Pittsburgh’s Ambitions Make Open Trials A Tougher Hurdle For Aspiring Pros

Written by Ian Thomson

CANONSBURG, Pa. – The Pittsburgh Riverhounds hosted its annual open tryouts last week with the window of opportunity for participants to impress the club’s coaching staff becoming narrower with each passing year.

Pittsburgh has stated its intentions to follow Orlando City into Major League Soccer from the third tier of the American structure. A capital injection from new majority owner Tuffy Shallenberger has greatly enhanced the team’s budget for 2014 and a partnership with the Houston Dynamo will see four to six MLS players arriving at Highmark Stadium on loan for next year’s United Soccer Leagues season.

Such off-field progress diminishes the relevance of an open trial as a way of building Pittsburgh’s roster. Head coach Justin Evans maintains that the two-day event still plays a role in identifying available talent.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” Evans told The Soccer Observer. “You have to open it up to everybody to see if you can find a player.”

Left to right: Pittsburgh head coach Justin Evans, assistant coach John Rotz and CEO Jason Kutney evaluate the talent at the club's open tryouts. (Photo: Ian Thomson)
Left to right: Pittsburgh head coach Justin Evans, assistant coach John Rotz and CEO Jason Kutney evaluate the talent at the club’s open tryouts. (Photo: Ian Thomson)

Nearly 50 aspirants congregated at the Southpointe Fieldhouse indoor sports complex in Canonsburg last Friday to showcase their skills to Evans and his assistant coach John Rotz. Small-sided exercises and games had been undertaken the previous day with the second session involving two 90-minute games.

The first batch of hopefuls remained huddled in their cars shortly before 9 a.m. while waiting for the sports facility to open. One committed contestant took a jump on his competitors by braving the frigid conditions to embark on a warm-up jog around the building.

By 9:15 a.m. the early arrivals had split into two 9-a-side teams wearing blue or red bibs over their sweatshirts. A couple of French speakers stretched their limbs while sitting on a touchline bench. A trio of youngsters communicated in Spanish as they sluggishly moved a ball around in a triangle. Apologies were made in English as passes went astray. Many of the players modestly juggled a ball and shuffled around the turf, heads bowed away from the glaring ceiling lights and reflective white walls as they focused on the game.

“We know it’s not ideal conditions,” Evans said. “These guys don’t know each other and most of them will be going a billion miles an hour because they’re trying to impress with every single thing they do.

“We’re looking for that guy who has a little something different.”

Team Red talks tactics ahead of last Friday's first tryout game (Photo: Ian Thomson)
Team Red talks tactics ahead of last Friday’s first tryout game (Photo: Ian Thomson)

Pittsburgh has found success through open tryouts in recent years. Forward Mike Seth had been on the radar of the Colorado Rapids and Harrisburg City Islanders without earning a contract when he turned up for a trial with his hometown club ahead of the 2010 season. Croatian Niko Katic joined the team after standing out during a snowy winter trial with his short-sleeved jersey and no-nonsense defending.

Famed crooner Perry Como began his journey to superstardom from Canonsburg’s humble streets in the years between the First and Second World Wars. The chances of Evans and Rotz being dazzled by any magic moments in the first game quickly fizzled as the two teams struggled to find a coherent passing rhythm.

Few goalscoring chances were created during the first half as midfielders conceded possession with overly ambitious passes. Any attempts to ping long balls fell foul of the low-hanging roof rafters.

“Possess, possess,” screamed one red-bibbed player trying to stand out with his leadership. “Hey, who wants central D?” he asked of his teammates in the second half while attempting to bring order to a reshuffled back line.

“If you sub out I’ll do it,” shouted a caustic voice from the bench that prompted a reluctant change.

“Red, make sure you’re subbing,” came the cry from the sideline one minute later as the deposed leader aimed for an immediate return to action.

Action from last Friday's second trial game (Photo: Ian Thomson)
Action from last Friday’s second trial game (Photo: Ian Thomson)

The lure of a professional soccer contract was not the sole reason for attending the tryouts. Some players came simply to test their skills without any serious expectations of changing careers.

“I’m basically here to see if I’ve got anything left in the tank,” said Steve Gauss, a 28-year-old laborer who played at Geneva College in Beaver Falls before joining the amateur Greater Pittsburgh Soccer League.

“If they offer anything I’ll consider it,” Gauss said. “But I’m more of less here to have some fun and get off work.”

Robert Morris University midfielder Sam Colosimo’s chance to shine met an abrupt end 10 minutes into the second game. The midfielder won a tackle near the halfway line before collapsing as his opponent tried to strip the ball back.

“I guess the kid just went into my leg a little late when I was planting and I felt it buckle,” Colosimo said.

Trialist Sam Colosimo talks with a physio after an injury ended his participation (Photo: Ian Thomson)
Trialist Sam Colosimo talks with a physio after an injury ended his participation (Photo: Ian Thomson)

An ACL tear had kept Colosimo, 22, out of the game for most of the past year. The mechanical engineering student starts a new job with an industrial crane manufacturer next month and he feared that his ACL had been ruptured again in the challenge. Colosimo remained positive about his tryout experience.

“I figured if I didn’t do it, I might regret it for the rest of my life,” he said.

Pittsburgh has signed 13 players to date for next season. They are currently practicing twice a week and another session will be added in January. Some of last week’s trialists will be invited along for assessment by the Riverhounds’ coaches over an extended period of time.

“There were a couple that we might look to take to Houston for pre-season training in February,” said Evans at the conclusion of the second game.

The pathway from pub league to the pros may be steepening, but is has not become impossible to navigate quite yet.


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