Roster turnover is a reality of life in USL, and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds are not immune. As the calendar turned to 2016, most Hounds supporters would tell you that the club needed to improve three areas in particular before the upcoming campaign: goalkeeper, central defense, and striker. Over the last few days, the club has announced the signings of four new players as they begin to address those areas of need: Corey Hertzog, Zak Boggs, Mauricio Vargas, and Alex Harlley. These new signings, coupled with several returning players still under contract, and we start to get a picture of what kind of team head coach Mark Steffens plans to field in his second season on the job.
Both of the Riverhounds top two goalkeepers left the club following the team’s playoff loss to New York Red Bulls II. Ryan Thompson was the club’s first-choice keeper coming into the year, but national team duties and injuries prevented Thompson from regular minutes, and he never got into any sort of rhythm. Calle Brown, an NCAA champion at the University of Virginia, stepped in and deputized well during the team’s stretch run. So well, in fact, that he was offered a contract with Houston Dynamo of MLS. The departures of Thompson and Brown left a glaring hole between the sticks. In steps Mauricio Vargas. Vargas was born in New Jersey and moved to Costa Rica as a young child. He drew the attention of the Costa Rican football federation as a teenager, and he represented Los Ticos in both the 2007 Under-17 and the 2011 Under-20 FIFA World Cups. Cracking the Costa Rican first team might be difficult, as his position is currently occupied by Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas, but Vargas brings experience in elite competitions to a position where the Hounds cupboard is relatively bare.


Another area of need for the Riverhounds was center forward. Despite being one of the highest scoring teams in USL, the Hounds’ struggled for goals from the number 9 spot all year long. Brazilian striker Vini Dantas was released from the team after one year. Dantas showed flashes of potential, but struggled for fitness and goal-scoring touch. Robert Morris product Miro Cabrilo provided some great hold-up play, and while turning your back to goal and setting up your midfielders is a wonderful ability for a center forward to have, the striker’s job is to score goals, and 3 tallies in 760 minutes of play (as Cabrilo registered) just isn’t enough. In one day, Mark Steffens looked to bolster his offense by bringing in forwards Corey Hertzog and Zak Boggs. In his junior year at Penn State, Hertzog scored 20 goals to lead the NCAA. Hertzog decided to forego his senior year in Happy Valley, and was drafted 13th overall in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft by New York Red Bulls. Since then, he has spent time in New York and with Vancouver in MLS, as well as loan spells with Wilmington and Orlando City in USL. Hertzog played with Tamps Bay Rowdies in NASL last season before agreeing terms with the Riverhounds. Hertzog and fellow signee Boggs played together in Tampa last season.
Zak Boggs’s road to Pittsburgh has been a little less conventional. A West Virginia native, he was a selection of the New England Revolution in the 2010 SuperDraft, made 29 appearances for the Revs, then left professional soccer to study cancer cell and molecular biology at the University of Leicester on a Fulbright Scholarship. Boggs was also a nominee for a Rhodes Scholarship when he was at the University of South Florida. I hope Zak make the Riverhounds better. I KNOW he makes them smarter. When he resumed his professional career after his time studying abroad, Boggs played for Hounds coach Mark Steffens with the Charlotte Eagles. You’d have to assume that familiarity was a big selling point for Boggs, and I’m sure his appreciation for Steffens’s style and philosophy aided in bringing in Hertzog, as well.


Midfielder Alex Harlley rounds out the quartet of new signings. The 23-year old midfielder from Togo doesn’t necessarily fill a position of need like the other three, but I’m excited to see what he brings to the team. My scouting of Harlley consists of watching YouTube highlight videos (admittedly, not the most effective way to analyze a player’s game), but he appears to be a big, physical presence who prefers the right wing. I’m interested to see where Steffens plans on using him. He could be a wild card. So far, my two favorite facts about Alex Harlley are: 1) he was red-carded during his professional debut while his team was down 4-0; and 2) his uncle is former Monaco, Arsenal, Real Madrid, and Tottenham forward Emmanuel Adebayor.
The offseason is still young, and the Riverhounds have hinted at other signings that will be announced in the coming weeks. Central defense still needs addressed. The Hounds were sorely lacking a big, physical presence in the heart of the defensive line. Other than that, the squad is rounding into shape. If the trio of Rob Vincent, Kevin Kerr, and Lebo Moloto (all of whom are under contract for 2016) remain with the team, the midfield will be strong once again. Stephen Okai, Sterling Flunder, Drew Russell, and Nick Kolarac are all under contract for another year, as well. Plus, the affiliation deal with Columbus Crew SC will provide depth and young talent for the roster. Mark Steffens and his staff achieved their goal of reaching the USL playoffs in 2015. In year two under Steffens, their sights are set on grander achievements. The signings of the past few days show that the club knows exactly where they need to improve if they want to get there.

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