January and February are undoubtedly the dog days of the sports fan’s year. The weather is lousy, the Steelers bowed out of the playoffs, pitchers and catchers are still a month away from reporting to spring training, and the Penguins continue to disappointingly grind through their eighty-two game regular season before the games really start to matter (and it’s maybe not such a sure thing the Pens will get to play those meaningful games this year). For golf fans, like me, the “important” tournaments are still a few months off. But as I’ve said many, many times before, soccer never stops. European leagues are at their midway point, domestic cups are in full swing, and Champions League play resumes with the knockout rounds next month. In that spirit, I thought I’d catch up on some Riverhounds news and notes.
Shortly after the New Year, the Hounds began shaping their 2016 roster in earnest. In addition to forwards Zak Boggs and Corey Hertzog, midfielder Alex Harlley, and goalkeeper Mauricio Vargas, head coach Mark Steffens and the front office brought in Karsten Smith, a 6’3” central defender, in an attempt to fill one of the biggest holes on their squad. The Riverhounds were sorely lacking a big, physical presence in the middle of the defense last season. Coaches and supporters alike will hope Smith is able to help rectify that problem. The other new addition is not a new face to Hounds fans. Goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap, who played for the club from 2010-2014, rejoins the senior squad following his November return to Pittsburgh to coach the Riverhounds’ Goalkeeping Academy youth training program.
Signing new players won’t be the only source of talent acquisition for the Hounds this year. As part of the club’s new affiliation agreement with Columbus Crew SC of MLS, the Riverhounds would’ve kept a close eye on the results of the MLS Superdraft. The first two rounds of the Superdraft took place on January 14th, and rounds three and four finished the selection process on January 19th. Crew SC selected five total players over the draft’s four rounds, and it’s very likely we will see one or more of those selections get time at Highmark Stadium during the upcoming season.
Columbus selected midfielders Rodrigo Saravia and Chase Minter with the 19th and 21st overall selections, respectively. With their final three picks, Crew SC looked to bolster their forward line. In 2015, Columbus rode their roster depth all the way to the final of MLS Cup. Ahead of the 2016 season, the only striker currently remaining on their roster is Kei Kamara. Admittedly, if you’re only going to have one striker, a league MVP candidate like Kamara is a good start, but it’s not enough. Crew looked to bolster that position with their last three picks. Kyle Parker (31st overall), Marshall Hollingsworth (41st), and Vincent Cicciarelli (60th) are all forwards. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a player, or players , from that group in Station Square this summer, after Crew’s preseason training sorts out the MLS club’s internal pecking order.
Another situation Riverhounds fans will want to keep an eye on is the continuing courtship of team MVP and USL team of the season first-team selection Rob Vincent. As Matt Grubba , the Trib’s Riverhounds beat writer, noted this week, Mark Steffens announced that Vincent will be rejoining DC United of MLS on a trial basis next week (as he did after Pittsburgh were eliminated from the USL playoffs last season). It is important to remember that Vincent is under contract with the Riverhounds for 2016, so, if DC United, or any other MLS club, want to retain his services, the Hounds will receive compensation, either financial or in the form of a trade. As much as I’d like to see Rob in Pittsburgh for another season, he may be ready to take the next step in his professional career. I’m not a scout, but I find it very hard to believe he couldn’t immediately help a club in MLS.
In general USL news, the league announced their conference structure for 2016. Seven new teams have been added to the ever-expanding league. As an aside…if you’re in the mood for a little bit of a laugh, check out the map that USL put out to announce their new conference structure. It’s an absolute mess. The haphazard color coding, the misplaced cities (“that’s not where Seattle or Los Angeles are located, guys….”), the absence of West Virginia’s panhandle altogether….it’s like some hilariously layered trollish modern art project. Anyway, Pittsburgh’s Eastern Conference will now have 14 teams (up from 12 last year) vying for eight playoff spots (up from six). The team also announced that the 2016 schedule will be announced at 1 pm on January 26th.