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Hotspurs, Arsenal collaboration to provide direct pathway for youth to NPSL, WPSL clubs

Pittsburgh Hotspurs men's first team competed in its first season in the NPSL in 2019. (PSN File Photo)

Pittsburgh Hotspurs Academy Director and First-Team Women’s Coach Tom Ovenden and Arsenal FC of PA’s Club Development Officer Jonathan Velotta got together this Winter for lunch.

After some pleasant food and conversation, they decided it would be in the best interest of each of their established soccer programs to create viable pathway to the Hotspurs’ NPSL and WPSL First Team squads.

This week, the clubs formally announced, beginning in the 2020-21 season, players from both the Arsenal Academy Program and the Hotspurs College Prep Phase (U16-U19) will have the opportunity to earn a spot with the Hotspurs’ NPSL or WPSL First Team squads.

“We had a great conversation, starting talking a lot about our philosophies, the structure of our clubs, our methodology, and the more we talked, and looked at geography, staffing, it made a lot sense,” Velotta said via Zoom conference call on Thursday.

This collaboration between the two clubs comes in a time of great transition, as soccer platforms in the United States are undergoing many changes.

“This allows us to create a unique development model, that provides a clear pathway from youth to the adult levels for all of our players,” Ovenden said.

Last year, the Pittsburgh Hotspurs jumped at an opportunity that Overden described as ‘falling on their lap’, as the club fielded a team in the National Premier Soccer League for the first time, after PA West run Fort Pitt Regiment dropped out of the NPSL. As the Hotspurs quickly assembled its 2019 roster, they did include some of its college prep phase players to train with the First Team.

“It was a really good thing, but it all happened quickly. We felt rushed, but we learned a lot from that experience,” Ovenden explained.

Last Fall, the Hotspurs went one step further, taking over operations of the Women’s Premier Soccer League’s Pittsburgh squad, Steel City FC to become Hotspurs’ women’s first team.

At their specific sites, including Arsenal in the City of Pittsburgh, Hotspurs Butler and Hotspurs Harmarville, the two clubs now play to work together to create a deeper pool of players for the NPSL and WPSL teams, creating a model that will further challenge players at each location without extensive travel.

“We have an opportunity to model a program what most clubs overseas are doing. Ultimately, our goal is to see at least 50 percent of our players from our programs to be part of the Hotspurs first teams,” Ovenden said.

Velotta pointed out that while his club, Arsenal, may not get as much notoriety as some others in the area, they’ve consistently produced and provided many quality players first-rate training and competitive opportunities. He added that Arsenal club officials have been seeking ways to create adult team for year, and now they can give their players added incentives to play at one of the highest levels in the U.S.

“Now, we’ll have a carrot that we can dangle,” Velotta said. “This can provide great experience for our youth players to train with, and have an opportunity to some day play alongside first team players. Right now, we have four or five players that are crushing it in college, and will be excited to have an opportunity to come home, and be a part of this program.”

 In the United States Soccer pyramid, NPSL is currently a fourth division entity, while the WPSL currently is the next level behind the first division NWSL.

Both sides made it absolutely clear that this is not a merger, but a collaboration between the two separate clubs.

“That’s one of the best things about this, is that this is something we can control, and we’ll be steering the ship in terms of providing higher level opportunities for our players,” Velotta added. “When you look around in the past 10 years or so, the soccer landscape has been filled with collaborations. We’re very much in the dating stage, but we are excited about it and want to see how this develops.”

In the Zoom meeting with Pittsburgh Soccer Now on Thursday, Velotta and Ovenden spoke in additional detail about the opportunity for their clubs with aligning missions and visions to have its experienced coaches work together, share resources and complement the quality team training that is already in place. Each believes that this added development will enhance the overall player experience, even as both clubs try to move forward in these challenging times where there’s a level of uncertainty.

“We want to keep all of our kids at their local sites right now, and for as long as possible, but with a clear pathway to the highest levels,” Overden reiterated. “We are committed to making things easier for our players and their families.

Both NPSL and WPSL 2020 seasons were cancelled by early April. Both Ovenden and Velotta also said that while things are limited in terms of training and competition, they are proceeding and planning as if it will be a normal year ahead for their programs, with their sights set on seeing players from both clubs being part of the Hotspurs return to NPSL and WPSL in 2021.

“Of course, it’s a delicate situation right now,” Velotta added. “At the moment, we’ve done our best to provide virtual training opportunities, and keep our players connected. We will continue to monitor things, but hopefully at some point, we can facilitate small group trainings and provide a very safe environment for our players.”

“It’s week-by-week. We are going to have to be creative in our approach,” Ovenden added. “We’ll do our best to adapt. This collaboration is really a good thing, we’re excited to see where we can take it.”

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).

Riverhounds MF Danny Griffin

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