The Pittsburgh Riverhounds announced a new affiliation with Columbus Crew SC of Major League Soccer for the 2016 USL season. The Riverhounds will be the primary loan destination for players the Crew have in their system that aren’t quite ready to get regular minutes with the big club. In turn, the Riverhounds will help develop some of the Crew’s younger players, giving them an opportunity to play in an environment more competitive and conducive to growth than the professional development leagues (PDLs) many would otherwise ply their trade in.
In the press release that accompanied the announcement, the coaches of both teams, Gregg Berhalter of Columbus and Mark Steffens of the Hounds, highlighted their shared philosophies on and off the pitch as an attractive element of beginning a partnership that both clubs hope proves far more prosperous than previous affiliations, for either side. Before the 2014 USL Pro (as it was called then) season, the Riverhounds announced a partnership with the Houston Dynamo of MLS. That announcement was viewed by many, myself included, as an exciting step for the local pro club. Over the next year, the Riverhounds would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protections, fire head coach Justin Evans after an abysmal start, and the partnership with the Dynamo was abandoned. It was a regressive year for the club that had just begun to gain a foothold in the local market a year after the opening of Highmark Stadium.
Crew SC have some poor experiences of their own with USL affiliates. In fact, some Hounds supporters may be initially skeptical of the affiliation because of the “Curse of the Crew.” Over the last couple of years, Columbus have agreed affiliations with the Dayton Dutch Lions and Austin Aztex. Neither of those clubs play in USL anymore, though it is difficult to place any of the blame on Crew SC for the troubles those franchises faced. For example, Austin didn’t have their own stadium, which killed their revenue flow, and the site for their planned new stadium flooded, causing them to abandon their league membership for 2016. Even so, it is easy to understand why some supporters would be skeptical. I have no idea if this partnership will prove beneficial for either team, but there are reasons to suspect this affiliation has a greater chance to succeed than past attempts.
Both sides will learn from their recent experiences. Communication is key. Both teams need to have a clear understanding of the other’s expectations. Berhalter and Steffens addressed this issue on the conference call that followed the announcement. Steffens stressed that playing time for loanees must be earned through hard work and form, not pedigree or reputation. Mark Steffens is an experienced and respected coach, a USL hall-of-famer, with a stature in the coaching community that will allow him to avoid some of these issues that plagued the previous regime during the affiliation with Houston. Steffens and Berhalter share many of the same coaching philosophies; both model their styles on the Dutch school of play (“total football,” passing, possession, and movement are emphasized over long balls and direct play). That will help ease the transition for the Crew players who make the drive to Pittsburgh. Of course, the fact that it is “just a three-hour drive” makes the partnership attractive for both clubs. Pittsburgh-Columbus makes a lot more sense than Pittsburgh-Houston or Columbus-Austin. While both coaches recognized the benefit of geographic proximity, as well as the possibility of adding numbers to each team’s respective fan base, neither would cite it as a reason for the partnership. Both admitted it was a nice bonus.
Naturally, the first question many Riverhounds supporters will ask is, “What players are we getting?” There’s no way to answer that for several months, at least until after the MLS Superdraft. However, with the frequent roster turnover that is so common in USL, it will be nice to have some organizational structure in place to help patch over the weaker spots of the roster, either through season-long or short-term loans. Last season, the Hounds needed to find creative methods of roster-building, and while they will continue to explore all avenues of player acquisition, having this agreement in place should ease that process in many instances.
I was excited when the news broke this morning. I’m not a die-hard MLS guy, but I definitely paid more attention to our top domestic league this year than ever before, and I found myself gravitating toward the Crew for a couple of reasons. First (and maybe this is silly), I dig their uniforms. Pittsburgh sports fans wouldn’t look out of place donning the black and (not really) gold that adorn Columbus’s kits. Second, Columbus’s home ground, Mapfre Stadium, was the site of maybe my best-ever live sports experience. No, it wasn’t a Crew match, but on September 10th, 2013, I was there on an INCREDIBLY hot and humid night to watch the US Men’s National Team beat Mexico 2-0 (Dos a cero…clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) in World Cup qualifying, securing the USMNT’s trip to Brazil. For that reason, Columbus, and by extension, the Crew, will always hold a special place in my heart. It also didn’t hurt that Gregg Berhalter has overseen a massively impressive turnaround in the two years he’s been in charge, re-energizing a somewhat stagnant founding MLS franchise into a championship contender (Columbus lost to Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup final last month).
I don’t know if this partnership will work, but I certainly hope it is mutually beneficial.
Affiliation between MLS and USL teams has rapidly become commonplace, if not a necessity. MLS clubs need a professional environment for their prospects to get competitive minutes; USL clubs (not owned by the MLS teams) benefit by having an enlarged talent pool that is economically viable. Most USL contracts are one-year deals. The Riverhounds have a few players under contract through 2016, including the outstanding midfield trio of Kevin Kerr, Rob Vincent, and Lebo Moloto. If the Hounds are able to hold on to all three of those players, that would be an excellent foundation on which to build on last season’s success. Mark Steffens expects bigger things in his second year in charge. Last year, the Hounds met their goal of making the USL playoffs. Now, the club envisions loftier achievements. This partnership with Columbus Crew SC may prove to be an important step toward those goals. Only time will tell.