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 Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Four RDA Squads Prepare for ECNL National Playoffs

June 12, 2024 - United Soccer League Championship (USL)
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC News Release

Players from the Riverhounds Academy's 2010 ECNL Boys practice at AHN Montour. The team is preparing to compete in the ECNL Champions League, June 25 to July 1, in Del Mar, Calif. (Photo: Julia Wasielewski/Riverhounds SC)

It's championship time in the Elite Clubs National League.

As the curtain comes down on the 2023-24 competitive season, four Riverhounds Development Academy teams have the opportunity to travel cross-country in a bid to claim titles at the ECNL National Playoffs from June 22 to July 1.

Two boys teams - the 2007 and 2010 squads - will be headed to Del Mar, Calif. to participate in the 64-team Champions League, which will crown the top ECNL teams in the nation. A few days earlier on the girls' side, the 2007 and 2008 Hounds will make the journey to Redmond, Wash., where they will be playing in the Showcase Cup A and Showcase Cup B tournaments, respectively.

As those teams continue training ahead of their trips in the coming weeks, their coaches took a moment to reflect on how they reached this point and what to expect at nationals.

2007 Boys

The Hounds' two boys teams making the trek to the San Diego area had to be among the very best to qualify, as the ECNL's boys playoffs only take the 64 Champions League teams in each age group. For the 2007 Boys coached by Justin Evans, that required going 3-1-1 in the final five games - including a huge 6-0 win over runner-up Cleveland Force - to claim the fourth and final spot out of the Ohio Valley Conference.

"We started the season off all right - the first game against Western New York, we won 3-0 - so expectations were pretty high," Evans said. "We dropped a couple games that we shouldn't have, but the group really came together. We made a couple changes to the lineup, and the group really took to it. They've worked hard all year to qualify."

It is the first time the 07s have qualified for the Champions League, and it comes at a great time to raise the profile of the high school-age players on the team. Not only do they have a national trophy on the line for the team, but the players will have plenty of coaches from the next level with eyes on them.

"This is a big recruiting year for them, so going to nationals where you only have 64 teams there - 64 times 18, and that's where you're at in terms of players they're looking at," Evans said.

"Obviously, we still have to compete and show what we can do, but it's really good for them. We just came back from the ECNL showcase in Richmond (Va.), which was very good for us. The first game, we went out and played Charlotte SA Academy, and they mopped us up. We lost 5-1. But we had a meeting afterward and said this is the level it's going to be from now until the end of nationals."

The team responded with a 3-3 draw and a 1-0 win to finish the weekend in Richmond, and Evans said he hopes that momentum carries into nationals and beyond into next season, when the 07s will become the 06/07 team and have a chance to become the first Hounds boys team to reach nationals in the U-19 age group.

2010 Boys

While nothing comes easy with the quality of teams in the Ohio Valley Conference, the 2010 Boys were the first of the Hounds teams to clinch their spot, doing so with a weekend of games still to spare. The team finished third in the conference and just three points back of second-place Ohio Elite.

As the youngest of the Hounds teams going to the National Playoffs, coach Bryan Cartwright says the trip - the longest by far for this group - could be an eye-opener for the players.

"They're going to see competition and the landscape of soccer. We're in our own bubble in our conference, but now this gives them an opportunity to see what's out there outside of our conference, and the top players and teams outside of that conference to compare themselves against the best," Cartwright said.

While the regular season ended with a loss to Louisville City with nationals already clinched, the 10s gained a fair bit of momentum by winning three of four prior to that and scoring a 1-1 draw with conference winner Nationals SC in the other match during that stretch. That confidence should have the Hounds in the right mindset as they take the field in Southern California.

"We have one player who isn't able to go because of a schedule conflict. ... He said to me and Justin, 'Don't worry, I'll make sure next year I'll be ready to go and they'll be no conflicts," and we're thinking, 'Next year?" Cartwright said. "So the boys are already thinking this is something that's a goal every year, and we want them to be that confident. There's that fine line between confident and cocky you don't want to go over, but hopefully we maintain that confidence and we build on (qualifying this year)."

Regardless of the outcomes, Cartwright wants to make sure his players are ready to perform their best while still enjoying their moment in the spotlight.

"At this age, it's tough, because what are you going to do, tell them not to go in the ocean and have fun?" Cartwright said. "For the first year (going to nationals), you just hope the players and the parents are responsible and they don't wear themselves out. Some down time is good, too, because it keeps them mentally fresh for the games."

2007 Girls

It sounds odd to say qualifying for the National Playoffs is a disappointment, but placement in the Showcase Cup A tournament was not the target for the 07s and coach Scott Gibson.

Runners-up in last year's North American Cup - the tier above the Showcase level - aspirations were high for a repeat performance or better this season. And while the team overcame setbacks and injuries to post an 8-6-2 conference record, they fell agonizingly short of returning to the North American Cup, missing out on goal difference by a single goal in a three-way tie for third.

"The 2007 Girls have probably been in the most competitive conference, and we've been blighted with injuries, but it's provided other girls the opportunity to step up and really make a mark, which they have," Gibson said.

Last year, the girls playoffs were held in San Diego, so the Pacific Northwest is a new destination for the group. But while it is a new part of the country to explore, the experience gained from last season's North American Cup run will only benefit the 07s.

"Being runners-up in the North American Cup was a great journey for them, and we hoped to be there this year," Gibson said. "But I think the girls are hungry. They have the feeling of losing that final last year, and they're itching to get back this year and win the Showcase Cup."

And if there was any worry of a let-down from not appearing in the higher bracket, the chance to be only the second Hounds team ever to win an ECNL National Playoffs event is plenty of motivation.

"There's only so many trophies out there, and having the opportunity to bring an ECNL trophy back to Pittsburgh is amazing," Gibson said.

The 2008 ECNL Girls were all smiles after going unbeaten in three matches at the ECNL North Carolina showcase, May 31-June 2 in Greensboro, N.C. The team will compete in the Showcase B Cup at the ECNL National Playoffs in Redmond, Wash. later this month. (Photo: John Rotz/Riverhounds SC)

2008 Girls

Unlike the group a year older, this will be the first appearance in the National Playoffs for the 08s in the Showcase Cup B.

The team went through a coaching change during the season, as John Rotz took over for Rob Vincent in December after Vincent was named the assistant coach for the Hounds' professional team. The group continued to progress and produced some late-season highlights, including a 3-2 win over the team with the conference's best record, FC Alliance, in addition to picking up a win and two draws two weekends ago at the ECNL North Carolina showcase.

"The team had some very good pieces, and there was some role-playing that needed to take place. I think as the course of the season went on, we were in every game with those pieces, but we couldn't manage some games out." Rotz said.

"We had six one-goal losses in a very tough conference, and if some of those results go the other way, we could be playing a much higher event. But I'm glad the girls are going, because they've fought hard, so now, let's go out and win a title."

Rotz feels confident his players are ready for the standard of play in Washington because of their performance against many of the Champions League-bound teams from the Ohio Valley Conference.

"We beat FC Alliance, who won the conference. We tied Ohio Premier and were winning 2-0. We lost to Ohio Elite early in the season... but they were winning 2-0 and ended up losing 3-2," Rotz said. "I think the girls are prepared, because they went to another quality event in Greensboro (N.C.) and showed well in front of a lot of college coaches, and now they've given themselves an opportunity to be seen again at nationals."

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