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Hounds Notebook: Montour Junction provides an ideal home base

Photo courtesy John Krysinsky

As the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC complete week two of the preseason, we’re ready to break out Hounds Notebook for another season.

In typical Notebook fashion, we begin things by taking a look at the current week and the schedule ahead.

The Hounds are currently gearing up for its first home match of the preseason, Saturday at 4 p.m. vs. Penn State. The match will be played at Highmark Stadium.

The team has trained exclusively at Montour Junction Complex in Coraopolis throughout the preseason (more on that below).

Week one provided for a very competitive atmosphere with a lot of trialists brought into camp, as Head Coach Bob Lilley and his revamped staff (if you include the addition of Jon Busch as goalkeepers coach), had 33 players (including goalkeepers) at the start of camp on Monday, January 30.

Following a full week of training and a friendly at Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew on Saturday (the teams played for 120 minutes, four 40-minute periods behind closed doors and didn’t share any of the details/results), the Hounds are down to 26 players total who were on the outdoor field at Montour Junction on Wednesday morning.

That’s right, as the weather warmed up by the second week, they stepped outside to practice on Tuesday and Wednesday.

In the friendly at Columbus, two of the team’s returning leaders, Kenardo Forbes and Robbie Mertz did not play in the scrimmage, while nine of the 11 starters were non-roster invitees.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, in what, nine days of training, and a game at Columbus,” Mertz said after training on Wednesday morning.

“This group is young, hungry and that lends itself to guys that want to listen to what Bob (Lilley) is saying, and I think that’s why we’ve made some strides early on.”

Hounds Finally Anchored in Coraopolis

The Riverhounds have never had a home training ground quite like the new digs at Montour Junction in Coraopolis, and they’ve never had a preseason when they didn’t have to stray too far or to use someone else’s facility to stay out of the cold, winter elements — and train indoors.

In November, shortly after the season ended, they officially opened their new facility in a ceremony that included club officials and owner Tuffy Shallenberger, along with their facility partners, Allegheny Health Network.

Sure, for the last 10 years, the Hounds had the benefit of having a stadium to call its own, with Highmark Stadium, but now, with the addition of Montour Junction, they don’t have to venture outside into the cold to train in late January and early February or have to trek to another facility, as they had to do sometimes in recent years.

“I’ve been out here for different reasons, and played on this (outdoor) field, but never had this huge building behind it,” Mertz said while pointing at the massive indoor complex.

“It feels a little bit different.  Like it’s a completely new place. It’s special. It shows where the organization wants to go.”

“It’s not something to take for granted,” Mertz added.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time without something like this.”

During the Highmark Stadium era, the Hounds have mostly split late Winter or early Spring indoor training sessions at places like Southpointe and Cool Springs.  Stretching further back in time, while the preseason started later, for a good part of the early years of the club’s history, the previous teams scrambled to find facilities to go indoors for warmer training when they needed to do so.

One of those indoor training spots included the Greentree SportsPlex, which also had an ownership stake in the team for a number of years. That facility’s indoor field was way too small for a professional soccer team to be able to run full-field scrimmages and get in a proper training.

In 2014, then Head Coach Justin Evans took his squad to Texas for a week to train alongside their affiliate partner at the time, the Houston Dynamo.

There have been a lot of different preseason training facilities used, but now, the Hounds have finally found their home base.

Whether they go inside our outside, they’ll be anchored in Coraopolis, except when they go over to Highmark Stadium, in training sessions ahead of game days.

Is this the Earliest Start Ever for the Hounds? 

This has been the earliest start (camp began last Monday, January 30) to a Riverhounds preseason in the Bob Lilley era, but it is not the earliest they’ve ever begun.

Those honors go to Dave Brandt’s 2017 squad.

Brandt believed that the early bird would catch the worm, as the former Messiah College and Navy coach was nipping at the bits to get started in his first, and what turned out to be his only preseason camp with the club.

What was remarkable about that team, was they had 23 players already signed to its roster — by mid-January.

After a respectable start to the season, and sitting in line for a playoff spot by August after recapturing the Keystone Derby, then beating Bethlehem Steel FC in late August, the 2017 team fizzled down the stretch, going winless (0-5-2) in its last seven matches in September and October.

When are additional player signing announcements coming? 

In stark contrast to that 2017 squad, the 2023 Riverhounds have 11 players signed to their roster in the middle of the second week of camp in early February.

Of course, there’s no cause for alarm with Lilley and his coaching staff, as they’ve spent the entire offseason and now, the first week-plus of the preseason, evaluating players.

Lilley has repeated throughout the off season that he’s willing to take his time to build a roster to his liking as he’s hoping to have a younger and more dynamic squad.

Sounding Off on Soccer: Riverhounds SC’s Bob Lilley on getting younger overall in 2023

That process has extended to the first two weeks of the preseason, and will no doubt continue right up to the start of the season.  For the record, the Hounds added two new players to the 2022 roster during the season (Robbie Mertz and Edward Kizza).

They ran through the last hour of Wednesday’s training session taking part in an intense, full-field transitional play, 11v11 drill.

“I liked that drill, because we’re going to be a team that’s going to participate in the build (up play). That requires movement, but when you lose it, you have to transition well,” Mertz shared.

True to form, Lilley stopped the session numerous times to get everyone’s attention and holler out some constructive criticism.

“It was a good run, but it was also good work for us in going toward goal.”

While there are no official announcements or a public list of the non-roster invitees, there are a few unsigned USL Championship veterans lurking among the group along with a handful of talented young prospects who are part of these preseason sessions and will continue to get a look in the games.

There’s a fortunate player or two in camp who already have pending signing announcements, but the team is still in the process of finalizing the required paperwork with the league. Expect those announcements of free agent signings to come very soon, including one on Thursday.

Stay tuned and stay patient Riverhounds SC fans.

The signings are coming.

The signings are coming.

Catching up with ‘veteran’ Pittsburgh Kid Robbie Mertz

While it seemed like it was yesterday that he made his professional debut for his hometown club in 2019, Robbie Mertz, now age 26, will enter his fifth professional season in 2023.

Mertz hesitated for a second after practice on Wednesday in his interview session for Pittsburgh Sports Live, pondering aloud if he was indeed a veteran.

“I’ve played more than 100 games now in USL (Championship), and prior to that more than 100 games in college,” Mertz chuckled.

“The minutes add up, so some people would consider me a veteran. Others may not. I think I am young.”

You can catch the entire interview with Mertz on Pittsburgh Sports Live.  

We will also have another full interview to come later in the week on Pittsburgh Sports Live with new offseason pick-up, Joe Farrell, who is expected to provide veteran leadership along the back line, as he’ll likely be paired up with Arturo Ordonez.

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 Kenardo Forbes

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