By Richard Nightingale
Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance … Confucius
On the eve of the 2016 USL Championship I thought it was the perfect time to write a few lines on what we witnessed this past season in Pittsburgh, the lessons that should have been learned and the road ahead.
I firmly believe that where a team finishes in any League is directly proportional to that organization’s investment, both on and off the field. Look no further than Cincinnati. What did Cincinnati do in one year that Pittsburgh haven’t figured out in close to two decades? With a clear vision, no baggage and seasoned sports executives at the helm they knew from day one an MLS franchise was the end-game. They may play in the USL but operate in all they do as though in the MLS. Pittsburgh are in “existence” mode and it’s not healthy, likely terminal.
St Louis recently hired Preki as their new Coach. A former US National Team player who guided Sacramento to the 2014 USL Championship and prior to that coached Toronto FC in the MLS. St Louis FC President Patrick Barry said “The appointment of Preki signals our commitment to building the best franchise in the USL”. St Louis put a stake in the sand for their fans and franchise. Decided with this appointment ‘to go big or go home’. No guy from the Navy!
What’s going on with Pittsburgh’s front office? You can’t achieve excellence on a skeleton crew with individuals out of their depth. Operating a Pro Team without a General Manager is naive and inviting failure. There is a gulf rapidly developing between clubs in the USL and one of the common threads of those pulling away is the caliber of individuals in these front offices. You get what you pay for. Then you have to create a culture and environment where the best want to come to work.
Most clubs in the USL place their priority on the Pro Team, yet it seems fair to say that Pittsburgh have joined the ranks of clubs such as Richmond that prefer to focus their energy and resources on developing an Academy. Any traction and success by the Pro Team is a bonus. Forget this nonsense about Academy’s being a ‘Path to the Pro’s’. How many players have come through the ranks at Pittsburgh to play for the Pro Team? An Academy at a club such as Pittsburgh is more about parents paying steep fees to get their child exposure at tournaments where they may catch the eye of a College coach and secure a scholarship. It’s
a nice revenue stream for an organization. Pittsburgh’s PDL Team which is made up of College players looking to make the jump to the Pro’s was woeful in 2016 winning a handful of games and notably loosing 9 – 0 to the Michigan Bucks. Just acknowledge your intent Pittsburgh and manage the fans expectations. No shame in transparency and honesty. Refreshing perhaps.
On the field in 2016 Pittsburgh personified mediocrity. Games are won and the future defined by what a team does in the last third. Scoring goals creates momentum and drives attendance. No Club was ever built on defending. Shoring up a defense is a band aid, very short term. Finding creative players who can open up defenses and help develop that cutting edge should be the off-season priority. Dave Brandt deserves a second season, a pre-season to put ‘his’ squad together. Give him the budget to compete for signings. My advice would be to spend that budget on fewer, quality players. And experienced players, proven at the D2 / D3 Pro level. Playing for Pittsburgh in the USL should not be approached as a hobby, a pastime. Pittsburgh should be on every players ‘A’ list and the organization should be renowned for ‘excellence’. My fear is that Pittsburgh dug themselves a deep hole this past season and has a tarnished reputation. We will see what kind of recruiter Brandt is. I’d give the ‘relationship’ with Columbus a second season. Steffen was a savior between the posts and I hate to think what may have happened had he not shown up at Station Square. Outside of Kerr, Hunt, Campbell, Molotto and Hertzog every other player is expendable. Finishing second from bottom isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement of the squad. My last recommendation would be to add Paul Child to the coaching staff as Technical Director. He’s a winner, great judge of players, can analyze opponents as good as anyone and simply would be a breath of fresh air.
Last Wednesday, I was the guest of Mark Frisch owner of the Jacksonville Armada in the NASL. Cracking game in which Jacksonville came from behind and beat Miami 3 – 2. Looks like Tampa Bay and Ottawa will be jumping ship from the NASL to the USL for the 2017 season. I have a meeting next week in NYC with Bill Peterson, the Commissioner of the NASL. Looking forward to that conversation and getting an insight into the rumors surrounding the MLS / NASL / USL dynamic. The USL has to conduct an honest review of it’s arrangement with the MLS and their ‘reserve teams’. It could be an embarrassing spectacle on Sunday with two such teams playing for the USL Championship in an empty Red Bull Arena.
The only constant right now with Pittsburgh is the uncertainty and that is never good. ‘Change’ can be good. To be effective there has to be acceptance and acknowledgement that something is fundamentally wrong. Since 1996 there have been too many years like 2016. Enough!
Any League is only as good as it’s weakest team and right now the USL has it’s finger pointed at Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. Time to evolve or face the consequences.
Remember Rochester. That may be the way forward,
I’ll be back in 2017.