Over the weekend, one of the most durable, reliable and versatile players in the history of the Riverhounds SC franchise, Thomas Vanacayezeele, announced via his Instagram account, that he would be departing Pittsburgh, and will not returning for the 2021 season.
A few days later, on Tuesday, Pittsburgh area native Robbie Mertz made the same announcement.
Much like the departures of Neco Brett, Joe Greenspan, Tobi Adewole and Mo Dabo after the 2019 season, it’s likely that Vancaeyezeele and Mertz’s successes in Pittsburgh led to what appears to be opportunities to sign elsewhere.
And just like that, two key starters and team leaders from the past few years, who’ve been instrumental in the club’s success, including finishing at the top of the table of the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference in 2019, will be not be signing contract extensions to stay in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Soccer Now caught up with Riverhounds SC’s Head Coach, Bob Lilley on Tuesday afternoon.
“Robbie has been a great servant to the club, he took a ton of pride in being from Pittsburgh and being part of what we built here in the past few years,” Lilley said. “He’s always been ambitious. As a rookie he made an impact. As a second-year player, he was one of our leaders. It’s tough to see him go. Our arms, as an organization, will always be open to him.”
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Here’s Mertz’s full statement:
“This one means a lot to me, so its gonna get sappy.
It’s one thing to grow up in Pittsburgh – to be a die-hard Steelers, Pens, Pirates (and Hounds) fan and to feel the same level of appreciation every time you emerge from the Fort Pitt Tunnel and onto the bridge.
I’ve lived that.
But it’s another thing to represent the city of Pittsburgh, to wear the colors that all of its athletes uniquely, recognizably, and proudly don each time they prepare for competition dahn on the Three Rivers.
Now I can say I’ve lived that, too.
I’m still just a kid from Western PA, a kid who has had to earn every chance that he’s gotten in the game of soccer. No handouts, no free passes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, isn’t that how we like to do things in this town?
That’s why, in true Pittsburgher fashion, I am moving on to continue to pursue my dream, to grind and scrap until I have nothing left to give to the game of soccer. This is a decision that will take me out of my comfort zone and away from home, hopefully allowing renewed growth in the process.
These last 2 years have been the most incredible blessing – to be surrounded by friends and family in my hometown, to feel the support of the city that raised me, to be called “one of our own”, all while doing what I love most. To the @riverhoundssc organization, to the @steelarmy, to the rest of the growing fanbase: Thank You.
And most of all, thank you to my teammates these past two seasons. You are all the reason that this season of my life has been so fruitful and so memorable.”
“The Pittsburgh Kid”
Lilley expressed that he would love to have kept both players, but raved about their contributions to the club.
“Thomas was one of the most consistent players I’ve ever coached in my career,” Lilley added. “He transitioned quickly to the pro game. He was All-League for the past two years. I can’t say enough about him. He was a fantastic player, and fantastic here in working with our academy program and as he was involved with youth players.”
Primarily in the role as a center back, Vancaeyezeele made 75 appearances in three seasons with Pittsburgh, as he earned All-USL First team honors in 2020 and All-USL Second team honors in 2019. Even as a defender, Vancaeyezeele found a way to score some timely goals (scored five in his career including two in the playoffs).
Lilley brought Vancaeyezeele on trial to the club in 2018 after he was overlooked my MLS scouts at the combine that January and following a preseason scrimmage against the University of Charleston that February.
After making an immediate impression on Lilley in that scrimmage, the native of Caen, France who led the University of Charleston to a NCAA Division II National Championship the previous Fall where he earned National Player of the Year honors, was not only signed, but was in the Hounds starting lineup on opening day of the 2018 season. Vanaeyezeele held his own in a match played against Nashville SC at Nissan Stadium before 20,000 plus fans in that opener and never looked back. A versatile player who started off as a holding midfielder, Vancaeyezeele would lead the Hounds in minutes played in 2018 and 2019. In his final two seasons in Pittsburgh, Vancaeyezeele became a mainstay and anchor for the Hounds back line, which continued to boast one of the best defensive units in the entire USL Championship.
Mertz played in 45 games in two seasons. The Upper St. Clair native who went on to a successful college career at the University of Michigan was drafted by the Colorado Rapids in 2019 in the MLS SuperDraft. After his release, then being on trial in a few other places, Mertz landed back in Pittsburgh, where he trained with the Riverhounds Development Academy and was part of the Pathway to the Pros program, training with the first-team during a few of his collegiate off seasons.
After being on trial late in the preseason, Mertz officially signed with the Riverhounds after the first week of the season. It wasn’t until mid-May when Mertz got his chance to play regularly, and as Lilley, said, he busted down the door and never looked back.
While the Riverhounds had numerous players in its history from the area and with deep local ties, Mertz represented the first who came directly from the club’s youth development programs — as he was part of training with RDA during its early days and stayed connected with the club through years.
While Mertz and Vancaeyezeele will move on to new clubs and opportunities in 2021, Lilley is confident as the Hounds head into another offseason, with even more time to build a winner. With the USL Championship likely not starting its 2021 season until early May, the Hounds most likely will not start training camp until late March or early April.
Hearing the USL Championship is exploring a potential May start date for the 2021 season. (League traditionally starts play in March.) Other options still under consideration by the league.
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 27, 2020
Lilley’s believes that he has a solid core and nucleus to continue to deliver a results that will keep the Hounds among the top teams in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference.
Still, for now, the loss of Vancaeyezeele and Mertz will sting through the winter months and what will be a longer than usual off season.
“There’s no doubt we’ll have to replace two very good players. Two originals,” Lilley said. “We’re confident that we’ll be able to do that. We’ve done a good job of doing it before. We’ll do it by finding solutions that fit.”