Last week, PA West Soccer Association’s Executive Board had a tough decision to make. Ultimately they voted to put up the white flag upon its Fort Pitt Regiment soccer club.
Founded in 2013, the Regiment participated in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) in four of the past five years — fielding teams in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018, with a roster made up of a combination of recent and current college players.
Sporting a name that paid tribute to Pittsburgh’s history, the Regiment were founded as an extension of PA West’s player development program in 2014. Its goal was to help players improve for their college teams or continue working toward a pro contract. After four seasons, its Board decided the financial commitment would be better used supporting other programs in the organization.
“We have new board members, and ultimately they voted to go in a different direction,” Tim McCoy, Executive Director, PA-West, said. “We were able to provide a higher level of play for those aging out of ODP program. Ultimately, having a NPSL club is not a money making venture. We had to mitigate costs as much as possible, while competing against other (NPSL) clubs that operate as business entities.”
McCoy also pointed out there were other benefits in having a NPSL club in the region that might have been overlooked — namely providing more higher game experience for officials.
“With Regiment games, it also provided more higher level games in our region that gave referees a chance to meet their requirements for National licenses. Before, we had (PA-West) referees flying all over trying to meet their requirements.”
Even though player development was its primary focus, the Regiment experienced modest successes as a competitive club in NPSL for four seasons, especially in its first season.
Coming out of the gate, the Regiment had an impressive debut season in 2014, claiming a league title, then making it to the Midwest Conference Finals, where they lost to Lansing.
“That was a close-knit group,” McCoy, who was responsible for administrative oversight for the club, added. “They were a solid team, with some notable players who would go on to play professionally.”
A stellar inaugural season earned the Regiment with its first, and only berth in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup proper tournament in 2015, when they lost a heartbreaker, 1-0, at West Virginia Chaos.
It was the closest the Regiment ever came to having a formal match against the bigger kids on the Western Pennsylvania soccer block, the Riverhounds SC. The Chaos would fall to the Hounds the following week, 3-0, at Highmark Stadium.
In its last season in 2018, the Regiment finished with winning record (6-5-1) battling late into the season before a 0-0 draw with Erie Commodores knocked them from playoff contention.
“Last year, we had a lot of talent, a good crew, but unfortunately, a few player injuries really tested our depth,” McCoy said.
Among numerous former players advanced to play at higher levels, included Neco Brett who was taken in by the Portland Timbers in the 2016 MLS draft, and most recently had a sparkling 15-goal debut with the Riverhounds in its turnaround 2018 season. Other former Regiment players making it into the professional ranks include two of Brett’s teammates from the 2014 Regiment: Jamie Luchini (Bethlehem Steel) and Brendan Alfery (Pittsburgh Riverhounds).
Other notables included Jack Webber (Banyule City SC, Australia), Andres Vega (Diriangen FC, Nicaragua), Nicky Kolaric (Riverhounds), Anthony Virgara (Riverhounds) and Pat Sullivan (Grythyttans IF, Sweden).
McCoy also pointed out that Lamine Balde, who starred at Bethany, was the only player who was part of every Regiment team, including nine goals between 2014 and 2015 seasons. Unfortunately for Balde, a knee injury cut short his 2018 season.
In its four seasons, the Regiment played home games at numerous fields, including Thomas J. Birko Memorial Stadium in Montour, Upper St. Clair High School, Slippery Rock University and even played a few games at Highmark Stadium.
FORT PITT REGIMENT – RECORD (Overall 17-20-13, US Open Cup 0-1)
2014 NPSL 6-5-3 Midwest Region Great Lakes East – 1st Place (reached Midwest Regional final)
2015 NPSL 2-2-8 Midwest Region 12th Place
2015 US Open Cup 0-1 1st Round
2016 Did not compete
2017 NPSL 3-7-1 Great Lakes Conference 6th Place
2018 NPSL 6-5-1 East Conference 5th Place
Seeing the end of the club’s run was tough news for some players who were looking forward to potentially returning for another season in 2019.
“Yeah, it’s disappointing, that’s for sure,” Kolarac, who wore the captain’s armband, and earned all-Northeast Region honors in 2018, said when reached about the news. “Still, it was a great experience to play for the Regiment.”
Yesterday, I received a call saying Fort Pitt Regiment was folding this season. I am absolutely gutted about it was an honor wearing the badge and wearing the captain arm band for the club. I will miss it this summer ⚽️ #npsl pic.twitter.com/X0hjnk6PuE
— Nicky Kolarac (@Nicky_Flash_Jon) January 19, 2019
In each of the Regiment’s four seasons, they were led by soccer coaching icon John Kowalski.
If there’s been a soccer team in Pittsburgh of note during the past half century, chances are, Kowaski has coached them at some point.
The long-time soccer coaching legend, added his tenure with the Regiment to his already impressive resume that included Tampa Bay Mutiny (MLS), Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USL A-League), Pittsburgh Spirit (MISL), as well as the United States Men’s National and Futsul teams, and Robert Morris’ men, and now women.
“I’ve enjoyed helping with the development of young players with the Regiment,” Kowalski said in a 2018 interview with Pittsburgh Soccer Now. “The PA West (Soccer Association) wanted to sponsor a team as there were a lack of opportunities for players after the age of 19 in our region. With the Regiment, players are provided a chance to play in meaningful games against some very good competition.”
In addition to players that were out of college, some, like Duquesne’s Ryan Landry, used the opportunity to play with the Regiment to play competitively between college seasons.
Other parts of the experience, Regiment players had the chance to play one time, in 2014, on the road in front of a raucous crowd against Detroit City FC, where they regularly pack in 7,000 to 8,000 fans.
“It was a spectacle. A great experience for some of our players,” McCoy said. “John (Kowalski) said to me, we should try get that game on the schedule every year. Unfortunately, the other times we played Detroit in the years that followed were home games.”
“The NPSL has teams with players that have been professionals, and then there’s some teams like ours that will have a lot of players who are still in college,” added Kowalski.
“It adds to the challenge, as sometimes guys played at the same time they had jobs and internships during the summer time.”
“In just a few years, we’ve had players like Neco and Jamie, who’ve been able to get contracts in MLS, and USL,” said Kowalski. “In the case for other players, some with experience, but still need to improve and stay sharp, playing (with Regiment) prepared them for opportunities to go on trial with a pro team.”
After initially earning a spot on the Riverhounds roster in 2016, Alfery returned to the Regiment in 2017, where he continued to get quality experience against NPSL competition. Later in 2017, when the Hounds were in need to sign a third goalkeeper, Alfery got the call to earn a late season contract with the Hounds.
In a time of continuing transition and expansion among the lower divisions of soccer in the U.S., Pittsburgh-area currently will not field a club in the third or fourth (or potentially fifth) divisions of the U.S. Soccer pyramid. In a move that McCoy acknowledge would have benefited the Regiment, if they continued to field a team, the more competitive NPSL, for-profit clubs will be moving on to launch their own pro league that will begin with Fall 2019 ‘Founders Cup’ competition, and full league status in 2020.
Kolarac would love to continue to play competitively, but admitted, it will be harder now.
“I’ve got a ‘big boy’ job now so we’ll see,” Kolarac said. “A few guys have reached out about other teams for the summer, so it’s up in the air.”