A graduate of the Riverhounds Development Academy, Robbie Mertz has become a key figure in the Hounds' success in the Championship this season. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger /Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
On August 22, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC were nursing a 1-0 lead over Saint Louis FC as the clock ticked into the 40th minute of a USL Championship matchup at Highmark Stadium. A Saint Louis defender nicked the ball off the foot of Pittsburgh attacker Ropapa Mensah, and for a moment it looked as though the chance had gone for the Riverhounds.
But 23-year-old midfielder Robbie Mertz had positioned himself intelligently, allowing him to react first to the loose ball, cleverly take a touch around another defender, and slide the ball into the net to double Pittsburgh’s advantage.
Mertz, a Pittsburgh native, is excelling in his second season with his hometown club. He has started all 10 of the team’s fixtures in 2020, recording four goals and two assists to help spur the Riverhounds to the top of the Championship’s Group F. But the foundation for Mertz’s success was laid years ago, during his time with the then-nascent Riverhounds Development Academy.
The Riverhounds Development Academy began as a supplemental training program for local players in 2006 and 2007. The program started with U12s as its oldest age group and allowed players and coaches to grow within the same system, creating an identity that those within the club believed in and could recognize as unique. For Jason Kutney, who once played for the Riverhounds and who had an integral role in launching the academy, the investment is paying off.
“The academy provides the Riverhounds with an opportunity to carefully connect the youth and professional sides, establish programs that add meaning to that connection, extend the club's reach deeper and deeper into the local grassroots communities, and secure placement within top national soccer leagues for its most elite players,” said Kutney, who joined the Elite Clubs National League Boys (ECNL Boys) in April 2019 as Commissioner.
“Looking back on it all,” said Kutney, “what stands out the most is that every decision made was taken very seriously and evaluated from the standpoint of, ‘what's best for the advancement of these players?’”
Mertz, who also played with local youth club Century United during the crucial stages of his development, was one of the first players to progress through the RDA. Similar to the structure of soon-to-be USL Academy League teams, players were grouped by talent level rather than by age. The most-talented players, regardless of age, trained together. Mertz was placed in the top tier when he joined the program, helping accelerate his development.
Soon after, Mertz scored the first goal in RDA history at a tournament in Rochester, New York. In attendance that day was current Riverhounds’ Head Coach Bob Lilley.
After Mertz went on to a successful collegiate career at Michigan, he was selected by the Colorado Rapids in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft. He couldn’t quite battle his way to a spot on the roster though, and so Mertz decided to return home to compete with his local professional club.
A Pittsburgh native, Robbie Mertz has recorded four goals and two assists while appearing in every game in his second season with the Hounds in the Championship. | Photo courtesy Hartford Athletic
The hope among those running the RDA is that Mertz represents the first of what will be a growing stream of players to traverse the solidifying youth to pro pathway at the club.
“Our plan is certainly to create a pipeline of players that can look to potentially sign USL Academy contracts with our first team,” said Pittsburgh Riverhounds Academy Director Scott Gibson. “We have a number of extremely talented boys in the system and we look forward to seeing them develop and potentially play under our First Team staff in the near future. This will give our players potentially at 15 or 16 the opportunity to play professional soccer and gather valuable experience.”
The RDA website describes a, “skill-driven system of development, focusing on individual player improvement rather than winning team competitions.” While competing is still important, the priority of the Riverhounds Academy system is based on evaluating each individual player’s development needs and figuring out what tools and mentoring will fit those needs best.
“The RDA Platform is designed to focus upon individual player development within a team model. While the club reinforces and celebrates the positives attributed with teamwork, the principle focus will remain on the course of each individual player within the system, and ways in which that course must be traversed in order to seek out the ultimate success of those individual players,” said Gibson. “As the players get older we do put more importance on winning games, as this is a quality that needs to be taught, but the overall focus at our youngest age groups is implementing our philosophy of play and having our players comfortable trying things without the fear of making mistakes.”
Last February, the RDA sent an elite team to compete at the USL Academy Eastern Conference Regional Event in Florida. While that side won only one out of its three matches at the event, it was a tremendous learning and development experience for the young team, and the type of exposure that the USL Academy League will provide more of starting in spring 2021.
“We are working closely with the USL and fully support this venture” said Gibson of the USL Academy platform. “The growth of the USL Academy Cup and league is certainly something that we plan on taking part in the future.”
To learn more about USL Academy, visit www.usl-academy.com/about or search #USLAcademy on social media.