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Getting Their House in Order

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Riverhounds CEO confirms coaching search almost complete; affiliation with Houston Dynamo is still a possibility in 2015.

As professional soccer’s landscape in the United States continues to take shape with significant expansion and partnership between Major League Soccer (MLS) and USL PRO, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds are preparing to reorganize after a challenging season on and off the field.

“We have had to take a step back, take a look at getting everything internally buttoned up, let the dust settle, and use what we have to get things in order,” said Jason Kutney, Riverhounds CEO and Director of Youth Development. 

REORGANIZATION PLAN APPROVED; SHALLENBERGER TAKES REIGN
It’s been a tough year for the Riverhounds, as they are still sorting things out from their bankruptcy proceedings which began in March, and certainly cast a shadow over the season that included a dip in attendance and no playoff appearance, despite lofty expectations.  

However, in early November, things took a positive turn, as their proposed reorganization plan was officially approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jeffery A. Deller.

The approval, which applies to both the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Highmark Stadium, means that both entities are now positioned to move forward in preparation for the 2015 USL PRO season and beyond, under the ownership of Terrance "Tuffy" Shallenberger, and direction of current management, which includes Kutney. 
 
In light of another local minor league franchise, the Pittsburgh Power, ceasing operations earlier this month, the Riverhounds know they must have a prudent business plan going forward. Unlike the Power, they will have to lean on their existing assets. Their senior professional team is only a part of their entire operation, as they are responsible for the operation of three-year old Highmark Stadium and their successful Riverhounds Academy.  
 
As soccer's growth in Western Pennsylvania continues, Kutney and the Riverhounds intend to remain at the forefront.     

“For the USL PRO, Pittsburgh is a big market.  It’s hard to argue against expansion and the possibilities that come with it,” added Kutney.    
 
AT THE TOP OF THE LIST: HIRING A NEW HEAD COACH
The Hounds completed the 2014 season with Nikola Katic as their interim head coach after Justin Evans was relived of duties in May. Kutney acknowledged they are finally coming down to the wire with making a decision on a new head coach from outside the organization. 
 
“We have identified some outstanding coaches. We have three legitimate candidates. Each are current coaches at various levels, so we wanted to ensure that we have stabilized, and we are able to bring someone in who will be a part of our long-term plan,” said Kutney.
 
Kutney didn't deny any of the reports that have circulated recently about the candidates they are interviewing, saying, "there's some level of truth" to the reports. 

The reports have centered around successful Navy head coach Dave Brandt and University of Virginia Associate head coach, and former Riverhounds defender, Matt Chulis. Brandt and Chulis have emerged as front runners for the position.     Pittsburgh Riverhounds 2014

Chulis played three seasons for the Riverhounds (2002-04), making 61 appearances. In addition, his resume includes captain of the US U-20 team in 1997 FIFA World Cup Youth Championship and stints with MLS Columbus, Portland and Chicago. He's been on the coaching staff at UVA, his alma mater, since 2006. 

Brandt has been highly successful collegiate head coach, winning over 300 games including six national championships at NCAA (D II) Messiah College and leading Navy to their first NCAA (D I) Tournament berth in program history.  

LEAGUE EXPANSION AND AFFILIATION STILL IN PLAY 
The Riverhounds are currently a part of the USL PRO, which is considered the third division in United States Soccer’s pyramid. The USL PRO is taking a giant leap, expanding to 24 franchises in 2015, primarily in the wake of a mandate Major League Soccer has made to its franchises -- that they either have an affiliate franchise in USL PRO, or opt to have a stand-alone USL PRO team of their own.  

“It was just a few years ago, we were attending league meetings, and there were just five or six teams involved in the room. Now, we walk into an auditorium full of executives representing franchises from all around the country,” added Kutney.  

The LA Galaxy were the first to field their own USL PRO team in 2014 (Galaxy II), and in 2015, six MLS franchises will be following LA’s lead, including Portland, Montreal, Seattle, Real Salt Lake, Vancouver and Toronto. 
 
MLS franchises that don’t start their own USL PRO teams will continue to look to current USL PRO organizations to find a suitable partner. In 2014, the Riverhounds entered into an affiliation with the Houston Dynamo, in which they fielded Dynamo players on their roster who made contributions. Mike Lisch, Anthony Arena and Jason Johnson were the three primary players used by the Riverhounds.

However, beginning in 2016, the Dynamo plan to field their own team in USL PRO. There has been no confirmation from the Riverhounds or the Dynamo if they will keep their affiliation in 2015, but Kutney did acknowledge that both sides have been communicating, citing a recent debriefing, and they are still discussing the potential for another year of partnership.   
 
“There’s new management in place in Houston, and we are going to keep the door open in the coming weeks to see if this is still something that we can try to make work,” said Kutney. 
 
Either way, for the long term, the writing is on the wall. The Riverhounds may have to seek another MLS franchise to affiliate with, or move forward in operating on their own. Not including the Riverhounds, there are currently eight USL PRO teams that have affiliations with MLS teams in 2015, and eight that have no affiliation. 

The benefits of affiliating with a MLS franchise is having high caliber, MLS level players on the Hounds roster, but on the payroll of the affiliating organization.  For the Riverhounds, coming out of bankruptcy, being affiliated with Houston, or another MLS franchise for at least another season would be beneficial financially, if nothing else.  
 
Operating without an affiliation would provide more roster stability and not being subjected to last minute call-ups. In 2014, all of the Dynamo contributors were called up a various times during the season, providing some challenges for the Hounds coaching staff to develop any form of consistency in fielding their line-ups, and developing the team's on-field chemistry.
 
Another benefit of USL PRO’s expansion may alleviate the travel schedule as the league may likely be cut into two geographically aligned conferences with 12 teams each. Last season the Riverhounds schedule included road trips to Sacramento, Utah, Arizona, Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. With anticipation of Eastern/Western conferences, the overall travel schedule will likely be reduced, and likely a balanced schedule with less back-to-back road games will make things more manageable for all teams in USL PRO on both sides of the country.

As for the team's roster, Kutney said that it's too early to confirm much of what their roster will look like in 2015, although he said they are constantly scouting and actively in the Pittsburgh Riverhounds 2014market looking for new players to fill what he said were approximately five open positions. 
 
The coming weeks and months of the offseason are still left to play out, as the Riverhounds have a lot of work to do.  

Kutney said that it's their goal to fill their coaching vacancy by the end of the year, and to have their affiliation status sorted out as well. 

So, Pittsburgh area soccer fans... stay tuned.

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