Before we turn the page and start looking forward to 2017, when looking back on the past year on the soccer scene here in Pittsburgh, I can only come away with a conclusion that while it may have been a year of disappointment on many levels (Riverhounds, most of Pittsburgh’s Division I college programs, U.S. national teams immediately come to mind), it was still a year that left some indelible moments and noteworthy performances.
It seemed as if it was a year without a major soccer “event” at Heinz Field for the first time since 2013 (remember 2014 — Manchester City played AC Milan and 2015 United States Women’s Soccer team hosted Costa Rica in first friendly since winning FIFA World Cup).
As I entered my second full year of covering the area soccer scene through this forum – and expanding coverage in partnership with other outlets (Pittsburgh Soccer Show and Mon Goals Podcasts on Beautiful Game Network), there were plenty of memorable moments – both good and bad that marked the Year in Soccer in Pittsburgh.
ROB VINCENT TRANSFERS TO DC UNITED
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds leading scorer in 2015 began his offseason on trial under the watchful eye of Ben Olsen and former Riverhounds General Manager Dave Kasper with DC United in October, then was invited back in January. By early February, the United really liked what they saw from the Liverpool, England native, and worked out a transfer of his contract from the Riverhounds.
As Vincent left Pittsburgh for MLS in February, I shared my thoughts on his impact – VINCENT MADE HIS MARK IN PITTSBURGH.
And how did Vincent’s first season in Major League Soccer go?
Pretty well, actually.
Olsen had him on the flank to start the season where he was playing sporadically and getting spot minutes. Then, wearing number 66, Vincent came back to Pittsburgh on a one-game loan on June 4. Sure enough, he made the most of his time back at Highmark Stadium, scoring the Hounds only goal – a patented strike from distance — in a 2-1 loss to Charleston.
Eventually, Vincent began to see more playing time in a defensive midfield role with DC. The United, after sluggish start to the season, finished strong as Vincent played more minutes – finishing with two goals and starting 10 of the team’s last 11 games including a 4-2 playoff loss to Montreal Impact.
Vincent was protected in the MLS expansion draft, and it appears that he’s earned a spot in DC for another year.
PIAA/WPIAL REALLIGNMENT ADDS TO EXCITEMENT
It was made official in the early part of the year, Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) announced realignment of High School soccer from three to four classifications.
The realignment allowed for more WPIAL (District 7) teams from our region to qualify for the playoffs, and get into the state tournament as well. And this brought a lot of exciting moments and games for the teams that participated in WPIAL tournament and Finals at Highmark Stadium November 4-6.
The WPIAL Finals played at Highmark Stadium expanded from six games over two days – to eight games over the course of three days. There were numerous new/first-time section champions and included a first WPIAL title (Freedom girls) and a few programs returning to win the WPIAL for the first time in many years (Chartiers Valley / North Allegheny boys and Moon girls).
Here’s the complete list of WPIAL Champions in 2016, and you can click here for my recap – Eight Games, Three Days of Memorable Action at Highmark Stadium – of all the WPIAL Finals action.
- 4A – Boys (North Allegheny) / Girls (Norwin)
- 3A – Boys (Chartiers Valley) / Girls (Moon)
- 2A – Boys (Quaker Valley) / Girls (Freedom)
- 1A – Boys (Sewickley Academy / Girls (Shady Side Academy)
In addition, two girls WPIAL teams would complete their seasons winning PIAA title – Canon McMillan (4A girls), Moon (3A girls).
This section wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the remarkable feat from North Allegheny boys midfielder Sean Atwater, who not only won the WPIAL final on a golden goal from distance, but he scored three game winners, all from distance, in the WPIAL semifinals (vs Pine-Richland), in the WPIAL Finals (vs Seneca Valley) and again in the PIAA 1st round (again vs Pine-Richland).
JAY VIDOVICH MAKES PITT’s SOCCER COACHING DEBUT
Pitt’s men’s soccer program took an ambitious step when they hired Jay Vidovich to lead the much maligned program out of the abyss as they’ve been a constant doormat at the bottom of the ACC standings since switching conferences in 2013. Vidovich became only the third men’s head coach in the program’s 60-plus year history. While Vidovich’s record and accomplishments were impressive (won National Championship and built a successful program at Wake Forest), it was a tough first season for Pitt under its new coach as they completed another season without winning a game in conference.
In my preseason interview with Vidovich, he emphasized the importance of changing the culture, and while the team didn’t win any games in the ACC, they were very competitive throughout the season, losing many games by a goal, but lacking dynamic scoring threats in the final third.
DUQUESNE’S PROGRAMS TAKE THE LEAD
In a game that reflected where both women’s programs were in 2016, Duquense, coming off an Atlantic 10 Championship in 2015, shut-out Pitt 2-0 in a very early season tilt in Oakland.
The Dukes would go on to have another strong season, finishing third in the A-10, while Pitt really struggled, ending the season near the bottom of the ACC standings.
The Duquesne men’s team had a decent season under 4th year head coach Chase Brooks, earning an A-10 playoff berth — and at one point ran an impressive shut-out streak to seven games.
UNPRECIDENTED SEASON SEES WVU WOMEN MAKE RUN TO COLLEGE CUP FINAL
What a season for the West Virginia women’s soccer team! Despite spending a lot of time for much of the season at the top of the NCAA rankings, winning the Big 12 Championship, and pulling off some exciting wins in the NCAA tournament, the Mountaineers came up just short of winning the NCAA title – losing to USC 3-1 in the final.
It was the first ever appearance in the College Cup for the Mountaineers under long-time coach Nikki Izzo-Brown.
HOUNDS NEVER RECOVER FROM 15-DAY MELTDOWN IN MAY
Okay – I know Riverhounds fans and the organization probably hope they never see a month like what they experienced in May 2016. Each of these moments could very well have their own category in this review. But in the interests of telling the story of past year, looking back now it seems as if it were all one big nightmarish circle of a month for professional soccer in Pittsburgh. It was especially troubling, because one year earlier, May 2015, produced one of the most exciting periods for the Riverhounds with big U.S. Open Cup wins, and the improbable “Miracle on the Mon” 6-5 come-from-behind win over Harrisburg.
Sure, the Hounds were struggled early in the season in April (posting a 0-3-2 record), but when May arrived, that’s when the bottom completely fell out.
Here’s what transpired over the course of 15 days:
- May 7 – in 3-1 loss to NY Red Bulls II, striker Romeo Parkes goes ballistic after a scuffle that saw him and RBII’s Karl Ouimette sent off. What followed became an international embarrassment that went viral, as Parkes kicked Ouimette from behind squarely in the back as the two were walking off the field. Within hours, Parkes was suspended by the USL, and by the next morning, the Riverhounds terminated its contract with the Jamaican striker, who by the way was leading the team with five goals.
- May 14 – after losing its leading scorer, the Hounds went on the road to play upstart expansion side, FC Cincinnati, before a then USL-record attendance crowd of more than 23,000. The game, which FC Cincy won 1-0, added more insult as two villains to Pittsburgh fans – Vontez Burfict and Adam “Pac Man” Jones and other members of the Cincinnati Bengals served as honorary captains as the Cincinnati fans got to see their team beat a Pittsburgh team.
- May 17 – facing a team that has never been in the U.S. Open Cup, Lansdowne Bhoys, an Irish-based club from Westchester County, NY, the Hounds were stunned at Highmark Stadium for 2-0 defeat, that marked a low-point for Hall of Fame coach Mark Steffens, who suddenly was on the hot seat.
- May 21 – with an inspired effort, the Hounds bounced back with a 2-1 win over Toronto FC II, but it turned out to be Steffens’ last game with the Hounds, as he announced after the game that he’d been let go. When Lebo Moloto scored in the 72nd minute to secure the Hounds first goal since May 7, he ran over to the sideline to embrace Steffens – followed by all of his teammates in an emotional moment.
- May 22 – The Riverhounds announced the hiring of long-time college coach Dave Brandt, who had much success at Messiah College and later at Navy.
- Brandt would steer the Hounds through the rest of the season, cutting loose some players from opening day roster, and adding eight new players as the team finished 6-17-7 overall, right above FC Montreal and unable to capture the Keystone Derby Cup, losing three-game series with cross-state rivals Harrisburg City Islanders.
- Among the bright spots for Pittsburgh in 2016 were Corey Hertzog, in his first year with the Hounds ended up as the team’s leading goal scorer and was at the top of the stat sheet in most categories including minutes played, while Jamaican Sergio Campbell (former Columbus Crew 1st Rd SuperDraft pick) and veteran Willie Hunt (Steel Army’s Player of the Year) were a solid center back tandem for much of the season.
As we look forward to 2017, the Riverhounds already have 20 new players signed, and it will be Brandt’s first full season at the helm. The Riverhounds (and everyone else in the United States soccer scene) will be awaiting the decision about the future of 2nd and 3rd divisions of US Soccer, as the USL’s bid for second division status is still being reviewed, as the current second division NASL are still trying to salvage a league that has lost teams to MLS, USL and financial problems.