The Pittsburgh Riverhounds organization has built a solid reputation for its youth academy teams in the past decade, but the Riverhounds Development Academy (RDA) was not always around.
Not too long ago, at the beginning of it, Robbie Mertz was one of the first players involved.
“Towards the end of the 2000’s was really when the foundation of the academy teams began,” Mertz said recently.
“Scotty Gibson and Jason Kutney were the ones mainly driving the RDA.”
At the beginning of the academy, a few age groups were combined, such as 12- and 13-year olds training together. There were three tiers to each grouping based on talent level.
Mertz was in the first tier, and I had the opportunity to train with him since I was in the same tier.
From my experience training with Mertz, along with a few other guys, he really stood out in setting the tempo at each training.
The coaches, including Gibson, Kutney and Justin Evans, who was also the pro team coach, were intense. They had a high standard and a vision for what they were building, so no training session would be a waste of time.
Many players, including myself, were struggling and needed help. Not only did we turn to the coaches, but we also turned to players setting a high standard.
Mertz was one of the first to always sort the situation out and question what was going on. He was, and still is a student of the game.
“I remember Robbie was always the hardest worker on the field. He was super quick, intelligent, and always pushing himself to the extreme. It was a pleasure and honor to work with players like Robbie, and I am super happy to see him being pro team now after his years in the RDA,” Nikola Katic, a current MLS youth academy coach for FC Cincinnati organization, former Riverhounds pro player and coach, said.
Katic was also a vital part of the organization when the RDA was just getting started.
“At the time a lot of it was just training and only a few games,” Mertz recalled.
“I remember we had the opportunity to play one tournament in Rochester, NY. Bob Lilley was actually there. And at that tournament I scored the first ever goal in RDA history.”
Technical training is a big part of soccer. Jason Kutney emphasized that it was vital for them to bring the same training here as he witnessed in Everton’s academy teams, which were a founding partner with the Riverhounds in the early years.
Speed, strength training and weight training would also become crucial in the development of young players.
“Mike Whiteman put us through some tough workouts,” Mertz commented.
“Whiteman has been a rock for the Riverhounds organization for a very long time. helping train the academy players and professional players. He is still the Riverhounds Speed and Strength coach today. Going through that at a young age really sets you up for success,”
Not only did Mertz train with the Riverhounds growing up, but he also played competitive cup soccer for Century United.
“I was fortunate enough since age nine to have Mike Blatz as my head coach,” Mertz added. “He’s one of the best coaches in the state.”
Century United has the reputation of being one of the best cup programs in western Pennsylvania. Mertz’s team was nationally ranked under Blatz with some of the best players in the WPIAL at the time.
“Our national rank fluctuated consistently, but at a time we were in the top 10. And, I remember we went to the DELCO cup in Philadelphia and beat Manhattan PSG who were currently ranked number one at the time.”
The ‘Pittsburgh Kid’ also had success at his high school, Upper Saint Clair. Mertz was named Gatorade Player of the Year in Pennsylvania his senior year in 2014 and led the Panthers to back-to-back PIAA titles in 2012 and 2013.
In the United States, it can still be challenging for young players to be recruited in soccer. There are many more scouts and recognition for sports like football and basketball. As a student wanting to make the next step to be a collegiate athlete, especially in Division I, it can be difficult to get looked at by college coaches.
“For Century United one year, we went to a national event in Las Vegas,” Mertz said. “That’s actually how Michigan recruited me. It was important for me to impress during the high-school and college recruiting process.”
Mertz worked his way into the lineup at Ann Arbor. In his junior (second team) and senior (first team) campaigns, he was named All-Big Ten. And in his senior year, Mertz was awarded the prestigious Big Ten Medal of Honor for his athletic and academic success.
Mertz mentioned that a lot of people doubted him to succeed in the college level and again in the USL because of his size.
“The college game is like any other jump in skill level, the game is played at a higher speed and everyone is much more physical,” Mertz explains.
Mertz was determined and worked his tail off to prove everyone wrong who thought he couldn’t succeed at the higher levels of soccer.
“You really just have to be good technically. (Lionel) Messi is an example of that. He is the best in the world and one of the smallest players.”
Going into his second season for the Riverhounds, after an impressive rookie campaign in 2019 as a two-way central midfielder, Mertz is not particularly worried about himself and his individual goals, but more focused on the team’s accomplishments.
“I don’t think in terms of individual goals often. I just know whether I played well or not when I walk off the field. Bob Lilley will tell you individual success comes from the team.”
Striving to do his part, Mertz worked out anywhere from one to three times a day during quarantine. A lack of fitness has not been a question for the Hounds midfielder this season.
Mertz specifically said how important and special it was for him to play for the Riverhounds, in the city where he grew up.
“It means a lot to me. It’s nice to be doing what I love in front of friends and family,” Mertz shared.
“Our team is on a growth trajectory in Pittsburgh becoming more relevant. We may not be talked about as much as the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates but our pro team has to succeed to continue to be more relevant.”
Throughout the world, in all different sports, teams strive to train and mold players to their style of play. This is much more popular in soccer. In South America and Europe, kids are recruited at a very young age and sign academy contracts with the professional teams very early on. Clubs such as Liverpool, Manchester City, Everton and many more are known for not only making huge signings but developing players from the ground up.
“The RDA has come a long way. They’re in some regional leagues, and the training has only gotten better,” Mertz stated.
As soccer continues to grow in the United States, you will start to see more players train with local and regional academy teams, then continue on to those pro teams.
With the dissolution of the U.S. Development Academy League, the United Soccer League has developed a blueprint for a USL academy league for players U14 to u18. This should make the transition between academy to college and to pro for many homegrown players connected to clubs in USL markets much smoother, and assist in the recruiting process.
For younger players wanting to play professional soccer in America, this is an exciting step forward, creating a more clearer pathway.
“I hope younger generations in Western PA can look at Robbie as an example and inspiration to strive for greatness as there is a lot of talent in the area,” Katic added.
Mertz has become the first player to train with the RDA, then play for the Riverhounds professional club.
You could say the Riverhounds officially molded one of their own.
He is the first, but definitely not looking like the last.