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Velarde working to have big influence in ‘dream come true’ opportunity with Hounds

Photo by Rachael McKriger/Pittsburgh Soccer Now

Pittsburgh, Pa. — Anthony Velarde arrived in Pittsburgh just in time to miss the snow storm that ravaged the Midwest and East Coast almost two weeks ago.

His reaction?

“Thank God,” Velarde said.

Not even being from the “cold” part of California would’ve prepared him for that. However, Velarde is adjusting to the new temperatures in his new home of Pittsburgh. On January 14, Velarde signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, with a club option for 2020. He was the first rookie to come straight out of college and into a professional environment brought in by Bob Lilley this season.

So Velarde packed his bags and headed from sunny California to snowy Pittsburgh. But, the weather hasn’t been the only adjustment for Velarde. Instead, he’s more focused on adjusting to becoming a professional athlete.

He got the call that he was looking to be signed by Lilley while at the zoo with his daughter.

“We were looking at the lions and I got a call from my head coach from college [Jaime Ramirez] telling me that they were interested in signing me,” Velarde said, recalling the moment with a smile. “It’s a dream come true. To be able to step onto the pitch and play for a team that’s been around for so long? I was grateful and happy with the news. I knew something was going to happen, but I didn’t know with who or when. But, I’m grateful to this club for giving me the chance to play at this level.”

“You can only be ecstatic.”

Quick, open-minded learning

Velarde is already learning quick to what being a professional is like.

He has plenty of veterans surrounding him, but one of his biggest advice givers has been Thomas Vancaeyezeele. Last year, Vancaeyezeele was in Velarde’s shoes. He was a rookie entering the USL straight out of college. The move paid off, as Vancaeyezeele made a team-high 32 starts and appeared in 33 matches. He scored twice.

Velarde said the first questions he had for the second-year player was the difference from college to the USL.

“He told me the speed of play, the physicality is a lot different,” Velarde said. “I know I have the technical ability to play at this level. I just need to get adjusted to the roughness, speed of play and the sense of playing one-two touches a little quicker. And, I think I’m getting better at that. It’s already one week and I feel like I’m getting crisper and quicker.”

Velarde also has a large locker room of experienced players to learn from. Plenty of the roster featured for the Rochester Rhinos when Lilley was the head coach. Kenardo Forbes, Christian Volesky and Steevan dos Santos were all on the 2015 USL championship winning team.

Velarde said that his teammates have given him plenty of direction in training.

“The guys tell me that I need to work hard for it, I have to work hard to get in the team, the starting lineup and be effective,” Velarde said. “I have to be open minded and really take the criticism not so tough. Little by little, I’m getting better at that. I think that’s been helping me a lot. That’s key for my growth here.”

In the end, Velarde has one main goal for what he wants his role on the team to be.

“I think I can be a big influence in this team.”

Showing the coaches what he’s got

Velarde has called the transition from a college to professional environment “good.”

He said that the first week of preseason was dedicated to getting adjusted and learning as much as he could. Velarde has complimented his teammates for answering any and all of his questions. However, he credits his new coaches for giving me the hands-on instruction he is now experiencing.

Velarde called Lilley “different” from his college coaches.

“[Coach Lilley] is always telling me what to do and what to do to be effective on the field,” Velarde said. “At first, it’s a little rough and you have to wake up. Bob is helping me a lot with helping me learn where I can be effective on the field. It’s an adjustment at times, but I know it’s so I can get better for the season.”

Velarde appreciates the quick jump from practices to actual preseason game simulation.

Getting into game play is helping me grow,” Velarde said. “I’m trying to get ready as fast as I can for when the season comes. I want to be at the top level. I want to be ready to start if I have to, come off the bench if I have to. I’ll do whatever I have to for the team.”

His work is paying off — from his college days, too. When he was signed, Lilley called Velarde a “very gifted technical player who also brings creativity and sophistication in attacking areas.”

“We feel he can bring goals and assists, and are excited to help him make the jump from the college to the professional game,” Lilley said.

Setting himself to the USL standard

Now that Velarde is in Pittsburgh, he’s adapting to being a professional.

Velarde said he looks at the stands during practices and can’t wait to see fans fill the seats in a few weeks. He’s excited to give them something to cheer about, including goals and assists.

And, despite being a rookie, he knows that there’s an expectation for him in regard to responsibility.

“I’m a professional now. I need to put myself in that standard,” Velarde said.

Velarde and the Riverhounds SC will continue their busy preseason this weekend, hosting Duquesne University on Friday at 7 p.m. at Highmark Stadium. Meanwhile, on Sunday at 2 p.m., Pittsburgh will host the University of Charleston (West Virginia). The regular-season kicks off on March 16 against the Tampa Bay Rowdies down in Florida.

Pittsburgh will not hold the home opener until April 13, hosting Hartford Athletic at 7 p.m.

Right now for Velarde, it’s all about the adaption and preseason preparations.

“The more I adapt, the better I’ll be here in the future,” he said.

PHOTO: Anthony Velarde, the newest rookie for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, from Pittsburgh’s preseason clash against Gannon University on Feb. 10, 2019, at Highmark Stadium. Photo by Rachael McKriger/Pittsburgh Soccer Now.

The sport of soccer is Rachael Kriger's area of expertise. Kriger covers Steel City FC for Pittsburgh Soccer Now and provides various columns, with occasional work with PITT Women's Soccer. Elsewhere, Kriger covers the Riverhounds SC for PGH Sports Castle. Her coverage expanded to Last Word on Soccer, where she began NWSL coverage and USWNT reporting. Kriger is a member of the official NWSL Media Association and the North American Soccer Reporters, serving as the NASR's Communications Director.

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