finally the Hounds broke through and found the back of the net. In a scenario where they were well aware this was their coaches last game, they made sure they sent him out a winner.
On a short corner, Moloto received the ball, and bent a beauty into the goal.
He celebrated by going right to his coach — and a huge group hug ensued.
“I love my players,” said Steffens after the game.
“It was bittersweet. I didn’t expect that after Lebo scored the goal. I am proud of the way they played today.
After the Hounds hung on for the win, there were a few more hugs on the field afterwards.
Still, knowing that he had coached his last game with the Riverhounds, Steffens went to the mic for the post-game press conference about as happy as he’s ever been with a team.
He seemed as if a humble coach doing his job, taking questions about the game.
That was — until he was asked if the victory was especially sweet considering everything that had been happening with the team.
And that’s when he revealed that he had coached his last game — got emotional — and shared more hugs — this time with his assistant coaches Josh Rife, who was also let go, and Niko Katic.
He did acknowledge that he did wish he could have the opportunity to see this through — and continue coaching this team. But in the end — it seemed like a mutual parting of the ways. And that’s what the Riverhounds said in their official statement.
Steffens thanked everyone — including front office and team majority owner Tuffy Shallenberger who had made the decision to replace him with a college man — Mechanicsberg native and successful Navy coach Dave Brandt.
Steffens didn’t say a negative word.
And those of us here in Pittsburgh that got to know him — saw that not only is he an excellent coach, a first-rate professional, a tremendous representative for the game of soccer — but an even better man.
We’ll see what will happen with the Riverhounds this season and under the direction of Brandt.
Even those die-hard fans, who wanted to see a change, couldn’t help but feel pretty lousy for what happened.
Numerous Steel Army and other Riverhounds fans shared those sentiments after the announcement.
That sentiment prevailed because they knew they were seeing a good soccer man — and a person who helped create a positive change for the club they love — be shown the door.
That’s a sad reality in the results driven world of professional sports — and after a long and successful career — Steffens had to bow out for the first time before he could really finish the job.
Maybe a new coach — who’s coached at the College level and that might be more of a high-energy guy — might be what this team and organization needs.
Only time will tell.
A very high bar was set by Mark Steffens.
MARK STEFFENS — A HALL OF FAME RESUME
New York Arrows, New York Express 1984-87 (MISL);
Charlotte Eagles 1997-2014 (USL),
Member of USL Hall of Fame, Two USL Championships (2000, 2005),
Two-time USL Coach of Year (2004, 2008)
Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USL) 2015-2016 –Overall 14-14-12 Record (includes Open Cup)