PITTSBURGH — In the transient world of the USL Championship, where yearly double-digit roster turnover is common, clubs almost have to get significant contributions from newcomers to compete.
Rookies count in that category, of course, although projecting their output is obviously more difficult than players who have previous pro track records.
That uncertainty is lessened, though, when pulling talent from NCAA soccer. While the college season is short and takes place in the cold-weather months, the increased level of competition those players face makes the job of evaluators like Riverhounds SC manager Bob Lilley a little easier.
“It’s just games at a higher intensity,” Lilley said after a recent training. “When you look at academies, there’s so many talented players playing U-17s (and) U-20s that are developing, but you go into a Division I college program, or any college program for that matter, and the speed of the game, the physical nature of the game, is going to be ratcheted up.
“Being able to execute and make those adjustments, with your final ball or your final shot, under more pressure and under more duress, you have to go through that.”
While college-trained defenders Caleb Smith (SMU) and Prosper Figbe (Virginia) have been sidelined with leg injuries, ex-NCAA ballers like Robbie Mertz (Michigan), Dani Rovira (Vermont), Sammy Kahsai (UMBC), Anthony Velarde (Division II’s Fresno Pacific) and Mark Forrest (Lehigh) have all slotted into this year’s lineup to varying degrees.
According to Lilley, the rising level of American soccer practically requires young players to kick it in the NCAAs if they’re not able to sprout from academies right into the pros.
“It’s time for them to develop, to mature,” Lilley said. “The demands we put on guys — I can be unhappy a lot of the time — so they have to be able to handle it and come back and still be able to assert themselves and have the confidence to deal with some adversity and those types of things. That’s one of the things this group has done a good job (of) this year.”
The schooling, so to speak, doesn’t end there. In the case of Mertz, the best of the Hounds’ rookie bunch with four goals and an assist, he has the opportunity to learn from one of the club’s all-time best.
Not only did Pittsburgh’s seventh-year midfielder Kevin Kerr once coach Mertz’s little sister as a Riverhounds Development Academy instructor, he also squared off with Mertz when the latter’s Michigan Wolverines took on the Hounds at Highmark Stadium in a 2016 exhibition.
The then-freshman Mertz scored in the second minute on that blustery March afternoon. As a first-year pro, the Upper St. Clair native has been similarly on the front foot when it comes to absorbing lessons from Kerr, who coincidentally set the club’s career assist record on a delicious cross to Mertz last month.
“For me,” Mertz said, “it’s just trying to emulate the way he thinks through the game, actually. I think, physically and technically, we have a lot of similarities. I’d like to think so, anyway.
“What I’m trying to pick up from him is … the decision-making he has on the ball. The movement away from the ball is fantastic. It’s actually really underrated. He’s really busy in the game, offensively and defensively. I think (I’m) just trying to pick up on that a little bit.”
Then there’s the off-the-field influence, which Mertz proclaims to be just as valuable for a tooth-cutter like himself. He once watched Kerr ply his trade from the South Side stands, so Mertz appreciates that his elder doesn’t hold that fact over him, or the rest of the rooks, for that matter.
“He’s just a great locker room guy,” Mertz said of Kerr. “He’s older and more experienced but he’s really relatable and gets along with everyone really well and is a great leader. To have a guy like that, who’s been in the locker room for seven, eight years, and doesn’t put himself above any of us, I think it’s just a lot of humility and a good presence to have.”
Forrest, who joined the Hounds midstream in May after finishing his studies across the Commonwealth, has had more of a halting start to his pro dream after winning Patriot League offensive player of the year twice in a row.
A questionable red card marred Forrest’s very first minute of Hounds action June 1 at Indy, but the 6-foot-3 forward started in a U.S. Open Cup tilt at Columbus, then put up a hard-working sub appearance to help the Hounds stifle Bethlehem Steel FC on the Fourth of July.
But just three days later in Charlotte, Forrest wasn’t effective and got subbed off after an hour. The man who replaced him that night, 6-foot-4 veteran striker Steevan Dos Santos, predictably serves as Forrest’s primary role model on the squad.
“Especially a guy like Steevan, a fellow big guy, I can learn a lot from Steevan, for sure,” Forrest told me. “Just watching him in training has been good so far. The way he works … he works so hard. He drops into the midfield and does so much work for us in the midfield. You don’t really see (that) a lot of other places from a forward. I think he alleviates a lot of pressure.”
You know what else alleviates pressure? Adapting to the demands of the pro game with several peers alongside.
“Yeah, it’s been great,” Forrest said of the rookie camaraderie. “We all get along well and we’re all sort of learning the ropes together, and that’s all you can ask for.”