USL Soccer: Pittsburgh Riverhounds To Bring Fresh Approach Into New-Look League


New Riverhounds head coach Mark Steffens (left) talks with assistant Josh Rife during a recent training session at Highmark Stadium. (Credit: Ian Thomson/Pittsburgh Riverhounds)

SOUTH SIDE – The environment is familiar as the Pittsburgh Riverhounds prepare to begin their third season at Highmark Stadium, but many of the inhabitants are different these days.

After a necessary bankruptcy restructuring led by enterprising majority owner Tuffy Shallenberger last year, the Riverhounds went about the business of improving the on-field product. The 2014 version of the club missed the USL Pro playoffs, as a strong second-half push couldn’t overcome a 10-game winless streak (0-6-4) to start the season.

Enter new head coach Mark Steffens, a USL hall-of-famer formerly of the Charlotte Eagles, whom he led to 14 playoff appearances and two league championships in 18 years. Since his December hiring, Steffens – in tandem with new team president Richard Nightingale and sporting director Jason Kutney – has gone about the business of remaking the roster according to his vision.

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Change can be good, which is what the Hounds are counting on in 2015.

“I could write a book about what I’ve liked (from the new regime),” said defender Sterling Flunder, a five-year Riverhounds veteran and the all-time USL leader in minutes played. “The coaching staff, what they bring with philosophy, culture, style of play. They treat everyone on the team as an equal, which is nice.

“First and foremost the players have had a good attitude coming in, but everyone’s a quality player, too.”

Flunder is one of 10 holdovers from last year’s Hounds, a group that features regulars Anthony Arena, Rob Vincent, Kevin Kerr, Seth C’deBaca, Danny Earls and Matt Dallman. Joining them are several newcomers, including central defender Fejiro Okiomah and wing back Drew Russell, both of whom recently played for Steffens in Charlotte.

“He likes to keep possession and be organized,” said the second-year pro Russell of Steffens’ preferences. “He emphasizes playing on the wings and creating a lot of chances on goal.”

So what does the head man himself say on how he wants his Hounds to play? For Steffens, it’s about quickness and options once the ball is possessed.

“We focus on the one- and two-touch play and movement away from the ball,” he said. “I think some guys are used to touching the ball three, four, five times (before moving it). It’s been a challenge, but we’re working on it and they know what we want. The ones that don’t won’t see as much playing time, but they’re adapting pretty well.”

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  • The habit-building process was limited in the opening weeks of preseason, as wintry weather rendered the Highmark Stadium turf unusable for long stretches of February and early March. Steffens said training in small indoor spaces didn’t hurt the Hounds’ fitness, but they are playing catch-up in terms of full-field tactics.

    “(The weather) set us back in changing the point of attack and the way we want to play,” he said. “We’re a little behind because of that, but maybe other teams are in the same boat. We’ve worked hard and I think the guys are starting to jell. It seems like in the second halves of our preseason games we’ve clicked more than in the first halves.”

    Pittsburgh negotiated its way through an unbeaten exhibition slate (4-0-1) against collegiate opponents, with the only slight hiccup being a 1-1 draw against defending Mid-American Conference champion Akron. Otherwise, the Hounds encountered mostly smooth sailing in outscoring their opponents 15-2.

    The midfield duo of Vincent (six goals) and Kerr (two) proved potent in the preseason, with forward Miro Cabrilo adding three. Since former USL scoring champion and MVP Jose Angulo departed for Fort Lauderdale of the North American Soccer League, the Hounds will seek offensive contributions from up and down the lineup sheet.

    “It’s not going to be one guy,” Steffens said. “I don’t think we have the type of player who’s going to score 15, 20 goals. It’s going to have to come from a group of guys. I think we’re a good finishing team from what I see.”

    One player who can finish and also set up opportunities is nimble South African midfielder Lebo Moloto, who put both sides of his game on display during an eye-opening preseason. Add in the crossing ability of Earls, the reliability of C’deBaca and the assertive game of newcomer Stephen Okai, and Pittsburgh has a bevy of viable options in the midfield.

    “It’s probably our deepest position,” said Earls, a soon-to-be 26-year-old Irishman. “There’s seven, maybe eight players who can play every weekend, so it’s going to be a battle (to earn a starting spot). Once you get in there, you’ve got to stake your claim.

    “I think we’ve brought in some great players, better quality. It’ll help us.”

    Jamaican goalkeeper Ryan Thompson figures to have the No. 1 spot between the sticks, although Calle Brown of the NCAA champion Virginia Cavaliers will likely challenge for playing time. It’s yet another position where the Hounds look to be improved, but so does the league as a whole.

    Now known as simply USL instead of USL Pro, the Hounds’ circuit now consists of 24 teams, up from 14 just one year ago. Pittsburgh will compete in the 12-team Eastern Conference, which includes usual powers Charleston (S.C.), Rochester and Harrisburg, the last of which will serve as the opponent in Saturday’s 7 p.m. opener at Highmark Stadium.

    “From all my years in the league, this is one of the best teams I’ll ever be involved with, provided we all get healthy,” said Steffens, noting lower-body injuries to wing backs Dallman and Flunder. “The question is: Have we improved enough compared to the rest of the league? There’s not an easy team out there. If we let down a little bit, we’ll get into a hole.”

    Steffens isn’t ignoring this club’s recent history of stumbling into seasons, either, calling it “vital” and “probably doubly important here” to claim some early victories. At the same time, Flunder is pleased with the way this year’s coaching staff isn’t letting the team get ahead of itself.

    “I think we’re taking a more ‘micro’ approach,” he said. “In the past two years, we were here (saying), ‘We have to win a championship.’ Now this year, we’re just taking it game-by-game, one day at a time. We can just focus on the next task.”

    Nevertheless, Flunder understands the extra scrutiny that comes along with playing in a major media market, one with a growing soccer culture that is increasingly hungry for a contending team on the South Side.

    “Seems like we always get off to a slow start, but (the media) doesn’t care, the fans don’t care, they just want results,” Flunder said. “A little fortune (early) is always nice, but a lot of guys believe you create your own luck at the end of the day.”

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