When it comes to ‘football,’ Pittsburgh is known for the American game. The Steelers have won the Super Bowl six times, and the area has been the home to numerous household names in the NFL.
Unfortunately, the city doesn’t hold the same reputation for producing our type of football players. The most common argument for this has been that the best athletes play other sports, leading to few Pittsburgh soccer players making it to the professional level.
While the statement might be true, soccer isn’t a game in which you need to jump to 10 feet high or run over a 250 lb refrigerator disguised as a human. Soccer is a game played with your head — your techniques are simply the execution of decisions. The best players can make and execute quicker and better decisions. Therefore, whilst there is no substitute for pace, the athlete argument can easily be swept away.
So what really is the problem then?
There are many cultural differences between the US and the world’s powerhouses in soccer, but one, in particular, is relevant to Hotspurs right now. In Europe, there is no divide between youth and senior clubs. Every club has both, and the players who are a part of the youth teams are playing with the goal of one day representing the first team. Something is refreshing about being part of an organization that caters to all ages where the youth players can follow and support the first team whilst the adults can, in turn, support the youth.
When a youth player comes through to finally wear the first team shirt, the whole community can rejoice in the efforts made by everyone to help that player to get to this step in their sporting career. Club alumni stay involved and support the club for life, rather than finishing at 18, heading off to college and then losing touch with the people that played such a huge part in their early years.
The opportunity to make a change
It’s been in the 5-year plan for Hotspurs to bring on adult teams in 2023. In February, 4 years ahead of schedule, when the opportunity to bring a bit of that club culture to Pittsburgh presented itself, we had to take it.
It was short notice and has been a sprint to pull as much together as possible to enter the NPSL, but we couldn’t turn down the opportunity for the Pittsburgh Hotspurs Men’s First Team to formulate.
As stated all along, one of our main motives as a club is to provide the opportunity for local, talented soccer players to continue their journey at a high level here in Pittsburgh. Furthermore, we wanted to give chances to some of the most talented youth players in our club to experience what a D-I college or former professional player looks and trains like. To be on the pitch alongside them and learn from them.
Our DOC has always stated, ‘age only matters if you’re a block of cheese or a bottle of wine!” Through our recruitment for the team, we adopted the ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ mentality which has led to some remarkable results.
Paving the way
In this inaugural season, we have 31 players challenging for a roster spot each game. Of those 31, eight are currently still competing in the academy level, and another five just graduated high school as our season got underway.
In our first league game, in which we narrowly lost 2-1 to last years conference champions, Erie Commodores, five of our 11 starters were 20 or under with Ethan Hackenberg starting in center midfield despite still being a week away from graduating High School.
Hackenberg is headed to Spain in August to compete/take part in Eture Sport Men’s Gap Year Program which will have him competing in the highest U19 level in Spain. He’s just one of the recent grads that are looking at the opportunity to train and play all summer with the Pittsburgh Hotspurs to help them jump into the next step in their playing career.
Tate Mohney, Auston Kranick, Luke Mort, Jeremy Lucas also each recently graduated and will start their first collegiate season in the fall.
Mort graduated from high school in the winter semester and started training with Pitt for their spring season. He along with Mohney, who graduated in recent weeks from Butler HS, has claimed a roster spot in the majority of the games thus far.
From the academy side, we have five current Hotspurs players (three of which are U15s on our 2004 State Cup Champions team — Gabe Viszlay, Michael Weleski, and Luke Kolankowski) and three Riverhounds Academy players (Sam Farner, Gabe Norris, and Austin Rocke).
It’s a gamble to put kids into an adult game with the increased physicality and the potential overwhelming pressure. To the credit of each player involved with the team this year, we’ve seen great success. Lucas Alese, Nate Rondinelli and Rocke each have made their debut in the lineup logging valuable minutes.
Not to be understated is the impact of our more experienced players. They are acting as excellent role models, driving the tempo of training sessions, demanding effort and quality whilst giving the younger players the confidence to express themselves.
Five years down the line, we fully expect these current youth players to have made the transition into key playing members of the squad. And at that time, we know they’ll take on the responsibility of guiding the next wave of Pittsburgh’s talented youth players through the early part of their journey into adult football.