Less than 190 miles separate MAPFRE Stadium from Highmark Stadium, the home of Crew SC’s new USL affiliate, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. But geographical proximity isn’t the only reason the new partnership between the Black & Gold and the Hounds will be a close one.
“When we’re talking about making players better, developing players, being a players-first club, those are some of the common themes I heard in discussions with Pittsburgh,” Crew Sporting Director & Head Coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters in a conference call Monday.
Both Berhalter and Riverhounds Head Coach Mark Steffens stressed their soccer philosophies are very similar, and that both clubs will benefit greatly from the new partnership.
“In terms of the philosophy on the field, Mark has ideas to play a similar type of game, not exactly like our game, but a very similar type of game that we play,” Berhalter said. “The alignment is there and it’s going to make the transition for our players much easier.”
Both Crew SC and the Riverhounds focus on passing the ball quickly, tremendous movement off the ball and pressing when necessary, Steffens said. But the similarities don’t end there.
“I think a lot of our ideas are the same, not just on the field, I think off the field, as well,” Steffens said. “The philosophy of striving for excellence every day. We know that winning is a by-product of excellence. We really stress that and I think our organizations’ philosophies are very similar in that way as well.”
Berhalter stressed the affiliation with the Riverhounds, who finished fifth in the Eastern Conference of the United Soccer League this year, is about developing Crew SC’s talented young players while helping the Hounds achieve their goals.
“To me this is about fitting players in at the right moment, the right time, and not to disturb Pittsburgh. We want them to have a successful season and we want to help them do that.”
“We want to develop our players, we want to give them game time, and we want to be in a position where we can use them for the first team, whether that’s in a year or two years,” Berhalter added.
Steffens said that “being connected with one of the best franchises in MLS” will give his club credibility and help field a successful team in 2016. He stressed that whomever will be joining the Hounds next season will have to earn his spot on the field, adding that developing players both on and off the pitch is the ultimate goal.
“Our goal in 2016 is to have a great relationship with Columbus, hopefully grow some of their young players, and teaching them how to be professionals – some of their first-year players – and be successful on the field as well.”
Berhalter said he has a general idea of what players to send, but that everybody has a chance in preseason to find a place on his team.
“We’ll make the decision together and that’s the most important step in determining who’s the right fit,” he said.
Steffens and his assistant coaches have already spent time with Crew SC’s technical staff to observe training and exchange ideas. They plan to join the Black & Gold during preseason to further deepen that relationship.
“Watching his team play, watching some of his training sessions, I think our coaching philosophy is very, very similar, our style on the field is very, very similar,” Steffens said.
Steffens came to Pittsburgh at the beginning of the 2015 campaign after 18 years with the Charlotte Eagles, a club that he guided to the playoffs on 14 occasions, winning two USL Second Division titles. A member of the USL Hall of Fame, he was named the USL Second Division Coach of the Year twice.
Steffens’ methodical approach and his passion for his work are the key to his success, Berhalter said.
“I think that goes a long way, especially when you talk about development, and nurturing players and putting players in a good environment to perform,” Berhalter said. “That was certainly a consideration of ours and Pittsburgh’s coaching staff checked all the boxes.”
Berhalter said that Crew SC had conversations with numerous USL teams about a potential affiliation but that Pittsburgh ultimately was the best choice.
“We want to move in the direction where we have a strong relationship with a partner, a consistent relationship, and there’s benefit for both the affiliation team and ourselves,” he said. “In the end we decided Pittsburgh is a good fit and we’re excited about that relationship.”