USL Soccer: Pittsburgh Riverhounds’ Depth To Be Tested During Intense Part Of Schedule


Riverhounds rookie defender Anthony Virgara (right) joins a goal celebration during a 3-0 win over West Virginia Chaos at Highmark Stadium. (Photo: Liz Berie/

Their attention isn’t necessarily divided, but the Pittsburgh Riverhounds have a couple irons in the fire these days.

With their 3-0 victory over the West Virginia Chaos this week, the Hounds ensured that their U.S. Open Cup journey would continue on, with the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies coming to town next Wednesday.

That’s exciting in itself, as Thursday’s U.S. Open Cup draw revealed that the D.C. United would travel to Highmark Stadium in mid-June if the Hounds defeat Tampa Bay. If that happens, it would be the first time since 2001 – and the second time ever – that an MLS team played a match in Pittsburgh.

However, the USL regular season rolls on in the meantime. Winless in their past three league fixtures, the Riverhounds (2-3-3, 9 points) face another stern challenge Saturday night when they take on third-place Richmond (4-1-4, 16 points) at the Kickers’ City Stadium.

Even after a well-played 1-1 home draw with Richmond last Saturday, there is still a disconnect between the perceived talent level of this year’s team and the results to date.

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“We have too good of a club for things not to come around,” said sixth-year Hounds defender Sterling Flunder after playing all 90 minutes vs. West Virginia. “A lot of people have made a big deal of this being the best start we’ve had in a while, but to us it’s still not good enough.”

Flunder believes the Hounds are “very deep with a lot of quality players.” With three more matches coming up in a span of eight days, overall roster strength will be tested.

“It’s the depth that’s making us a little bit concerned,” head coach Mark Steffens said last week. “Obviously injuries haven’t helped us, but we have some young kids who haven’t matured as fast as we’d hoped.”

Steffens took a step toward accelerating that maturation by giving USL rookies Kene Eze (forward) and Anthony Virgara (defender) starts against West Virginia. First-year Hound Jereme Raley came on as a late substitution as well.

“I was happy to give them minutes,” Steffens said in the aftermath. “Kene is quick and likes to press. We had Anthony staying at home with (Michael) Green pushing up, but (Virgara) has some speed, too.”

Virgara joins fellow Pittsburgh-area native Nick Kolarac as first-year pros trying to make an impact in their first season on the Hounds roster. Both said that playing in a familiar environment has its perks, but so does absorbing lessons from a USL Hall of Famer in Steffens and a group of veterans willing to play the mentor role.

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  • “We have a lot of meetings talking about that,” Steffens said. “Talking to our veteran leadership group, that they need to keep pushing these guys and teaching them how to manage the game. I’ve been encouraged. Especially if they’re a rookie, they don’t understand how to be a professional.

    “It’s about taking care of your body, game management, not ‘shutting off’ for one second during a game. Transitioning from defending to attacking and set pieces. Sometimes you put your head down for a second and lose your concentration, and that kills you.”

    21-year-old wing back Tyler Pasher has been a revelation, but the youngest Riverhound doesn’t qualify as a rookie since he broke his maiden in 2013 with a lower-level team in Finland. Nevertheless, the energetic Canadian falls into a group of seven Hounds under the age of 24.

    “Coach Steffens has done a good job with all of us,” said Kolarac, a West Allegheny grad who has been limited to two games by a persistent knee injury. “Trying to help us keep building on our experience.”

    After last week’s addition of Serbian midfielder Boris Zivanovic, the Riverhounds’ roster holds steady at 26 players. That means eight will not dress for each game, so the challenge for the rest is staying as sharp as possible without the benefit of match-day action.

    “Always staying fit,” Kolarac said. “Always running. If I don’t make the (game roster), I’ll come down here on the weekends and train with the other guys, work on my first touch and other things.”

    Especially with the schedule picking up, being ready is the goal for every Riverhound, from the starting XI on down to the reserves. The underlying message: success in both the USL and the U.S. Open Cup is more attainable with all hands on deck.

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