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Pittsburgh - In the inaugural year of the Pathway to the Pros Academy Challenge, an Under-13 boys event featuring three MLS Academies and the Riverhounds Development Academy, the home side was crowned as champions in front of a sold out crowd of over 4,000 fans at Highmark Stadium.
With a 3-2 come from behind win over the Philadelphia Union, the boys from Pittsburgh raised the Academy Challenge Cup at halftime of the Riverhounds versus VSI Tampa Bay match in a euphoric release of emotion after a tense battle just hours earlier. The win capped off a brilliant start for the RDA boys, going 3-0 over the weekend, with wins over Columbus Crew, DC United, and Philadelphia Union.
Riverhounds CEO Jason Kutney, who organized the Academy Challenge with the three MLS Clubs, was pleased with the Riverhounds victory, but more with the top quality soccer on display over the weekend with some of the nation’s top up and coming stars playing in Pittsburgh.
“The overall level was outstanding,” said Kutney following the Riverhounds professional team’s playoff-clinching victory over VSI Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon. “This was a gathering of four clubs who all develop their players to play the game the right way and that was abundantly clear throughout the two days. I was so impressed with the quality of coaching, the technical competence, and the professionalism of these young players.”
On Saturday, the Riverhounds started the first-ever Pathway to the Pros tournament in a matchup with the Columbus Crew. The Crew, who like all teams competed with a roster filled with Under-12 and Under-13 players, proved to be a sound and capable side through the early going. The Riverhounds looked to have the better of possession and scoring opportunities, but would concede the tournament’s first goal on a defensive miscue. As a ball was sent across the field in possession, it would accidentally slide under the foot of a Riverhounds defender, leading to a Crew breakaway and clean finish for a 1-0 lead. The lead would only be momentary, however, as the Hounds would respond with seven unanswered goals en route to a 7-1 victory.
The Saturday evening fixture set the Hounds against DC United under the lights in Station Square. United dropped a game earlier in the day to a stellar Philadelphia Unions squad by a score of 8-1. Despite their desire to regroup and claim their first victory of the tournament, DC would have a difficult time finding a rhythm against the boys from the ‘Burgh. With several younger players on the field at all times, DC was affected by lack of size and speed on multiple occasions, resulting in an inability to capitalize on what would otherwise be excellent scoring opportunities developed through their run of play. With a lineup of crafty players, United continued to show well in spurts of possession, but the Riverhounds defensive unit held strong, allowing for the teams’ midfielders and strikers to see much of the possession throughout the latter stages of the first half and most of the second stanza. Eventually, the passing lanes would yield goals for the Hounds, ending in a 3-0 victory – including a ‘wonder-strike’ from midfielder Harper Cook - setting the stage for a Sunday morning battle with Philadelphia. The Union defeated the Columbus Crew by a score of 4-3 earlier in the evening.
On Sunday, the Riverhounds and Union met at 11:00 a.m., following the tournament’s consolation matchup between DC and Columbus at 9:00 a.m. – a back and forth match which DC would ultimately win. Philadelphia entered the match with a tie-breaker in hand, making it necessary for the Riverhounds to win the game in order to take the Academy Challenge title.
Recognizing the high stakes and the deep respect everyone gained for Philadelphia due to their performances on Saturday, Riverhounds Director of Academy Operations, Scott Gibson, wanted to ensure the boys understood the task at hand.
“We all understood that Philadelphia was a top team and had some of the best players we’ve seen at the youth level,” said Gibson. “However, our boys needed to recognize their own abilities and not get caught admiring the Union. The difference between respect and admiration would have to learned quickly.”
As it turned out, that lesson took approximately 35 minutes.
The Union would show moments of class throughout the opening half, creating several near break-through passes which were continually cleared out of danger by a frantic Riverhounds team. As the half wore on, the Hounds would eventually concede a goal to the Union’s relentless attacking pressure, with a quality service and even more impressive finish off the head of a Union striker. Despite a few moments of possession, the Hounds coaching staff was happy to arrive at halftime, down by just one goal despite a sub-par effort.
“At halftime, we addressed several key deficiencies from half one and, more importantly, adjusted the mentality of our team,” said Kutney. “We knew it was time for inspiration, not panic.”
Apparently that inspirational message rang loud and clear for the RDA team, who jumped all over the Union in the second half. The team immediately took ownership of possession and began to look for ways to capitalize on passes that would penetrate the steady Union backline. This would pay off early in the half, as RDA forward Markello Apiodakis would be slipped into the attacking third by a pinpoint pass from defender Luke Stephen. With unmatched speed, Apiodakis separated from the chasing Union backline and wrapped a right-footed shot perfectly around the outstretched hands of the diving goalkeeper.
Moments later, the Riverhounds would again get behind the backline of the Union. Again, it would be Apiodakis who found himself dealing with a bouncing ball, a tricky angle, and an onrushing goalkeeper. Recognizing he had limited options, Apiodakis would lift a deft touch over the head of the keeper and just out of reach for the tracking Union defenders, pulling the Hounds into the lead, 2-1.
The Hounds were not done there. Keeping the pressure on, the Riverhounds team looked for solid combination play that would release their defenders into the attack, creating numbers-up opportunities. Their efforts would be rewarded just minutes following the deadlock-breaking finish, with Luke Stephen again involved. This time, Stephen would make his way up the field through an outstanding one and two-touch passing web which would eventually see him into the Union’s box. With a brilliant final touch taking him to goal, the Union defenders had no choice but to bring Stephen down, resulting in a penalty kick for Pittsburgh. Stepping up to the spot, midfielder Pablo Alvarez would bury his shot into the right corner of the net, icing the victory for the home side in their first-ever event as a Riverhounds Academy team.
Prior to the trophy presentation at halftime of the pro match that afternoon, all tournament participants were treated to a one-hour sightseeing tour around Pittsburgh, aboard the Gateway Clipper Fleet, allowing players from the four different Clubs to mingle and celebrate an amazing weekend of quality soccer.
According to Kutney, the cruise marked a fitting end to the event.
“When we made the decision to invest our money, time, and passion into the development of Highmark Stadium, we had dreams about exactly what we saw this weekend. Now, it’s real. We have created a system and that system works. Our girls won a National Championship in their first year as a team. Our boys just won their first tournament against three of the best youth programs in the nation. Our pro team has qualified for the playoffs with two games to spare, doing so in front of a sold out crowd on a Sunday afternoon. We’re working very hard to develop a winning culture. We understand the responsibility that comes with wearing the black and yellow. This weekend we showed what Pittsburgh has to offer.”