May 15, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - If Marshall soccer wants another angle on how the Herd's new stadium will change the program's profile, it needs only to contact a recent alumnus.
Sterling Flunder, a former MVP in Coach Bob Gray's program, is in his fourth season with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the 13-team USL Pro league. The Riverhounds just moved this season into the new $10 million Highmark Stadium, a 3,500-seat riverside facility with a Pittsburgh skyline view.
Flunder said it has altered the face of the franchise.
"It's great being here, being established with this organization," Flunder said by phone from Pittsburgh. "This is top-level with Pittsburgh, and the team will only grow with the new stadium built for us … it's great.
"We were a pro team playing on a high school field before now. And when you do that, it really doesn't feel professional. Things were rooted in our (youth) academy, which is important to help grow soccer. Now, I think there's bigger ambition for our team."
Flunder, a native of Bothell, Wash., is one of two former Herd men's players in pro soccer. Daniel Withrow is a rookie No. 3 keeper with the Columbus Crew in MLS. Flunder is playing one level lower as a United Soccer Leagues pro veteran.
He's a starting center back for the Riverhounds. The 5-foot-11 Flunder has played since 2010 in the Steel City, where the 27-year-old has built a career after being named to All-Conference USA teams in 2007 and '08 with the Herd program.
"It's about more than playing professional soccer to me," said Flunder, who came to Marshall after one season at Spokane Community College. "We have the (Riverhounds) Academy as well, and working with kids, you get to know families.
"I really like the coaching part. I try to give them a little of the kind of coaching I wish I'd had growing up. Coaching has always been somewhat of an ambition for me. Down the road, I'd like to do that, and this is the perfect setting for me to get my foot in the door."
Flunder works with youth soccer players from ages 4-17. He said the Riverhounds also do camps and work hard to introduce the game to more rural parts of Pennsylvania where kids may not be getting the kind of soccer instruction they can use.
He's impressed the organization, too.
"Since signing here in 2010, Ster has been a rock playing all over our backline," Riverhounds Coach Justin Evans said. "We had one of the stingiest defenses in the league during his rookie year and he was a big part of that. Barring injury, he has been an automatic in the starting lineup for me over the past four years.
"His deceptive pace, relentless work ethic and calm on the ball make him a great defender in our league. His work in our youth Academy and in the community in general has endeared him to the soccer fans, young and old, and the general public in Pittsburgh as well.
"I am glad that he has chosen Pittsburgh to call home for now."
Flunder began playing USL competition the summer prior to his senior season at Marshall, with the Charleston-based West Virginia Chaos in the Premier Development League. He then went to the Portland Timbers U23 club in the PDL before reaching the pro level with the Riverhounds in 2010.
"The level of play in USL Pro is very, very high," Flunder said. "The biggest difference is that teams in MLS probably average about 16-17 players deep, really quality players. Here, we have maybe 13-14 in quality depth, so the dropoff is not that severe.
"We like to play an attacking style, 4-3-3, and there have been a lot of players go from USL Pro to MLS …. Me, I don't have an agent. I haven't tried to sell myself (to an MLS club). Who wouldn't want to play at the highest level, but I've found a home here and I like it here."
Flunder said he wouldn't be playing USL Pro if it hadn't been for Gray, the veteran coach who is pointing toward his 19th season in charge of the Herd - and this time in a new stadium that will open in August.
"With Coach Gray, the biggest thing he instilled in me was a work ethic," Flunder said of the Herd coach, who ranks among the top 10 winningest Division I coaches in history. "I was just kind of naturally talented at the game. I never worked that hard at it.
"Coach Gray wouldn't have it that way. He wanted me to bring a work ethic every day. He taught me how to train, and do it at 100 percent and that's helped me a lot here."
Flunder said he won't be able to make it to Huntington for a Marshall soccer program reunion when the new Fifth Avenue complex opens because the Riverhounds will be at the end of their regular season. However, he said he intends to head to his college home to see the Herd play in the new digs during the 2013 season.
"I've heard all about the new stadium there and I'm very excited about it," Flunder said. "It's going to make a big difference in soccer there. I know football is very big there, but this will make soccer an entity. The community will pay more attention to the sport.
"It's going to improve the men's and women's programs. It will make another reason I'm proud to be a graduate of Marshall and Marshall Soccer."