PITTSBURGH — It was sheer happenstance, but the fact that Robbie Mertz was the only member of Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in the camera frame when the final whistle sounded Sunday night in Birmingham was extremely appropriate.
His arms-overhead pose at that moment summed up the feelings of many across the fanbase.
As the rarest breed of Hound — an actual Pittsburgh-born-and-trained player — the 22-year-old Mertz can appreciate the significance of finishing first in the USL Championship Eastern Conference table more than most.
Raised in the South Hills suburb of Upper St. Clair, the former University of Michigan standout both participated in the Riverhounds Development Academy and attended several games at Highmark Stadium as a fan. This season, the 5-foot-7 Mertz played in 26 matches, finishing third on the team in goals (six) and fourth in assists (four).
I caught up with the high-motor midfielder after a training session this week on the South Side, as the Hounds look forward to their postseason opener Saturday night against expansion side Birmingham Legion FC …
Matt Gajtka: Were the last couple of matches — both 1-0 wins earned in the final minutes — a good preview for the playoffs?
Robbie Mertz: Yeah. In both games, we wore them down. We stayed the course and kept creating chances. One of them was going to go in. Saint Louis, they were really fighting for their lives. Birmingham, they got the information that they were in (the playoffs) already. That changed that game a bit, but it’s still tough to beat anybody in this league. It was still a really good battle. We had a couple games down the stretch — Charleston a few weeks ago, too — that really tested us and will be good preparation.
MG: What’s the feeling amongst the team regarding finishing at the top of the table? It hasn’t been done before, in a division or conference, since 2004. So what’s the feeling of accomplishment as you head into the playoffs?
RM: A guy like Kevin Kerr, who’s been here for seven years now, he understands what this club has been through. And so do I, watching them a bit growing up. I know that it hasn’t always been the brightest days here, from a soccer standpoint. So, to be able to turn that around and achieve something already this season is pretty cool. I feel like we’re doing it for the city. A lot of the guys share that (feeling). We know as pros that nothing’s guaranteed in this business. A lot of guys go their careers and struggle to get into the position we’re in right now, so it’s pretty special.
MG: What do you anticipate the playoffs to be like in terms of atmosphere and intensity?
RM: I have high expectations. I wasn’t here last year for the playoff game, but I know everyone says it was a whole other level from what we’re used to, even in the sellout games in the regular season. Everyone just has a heightened sense of awareness and enthusiasm. I think that comes with the Pittsburgh culture. People in this town really appreciate high-level sports. When you’re competing for something like a championship, they pay attention. I would expect a pretty good turnout on Saturday. I’m really excited for it.
MG: You’ve played in some big games in college. What does it take to succeed in games where everyone’s at a fever pitch?
RM: It’s a good point. You just have to find your rhythm and weather the storm early, because you know the first 10, 15 minutes of a game like that, everyone’s going to come out flying, because of the adrenaline. Just find your rhythm, find your way into the game, focus on doing your job and growing in confidence as the game goes on. It’s a 90-minute, maybe a 120-minute game. You have time to settle in, but at the same time you can’t come out flat. You don’t want the game to be over in the first 20 minutes. Just come out and do your job, be steady and handle your business.
MG: Lastly, what was it like to see a fellow rookie like Mark Forrest, who hasn’t played a lot, come through with the big goal (to clinch first place)?
RM: I’ve gotten really close with Mark this year. I think everyone on the team was absolutely thrilled for him, because he’s such a great guy. He’s done everything the way this year. He’s just stayed the course, even with limited playing time. It’s funny: I actually told him before the game, ‘I think you’ve got one in you.’ Because he came on against Saint Louis (two weeks ago) and almost put one in the net there. Steevan (Dos Santos) scored on that play. You can tell (Forrest) has a goal-scorer’s mentality and he’s got it in him. Yeah, we were absolutely thrilled for him.