Growing up as a soccer player in Rochester, New York, with aspirations to play at a high level some day, Lukas Fernandes was familiar with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Bob Lilley and his local club, the Rochester Rhinos.
“I absolutely went to Rhinos games. Back in the day, that was the place to be. I went to many of the matches. I know Bob (Lilley) coached the Rhinos, but I even remember when he came and coached in Montreal and then Vancouver, when they played the Rhinos in 2008.,” Fernandes said.
Fast-forward 12 years or so, after spending the past four years in Philadelphia at Temple University where he completed an impressive senior campaign with three goals and five assists, Fernandes, made quite an impression on Lilley and the Hounds coaching staff during the invitational try-out period in early December.
“I’m not sure if he (Lilley) knew me from Rochester,” Fernandes said.
“But I knew him.”
In December, Lilley saw something he really liked, as Fernandes became the first free agent signed by the club this off season.
With Fernandes, Lilley saw a player that was a bit under the radar, who was not going to be included with the MLS SuperDraft field, yet believes he has potential.
“Lukas is a versatile player who can play any of the attacking positions,” Lilley said. “He has exceptional movement and works hard on both sides of the ball.”
Through the first four weeks of the preseason, Fernandes has persevered through the grind and has quickly adapted to playing for a detail oriented and demanding veteran coach who has won every where he’s been.
“You can see why he’s been successful for so long. Each day, you’re learning every chance you get. Every session is intense. Everyone’s pushing each other.,” Fernandes said. “It’s a step up from where I’ve been. It’s great. It’s a challenge. I’ve got to keep pushing on.”
Fernandes has more than held his own, bringing an impressive work rate and scoring touch in the Hounds preseason games, where he’s already scored three goals, the same total he accumulated at Temple last year.
Getting the starting nod in two of the past three matches, Fernandes showed he has a tendency to cause havoc, break up passes and get forward into the right spots. He scored a terrific goal against Pitt after Kenardo Forbes found him making a run into a crowded box. The first-year pro was composed, taking a quality first touch, then navigated his way to find room to deliver a perfectly placed shot in traffic.
On Wednesday against Loudoun United, on his birthday no less, Fernandes also scored the first goal of the match, after getting a nice gift in the form of a Robbie Mertz through ball to the far post area where he was unmarked.
“I like to play off the defenders. Do what I need to do to make them pay for their mistakes. I like to play with high energy,” Fernandes said after Wednesday’s 1-1 draw vs Loudoun. “I’m not afraid to take on players one-v-one either. Running through the box, looking to create chances. What ever I can do to help the team out, I’m all about it.”
Fernandes was on the left side of a trio of attacking midfielders that included second-year Hounds midfielder Anthony Velarde, and Steevan Dos Santos at the top of the attack. He appears to be quickly buying into what Lilley is looking for in his forwards and attacking midfielders.
“We have to be high energy guys, as a unit. With the ball, we’re looking to be patient, and press when we can. Pick up balls when we can, in the midfield space. If the ball gets past us we trail back, and double down and do what we need to do to win ball back,” Ferandes added.
Playing alongside the likes of two proven USL Championship veterans Dos Santos and Forbes, whom he once watched play as they led his hometown Rhinos to a USL Championship, has been an unique experience for Fernandes.
“They’re awesome. They’re great guys. On and off the field. It’s been great. I’ve learned a lot from them already,” Fernandes said. “They’re so calm on the ball. You learn so much by watching and playing alongside them. They don’t have to say much, but they talk when they need to help you out, give you pointers. For most part, they great to have around.”
The bi-lingual Fernandes has a particular bond with Dos Santos. When the first half of the Pitt preseason match came to an end, they could be seen walking to the locker room together with the veteran giving advice.
“He speaks Portuguese like me,” Dos Santos said. “It’s fun spending time with him and all the guys. For the new guys here, we need to make them feel welcome and try to help them.”
Being in Pittsburgh now provides Fernandes with a chance to play professional soccer, and still be fairly close to his native Rochester.
“I like it. I went to school in Philadelphia, but now it’s a closer drive to visit my family every now and then. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Pittsburgh. I love the stadium. But more importantly, I love the team atmosphere that we have here. Training sessions have been intense, but that will put us in position to do great things,” Fernandes added.
Fernandes has come through Pittsburgh a few times — with Temple he scored goals against both Pitt and Duquesne and he also played with the Rochester Lancers of the NPSL in matches against both the Fort Pitt Regiment and Pittsburgh Hotspurs.
Despite enjoying some soccer successes in the ‘Burgh, he’s still looking score some good pizza in Pittsburgh, though.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) February 27, 2020
With two weeks before the start of the regular season, Fernandes is making his claim to have an impact for this year’s Riverhounds SC squad.
“I am getting my body as fit as possible. Push my hardest to see if I can get minutes this season. I am doing to keep doing what I can to impress in the last two preseason matches. We’re looking forward to it. Each match and training session is an opportunity to show my abilities.,” Fernandes said.
“Hopefully we can push forward as a team and get some more results on Monday.”