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PSN One-on-One: Catching up with former Riverhounds midfielder Danny Earls

File Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

PSN One-on-One: Catching up with former Riverhounds midfielder Danny Earls

Author’s Note: Recently, I had an opportunity catch up with former Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC midfielder Danny Earls, who has been back in his home country, Ireland, since his playing days in the United States ended in 2017 for a special project that I have been working on through the Winter months. We will be sharing more details about this special endeavor on Pittsburgh Soccer Now in next month or so. However, because of the current circumstances due to COVID-19 halting the Riverhounds SC/USL Championship season, and frankly all soccer here in Pittsburgh, as well as it being St. Patrick’s Day, I thought it would be fitting to provide Pittsburgh soccer fans with some bonus material from what I was working on and I am looking forward to sharing at a later date.  On behalf of everyone at Pittsburgh Soccer Now, we hope you are staying safe. 

 

After a few stints with Rochester Rhinos (2008-09, 2012-13) along with a MLS Cup winning season with the Colorado Rapids in 2010, Danny Earls, a native of Wicklow, Ireland, made his mark and settled in to make his soccer home in the U.S. when in Pittsburgh, with the Riverhounds from 2014 to 2017.

As a tough as nails central midfielder, mostly in role as a defensive minded stopper, Earls was recently described by his former teammate Rob Vincent a ‘never say die’ type player.

“I like to say thing that I was all in on every play, but with Danny it always showed itself more,” Vincent recalled. “I was more composed, calm. Any pictures you see of Danny, it looks like he’s been running for four hours. He was incredibly fit. Even before games, he was soaking wet. He would slick his hair back. Tape up arms up from an old injury.  He would go into the bathroom and soak himself.  From minute one to minute ninety or when the whistle finally would blow, for Danny it was war. You knew he would never take a day off, and if you did, he’d be screaming at you.” 

Earls made an immediate impression on Pittsburgh soccer fans.

In his first season, he was named Steel Army’s Riverhounds Player of the Year in 2014.

Overall, he scored four goals in 76 appearances in Pittsburgh, as he captained the 2015 club that would complete an exciting season which they would clinch a playoff spot in the last game of the regular season, against rivals Harrisburg City Islanders in the same season that the clubs would begin play for the Keystone Derby Cup.

Two of his four goals for Pittsburgh came in a matter of a nine-minute period in the most remarkable comeback in club history, in the famed ‘Miracle on the Mon’ 6-5 win vs Harrisburg City Islanders.

Much of our interview with Earls centered around that memorable 2015 season and remarkable game.

Before sharing our Q&A below with Earls about some of his fondest moments in Pittsburgh, we’re happy to report that Earls continues to use his artistic talents to stay involved in the game, and also lends his talents to numerous clients, including ABC, Disney, Major League Soccer and Football Association of Ireland.

You can view samples of his work on his social media accounts.

https://www.instagram.com/dannyearls16/?hl=en

Earls put together comic art for the program book for the International Friendly played between Ireland and the United States men’s teams in Dublin on Saturday in tribute to Irish international John O’Shea — in what would be the legend’s farewell match for the Irish National team.

Here’s the cover of the program booklet (as drawn by Earls)

Highlights from Pittsburgh Soccer Now Q&A with Danny Earls: 

It’s been more than a couple years now since you’ve been in Pittsburgh, how have you been? 

“It’s been weird. It’s been crazy. Of course I miss the game, and being around the boys. I miss America. I am keeping busy with my artwork and have a lot going on. But, it’s all worked out, great to be back home.”  

What was your first impression when you arrived in Pittsburgh in 2014 of the Riverhounds franchise? It must have been tough, being on a team that had a lot of expectations, but didn’t win a match until June, and seeing a coach get fired in season. 

“I finally came late that preseason. (Head Coach) Justin (Evans) kept ringing me and ringing me. Blueprint for the team was great. They were looking for some experienced players. I had played in MLS, and some in the league (USL) already. He let me be me. After eight games, we struggled, and Justin was gone. It was tough, because he was a massive reason why I wanted to come to the club. I knew him from playing and competing against him over the years. It was a real tough one. I’ll be honest, I didn’t like the way that happened. Niko (Katic) and Scotty (Gibson) took over and started to get team back on track a bit. We were never going to make playoffs, but we started to build something and got better as season went on.” 

It appeared that you were able to build from camaraderie from that season, and spilled into 2015 to lead the club to a resurgent season. There were a few others, but there really seemed to be some special chemistry between you, Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr, what made things special between the three of you?   

“The British boys and I, haha. We all love football. We worked as hard as we possibly could and we were together in Pittsburgh. It was unique. We played the game the right way. The best mates I’ve had in football. Niko kind of relied on us to keep things going in 2014. Robbie was a special player and worked so hard to become a top scorer. Kevin kept in the club for a long time, and was a top man. Probably the best player Pittsburgh’s ever had.”

You and Steven Okai were solid bets to play in the central midfield with that team, but what position were you always the most comfortable playing?  

“Growing up it was always center mid. Coming over to America, with a lot of big boys in the middle, sometimes I got shifted around. I played and was just as comfortable as a left back. That year, me and Stevie locked down the middle of the park. We built a pretty good partnership.” 

Once you and Steven locked down those central midfield spots, Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr went to wide positions, that really seemed to work?  

“It did. It was strange. If you told me that Robbie and Kevin would be our top scorers that preseason, I would have laughed you out of the park. The way they took off, that first game against Harrisburg, a 5-2 win, gave them confidence to kick on. The system worked well. The thing about football, once that happens, we started looking for them. It was a snowball effect. They had cracking performances that year, they were unbelievable.” 

From the start of that season, that edition of the Riverhounds were never out of a match, right? 

“No matter whether you’re winning or losing, we were going to play, and work as hard as we could. Once you get a couple of results where you come from behind, you always feel like you can do it. And when you have players that lead by example, you can ride those coattails, and it can happen and be crazy. “

 

Danny Earls was Riverhounds captain vs NY Red Bulls II USL Playoff (Sept 2015)

What do you remember the most about what we now call the ‘Miracle on the Mon’ match, especially in the early part and falling behind by three goals at home to the Riverhounds’ rivals Harrisburg in May 2015? 

“There was something about Harrisburg-Pittsburgh, that every week could have been a crazy game. Every time we played them, especially that year, there was always a lot on the line against them. That first half, everything clicked for them. They had some good, good players, and when they were playing well, it was hard to stop them.”

“It was a combination of things — them playing well, and us not showing up. We came into the second half thinking, down 3-0, lets just put in a good effort, maybe get a goal or two, at least not walk out of here embarrassed”

“So, who could have imagined what would have happened after that?”  

What happened in the locker room, at halftime?   

(Head Coach) Mark Steffens was always cool and calm. But from time-to-time, in those situations, people need to let steam off. Coach needs to vent. It was one of those ones when the manager had to tell us he wasn’t pleased. It was one of those things. He might have kicked a ball or two in the locker room. Ha ha. He got the lads attention.”  

Other players, like Rob and Kevin, said their mindset, like you said was to come out in the second half, and play for pride. Did you really believe you could win that match, being down 3-0? 

“No chance. Three-nil down. To be fair. But that’s what makes sports amazing.That’s why people watch it. Robbie got the first one. Then it’s 3-1, and we’re thinking, alright, maybe, if we get another one, we have a chance. Then it’s a game. It was definitely a thing that when we scored the next goal (Amare Soumah’s header), to make it 3-2, then there was a belief.”

“Then you believe you can go on to take it.” 

That match had a lot of momentum swings, even after that, they went back up 4-2 which stood until the 80th minute. Then you probably had a couple of the biggest plays of your career, right? Starting with Kevin Kerr’s penalty kick attempt that was stopped by Harrisburg’s goalkeeper Nick Noble. 

“To be fair, that was probably the only penalty that Kevin had missed to that point. You’re always, as a player, need to be active, and be ready. You don’t want to be caught flat-footed if there’s a chance that comes your way.”

“In that case, I got to it, getting on the end of (the deflection from Noble’s save) it. That’s just instinct. That just happens. I can’t explain it. That’s just sports. The keeper was already on the floor. It wasn’t that hard of a finish.”

They scored again to make it 5-3, and you’re now right on the edge of stoppage time. I know you scored a pretty dynamite goal earlier in that season against Toronto FC II. You were in a similar position. Now, the ball comes to you, and you’re about 35 to 40 yards from goal, what are you thinking?  

“The goal vs Toronto, I had more time on it, and absolutely smashed it. Against Harrisburg, the situation we were in, you just are trying to do anything to get a goal back at that point. Maybe put something on goal, and hope the keeper is off his mark.” 

“It was one of those, make sure you hit it right, and with the way the craziness was going, it just might have a chance to go in. If it was 1-1, I might be thinking differently, maybe getting the ball into the box and try to build something up instead of me shooting, but it’s one of those, you’ve got nothing to lose, have a crack at it, you know. It was a crazy game. I’d like to say that I did that every day in training, but the boys will tell you otherwise ‘

After the match, when you got around to checking out the highlights, what was your reaction when there was no video capturing that spectacular volley strike from way out ?  

“I really never watch the highlights. It’s just not what I usually do. But after that game, after what happened, I did want to see it. I would love to get that one back.” 

I remember after you scored that, you picked up the ball, and started running back to the middle of the field. Did you finally feel that you could win that match?  

“I think I gestured to the crowd too, and wanting everyone to get into it. When that happened, we thought, we have a chance here. Those were always tough games I always prepared to keep playing hard to the end. We always scored against them. When that happened, they showed they were mentally weak. And that showed us, we have a chance here. That was just the beginning of stoppage time. Seeing that go in,we definitely believed we had a chance. We could complete this” 

The Hounds drew a free kick a few minutes into stoppage time. Lebo Moloto and Kevin Kevin were on top of the ball, and Rob Vincent was left wide open near the top of the center circle. The score is 5-4 Harrisburg. Where were you, and what were you thinking at that point. 

“I was usually the one on top of the center circle, to stop a counter attack  From a game management point of view, from Harrisburg’s point of view, they would probably love to have that one back. They were probably thinking, what were we doing? Robbo was probably the only person you’ll lay the ball off to at that moment. That was definitely on the Harrisburg manager, who probably thought they could have done more.”  

That sent off a celebration, but you guys had just tied it, there was still a lot of confidence, and sure enough, you guys completed the comeback very late in stoppage time as Lebo Moloto and Kevin Kerr hooked up for the game-winner. 

“That was the weirdest feeling ever (after scoring the tying goal). We felt like we couldn’t do anything but win the game. There’s times in football, in sports when you don’t have a chance. But what Lebo and Kevin did there, showed incredible nerve, at that point in time, to win the game. I never thought we couldn’t do it, especially when we got it to 3-2. It was a strange feeling. Never had it before, or since. It was a special group that year.”

 

 

That was a talented group of players, with a lot of scoring ability. What was it like to play with that group that season as many players built confidence individually, and as a team that year?  

“It was a great group of lads. It was the best group we had in my time in Pittsburgh actually. As the captain, I was proud to play with those guys. It seemed as if every guy that had a chance to play with that squad that year, made it count. Sometimes you get through and to the middle of the season, and guys fade away. Not with that group. That group was so close, there was a bond. There were a couple of things that happened through the year that made us come together even more. It was a real close group of lads by the end of the year. Looking back on it now, it was a cracking group of players. We could have done more in New York (in USL Eastern Conference Quarterfinal, 4-2 loss in 2OT). It was there for the taking. I felt we could have done more that season. It’s too bad we came up short.” 

What did it mean to be part of a rivalry like that, between the Riverhounds and the City Islanders, and was it the best rivalry you’ve been a part of? You were a big part of it from 2014 to 2017.  

“When I was with Colorado Rapids, I was part of the Rocky Mountain Cup, between Rapids and Real Salt Lake, and that was pretty intense. It (Keystone Derby Cup) felt a bit manufactured at first, but as the season wore on, it became real, and very intense, and most importantly, it was great for the fans. All we do as players, was play for the fans. We knew how much it meant to them to play for the Cup. That’s all that matters. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to play and win every match, but to do that for the fans, that was most important. We ended up losing one of them it was brutal. It was for the fans bragging rights against Harrisburg. It was an exciting series of games. “

That’s a good point, it may have felt that it may have been manufactured at first, but It seems there were a lot of top and bottom moments against Harrisburg. 

“You look back, and there were some boys that you wanted to, competitively you never want to lose to. And for me, that was always my biggest attribute, and my biggest downfall, was my competitive streak. Against Harrisburg, you want to win the Cup bad for the fans, and I remember getting sent off down there as well (in 2016). After you know, felt bad. But there was something with that rivalry, that, we were so close, and we always wanted to get one up against them. I did get a bit more fired up against them than other games.”

Looking back, what was it like to play for the Riverhounds, and in Pittsburgh for those four seasons?   

“It was like a second home to me. I absolutely loved it.  The blue collar, working class people, that understand hard work. They appreciate hard work. That encapsulates me too. Ability wise, there were probably better players than me, that’s for sure. But working hard, giving everything I could. I don’t know anyone who wanted it more. That’s not patting myself on the back, that’s just wanting to give the fans more. The Pittsburgh fans appreciated that. The more you appreciate it, to more you want to do it. It’s a phenomenal place, and the fans. The organization had a lot of challenges and a lot going on, but it has the potential to be a phenomenal football club, and they’re starting to show it now. I am super happy that Bob (Lilley’s) come in and brought a winning club to Pittsburgh. I am definitely rooting for them.”

Here’s a tweet from yours truly, coming from Earls’ last game with the Riverhounds: 

 

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for 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 US. 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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