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Busy preseason puts Riverhounds in good shape

| Sunday, March 9, 2014, 10:18 p.m.

With less than three weeks left until the USL Pro season kicks off, the Riverhounds are getting themselves ahead of the game.

The Riverhounds are preparing for their second season of calling Highmark Stadium home with the most extensive preseason in the club's 16-year history, as the team aims to improve on last year's first-round exit from the playoffs.

The USL Pro season begins the final weekend of this month — the Riverhounds open March 29 at Orlando City — and in the past, formal workouts for the team would usually begin around the start of March.

Things started up much earlier this year. The Riverhounds began practice Feb. 12 and already had a weeklong training trip to the home of their MLS affiliate in Houston under their belt before the calendar flipped to March.

“I think fitness is one of the biggest things for us,” Riverhounds coach Justin Evans said. “Last season, we didn't get Jose (Angulo, the USL Pro MVP in 2013) until the end of the preseason. For him to get a full preseason in, for Joe (Ngwenya), who's a little older, for (Anthony) Obodai, who came from overseas, getting the fitness levels up is pretty big.”

Evans mentioned two of the team's top new signings, Ngwenya and Obodai, but the Riverhounds also have plenty of returning players. In the team's first home preseason game, a 2-0 loss to 2013 NCAA semifinalist Virginia on Saturday, 10 of the 11 starters were with the team last season.

“Getting started early has been a massive bonus for us, in terms of fitness and getting to know each other and the way we play,” midfielder Kevin Kerr said. “It's been a bit stop-start here with the weather, but we had a great week in Houston where we got to train on grass twice a day. I think we're set up for a good season.”

Though the team is off to an early start with a squad of roughly 20 players, including a few trialists not yet under contract, the Riverhounds still don't have a full roster.

The Riverhounds will receive at least four players on loan from MLS' Houston Dynamo as part of the clubs' affiliation, and team officials have hinted publicly at the possible signing of at least one more veteran player with international experience for the season.

“There's another player we're looking at and then the loans from Houston, so we still have a bit of chemistry to do. That will come. We just have to get these guys playing together a little more,” Evans said.

The new arrivals will give the Riverhounds added depth and give Evans a challenge when it comes to selecting his starting 11. But with the early start to the preseason, Evans has time to evaluate a group of players who hopefully will hit opening night in midseason shape.

“Competition is going to be much tougher for places (in the lineup). Everyone has to up their game a little bit if they want to step on the field,” said Kerr, who leads the team with three goals in four preseason matches. “We managed to keep hold of the core of the team from last year and added some real quality, so we should do well. We just have to keep working hard to make sure that we get it done.”

Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mgrubba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Grubba_Trib.

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