Mark Forrest was committed to getting his bachelor’s degree in Management from Lehigh University, putting his ambitions as a pro soccer player on hold last year to finish up his studies.
At least until mid-May.
While Forrest was drafted by Chicago Fire with the 77th overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft in January, he came to Pittsburgh as a preseason trialist, and was officially signed by the Hounds in April.
“I was sort of in a weird spot because I never really gave much thought to leaving school early and not graduating,” Forrest said last year. “I just didn’t feel like looking my parents in the eyes and saying I wasn’t going to graduate college with everything they did to get me there.”
Riverhounds Head Coach Bob Lilley had enough firepower at the top of the attack early last season, having proven veterans Neco Brett, Steevan Dos Santos and Christian Volesky entrenched as the top three forwards on the depth chart, that he was willing to be a bit patient with bringing Forrest along.
Forrest, who was born in London, but moved with his family when he was five to Douglasville, PA, in Berks County, never expected to play professionally when he first went to Lehigh.
“Once I started playing well and playing at a higher level, I saw it as being a realistic possibility and strongly considered (playing professionally),” Forrest said after his senior year. “I said to myself that if it’s a possibility then I would like to try it and see how it goes and, if not, I’ll be more than OK.”
Ironically, Forrest ended up in Pittsburgh after being sandwiched in a recent lineage of Lehigh scorers that included Pittsburgh natives and brothers Jamie Luchini, then Josh Luchini.
Forrest was a freshman when playing with the elder Luchini, who excelled at North Allegheny and would play professionally with Bethlehem Steel FC, which shared its facilities with Lehigh. Then, the younger Luchini, who won a pair of WPIAL titles at NA in 2016 and 2017, became Forrest’s understudy with the Mountain Hawks in 2018. Forrest was the Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018, and last year it was Josh Luchini, who kept the tradition going, by earning the same honors in his sophomore year.
“I am still really good friends with Josh, now. We talk all the time,” Forrest said. “Jamie took me under his wing, and I took Josh under my wing.”
At Lehigh, Forrest was consistently really good, as he rounded into his 6-foot-3 frame in his college years, he became a dangerous threat with his ability to win balls in the air, but also used his speed and quickness and developed sound technical skills to get past defenders to be a versatile scorer.
In four years at Lehigh, Forrest scored 41 goals in 73 appearances — and caught interest from pro clubs including Lilley, who assessed Forrest in the off season with Pittsburgh Soccer Now.
“His movement is good. He’s a big body. I’m still questioning some things, but he can do a number of things well,” Lilley said. “He’s someone, who in year two, has room to move.”
In his first professional season, Forrest had a very interesting odyssey with the Hounds in 2019.
Forrest joined the Hounds in May and made his USL Championship debut against Indy Eleven on June 1.
It was late in that match against the Indy Eleven, with the Hounds trailing 2-1, when Forrest was brought on, only to be shown a red card within minutes of entering the match for a flagrant foul.
In total, Forrest played 100 minutes, had nine appearances and scored one goal. In addition to league action, he started and played 69 minutes in the U.S. Open Cup fourth round loss to Columbus Crew on June 12.
It wasn’t until the end of the season, when Forrest started to find his niche for a team that was pushing hard to finish at the top of the table. Lilley started using Forrest as a late game sub, especially in matches where the Hounds needed a late spark and goal on a set piece.
His one goal, well, that turned out to be a pretty big one.
With the Hounds battling in the last game of the season to earn three points to secure the top spot in the USL’s Eastern Conference, Forrest entered a scoreless match in Birmingham as a late sub once again.
He came through with the game-winner that secured the Hounds top-of-the-table finish in 2019, when Joe Greenspan teed-up a long-ball toward the center of the box. Forrest out-leaped Birmingham’s keeper to the ball, and his header sailed over everyone and into the net.
Again and again, @RiverhoundsSC find a way!
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) October 20, 2019
“It was an unbelievable experience to be on a team that won the regular season in the Eastern Conference,” Forrest said. “We all know it didn’t come together at the end of the season. So, for a first season, there was no better experience than being here and part of it, and watching and learning from everyone.”
When the season ended, the Hounds exercised Forrest’s option, but chose not to resign a number of players, including Brett, who scored 17 goals last season, and Volesky.
Forrest and veteran, Dos Santos, are two forwards from last year’s group who will return to the Hounds, along with rookie Lukas Fernandes (Temple) and Ropapa Mensah, who was signed in January, but has yet to report to preseason.
“He got here so late. He was behind the eight ball last year,” Lilley said in the off season when reviewing players returning with Pittsburgh Soccer Now. “Now, he’ll have a chance to make more contributions.”
On paper, it looks as though Forrest would be the understudy for Dos Santos as another big, target forward Lilley aspires to have at his disposal. Dos Santos led the USL Championship with 333 duels won, and was key in helping the Hounds extend possessions time-after-time in the final third.
Although it seems unlikely they could be paired up much at the top of the attack this season, that was the case in the first 15 minutes of the second half on Saturday against Penn State.
On Saturday, he showed his versatility, speed and agility, while Dos Santos was also on the field, as he was working to play through the lines at the top of the attack.
“Steven is so good at holding the ball up. When I am playing with him, I am looking to get behind the line. And we’re going to move up the field through him,” Forrest said after a disappointing 2-0 preseason loss to Penn State. “But when he’s not in there, the onus goes in on me. I think you saw me drop a little bit, and trying to string some balls together, and get us moving up the field.”
Having been through one go-around under Lilley and playing alongside veterans like Dos Santos and Kenardo Forbes, Forrest is eager to keep growing as a player. He’ll tap into learning from his experienced teammates if he’s going to be a productive, two-way player that fully understands how to play under Lilley, who’s never had a losing or non-playoff season as coach, as the bar is set very high for each player.
“The experience that they have. Having won the league. It’s pretty invaluable in itself. They’ve been there, and done that,”Forrest said. “Anytime they’re saying something, you’re listening. Taking it in, and trying to implement that into your game,”
Forrest is trying to make the most of his opportunity, especially now that he has a full preseason to train with the club, he’ll have plenty of room to move up on the depth chart.
“It’s huge. Last season, I was coming in mid-season, and I was at a disadvantage,” Forrest added about training from the beginning of the season. “It’s good to get the legs going, and get the match fitness, and doing whatever I can to be able to help the team. And for me, it’s good to get minutes. Preseason minutes are really important to me, as someone who didn’t have a tremendous amount last year.”