Early in the off season, the hits kept on coming for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and its small, but devoted fan base.
Numerous players who played a key role in helping the club become one of the top teams in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference in the past three years were moving on, signing contracts with other clubs.
One-by-one, there were tough-to-take departures, as some of the club’s best players from the past few years were moving on, including Neco Brett, Joe Greenspan, Mo Dabo, Ryan James and Steevan Dos Santos, to name a few.
Then came the news that Robbie Mertz chose not to re-sign with his hometown club after his contract expired after the 2020 season.
That news may have stung the most among Pittsburgh’s most faithful soccer fans.
After all, Mertz is from the Pittsburgh area, having grown up in Upper St. Clair, played for Century United and was there in the earliest days of the Hounds Development Academy.
His ascension to becoming an impact player for the Riverhounds became a galvanizing and inspiring storyline which captivated many in the local soccer community hoping to see more players from the region break into the professional ranks.
Mertz played in 45 games in two seasons in Pittsburgh. After a successful college career at the University of Michigan, Mertz 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 that preseason, Mertz officially signed with the Riverhounds after the first week of the season. It wasn’t until mid-May 2019 when Mertz got his chance to play regularly, and as his former coach Bob Lilley, said, he busted down the door and never looked back.
Mertz scored 12 goals and had eight assists in 48 appearances across all competitions, and being part of the 2019 Riverhounds SC club which finished at the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
“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 shortly after the annoucement by Mertz on social media that he would not be returning to Pittsburgh for the 2021 season.
“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.”
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.
Shortly after that announcement, Atlanta United organization and its USL club, Atlantic United 2 announced the signing of Mertz.
Mertz was looking to make his mark with a club, connected to a thriving MLS franchise, where he could have a pathway to bigger opportunities.
An early season MCL injury in a preseason scrimmage sidelined Mertz for more than a month into the season.
“It was pretty frustrating because I didn’t miss too many games in my first two years in Pittsburgh,” Mertz told Pittsburgh Soccer Now. “So, to have to sit on the sidelines, especially early in my tenure with Atlanta 2. It took some time to get going.”
Mertz has since been a regular in the ATLUTD2 lineup, appearing in 16 matches, starting 15 and logging more than 1,300 total minutes — scoring once, adding four assists and 23 key passes (84% passing accuracy). He’s also been in the mix of things, picking up six total yellow cards and conceding 21 fouls (while winning 18).
“The past month or two, I’ve gotten to really gel with my teammates,” Mertz added. “I’m enjoying football at the moment. I’m enjoying playing with these guys and hoping that our season ends on a good note.”
The Upper St. Clair High School and University of Michigan grad is starting to produce of late — scoring a goal and picking up two assists in his past two gamea.
GO ON, @RobbieMertz14! 👊
Brilliant strike brings us level and gets him off the mark for the season. pic.twitter.com/DTFiFLwnPM
— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) August 12, 2021
“I had become somewhat of a contributor, getting on the scoresheet regularly in Pittsburgh,” Mertz stated. “To go a couple of months without a goal in Atlanta was kind of weighing on me. It was a huge relief. It was nice to score a goal in that fashion. I’ve been asked to take on a role facilitate a lot of things for this team. But to also add to the attack. They’re asking me to do a little bit of both here. As the season’s gone on I’ve found my stride a little bit more which has been encouraging.”
Mertz has brought his usual, consistent high-level work rate in central midfield with 493 total successful passes (at rate of 35 per match), with 83% accuracy and second on the squad with 13 chances created.
Now, Mertz returns to Highmark Stadium on Sunday evening for what should be a memorable homecoming for him, his family and friends and the Pittsburgh soccer community.
“I’m definitely happy to be in my hometown. Glad to see family and friends. And some former teammates. It’s an exciting weekend. I am excited to see how things are going to go,” Mertz said, after a team dinner on Saturday night after they arrived in Pittsburgh.
The full interview with Mertz was posted to Pittsburgh Sports Live’s YouTube Channel.
Count in Mertz’s opponents, many of his former teammates, who are also looking forward to seeing him on the turf again at Highmark Stadium.
“We’ve definitely been in touch, seeing how each other is doing. We’ve talked since we had a good relationship last year,” Mertz’s fellow central midfield partner last year, Danny Griffin, said. “Obviously, him and a couple other guys I know on that Atlanta team have been looking forward to this matchup, as have I.”
Mertz also offered his thoughts on Sunday’s match against a Riverhounds SC club that has a number of former teammates, but also a lot of new faces from his perspective.
“It’s very interesting preparing to play against Bob (Lilley)’s team. Bob’s such an unique coach in the way that he approaches each game so differently,” Mertz said, and added that he wasn’t sure he could offer much prior to the match, but moreso once the match gets started.
“I think its more of a complement to him because he gets his teams to play in a variety of multiple systems and variety of different tactics. I think that’s what enables his teams to get better each year as the season goes on because they bring something different to each team that they play.”
The Riverhounds SC and Atlanta United 2 will be a battle of two very different teams. United brings a young squad with lots of talent which is starting to find its groove, while the Hounds are a more veteran laden club which will make every effort to dictate tempo and terms of the match.
Battle of contrasting styles usually make for entertaining matches.
Reinvigorated with Atlanta United 2 and ready to lace up his boots to play in his hometown once again, Mertz will be ready to do battle on the Highmark Stadium pitch.
This time, it will be for the ‘other’ guys.
“Two really good teams. Honetly, two very different teams in many ways,” Mertz acknowledged. “Which could make for exciting football. Which everyone will enjoy. I will have a lot of support in the stands, as you might expect, so I am excited for that too.”