The Pittsburgh Riverhounds, who desire to become one of the premier soccer clubs in the United States, yesterday took a huge step toward that goal.
The Riverhounds signed a partnership agreement with the Everton Football Club of the English Premier League and will launch a soccer training academy this fall for youth players. The partnership will enable the Riverhounds to model the academy after the highly successful Everton training academy, use the same training methods and some of the same coaches.
Riverhounds coach Gene Klein, who was named general manager, said the agreement is one of the first of its kind in the United States and will raise the level of soccer played in Western Pennsylvania from youth leagues to the Riverhounds, who compete in the United Soccer League.
"The Everton way is the model we will follow and our goal is to bring a much higher level of professional soccer to Pittsburgh and to Western Pennsylvania," Klein said yesterday at a news conference at the Greentree Sports Complex, where the Riverhounds will initially have the soccer academy.
"The Everton Academy has been enormously successful in producing top talent to go on and star in the English Premier League, which is probably the top soccer league in the world. We can't take hundreds of kids to Liverpool to train them, but we will use those same methods in developing players right here in Western Pennsylvania."
Everton's academy has produced four players currently on Premier League teams. The most famous is Manchester United star Wayne Rooney.
The Riverhounds are taking this season off to get reorganized but plan to play in the USL in 2008.
The academy, for ages 7 to 14, will open in November and provide soccer training during the winter months.
This isn't the first time the Riverhounds have tried -- and failed -- to develop into a soccer club similar to those in Europe and South America.
Klein said the difference this time is the contract with Everton and the fact that the Riverhounds are committed to building the organization from the ground up. Riverhounds owner Jay Hill said securing a deal with Everton was an important step in the transformation of the soccer club.
The next step is securing a site for and building a soccer-only stadium complex that includes six to 10 fields for year-round training programs. While a soccer-only stadium has been a pipe dream of previous owners, Hill said this one will be built.
"We are to the point on the stadium complex where it is a matter of paperwork and it will get done," he said. "We hope to make an official announcement on it in a few weeks. But like everything else, we'll walk with it before we try and run. We are doing things the right way.
"Everything we're announcing today is the first step to bringing major-league soccer here to Pittsburgh. We are committed to becoming the fourth major franchise in the city and we will. You can count on that because we have a good plan in place and we're on our way."
Hill expects the stadium to have 3,000 to 5,000 seats, initially, but will be built in such a way that it could easily be expanded to as many as 20,000, which he envisions the team being able to fill some day.
In addition to the partnership with Everton, Klein said the Riverhounds are in the process of developing partnerships with youth organizations and Cup teams in the area. This would allow clubs to learn the Everton training methods and provide a different level of coaching and instruction.
According to Jason Kutney, a former Duquesne star who plays for the Riverhounds and will serve as the director of youth development, this kind of program is essential if the United States is going to close the gap with the rest of the world. He also said Western Pennsylvania is behind the rest of the country in developing players.
"Here in Pennsylvania we wait until a kid is 11 or 12 to really start getting serious about teaching them." Kutney said. "It has to start earlier than that. You look in Europe and even in other parts of this country, we're way behind because we don't really start teaching the game until it is almost too late in some ways.
"I learned the hard way when I went to Holland to train for a summer when I was 12 years old and I was behind kids who were 8 and 9. This academy and others like it are essential if the U.S. is going to be serious players in soccer in the future."
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720