Before we move forward into a new year, it would only be fitting that as we devoted another calendar year of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of the participants, teams and organizations on the forefront of the Pittsburgh soccer scene, we take one more look back at what was a monumental year for the game in the Greater Pittsburgh region.
Pittsburgh soccer fans were treated to a memorable year with major milestones and significant achievements — from the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s remarkable regular season which they captured the club’s first-ever USL Championship Players Shield coinciding with a run to the U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinal round to Pitt women’s soccer program taking another step forward into National prominence.
There was so much content that we gathered this season, that we have to break this up into two parts. Here’s part one — taking a look back events and moments from the first half of the year, from January through June, as told exclusively to the contributors of Pittsburgh Soccer Now.
‘Really happy with where we are’
“Really happy with where we are. To make the ACC tournament (in 2022), it was a bonus. Our eyes were on the NCAA tournament. In the four seasons of our team, to get to where we are. Playing in the conference we are, I think we really are right on track. There’s a lot of things as a coach, that we’re always looking to improve, and do things a different way. The one thing I think I’ve always been good at, is that I’ve had a good vision of how I want to play. What we want it to look like, the product, on the field. I think that we, both (son) Ben (Waldrum) and I have a good way of getting our players to buy into what we want it to look like. Especially this past year (2022), when we lost key players, like Amanda West, Chloe Minas, the players kept playing within the system, and the way we want to play. If you get the team playing the way you want, the rest will come.”
~ Pitt women’s soccer head coach Randy Waldrum, on PSN’s Sounding Off on Soccer Podcast, after signing a five-year extension that will keep him at the helm of the program through the 2027 season, the University announced January 12.
A Unified Badge
“We’re thrilled to bring back such a recognized and strong tie to the Pittsburgh area,”
~ Tom Ovenden, Steel City FC (formerly Pittsburgh Hotspurs) Club director and Women’s First Team Head Coach, said.
“The name embodies what the city was founded on, and is a great representation of our work to push the game forward together. When we began the collaboration with regional training, we knew the options to continue to raise the level of Pittsburgh soccer – defining and evolving a pathway that would give Pittsburgh players the greatest opportunity to reach their goals was best accomplished together”
“It’s great seeing the resources and staff from each of the sites working together to identify top talent to compete against the highest level of competition from U13 on up. The Pittsburgh-area talent is obvious, and we’ve developed a path to bring those players together and raise the level.”
~ Jon Velotta, Arsenal FC of Pittsburgh Executive Director, said.
“That’s only been strengthened as we have continued our partnership.”
“From Youth to the First Teams – the combined level we’re seeing these players compete and train at, and the aligned model and ability to play within our Steel City FC model, that’s what the collaboration is all about.”
Following the Men’s and Women’s summer 2023 seasons, the collaboration and partnership will see academy (U8-U19) teams also competing under the crest in the 2023-2024 season.
‘We’re not in midseason form yet’
“We’re not in midseason form yet, but I don’t think it’s anything to be too discouraged by. There’s a lot of areas that we can improve going forward. In terms the general mentality of the group, and the way we’re approaching games, that was a lot of what was said afterwards. We need to rachet up the intensity.”
~ Hounds’ MF Robbie Mertz, following his team’s lackluster preseason match vs Akron University men’s team in mid-February, which ended in a scoreless draw.
Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley wasn’t pleased with his team’s performance against one of NCAA Division I men’s soccer better programs in recent years, keeping his players in the locker room after the match for an extended period of time. After his postgame debrief with the players, Lilley initially came out for an interview with Pittsburgh Soccer Now, but it was clear, he wasn’t feeling like talking much, so he turned back toward the locker room, instead instructing one of the players would instead come out in his place to provide an interview. That player was Mertz, who would be heading into his fourth season with his hometown club, and his first full season back in Pittsburgh following a season and a half with Atlanta United 2.
“It’s meant a lot to me, to be here, and to be playing with Bob for so long,” Kenardo Forbes said after a preseason training session at sparkling new AHN Montour Junction Soccer Complex in Coraopolis.
“It was a no-brainer to sign again (for another season with the Riverhounds in 2023). Obviously I am getting older. But knowing the system, it’s much easier for an older guy, knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it.
“Each and every week, and each and every game, we have to do a better job of sticking to the game plan. Go, give our best. Last year, we had our longest streak at one point without winning a game,” Forbes noted, and as kept talking the more he pounded his palm to make his point.
“We’ve always had this rule. We never lose two in a row. As soon as you lose again, you have to respond. That’s the mentality this season, never lose two in a row. It’s not going to be easy. But, we have to have the mentality. We have to have a high standard.”
Not only has Forbes, who began the 2023 season at 34 years of age, played in the league for a decade, but he’s also played under the same coach during his entire professional outdoor soccer career in United States, serving as the loyal lieutenant to Bob Lilley. When Pittsburgh Soccer Now contributors came together in early February to select the top players who played for the Riverhounds during the Highmark Stadium era on ‘Sounding Off on Soccer’ podcast, Forbes was the consensus number one pick. When he heard this, Forbes shyly smiled, but redirected his praise, sharing how much it’s meant to him to have a long career at this level and play for the same coach. The Hounds have made the playoffs every season since Lilley and Forbes have arrived, but heading into 2023, a home postseason match had eluded them. That would become a key motivation for Forbes and his teammates in the 2023 season finish at the top of the table.
‘We have a lot to do’
“In first half, we had some nerves, and came out playing better in the second half. Overall, we’re pleased with the performance, but we have a lot to do early in the season.”
~ Arturo Ordonez, who had the assist on a terrific diagonal ball over to Robbie Mertz for the game’s equalizing goal in the 75th minute, told PSN’s Mark Goodman a few days after the match after training.
‘Just have an impact on the game’
“(Riverhounds) coach Bob (Lilley) just said to impact on the game. Everyone is expected to have an impact on the game. Everyone here is a professional player, and everyone is here for a reason. Whether it’s Langston (Blackstock) or Joe (Farrell) or me … it’s go in and do your job. I thought all the guys that came in did a good job tonight. We just have to make sure we’re pushing and we can get a win next time.”
“I was fortunate it bounced the way it did, and luckily we had some big guys in the box who were able to move around and get a piece of it. I’d say it’s the best goal I’ve scored as a professional.”
“It was very nice.”
~Riverhounds midfielder/defender Burke Fahling said following the Riverhounds’ 1-1 season opening draw vs The Miami FC, as the first-year Hound hit the equalizer on a stinging one-time volley in the 85th minute.
“It really helped coming from our program (at Pitt). It just speaks volumes about the way (Pitt Head Coach) Jay (Vidovich) built the program. The way he is developing great players. He helped me a lot. I improved a lot when I was there and helped me with my transition to the pros.”
“I am really happy for them. It’s a great opportunity. I am wishing all of them the best.”
Riverhounds defender and former Pitt standout, Arturo Ordonez shared, as his face beamed with a big smile when being mentioned as one of 15 former players who were on Major League Soccer and/or second/third division professional club rosters.
Here’s PSN’s ‘unofficial’ list of the Pitt players who were on pro rosters in 2023.
- Jasper Loeffelsend – Real Salt Lake (three appearances, three starts, 256 minutes played)
- Bertin Jacquesson – Real Salt Lake (no appearances in regular season, yet for the Generation Adidas selection)
- Nico Campuzano – New England Revolution II, called up to First Club on 3/25 for 10-day contract
- Valentin Noel – Austin FC II – 1 game, 1 start, 2 goals (first two goals of season for Austin FC II)
- Jackson Walti – Austin FC II – 1 game, 1 appearance
- Arturo Ordonez – Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC – 4 games, 4 starts, 360 minutes played (assist)
- Edward Kizza – Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC – 4 games, 3 starts, 197 minutes played
- Bryce Washington – Loudoun United FC – 1 appearance
- Yanis Leerman – Loudoun United FC – 3 games, 3 starts (270 minutes)
- Shane Wiedt – Sacramento Republic – 3 games, 3 starts (270 minutes)
- Robby Dambrot – Indy Eleven – no appearances in 2023 (13 appearances and two goals in 2022)
- Veljko Petkovic – Minnesota United 2 (Petkovic made 17 appearances with MU2 in 2022).
- Lucas Rosa – Sporting KC II
- Mohammad Abualnadi – Sporting KC II
- Henrique Gallina – Chicago Fire II
‘It Felt Surreal’
“I just walked out there, and it felt surreal. To make an impact too for a goal was special. It was one of the best feelings I’ve felt in my life. Hopefully there’s more of those to come.”
~ Anders Bordoy, a senior at Kiski Area High School, on playing his first professional match in the US Open Cup with the Riverhounds, created a dangerous scoring chance that led to the final goal of the match in the Hounds’ 2-0 defeat of Maryland Bobcats in the 2nd Round match at Highmark Stadium in April.
“For Anders to come on and recognize the space … there was no hesitation there. He’s got a gifted left peg and that ball was true. There wasn’t any spin on it. I don’t know if it was going in or was going to hit the post, but you can’t tag a ball much better. Anyone in our league would be happy with that quality of a strike.” ~ Riverhounds Head Coach Bob Lilley
“I’m absolutely buzzing’
He just couldn’t stay away — and so he came back — the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC announced on May 1.
Danny Griffin reached an agreement to return to Pittsburgh, where he was a mainstay of the Riverhounds’ midfield from 2020-22 and a fan favorite.
“I’m absolutely buzzing right now. To say I’m excited isn’t enough to describe the feeling. Pittsburgh became a home to me after I made the move from Connecticut to Pittsburgh, and I know the coaches, Bob and Viss (assistant coach Dan Visser), and the owner, Tuffy (Shallenberger), have always been supportive of me and my career,” Griffin said.
“I’m ecstatic to be back in Pittsburgh. I’ve been following the team while I was gone, and I’m happy to say that I’m coming back home.”
‘Never felt like we were under siege’
“It never felt like we were under siege. The last 5-10 minutes got a bit hairy, but the key was we found outlets,” Hounds coach Bob Lilley said following the club’s monumental victory vs Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution.
“We were positive with our play going forward, we were positive with the ball, and that gave us the energy and time to get back and defend properly.”
~ Bob Lilley, following Riverhounds’ first win vs MLS side since 2001, as the Hounds held on for 1-0 victory following Danny Griffin’s late first half goal. With the win, the Hounds advanced to the Open Cup’s Fifth Round (Round of 16) — which they would eventually face the Columbus Crew, in the first home match vs a MLS club since 2015.
‘I always know that (Kenardo) will put the ball in a dangerous place’
“I always know that (Kenardo) will put the ball in a dangerous place,” ~ Albert Dikwa explained when getting on the end of a well-placed Kenardo Forbes pass to give the Riverhounds a 1-0 lead vs Birmingham only a few days after they were coming off the high of defeating New England.
The Cameroonian forward remained humble in his response to his success in 2023, focused mainly on his role and doing what needs to be done for the success of his team. And what Dikwa was doing so well to put himself in position to take the lead in the USL Championship’s goal scoring race, and what Lilley has been trying to get his forwards and attacking players to do successfully in recent years in Pittsburgh, is make those timely runs and find the spaces where they can exploit their opponents.
Dikwa did this on both goals against Birmingham, giving Pittsburgh a key, 2-1 victory.
“Coach Bob (Lilley) always says to get inside the shoulder, and I knew I could get to it. It’s all thanks to Coach Bob (Lilley). In training, if I make a little mistake, I’m getting killed every single time, because Bob is a guy who wants perfection. That’s something I can take. It’s for my benefit to improve every time. Something I’ve been working on is my finishing. I want it to go up and to the next level. I’m in the right place for that and have the best coach to help me with that.”
‘MLS, USL, it doesn’t matter’
“We’re going to go into Pittsburgh, and it’s going to be difficult. Loudoun is a different opponent than Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has more maturity, experience. Their coach is really good at this competition. He’s been doing it for a long time. Our job, maybe a lot of younger guys may not understand, that this is not going to be a difficult game, a difficult environment,” Bush said.
“MLS, USL, it doesn’t matter. It’s going to be very good competition. We’re going to have to be very sharp.” ~ Columbus Crew veteran goalkeeper, Evan Bush, ahead of the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 match to be played at Highmark Stadium.
‘We’re going to have to disrupt’
“The challenge for us is going to be that we can’t sit back and chase all game and not think they don’t have the quality to break us down. We’re going to have to disrupt, which means a lot of work. We’re going to have to be willing to press, go forward and make them defend, because if they dictate the entire game on our field, we will not have a chance after 90 minutes. We’re going to have to work hard just like we did in New England and be brave to win balls and press higher up the pitch. We’ll need the crowd to spur us on and give us energy. I believe that’s our best chance. Having 6,000 people in here giving us that emotion and energy to go out there and compete.” ~ Bob Lilley, before Riverhounds’ U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 match vs Columbus, at Highmark Stadium.
‘The Fans Pulled Us Through’
“The fans played a big part. We were tiring in the second half … and the fans pulled us through. It wasn’t pretty at the end, but there was energy in the building and the guys had something to hold onto.”~ Bob Lilley, following Pittsburgh’s second straight ‘Cup-Set’ win, this time defeating Columbus Crew, 1-0, before more than 6,000 fans at Highmark Stadium.
“Oh playing in front of a crowd like that … it was awesome. Even coming into the stadium for warmups. The energy was there. It’s good for us. We can feed off the energy.” ~ Hounds’ goalkeeper Jahmali Waite added.
“We needed to stay steady. Don’t get too high. Don’t get too low. Let’s go about our business. Yet, that goes by the wayside when you walk out, and you see that environment. After the game you see how joyful everyone is.” ~ Hounds’ midfielder Robbie Mertz, who had the assist that led to the match’s lone goal from Albert Dikwa.
‘A great result for the club’
“It’s important for the club. We’ve been building and growing. These nights and opportunities to pack the house and have an MLS team here introduce the game to more people I don’t think we had a great performance. But a great result for the club. We reminded our guys, they were going to have to work hard defensively. They’ll have to compete. Look to play positive,” Bob Lilley in post match comments following 1-0 win vs Columbus.
‘We were not able to be better…’
“I was expecting more, because we know this is a physical team. But they know that and they faced already this kind of team. We were late. We were (winning the) first ball, but the second ball no. After that, when we had the ball, we didn’t connect the way we usually do. Yes, the environment. Yes, we can find a lot of excuses with the turf and so on, but at the end of the day, this is for both teams. We were not able to be better on that. That’s why we didn’t score at least one goal.” ~ Columbus Crew Head Coach Wilfried Nancy, following his team’s loss to the Riverhounds.
‘We’re going to keep fighting to the end and give our all’
“We did what we came here to do; we played positive soccer and had a lot more of the ball than we did against Columbus,” ~ Riverhounds coach Bob Lilley said following Pittsburgh’s 3-1 loss at FC Cincinnati in the Quarterfinal Round of the U.S. Open Cup.
“I thought we defended well and limited their chances, but obviously, they’re a very strong team. They haven’t lost year at home and haven’t drawn all year at home, and not many teams have been 0-0 against them after nearly 60 minutes either.
“That was tough to give up the goal like that,” Danny Griffin said, of surrendering the first goal of the match in the 56th minute, when FC Cincinnati caught the Hounds on the break on a pass from Luciano Acosta to Brandon Vazquez. Replays showed Vazquez appearing offside, but after a lengthy discussion, his shot past Jahmali Waite was declared good, putting Pittsburgh on the back foot..
“We started defending a little more after that, and I’m proud overall of the effort and willingness to go for it and fight for the group. That’s a good opponent we faced (Tuesday).”
Moments later they were down 2-0, on a fabulous Alvaro Barreal strike — smashing a volley off of Griffin and into the net, a strike that Lilley termed a “wonder goal”.
“They had two guys in the box, and when he hit that one over, it did deflect off my back,” Griffin said. “But it was a strike from him, and there was nothing Jahmali could do about that. It’s tough to give up two set piece goals, but that’s the way the ball bounces.”
“We’re going to keep fighting to the end and give our all,” Tola Showunmi added.
“We were able to compete very well. We were able to stay close against a good side that’s on top of the Eastern Conference in MLS; we gave them a really good challenge.”
‘Probably a curse’
“It was probably a curse,” Bob Lilley said of his team getting out to the early lead on midfielder Junior Etou’s first goal of the season coming from a clever cut-back assist from Kenardo Forbes in the Hounds’ bounce-back 2-0 win in a first-place showdown vs Charleston Battery at Highmark Stadium before another sellout crowd.
“It’s a great goal, and its important in the game, but I don’t think we ever established how we wanted to play this game. When you score that early, you put that one in the bank and it’s like a CD or a retirement fund. You don’t spend it. You go back to it being 0-0 and play.”
‘It was a decent performance from myself and the team’
“It was a decent performance from myself and the team,” Hounds’ newcomer Tola Showunmi said following a 2-1, come-from-behind win vs San Diego Loyal. In the match, Showunmi, a native of London, England, who attended Merrimack College and University of New Hampshire, became the latest diamond in the rough find of Bob Lilley and Dan Visser, accounting for four goals and three assists in his professional debut season including the game winner vs San Diego.
“I just tried to connect the play, tried to make runs in behind, try and stretch the defense. Overall, just try to help us possess more and make attacking chances really. I think I did a pretty good job of that today and hopefully, it’ll just continue to improve.”
On the goal, Showunmi told PSN’s Dominic Campbell that the ball from Marc Ybarra came behind him, so he just tried to flick it in and surprise the goalkeeper, which he did.
We're all square in Pittsburgh! 🤝
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) June 25, 2023
‘We are not prepared the way we need to be’
“I know we are not prepared the way we need to be. It’s been very frustrating in recent months and in particular, in recent weeks,” ~ Randy Waldrum said in late June on Sounding Off on Soccer podcast, as the Pitt women’s coach was preparing the Nigerian Super Falcons squad for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup to be played in Australia and New Zealand in July/August.
“We have less days than a college preseason to get ready for the World Cup. It blows my mind because we’ve known this since last year that we had qualified. The hard part is, we are supposed to have camp in Nigeria for about 10-12 days, then go directly to Australia to finish up with another 10-15 days. For what ever it is, the Federation canceled the camp.”
On the Podcast, Waldrum explained some of the biggest rifts between the veteran coach and the Federation.
“My backup goalkeeper spoke out, and said, every year to tell us the same thing. You can’t just come here and expect us to believe you,” Waldrum shared. “They didn’t like how she said it, so they dismissed her from the National team, and cut her off. I was without my goalkeeper for two or three windows. Finally the General Secretary and the President allowed her only if she wrote an apology letter.”
“They wanted me to put this goalkeeper on, who I never seen. Never been in one of our camps. I refused. I said, I can’t take a player I’ve never had in camp. It’s ridiculous who would do that, this is the World Cup,” Waldrum added.
NFF spokesman Ademola Olajire fired back at Waldrum: “We have to first ask when the European season ended. The man wanted a two-week camping for only home-based professionals (whom he already gave very little consideration in his provisional list). Like two weeks ago, he released his final list of 23, meaning there was absolutely no need for any camping for home-based again except to simply waste resources. instead of admitting his glaring deficiencies, he’s there shooting his mouth off. His outbursts are nothing but an after-thought. He’s talking only 3 days to the team’s departure to the #FIFAWWC. Randy says he don’t know any home-based goalkeeper but could pick likes of Tosin Demehin, Rofiat Imuran & Deborah Abiodun from the same U20 you spotted them.”
Good to acknowledge the fantastic interview of @JohnKrysinsky 👏👍
— Samuel Ahmadu🇳🇬 (@samueloahmadu) June 29, 2023
Look for Part II to publish before the end of the year! 🙂