By CHARLIE CORR – firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday, March 18, 2016
While 2015 wasn’t the most consistent season for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, the organization produced some thrilling moments, a fifth-place finish in the Eastern Conference and the team’s third postseason berth in five years. Overall, Mark Steffens’ first season as the club’s head coach was a success, but the USL Hall of Famer wants to maintain the high-level results and steadiness it had been lacking before his arrival.
Head Coach: Mark Steffens
Stadium: Highmark Stadium
2015 results: 11-9-8 record; 5th in Eastern Conference
2015 postseason: 4-2 OT loss vs. New York in East Quarterfinals
Goalkeeper: The team’s goalkeeping base is changing for 2016, but a well-known name is back. Hunter Gilstrap, who spent the past year between the Carolina RailHawks and Charlotte Independence, returns to the Hounds for his sixth campaign with the club. Alongside the 2010 USL Second Division Goalkeeper of the Year is former Costa Rican youth international Mauricio Vargas and Brenden Alfery, who most recently played for Robert Morris University.
Defense: Pittsburgh’s back line will be mostly revamped for the 2016 season, with the lone exception of Willie Hunt. Hunt had a strong campaign last year, logging 2,312 minutes in 27 regular-season games. He shone the most in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals with a brace during the team’s loss to the New York Red Bulls II. The Hounds brought in Karsten Smith, who played most recently with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Caleb Postlewait, formerly of the 2014 PDL Champion Michigan Bucks, prepares for his first professional season.
Midfield: Attacking midfielder and last year’s goal scoring leader Rob Vincent was the club’s big story throughout 2015, but he has moved on to Major League Soccer’s D.C. United. Early signs show Pittsburgh has its share of options to fill that void. Kevin Kerr is a vital returning piece after tallying 10 goals and a team-leading nine assists last season, and the dynamic Lebo Moloto – who tended to take a back seat to last season’s Vincent-Kerr show – brings back some flair to this group. Moloto showcased a brilliant touch with several highlight reel goals, notching six overall to go with seven assists in 2015. The Hounds’ new MLS affiliate Columbus Crew SC loaned midfielders Marshall Hollingsworth and Ben Swanson this week. Hollingsworth was selected during the 2016 MLS SuperDraft out of Wheaton College and the 18-year-old Swanson is a Crew Homegrown who has been called into a number of U.S. youth national teams, most recently the U.S. U-20s last year.
Forward: Similar to the defense, the Hounds’ front line will contain a bunch of new faces. Zak Boggs and Corey Hertzog, who were teammates last year with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, both bring some previous MLS and USL experience to the table. Boggs was a former MLS SuperDraft selection by the New England Revolution, where he spent three seasons, and would spend the 2014 USL season with the Charlotte Eagles. Hertzog’s track record features MLS sides New York Red Bulls and Vancouver Whitecaps FC and the USL’s Wilmington Hammerheads FC and Orlando City in 2014. Drew Russell returns to the club after making 15 appearances last season, mostly in a reserve role.
Strengths: The Hounds’ midfield fueled last season’s offense, and it looks like this year’s club will do the same despite Vincent’s departure. Pittsburgh will have an opportunity to see how beneficial its affiliation with Columbus Crew SC will be with the inclusions of Swanson and Hollingsworth. With those resources and the valuable return of Kerr and Moloto, Riverhounds supporters could be wowed by some future action-packed scoring within this group.
Weaknesses: The Hounds’ back line will have the most difficult transition with a number of new pieces. Hunt has some versatility between right back and center back, and showed the ability to come up big offensively in the postseason. The group alongside him is a bit of a mystery at this stage with several young prospects prepping for their first professional campaign. Last year’s defense was a middle-of-the-road group (42 goals allowed), with the offense able to find ways to compensate for any defensive shortcomings.
Key number: 93 – Goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap logged 93 regular-season games for Pittsburgh from 2010-14. In his return to the club, Gilstrap is also coaching the goalkeepers in the Riverhounds’ development academy, having previously established the goalkeeper coaching curriculum in his earlier stint with the club.
Noteworthy matchups: The Pittsburgh-Harrisburg City Islanders matchups were must-see viewing last season as the scoring clips and drama tended to reach another level. This Pennsylvania derby resumes early in the year when the Riverhounds play host on April 9 at Highmark Stadium. A new local rivalry could also be on the horizon with expansion Bethlehem Steel FC. These teams first meet on July 10 at the Steel’s Goodman Stadium.
Coach’s view: “There are 11 starting spots open, and I don’t see a player who won’t push for one of those. It’s going to be a battle at every position. We have names penciled in, but they’re in pencil. They can be erased pretty easily.” – Mark Steffens
Current roster (updated: March 18, 2016):
Goalkeepers: Brenden Alfery, Hunter Gilstrap, Mauricio Vargas
Defenders: Willie Hunt, Caleb Postlewait, Isaiah Schafer, Karsten Smith
Midfielders: James Bissue, Mike Green, Alex Harlley, Marshall Hollingsworth, Kevin Kerr, Nick Kolarac, Lebo Moloto, Stephen Okai, Ben Swanson
Forwards: Zak Boggs, Ryan Dodson, Corey Hertzog, Romeo Parkes, Drew Russell