The Riverhounds are digging deep to plant soccer's roots in the city.
"Ever since I've been in Pittsburgh, I've been blown away by the lack of soccer in the inner cities," Jason Kutney, the Hounds Academy director, was saying Wednesday at Brashear High School. "It's such a cheap, inexpensive game, but what it's become in Western Pennsylvania has been more of the elitist, expensive, pay-for-play situation."
Pay-to-play is a massive problem in the United States, where soccer is reserved for, as Kutney said, the "elitist" and for those willing to pay the price of admission to academies and travel programs. It's largely the source of why the United States is so far behind both smaller and less advanced countries, who play the "beautiful game" for free wherever there is a ball.
Growing up in a diverse New Jersey community filled with rich soccer history, however, Kutney had his fill of access to the sport and wants to make it as available to kids in western Pennsylvania as he had it as a kid — regardless of someone's income or the school district they attend.
That's how the Riverhounds initiative, Sub in for Gym Class, got started. In its most simple form, this program is a way to make soccer accessible to schools in Pittsburgh and other western Pennsylvania counties.
How will they do it? Well, that's in the title. The Riverhounds' players, coaches, and Kutney himself literally sub in and take over the role of gym teacher with a bag of donated soccer balls, pylons and gear to leave behind, allowing students to continue to work at their new hobby.
The pilot school, so to speak, was Sto-Rox Elementary. It was a school system Kutney identified as a target because they've never had a soccer program, but students expressed interest in starting a girls' program for the first time.
"I said, 'This is what I want to do ... no cost to you guys at all. I just want to come out here and run a gym class program,'" Kutney told me of the experience setting the program up at Sto-Rox.
Kutney kicked things off there and took over gym classes with the kids for a couple of weeks. A video documenting what was happening was all that was needed to gain immediate interest from more than 25 additional schools.
Allegheny Health Network, a primary sponsor of the Riverhounds, stepped in to provide the equipment.
"AHN came to us and said they wanted to get involved in this program. They asked what they could help with and I basically said, 'equipment.' I'll go out there with the pro players and we'll do the same business, but we need stuff to give to these schools because they don't have anything, and after we leave they're just done with soccer," Kutney said of AHN's involvement.
So, AHN stepped in to provide the balls, pylons, pinnies and anything else to be left behind at the schools the Riverhounds work with in Allegheny County. Chevron stepped in to assist in other Western Pennsylvania counties, particularly with the Greene, Fayette and Westmoreland County schools.
This morning, Kutney teamed up with James Meara, the Riverhounds academy director, and former Riverhound turned academy staffer Stephen Okai to take over gym class at Brashear.
The Riverhounds' representatives brought soccer balls to the school's gymnasium and played on the basketball court with students. In the afternoon, on the same court, they worked with the school's young men and women already playing soccer for Brashear.
That's where this program continued to shine beyond introducing the sport to prospective fans and athletes — connecting the professional aspect to a game high schoolers might not look at as a path to future income and personal success.
When the time ended in the gymnasium, a couple of the male soccer players stuck around, intrigued about the option to try out for the Riverhounds' academy teams — something they didn't realize was an option for them.
Of course, the Riverhounds stand to benefit from soccer growth in Pittsburgh, both in interest and attendance, as well as potentially gaining academy athletes. But the decision to start this program remains tight to Kutney's own soccer ambition, his loyalty to soccer in Pittsburgh and simply exposing the game.
"There have been a few other clubs in the country who have gone into schools, but for more of an identification-based program," Kutney said. "This is more ... just trying to get soccer into schools as opposed to finding players."
The Riverhounds have already had academy success, most recently with Nate Dragisich, the 2018 United Coaches Pennsylvania State Player of the Year and future Duquesne Duke. He's a player who started in the first year of the academy and is now headed to college to play after a successful high school campaign.
But finding the next Dragisich isn't Kutney's goal. And subbing in as a gym teacher is just the next step toward protecting soccer's future in Pittsburgh — a soccer future Kutney has shaped by keeping the Hounds in Pittsburgh and providing them a home.
"There are the kids who take advantage of our programming, but there are so many more kids like these gym class players who just want to see if soccer can be a part of their life. If the Riverhounds weren't here, that stuff wouldn't be possible."
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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