PITTSBURGH – Over three decades have passed since Mark Steffens first came to Pittsburgh in a professional coaching capacity.
The Long Island native became Shep Messing’s assistant at the New York Arrows in 1983 after starting out in the college ranks. A tough battle was assured whenever his Arrows visited Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena to take on the Spirit in the Major Indoor Soccer League.
“The Spirit were just like this city,” Steffens told The Soccer Observer Wednesday after being confirmed as the new head coach of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. “A hard working team, always hard to beat.”
Steffens might feel as though he’s back in the MISL today given the current Riverhounds roster. Pittsburgh has six players signed for the 2015 United Soccer Leagues Pro Division season and the 61-year-old coach faces a daunting task in the coming months to lure new faces to Highmark Stadium.
An uncanny ability to unearth talent while operating under the financial restrictions at the Charlotte Eagles made Steffens a perfect fit for an organization that failed to earn a return on big-name signings like Collins John and Joseph Ngwenya this past year.
“It’s not that we needed someone who’s going to work with a small budget, but more that he does the work to find the right players,” Pittsburgh’s sporting director Jason Kutney told The Soccer Observer.
“Mark can find guys that you’ve never heard of from little Division III colleges or NAIA schools that make no headlines but become legit professionals,” Kutney said.
“He’s passionate about digging one layer deeper than everyone else.”
Patience is another quality required by Pittsburgh at the moment as many USL players try to land contracts with Major League Soccer franchises. Steffens has seen it all before and he remains confident that the Riverhounds will field a strong line-up when the USL PRO season kicks off in March.
“There’s about 10 players on our board that we really like,” Steffens said. “They all want to go to MLS training camps, so we don’t have a choice right now. We’re in a waiting game.”
The new coach’s diligence toward team-building kept Charlotte at the forefront of the USL title race throughout Steffens’ 18 seasons in the Queen City despite working with one of the league’s lowest player budgets. He steered the Eagles to two USL-2 titles and picked up the Coach of the Year award twice.
Charlotte last reached the USL PRO championship game in 2013, losing 7-4 to Orlando City in an incredible spectacle watched by over 20,000 fans at the Florida Citrus Bowl. Many of those players have since moved on after the Eagles opted to self-relegate to the USL’s Professional Development League level for next season.
“There’s maybe two or three that I would like back, but again other teams are vying for them,” Steffens said. “But there will be a few guys that have played for me that will be here.”
Riverhounds captain Danny Earls tops the list of players that will return to Highmark Stadium next year. Matt Dallman, Rob Vincent, Mike Green, Sterling Flunder and Seth C’deBaca are also under contract while the club is close to agreeing new deals with Kevin Kerr and Miro Cabrilo.
It has taken some time for the Riverhounds to reach a decision on its new permanent coach. Justin Evans was dismissed in May after a 0-4-3 start to the USL PRO season. Croatian defender Niko Katic took over on an interim basis and guided the Hounds to nine wins, two ties and 10 losses to finish the season in 11th place – one position and one point above Charlotte.
Katic remains with the club as Steffens’ new assistant, and Kutney has been working with him on player scouting during the past few months. Nineteen players are taking part in an invitation-only trial this week including college players from the recently crowned national champion Virginia, Penn State, West Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth.
Pittsburgh-based Duquesne University, Kutney’s alma mater, is also represented with French sophomore defender Mamadou Traore being evaluated for a spot on Pittsburgh’s PDL team for next summer.
Duquesne’s senior Kadeem Pantophlet, a 6-foot-7-inch striker from the Netherlands who played for the PDL side this year, will be attending a further Riverhounds trial in January.
“Most clubs in the world have the financial incentive to grow a player and sell him on,” Kutney said. “Our goal is to put him on the field in front of his neighbors, family, friends or classmates and have him become a legend here in Pittsburgh.
“It’s not easy here. You’ve got to play, coach in the Riverhounds Academy and help out with training camps and other appearances. It’s going to be hard to be a Riverhound, but it’s going to be very rewarding.
“I believe Mark is the guy to find that sort of player for us.”
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