With two months before the start of the 2017 season, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds will be opening preseason training sessions this week.
Depending on weather conditions, the Hounds are expected to be training at Highmark Stadium or at Southpointe.
It looks like Monday’s session is at Highmark Stadium…
Unlike recent years, the Hounds have already assembled a pretty decent sized roster — having 23 players signed to contacts, after last week’s additions. That said, there are still some places that the Hounds can add quality players, and the possibility remains that we’ll see players from Columbus Crew (although nothing formal has been announced about 2017 affiliation) and additional signings as MLS teams anticipate roster movement when they inch closer to start of season.
As the Hounds begin preseason, I’ll be looking forward to getting down to see a training session or two — and catch up with some of coaches and players. In the meantime, here are some interesting things to watch:
IT’S BRANDT’S TEAM NOW
Hounds Head Coach Dave Brandt, a long-time College coach, has been a busy man the past few months in his first off season as a pro coach.
Brandt’s had much input and involvement in new player signings — including some players by way of Caribbean-based agency, and pulling from a vast pool from the college ranks, many that he’s familiar with, to help provide depth and round out roster spots.
Brandt, admittedly is a high-energy guy, and a “hands-on” coach, is someone that team owner Tuffy Shallenberger really believes in and has touted his no-nonsense style. The Hounds are even selling Brandt inspired “Talk Is Cheap” t-shirts through their merchandising store.
Now, Brandt can really get to work.
With a full off season to prepare, build a team with his own players and get everyone on board tactically, I am sure Brandt is eager to get to training this week. There is more than two full months before the start of the USL season (scheduled for March 22-24 kickoff weekend), so the Hounds have time to get on the same page to avoid another slow start. In the past four seasons, the Hounds have had really bad starts in March and April in three of those seasons.
We’ll see what the Hounds will be like tactically, but with a lot of veteran midfielders, and an influx of additional potential talent at the top of the attack, it will be interesting to see if Brandt will be able to build a team as a high pressing unit as he said he would like to do.
With his veterans on board and setting the tone with the younger and hungrier players who will want to battle for playing time, I am sure that Brandt will have the time he wants to evaluate and get everyone in sync so early in the year.
VETERAN PRESENCE AT MIDFIELD
When you look at the current roster make-up, the Hounds are filled with a lot of returning and veteran players in the midfield. This includes the return of two players that have worn the captain’s armband for the good part of the last three seasons Pittsburgh, Danny Earls and Kevin Kerr.
Add the versatile Mike Green, and steady and skillful Stephen Okai to the mix, and essentially much of the core team from the past few years returns in the middle of the field.
It’s clear where the team’s leadership on the field will be centered around this coming season.
One player not returning, and doesn’t appear to have signed anywhere else at this point, is Lebo Moloto. It seems as if the Hounds flourished in 2015 when Moloto, a creative playmaker, was in top form at the attacking midfield spot under previous coach Mark Steffens‘ 4-2-3-1 formation – scoring six times and getting seven assists in his debut season.
Moloto benefited from having a dangerous threat on his left side in Rob Vincent (now with DC United) in the midfield that season, and in 2016, Moloto’s production dropped off significantly, scoring just one goal in Steffens’ farewell match.
While the returning veterans provide stability, excellent work rate and reliability, the Hounds will need to find more creativity in the final third, if they have indeed decided not to bring back Moloto, who has not been signed by any other team.
More veterans are in camp ready to step in, but where can the Hounds replace creativity and make their attack more dynamic?
Both Nick Thompson and Jack Thompson will compete for playing time, and the well-traveled Bryan Arguez, a former DC United 1st SuperDraft selection, resurrected his career last year making 14 starts with Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.
Another veteran returning presence is Corey Hertzog, the Hounds leading scorer from a year ago.
But what about the rest of the attack?
It will be interesting to see how newcomers like Kenroy Howell, Key Banjo and Devaughn Elliott will be utilized, and last year’s late season acquisition Chevaughn Walsh, 2016 PDL MVP, and if Brandt adds more forwards (possibly going this year with 4-3-3??) in the attack.
STARTING OVER IN THE BACK
If the Hounds were returning last year’s center back tandem of Willie Hunt and Sergio Campbell, then I would say the back line would be in pretty good shape.
As of now, the area that the Hounds appear to be starting completely over in the back and goalkeeper positions.
Ryan Adeleye was picked up last year in mid season, and other than the possibility Green dropping back to play on the back line, the rest of what appears on the roster appears to be a bit of an unknown with the oldest player on the team, Trinidad and Tobago native Jamal Jack, 29, who played last year in El Salvador, and younger players like 2016 Philadelphia Union 1st round SuperDraft pick Taylor Washington, Shane Campbell, Tobi Adowole.
If the season started today, I would be thinking that Adelye and Jack appear to be the center back tandem.
If that’s the case, two months of preseason working together will be important for them to get on the same page.
In addition, the Hounds have two new goalkeepers. Unlike last year when they went with a long-time veteran in Hunter Gilstrap, and first year player in Mauricio Vargas, they have two players who are a bit more seasoned, but best years may still be ahead of them. Both Keasel Broome and Trey Mitchell bring some pro experience, but each will be eager for this opportunity in Pittsburgh to get more playing time, should help provide the Hounds with some good competition for the starting position.
Regardless, the Riverhounds still have a lot to do between now and the start of the season, but it should be interesting to see how things play out now that Brandt fully has control of this team.