April 26, 2017

From Bielefeld to Pittsburgh: In-Depth Interview with Kevin Kerr

Kevin Kerr photo by Terry O'Neil of TKO Photos.

Hello from beautiful Highmark Stadium, home of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, on the banks of the Monongahela River. Across the river, towers the glittering and iconic Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania skyline.

I’m here to interview Kevin Kerr, midfielder for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, a 3rd division (USL) side in America. Basically, my hometown team.

Why am I interviewing Kevin for the Fanatic?

Well, despite being born from Scottish and England parents, Kevin grew up in Bielefeld, Germany and played for Arminia’s youth system, U23 side, and first team from 2003-2011. After a brief stint with AGOOV Apeldoorn in Holland, Kevin returned to Germany and played from 2012-13 for SC Wiedenbrück before jumping across the Atlantic to play for the Riverhounds.

After a Tuesday training session, Kevin trotted over to the sidelines, then took a seat to chat with me.

Bundesliga Fanatic: This season, Kevin, your name always seems to pop up in match reports for end-of-match heroics, goals, assists, etc. It’s been a great season. What the heck is going on?

Kevin: It’s been perfect. A great year so far. A couple of big goals, a couple of assists. A great feeling. I kind of put it down to the gaffer moving me further up the park. So now I play right-mid, a very offensive right-mid. I have a lot of freedom, as we all do in the offensive system under [coach Mark] Steffens.

Previous years, I’ve played further back, holding-mid and center-mid. You know, you’re doing a lot of the dirty work. This year, I’m loving it to be honest – being a little bit higher, a little bit more freedom.

Bundesliga Fanatic Is this the first time you’ve played a more creative-attacking role before?

Kevin: It’s definitely the first time – I‘ve never played right-mid in my life. It’s strange, I’m 26 now and the coach put me out right, somewhere I’ve never played before and I took to it like a duck to water. I love it out there. Really, really enjoying it.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Does being right-footed have anything to do with it?

Kevin: Strange thing is, I’ve played on the left-mid a few times, just because I like to cut in and stuff. Playing on the right is a completely new experience. When I was first out there, I was thinking “Ah! Get me back there in the middle” for 2-3 games. But I really took to the right.

Bundesliga Fanatic I notice you roam around a lot. You’re fun to watch. Your technical ability seems quite high with your first touch, one-touch passing, etc. How did your football training in Germany go?

Kevin: I was lucky. I came from an unbelievable academy [at Bielefeld]. At the time, Arminia Bielefeld were in the Bundesliga. I spent eight years there, maybe the happiest years of my life. It was my home city. I played with my friends, who I grew up with. Several of us went on to make it into the first team together. A great experience. But I don’t think there’s a better to learn how to play football than in Germany – and I feel like I’m pretty well traveled …

Bundesliga Fanatic: Yes, you say this as a Scotsman! How does a Scotsman end up being born in Germany?

Kevin: My dad was military. So we kind of bounced around. I was born in Germany [Münster], lived there for six months, then back to England, then to Holland, Belgium, all over the place. When I was about 11, we went back to Germany again. My dad got a new post. Finally, I joined Bielefeld at 14. And then when they [parents] left, I stayed. It worked out for the best. I got three great years with the first team.

Bundesliga Fanatic: So you were home alone for a while as a teenager?

Kevin: Yeah. When I was about 19-20, my parents went back home and I stayed on my own.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Did you stay with friends, or did the academy have housing?

Kevin: Nah, I stayed at my own place. It was good for me. You grow up so fast when you’re in a different country on your own.

Bundesliga Fanatic: I imagine you speak German pretty well?

Kevin: Yeah, I’m pretty good. But it’s crazy how fast you lose it. When I speak to a couple of my mates, it takes a while to get back in the swing of it. But when I lived alone, I was completely immersed in it, so it started to come quickly. When I lived at home with my parents, I spoke English all the time, so it wasn’t until they left that I really embraced German culture and learnt the language.

Bundesliga Fanatic: So who are you? Scottish? German? American?

Kevin: My mum’s English, my dad’s Scottish. 50-50, you know. I was born in a British hospital on a British base. I don’t consider myself 100% German – I’m really happy to have lived there, spent that time there, and I have unbelievably good friends there, but yeah, I’m … British.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Are you becoming American at all? Are we corrupting you – even a little bit?

Kevin [playfully shaking his head]: Nah. Like I said, I’m loving it, but that’s never gonna change, really.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Do you plan to leave America when your playing days are up?

Kevin: I’m really happy here. I never look too far into the future. I’m a two-year [contract] right now. I mean, I love this club – I’ve been here since the stadium [Highmark Stadium] was built – and I’m going into my third season. Things are going really well, which obviously helps me in my situation. Options keep popping up, but, like I said, I love this club. Pittsburgh will always be the first club I speak to.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Back to Bielefeld, what’s that city like?

Kevin: Beautiful.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Is it industrial?

Kevin: Nah. It has a few big companies. Have you heard of that big pizza company, Dr. Oetker? It’s a real nice town. Beautiful old town center and modern town just to the side of the city. Really, really nice.

But it’s one of those things: the club had serious financial problems, and ended up getting relegated twice, back-to-back. If that never happened, I don’t think that I’d ever left. There’s something about growing up and playing for your hometown club and coming through its youth system. I absolutely loved it.

We moved there when I was 11. I had season tickets. Went every week. And a few years later, I was running out for them. In an ideal world, they would have stayed in the top two leagues and I can’t imagine ever leaving the place. It’s still a place I look back on. Just nothing but good memories.

Bundesliga Fanatic: How does it work with joining an academy team in Germany? Is it pay-to-play, like in the States?

Kevin: It’s so simple. There’s no money in youth football back there. Everything is free. Every professional club is required to have an academy – for free, you know.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Did you have to try out for the team? Is there a certain baseline of skills they’re looking for?

Kevin: It’s a club with an unbelievable infrastructure. There’s scouts everywhere – they scout the whole area. You know, we had boys coming in from six hours away to join the academy.

The way it is back there, youth football is such a big thing. Because there’s no college, the boys go straight from the youth system into the first team. So it’s really important you get a big group of good kids. They [the club] work with you, they look after you, you know, but just 10% make it into the first team.

It’s a much, much, much easier system than it is out here [in America]. I mean, you don’t have to go to college, then try to get into the pros. Here, clubs train, train, and train you for, like, 10 years, then you go off to college and you’re done. Over there, you’re brought up with one goal: that is, to get as many players into the first team as possible. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be one of those boys.

Bundesliga Fanatic: How does the training you received as a kid in Germany impact the training and coaching you do now in the Riverhounds’ youth system?

Kevin: Well, I was lucky: like I said, there’s no better place to grow up playing football! I genuinely believe that. And if you look at those boys in the national team who picked up the World Cup, I mostly grew up with the majority of them – playing against or training with them. Yeah, I feel like it gave me a massive head start in the football world.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Any memorable encounters you had with German national team players? Did you get any ankles stamped?

Kevin: Nah! I remember when Özil first went to Schalke. He was kinda unknown. I was playing holding-mid at the time. I was told, “We don’t know who he is, but you’ll be marking Özil.” It was one of the longest games I played in my life.

Also, when I was at Bielefeld, we played Dortmund in a preseason friendly. It was the year before they won their first of the back-to-back titles. As soon as they came and we played them, everyone knew something special was happening with that team. We could just feel it. I think it was Götze’s first preseason, and Kagawa had just been signed. We barely got in a kick, you know. And we were a good team in our own right, but they were just at another level.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Yeah, I got my BVB tee on.

Kevin: I’ve seen it!

Bundesliga Fanatic: Any Pokal matches that stand out to you?

Kevin:  I remember when I was just breaking in, I was playing under Christian Ziege … First round of the German Cup is always the first game of the season for everyone. We go out there and we play a team from the third league, a good team, Regensberg. Kinda throwing us into the fire. It went to PKs. And I was given the 5th PK, always nice. Terrified? Yeah. I was a young lad at the time. And you’re standing at the halfway line before it’s your turn to kick. It felt like I had to walk a mile to the goal with the ball in my hand. Just one of those things I’ll never forget. We were away. The whole stadium was booing. Fortunately, I scored it, but that walk to the PK spot. I’ll never forget it. I was young – it was that first game of the year.  We ended winning it and traveled to Kaiserslautern next, which was one of the most beautiful stadiums I’ve seen …

Bundesliga Fanatic: Cauldron of a place to play in …

Kevin: Ah, unbelievable. Later, I made my league away debut against 1860 at Allianz. I grew up watching Bayern play there and the World Cup was there. It was just a … special place.

Bundesliga Fanatic: So it sounds like you got lucky in playing in some pretty iconic grounds during your Germany days.

Kevin: Yeah. One of my next away games, but I didn’t get on, was in Berlin against Hertha. They had just been relegated. And we were in the second league, but there were 50,000 people in the Olympiastadion. In the second league, you know! It just puts into perspective how big soccer is back there. We’re talking just a second league game. Unfortunately, I didn’t get in, but I was sent to warm up in the 70’ – and when the final whistle went off, I was still warming up behind the goal. But it was such an awesome place to be.

Bundesliga Fanatic: So after playing for Arminia Bielefed, you played for AGOVV Apeldoorn in the Netherlands, right?

Kevin: I left Bielefeld when they had the financial issues. And a new coach came in. I could have stayed; he offered me a deal, but … it’s a bit of long story. When I was at Bielefeld there were 6 coaching changes in two and half years. Six.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Sounds like HSV …

Kevin: Yeah. Every coach came in with their own ideas and their own players. I kept starting from the back, breaking into the first team, play a few games, then the coach would go. It was crazy, surreal. The new coach would come in with his boys; I would start from the back.

I wanted to be somebody eles’s boy. I wanted to be brought in. I just craved that fresh start of not being that kid from the youth system anymore. I wanted to go be a player in my own right. So I ended up in the Dutch second league. I was a bit lucky, it was a great year. Another six months that I look back on with only good feelings.

I struggled a bit away from the field – I don’t speak Dutch. I didn’t really have any friends there. Whereas at Bielefeld I had just a huge support group. I was completely out on my own in Holland. On the field was great, but for the other 22 hours – you know, the days can be long – I wasn’t happy.

So I ended up moving back to Bielefeld and playing for a 4th League team just up the road, [SC] Wiedenbrück.

Bundesliga Fanatic: And then from Wiedenbrück, you ended up here in Pittsburgh. How did the Riverhounds find you? Is there a story there?

Kevin: When I was at Bielefeld playing for the U23s, Matthew Dallman came and played for the U23s for a year before he moved on, but we stayed in touch. Four years later, his career takes a certain path and … he found himself in Pittsburgh. He came back to the States and met a girl from Pittsburgh.

Bundesliga Fanatic: So a friend’s girl from Pittsburgh! Is this the seed that eventually brought you here?!

Kevin: Yeah, yeah! I was at Wiedenbrück, and living so close to Bielefeld, but not playing for Arminia – and I always looked at the U.S. as an amazing opportunity, you know, to come, travel, see the country, and play football.

It literally happened overnight. I was sitting at home and thought, “You know, I’m going to do it.” They said, “Sure come over and we’ll have a look.” I packed my bags. I had my flat packed up in, like, 3-4 days.  And I was on the flight over on January 4th. A week later, they offered me a deal.

Crazy. December 20th I was happy, settled in at Wiedenbrück, and the idea of moving hadn’t even crossed my mind, and then two weeks later just like [snaps fingers] that I find myself in Pittsburgh on trial.

When I came here, the stadium had just been built. It’s an amazing place to be. You don’t get these kind of scenic view [gesturing at Pittsburgh’s skyline].

Pittsburgh's dynamic skyline fills the view from the stands at the Riverhounds' Highmark Stadium. (Photo by Travis Timmons.)
Pittsburgh’s dynamic skyline fills the view from the stands at the Riverhounds’ Highmark Stadium. (Photo by Travis Timmons.)

Bundesliga Fanatic: This is one of the best skyline views from any stadium!

Kevin: It’s hard to top.

You know what? I only thought I had 1-2 more years left in me when I was playing for Wiedenbrück. After 1-2 years, I thinking about hanging up the boots.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Why is that?

Kevin: It’s a long story. Well, I was thinking about my long-term future, you know. I didn’t go to school, so I thought I was going to go school and focus on the rest of my life.

I come here and everything changed. I just feel in love with football again. I couldn’t tell you why. I just found my passion. I came here and I think it was just a completely new fresh start, nobody knew me; I had to prove myself all over again. And I was so up for the challenge. I just fell in love with football again.

Now, I’m back at that stage I was when I was 18, thinking “I’m gonna play until my legs give in.” Looking back, [coming to Pittsburgh] was a great move just for this reason. The league is getting stronger and stronger, the clubs and league are becoming more professional, and everyone knows it just a matter of time before soccer just explodes here, especially on this side of the country.

Bundesliga Fanatic: I’ll point out to our readers outside America that Kevin plays in Pittsburgh, but travels across the continent for some matches.

Kevin: Yeah, yeah. It’s brilliant. You’re away to Orlando, then you’re in L.A., in Salt Lake City in the mountains. It’s just a great experience, especially for a European.

Bundesliga Fanatic: You get the desert, the swampy South, the Northeast, the Midwest …

Kevin: We were training down in Charleston [South Carolina] and on the other side of the fence, there was an alligator. I told my boys back home, and they wouldn’t believe me.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Tell me about Pittsburgh. What were your first impressions?

Kevin: I came here during winter!

Bundesliga Fanatic: Oh no!

Kevin: In January.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Brown, snowy, and cold.

Kevin: And I thought, “There is not a chance I can live in this place.” And then the snow cleared and – I love it. Beautiful city. It’s got nice parks. I live slightly north, across the rivers. It’s just a beautiful place to come to work everyday with the scenic views. And we’ve got a friendly squad, like a family club, you know? I’ve got a girl from Pittsburgh. I’ve been here for two and half years, so I’m kinda setting roots a bit. We’re happy!

BF: Any favorite Pittsburgh attractions?

Kevin: I love all the sports, I will say that.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Steelers, Pirates, or Penguins if you picked one of the three?

Kevin: Steelers all day.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Why’s that?

Kevin: Well, I wasn’t an NFL fan before. I didn’t really get it. I used to sit next to people and pick their brains, probably annoying the sh** out of them. Once I got ahold of the game, I love how big it is. I love the idea of 16 game seasons that are knockout. When I was back home, I might play 45 games in a season. There’s nothing better as a player, but the games don’t carry that same value as they do in the NFL. And for those eight home games here, the city comes to a standstill. I just love the importance of it.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Growing up, did you play any other sports?

Kevin: I played Rugby. I was captain of the school team for a few years. Then I hit about 15-16, and boys just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger! And I didn’t. So I had to choose. I couldn’t dedicate myself to football and playing rugby on the off days. There was just too much risk. It was one of the many sacrifices you have to make if you want to make it in soccer.

One thing different from here in America to back in Europe, everyone plays soccer. It’s the only sport. You know, over here you have so many sports and especially in places like the East Coast, soccer is not really too popular. Back home, soccer is everything. Everything. Every kid on the street wants to be a soccer player.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Yeah, here in America they are playing soccer with the three other sports they’re signed up for …

Kevin: Exactly. Exactly. But growing up, you know, at any time of the day you could go down to the local soccer field and it’s jam-packed. Over there, if you want to make it, you have to really commit – competition is through the roof.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Does this dynamic frustrate you when you’re coaching and working with kids here in America?

Kevin: Sports over here are entertainment. Even for the youth, it’s a fun and healthy thing to do. Back home, it’s everything. There are people who live, eat, and breathe it. The back ten pages of the paper are soccer. When you go to the pub, all people are talking about is soccer. When I was playing for Bielefeld, it was such a proud thing to be representing the city. Over here, there’s passion, I don’t think it’s quite at the same level.

Bundesliga Fanatic: How do the cultural differences impact your life as a player? Is training here different at all?

Kevin: When you get to a certain level, training is all the same. The boys who make it all have that same desire and hunger to do well. They’re all just competitors. I think at any sport when you get to a certain level, the thing that really stands out is your competitive nature. So things don’t change too much for training.

If anything chances, it’s all the turf fields, which is the biggest, most frustrating thing right now …

Bundesliga Fanatic: Like at the Women’s World Cup? I can see the little rubber bits still clinging to you from training!

Kevin: There’s something about a wet grass field in the middle of February that I’ll always miss. But you can’t ‘ave it all.

Over here, it’s a summer sport, we play a summer season. Back home, it’s the opposite. We play through the winter. It’s definitely a different game – a wet grass field is a different game than a 90 degree turf field.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Are there any roadtrips in the USL that are especially daunting for you?

Kevin: Daunting? Well, I feel that I’m at the stage of my career where I just love playing. I live for the 90 minutes on the weekend. I’ll come in, I’ll train, I’ll hard in the week, but in the back of my mind all I’m looking forward to is the 90 minutes on the weekend.

To be honest with you, home games here for me are the best games. The fanbase is growing and growing. The Steel Army is awesome. Like I said, the ground is beautiful.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Do you watch a lot of football after work?

Kevin: I’m a Celtic fan. Always have been. My dad’s still a season ticket holder back home; he goes up there every week. But away from that, I do love the Prem. I could watch it all day – as much as my missus will let me.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Do you watch any German football?

Kevin: Yeah. Only the big ones. Obviously your Dortmunds and your Bayerns. It’s not as televised here as the Premier league is. They’ll show the odd game and I’ll watch it. I’m on Apple TV – it’s the only way to go really.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Do you play FIFA? Of course for many Americans, the video game is an absolute gateway into the sport.

Kevin: It’s strange how the game’s helped. I did play growing up, especially living with other boys from the team. It was a pretty social thing to do. Now I live with my partner …

Bundesliga Fanatic: You have a more adult lifestyle now.

Kevin: Yeah, now if I walked through the door with a PS4, I think she’d kick me out. So those days are over!

But there’s no two ways about it, how FIFA has helped the sport in America – in a strange way, but it’s true.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Kevin, we love you here in Pittsburgh. Your work rate, your passing, your touch. We hope you stay.

Kevin: If you work hard, it’s hard to have a bad game.

Bundesliga Fanatic: You were very generous in the time you gave us. I’ll let you go, hydrate, and shower. Thanks for the interview!

Note: when we were chatting after I turned off the microphone, Kevin shared a story that would interest our readers about the young Marco Reus (see a pic of young mini-Reus here). According to Kevin, when he and Reus were 14, they played against each other. On the pitch, young Marco was very shy – Kevin held up a pinky to indicate, then hid his face behind a palm – and was simply “disregarded” on the pitch, as other players pushed him aside. Yes, he was technically skilled, but so were most other players. However, five years later, Kevin encountered a 19 year old Reus, who played assertively, actively, and aggressively. “My teammates and I were surprised,” he explained, “they said what the f*** happened to him?”

Header image courtesy of Terry O’Neil of TKO Photos.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!