The season ended on Saturday night for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, with a 1-1 draw against Ottawa in what amounted to a meaningless game that closed an unprecedented 32-game season.
On the eve of the USL and Major League Soccer's upcoming playoffs, winds of change have swirled around pro soccer's landscape in recent days. Their impact may be felt all the way to Pittsburgh.
On Monday, Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl broke the bombshell news that the Hounds' Major League Soccer affiliate partners for the past two years, the Columbus Crew, have confirmed that if they don't have a new, downtown stadium deal completed soon, they will move the franchise to Austin for the 2019 MLS season.
Yes, the Columbus Crew. One of MLS' original franchises, who built and financed the first soccer-only stadium in the United States for MLS, opening in 1999, have now subscribed to the U.S. pro sports ownership playbook of holding a city for ransom by threatening to leave for greener pastures.
Barring new downtown stadium, Columbus Crew set to move to Austin in 2019 https://t.co/LbKXYzRQob
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 17, 2017
At Highmark Stadium on Wednesday, Riverhounds head coach Dave Brandt met with me for a one-on-one interview to provide the state of affairs of his team and his first full year on the job. (I will have more on this in a feature in the coming days.)
Brandt addressed the two-year affiliation with Columbus that expired this week, and what lies ahead.
"Yes, the original two-year agreement is over," Brandt acknowledged of the affiliation where the Crew would provide players to the Hounds on loan. "There will be have to be a discussion, as far as if and how we would move forward. But it hasn’t happened yet, and understandably so, as we just finished our season, and Columbus is still in contention and will be in MLS playoffs."
In all, the Crew provided a number of players with opportunities to get significant actual pro game experience and additional training in Pittsburgh. Among the players, Marshall Hollingsworth was the most significant contributor (playing 35 games in two seasons with the Riverhounds before sustaining a knee injury in August). Other players such as Abuchi Obinwa, Ben Swanson and Lalas Abubaker were part of the Hounds team in 2017, and most notably, the Crew's current starting keeper, Zach Steffen, featured prominently in Pittsburgh at the end of last season.
Brandt was transparent when acknowledging that while working with an affiliation partner like Columbus has its benefits, it also provides for a tricky relationship at times.
"(Columbus coach and sporting director) Gregg Berhalter has been great to work with. I don’t know if he feels the same way about me, because it’s hard, as sometimes I would say ‘no’," Brandt explained about the times he had to turn down the chance to take players on loan with Columbus. "Sometimes what’s ideal for them – and this is where it’s tricky, it’s a tricky relationship – is to send players down here for games on the weekends when they’re not getting games in Columbus. But that works against any semblance of team understanding, having a sense of what we’re doing. And to an extent that’s happening elsewhere, too. I think the notion of the USL being a developmental league spawned that. ‘Why not send these players down?' "
The Hounds would also take on additional players on loan in situations this season when they needed to fill a particular void, for specific positions. Included in this were the loans of Joe Greenspan on loan from Minnesota United FC and Shannon Gomez from NYCFC.
MLS, in its partnership with the USL, required that each of its franchises either create its own team or affiliate with a USL team by 2016. Now, the tide is beginning to turn, and the USL is no longer positioning itself as a developmental league, but something more prominent.
The Riverhounds and Brandt are just fine with that.
With winds of change that are blowing NASL down to third division status, and with the USL positioning itself and formally applying to be the sole second division league in the United States pro soccer set-up in 2018, the USL is looking to step things up to another level. (Note: both leagues were given provisional second division status in January, but since, NASL's bid for continued D2 status was rejected in September, though they are pursing litigation to over turn this decision by the U.S. Soccer Federation.)
Internally, the USL still has to sort a lot of things out. There was a significant collision between the majority of the USL's independent clubs and the MLS-owned teams that came to the forefront at the mid-season meetings in late July.
And since, the USL formally announced it will also be forming a third-division league set to begin in 2019. This may become the avenue where MLS-owned 'developmental' teams, who don't appear interested in meeting stadium standards or carving out separate, ambitious business models or franchises, are heading.
For all intents and purposes, this should have made 2018 a transitional year for those MLS-owned sides.
Suddenly this week, reports have swirled, including some from Sports Illustrated's other soccer writer, Brian Strauss, sharing on Twitter that some MLS-owned USL teams (citing Orlando City B and Vancouver Whitecaps 2 specifically) will disband altogether.
These reports created enough of a storm to generate response from MLS teams like the Philadelphia Union, who operate USL playoff-bound Bethlehem Steel FC, who were also mentioned in additional reports. The Steel FC have a separate brand name that has a storied history in U.S. Soccer going back more than 100 years.
Here's the Union/Steel FC statement:
The winds of change are swirling -- and change -- as the Sam Cooke song goes -- "...is gonna come."
Brandt and the Riverhounds are bracing for it, and made clear on Wednesday what type of franchise the Riverhounds aspire to be on the field.
"I do think the USL is very much moving out of the identity of being a developmental league, very much into the identity of being division two, professional league," Brandt said. "And that’s a very different thing. When you talk about being your own team. I don’t think we have a developmental identity."
"I don't think Cincinnati, Louisville City, and you can go down the list, will ever want to be thought of as developmental. I think that’s the difference. With the USL, and the USL-MLS relationship, I think constantly the USL is going to have to revisit and re-evaluate this."
Maybe the biggest question mark about the Columbus situation for Pittsburgh soccer, as it seems like the Crew is willing to move on without an affiliation, may stem deeper into the youth levels, and particularly with the Riverhounds Developmental Academy (RDA).
This summer, the RDA and Crew Academy announced a formal relationship in order to provide Pittsburgh-based youth with local training and identification centers creating opportunities for selected, identified players to train and compete for the Crew's Developmental Academy.
In fact, the Hounds announced that at least two young Academy members have already made the move to train and compete with Crew Academy. One family has already relocated to Columbus.
The Crew Academy should be able to sustain itself in what already is a strong soccer region in Central Ohio, as a top-level U.S. Developmental Academy, even if the pro team were to leave for another city.
Additionally, with the U.S. Soccer Federation in a transitional state, after the men's senior team failed to qualify for the World Cup next year, and with the potential of leadership changes, it will be interesting to see how things play out with a lot of potential movement still coming with pro soccer leagues, and if they can do anything to prevent the Crew from relocating.
Indeed, the winds of change are sweeping through American soccer -- and this only the first gust.
As previously mentioned, more from the interview with Brandt, who wrapped up player exit interviews on Tuesday and Wednesday, and an in-depth look at the state of the Hounds will follow here on DKPS in the coming days.
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