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Soccer: New Riverhounds coach-GM eyes teenage pros

Thursday, February 08, 2001

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Kai Haaskivi, officially unveiled yesterday as the Riverhounds' coach and general manager, pledged to bring to Pittsburgh a creative, attacking, offensive brand of soccer.

Old Pittsburgh Spirit fans should remember Kai Haaskivi. He starred for the Cleveland Force in the 1980s. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

To do it, he may blaze a new trail in A-League player procurement.

Would you believe: 16- and 17-year-old professionals?

"There will be a couple of those guys coming our way," said Haaskivi (pronounced HAH-skee-vee), a former assistant with the U.S. under-17 national team and director of an international soccer academy in Bradenton, Fla. "I understand you have to win games, but I want people to think, 'Hey, that's a springboard.' MLS and A-League are the perfect steps for you to professionally try to earn your wings before the [high-paying, high-profile European] level."

Major League Soccer, the parent organization to the Riverhounds' loop, provided a stage last summer for D.C. United's 16-year-old Bobby Convey (who also spent a brief stint with the A-League's U.S. Pro-40 team).

MLS signed two more 16-year-olds in its Monday draft. Both players, Santino Quaranta and Edward Johnson, have been residents of the Bradenton academy where Haaskivi served as director from 1995-99.

So today, when Haaskivi and his colleagues meet by telephone to conduct the A-League draft, don't be surprised if he selects a gaggle of teen-agers.

Although his resume is littered with pro-soccer stops -- Dallas Tornado and Houston Hurricane of the North American Soccer League (1979-80), Edmonton Drillers and Baltimore Blast and Cleveland Force/Crunch of the Major Indoor Soccer League (1980-93) -- Haaskivi's background since then has been in developing players on American soil. He wouldn't mind trying to sign a teen or two to a short-term contract, grow them on the Bethel Park High pitch and around the A-League, then send them forward to the MLS, Europe and international play.

Looking Ahead

Season opener: April 28
Opponent: Indiana
When: 7:35 p.m.
Where: Bethel Park High School stadium
Preseason: Play two exhibition games, both vs. Rochester, including a home game April 20.

Certainly, such a previously untapped stream of A-League talent would help his new club replace defender Tenywa "T-Bone" Bonseu and three other standout Riverhounds nabbed by the MLS this week in the draft: forward Phil Karn, midfielder Justin Evans and midfielder Gary DePalma.

The new coach/GM, who replaces John Kowalski (whose contract was not renewed) and Dave Kasper (who left for a front-office post with the New England Revolution), expects Bonseu and maybe one or two of the others to stick with the parent league. But Haaskivi aims to build a talented roster that would cause them to compete for their old spots, should any of them return by the Riverhounds' late-April exhibition schedule or May 5 home opener.

"If they're quality players, I think it doesn't matter what age they are," said goalkeeper Randy Dedini. "If he knows some quality younger players, and I'm sure he does working at that level, I'm all for it. It's really good to have a mix of older players and younger players. But for a kid out of high school to come to a team like this would be very difficult. I think there are maybe four, five kids who can play at the MLS or A-League level."

Even beyond procuring teen-agers, Haaskivi promised to comb the international ranks for potential new Riverhounds. He just returned from Mexico City and plans a trip to England. In particular, when replacing a talent such as Bonseu in the middle, "you can't expect college kids to come in and do that." He added that, like the 16- or 17-year-olds, any player set to languish on an MLS bench may be better served starting on an A-League club.

Haaskivi, 45, comes to Pittsburgh with a decorated playing career and a short term as a pro player/coach. He grew up in Finland, where his father, Olavi, coached for 35 years and where the son arose to lofty international ranks. The speedy forward ranks third on the MISL all-time scoring list and earned eight All-Star berths along with membership to the league's 10th anniversary team.

While he holds no Pittsburgh ties outside of playing the Spirit a few times in a raucous then-Civic Arena, he spent seven seasons with the Force in Cleveland, and returned there in 1989 as player/coach when the Crunch launched. He went 29-50 before the coaching end of those duties was dropped. His Crunch and pro playing career ended in 1993.

He then entered the business world with International Management Group, the super-agent firm that represented him as a player. Haaskivi worked in IMG's Indy-car racing marketing and then went to Bradenton, where he oversaw the IMG soccer academy operated in conjunction with Nick Bollitieri's tennis residency program.

As for his reasons for moving north with his wife and two children from sunny Florida, Haaskivi joked: "You can take that weather only so long.

"The big thing is the challenge, the opportunity to be back in professional soccer with an organization that's respected around the country," Haaskivi added. "I did look at a few other options, talked to MLS teams [such as Dallas and Tampa Bay about head-coaching vacancies]."

He said owner Paul Heasley's plans to build a soccer-only facility also attracted him to the Riverhounds.

"Our goal . . . is to play in bigger and better stadiums. We're working on it."

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