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With vets guiding youth, Pittsburgh Hotspurs building toward strong finish in its first NPSL season

Photo by Brad Oskowski (Instagram @mynameisbread)

With vets guiding youth, Pittsburgh Hotspurs building toward strong finish in its first NPSL season

If the Pittsburgh Hotspurs first full season in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) has proven anything, it is that building a new club is a process.

Despite coming up short in the win column for much of its inaugural season, things appear to be coming together for the club focused on being around for the long haul as a quality developmental team in the U.S. Soccer pyramid’s Fourth Division.

After failing to pick up a point in its first five matches, the Hotspurs came though with  four-points last weekend, including earning its first win in club history, defeating FC Buffalo, 4-1, at Ellis Field in Shadyside on Sunday. Playing with confidence, the Hotspurs rolled in its breakthrough win with a balanced attack including scoring contributions from Ethan Hackenberg, Mohamed Balde, Noah Mehta and Kevin Stoffle.

“It’s been everything we’ve hoped for,” Tom Campbell, Hotspurs head coach, said. “I was very anxious at first. I didn’t know what to expect. With a lot of different players, personalities, when we first started. Lots of young players with a few veterans. We knew this would be a process. But, despite our early results, from there, we’ve really grown as a club.”

Early season losses aside, which dropped the Hotspurs record to 1-5-1 overall, Campbell cited his club had numerous games where his club carried the better of play and created more chances playing a possession-based system.

Unfortunately for the Hotspurs, making errors and mistakes playing the ball out of the back with some hesitancy cost Campbell’s squad in the results column. It’s been a club still getting used to playing together — in a system that requires everyone to be on the same page.

Campbell’s club learned quickly that making mistakes and errors at this level will punish a team.

“It was a little frustrating,”Nick Kolarac, Hotspurs team captain. “We’ve had to keep our heads up, and eventually we’ll come out of it a better group, and better players.”

BRAD OSKOWSKI HOTSPURS PHOTO GALLERY (vs Cleveland)

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Campbell sought a balance in building this club in year one, relying on veterans to help the club weather some of the early storms, but more importantly, help guide the younger players in the right direction.

He has 28-year old Kolarac, who starred more than a decade ago at West Allegheny High School, with Century United in its early years, then went on to play at St. Francis University and a few stints with pro teams including the Riverhounds SC.  Balde is the team’s elder at 29 and also serves as a coach at his alma mater, Bethany College, who’s been playing at this level for a number of years, most recently with the Fort Pitt Regiment.  In addition to Kolarac, another former Riverhound, goalkeeper Keasel Broome is among a handful of others who provide experience to the squad.

“The veteran players have been fantastic,” Campbell added. “They’ve set the tempo every day in training. They’ve kept the morale high, even when the results weren’t going our way.”

Both Campbell and Kolarac acknowledged that they’ve had to be patient with bringing together a roster that includes numerous players currently in their early college years, and some that have yet to make it to that level.

“There’s definitely a learning curve,” Kolarac said. “I’ve enjoyed this role. I am captain, and doing my part in teaching what the game is like at this level. Many of them are not used to playing in a system like this. Earlier in the season, we were giving away too much space in the back.”

Even though they were competitive, scoring a pair of goals in first two losses to Erie and Cleveland, the Hotspurs would struggle, getting shut out by Rochester twice and FC Buffalo on the road to start 0-5.

“There’s a high skill level that it takes to play in NPSL,” Kolarac, who played with the Fort Pitt Regiment the past two seasons before they folded, said. “The difference is when core group of players come back two or three years in a row. That’s what separates the top teams. That’s where we’d like this club to be in a few years. I can see that happening.”

Kolarac is one of the Hotspurs’ few veterans who’s played with the Riverhounds SC and for a few indoor pro teams, and has an idea of what it was like to come up through youth programs — and then adjust to much higher level competition.

“I played a lot in PA West when I was younger. We played a lot of kick and chase here in Western PA. For the younger guys, they’re just learning now how to play this way.” Kolarac said, then added. “This is the way the game should be played. It’s true soccer.”

Intent to cut down on some defensive mistakes, last weekend provided a key turning point for the Hotspurs in picking up its first points of the season in a 0-0 draw at Erie.

“It was a pretty even match, but in the second half, the more experienced Erie side started to take control of the match. We really wanted to come out of there with a result. We put in two new center backs, and added some fresh legs in the second half by bringing on two of our U17 players. We tightened things up defensively, and our goalkeeper, Keaton Jennings came up with some big saves.”

For Campbell, the turning point wasn’t just about parking the bus, but turning to the young players and giving them the chance to succeed against high level competition. While Erie does not look like they’ll repeat as Eastern Division champions this year, they still field a squad with a lot of returning players, who are in their later college years.

The two U17 contributors, Nate Rodenelli and Lucas Alese, each from the Hotspurs Youth Academy, provided what Campbell noted as a “massive” boost as they came on in the second half vs Erie

“The opportunities that these younger players have now, to play with a club like this, and to play at this level. They’re so fortunate,” Kolarac added. “I didn’t have this opportunity when I was that age. I didn’t play PDL or NPSL level until I was in my later college years. They’re way ahead of where I was when I was there age. Many of these young players are better than I was.”

In addition to the U17s, the core of the Hotspurs group really falls with the players that are either college underclassman and a few that won’t be starting their higher education (and soccer playing) until this Fall or later.

Kolarac was raving about many of the young guys including:

Luke Mort’s (Greensburg CC/Pitt) ability to blow by people.

Anthony Harding‘s (Norwin/Pitt) overall toughness and ability to win his battles.

Tate Mahoney‘s willingness to take on defenders in one-on-one situations.

Hackenburg’s maturity and calmness on the ball.

In fact, Hackenburg won’t be going to college just yet.  The Cranberry Twp native who played with the Cleveland Internationals the past three years, is preparing to head to Valencia, Spain next season to play in Eture Sport Men’s Gap Year Program which gives athletes the opportunity to compete in the highest U19 level in Spain.

Campbell added that his younger keeper, Jennings has risen to the challenge while picking up the majority of the minutes between the posts this season, even with a proven veteran Broome on the roster.

With some work conflicts for Broome coming into play, Jennings has seized his opportunity to get more playing time. Jennings led North Catholic to its first WPIAL title and the PIAA State Championship match in 2017.  Still, the veteran keeper, Broome, has played a role in helping with mentoring Jennings, who is headed to George Mason this Fall after completing his freshman year at Robert Morris.

“He’s (Jennings) been phenomenal, come up big for us much of the season in goal. Keasel’s been great, very professional and supportive of Keaton,” Campbell said.

Things finally came together for the group in Sunday’s 4-1 win over FC Buffalo, a team that beat them 3-0 just a few weeks before.

BRAD OSKOWSKI HOTSPURS PHOTO GALLERY (vs FC Buffalo)

follow Brad Oskowski on Instagram @mynameisbread 

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“We finally took more chances,” Campbell said. “We had some great combination play to set up the first goal. We got to the half feeling confident, and from there, we really came on strong in the second half with three goals.”

With three games remaining, the Hotspurs are now looking to finish its first-ever campaign on a roll.

First up, this Sunday at 2 p.m. at Ellis School, the Hotspurs will host Syracuse FC, who they will face twice in its final three matches of the season, then a rematch on the road at first-place Cleveland before ending the season with a return match against Syracuse.

“In terms of results, Syracuse has been in similar situation as us,” Campbell added. “We have more confidence now. The boys are training hard, and there’s no reason why we can’t maximize our points in the final three games.”

Kolarac feels he’s got plenty left in the tank to keep playing at this level, and is currently managing a full-time job along with daily training sessions.

“It’s not ideal, but I make it work,” Kolarac said. “I love it. Love the challenge, and it’s been a great experience. I couldn’t be happier with this role.”

With three games to go, Kolarac feels his current squad is on track for a strong finish.

“Ending the season with three wins would be unbelievable. But with the way we’re playing, we’re expecting to win  We’ve really come together playing this style,” Kolarac said.

“We can do it.”

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Pittsburgh Soccer Now will plan to have coverage from Hotspurs-Syracuse match at Ellis Field on Sunday. Kickoff is at 2 p.m. Follow along on Twitter (@pghsoccernow / @pghsoccerscribe

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John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the United States. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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