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The hometown heroes breaking through with the Riverhounds, LouCity

By FEDERICO PRAVETTONI, Special to USL, 06/18/24, 12:05PM EDT


Elizabethtown’s Jansen Wilson, Pittsburgh’s Nate Dragisich are emblematic of the opportunity for local talent to emerge at USL Championship clubs

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC's Nate Dragasich (left) and Louisville City FC's Jansen Wilson both grew up watching the clubs they now represent professionally in the USL Championship, a testament to the league's aspirational quality for young local talent..

In Louisville City FC’s 2015 inaugural season, Jansen Wilson was a 14-year-old teenager set to tear apart Kentucky High School soccer.

Back then, there was no LouCity Academy – later established in 2020 – but professional soccer landing in Louisville had already made a lasting impact on the community and on a local kid.

Wilson, a native of Elizabethtown, Kentucky recalls making the 45-mile drive to Louisville to follow and watch LouCity’s matches at Slugger Field.

“I think we started going to games as soon as the first season started, even my brother was a season ticket holder, so we were there quite often,” he told recently.

Now in the club’s 10th season in the USL Championship, Wilson is part of the squad he grew up watching. For the first-year pro, it’s everything he’s been working toward, joining the likes of fellow local products Elijah Wynder, Carlos Moguel Jr. and Ryan Troutman in the club’s star-studded roster.

“It's a dream come true to become a professional soccer player and to do it pretty much in my hometown, there's not much better,” said Wilson.

It’s a story that’s becoming familiar around the USL Championship. The league’s growth both at the professional and academy levels is providing not only a pathway but something to aspire to for young players that previously wasn’t available around the United States. 

It’s the path Nate Dragisich – a Pittsburgh native and product of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Academy – has also followed. Another first-year pro, the 23-year-old began his youth soccer career with the Hounds at the Academy’s inception in 2007.

After participating in the club’s combine last December, Dragisich signed with the Hounds this preseason, becoming the first player in club history to complete the pathway from the Riverhounds Developmental Academy to the First Team as a professional.

“It's really, really cool to be the first one to make that jump from the academy,” said Dragisich. “I think it just shows the upcoming guys that are in the academy right now that it is possible.”

Both born in 2001, Wilson and Dragisich are perfect examples of the USL’s mission to grow American soccer and unearth talent that would previously have gone undiscovered. The players will see their stories intersect for a second time this season on Wednesday night when the Hounds host LouCity at Highmark Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET | CBS Sports Network) following similar paths to their hometown clubs.

Pittsburgh native Nate Dragisich competed for the Riverhounds Development Academy as a youngster and went to games at Highmark Stadium before turning pro with the club this preseason. | Photo courtesy Mallory Neil / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

In 2017-18, Wilson was named Kentucky’s Boys Soccer Gatorade Player of the Year while competing at Elizabethtown High School, where he recorded 50 goals and 55 assists. His collegiate soccer career took him first to the University of Kentucky, where he scored four goals and assisted twice in 41 matches as a Wildcat, and then to Belmont University in Nashville.

“Coming out of college, it's tough,” said Wilson, who recorded six goals and 11 assists in 36 appearances at Belmont. “You're looking for a team, you're either a free agent or you're trying to get drafted and signing the contract from there. And I think the USL definitely opens a lot of doors and opportunities for younger players.”

While Wilson didn’t get the opportunity to come through LouCity’s Academy, the presence of a hometown club still provided benefits when he was in college. During the past two summers he trained with LouCity, allowing him to measure himself in a professional environment at home while trying to make an impression on LouCity Head Coach Danny Cruz and his coaching staff. 

A native of Elizabethtown, Ky., Jansen Wilson trained with Louisville City FC the past two summers while attending Belmont University and signed his first pro deal with LouCity this preseason. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

After 11 years in the Riverhounds Academy, Dragisich, a midfielder, remained in Pittsburgh for his college career. Competing at Duquesne University, he registered nine goals and 24 assists.

“It was nice to be around home, be around the family. That played a big factor in me going there,” said Dragisich.

Remaining in Pittsburgh also allowed him to stay close to the Riverhounds family and for the club to continue to follow his soccer career. While he wasn’t a USL Academy signing with the First Team during his time in the Hounds Academy, Dragisich did get to train with the First Team before attending college, which helped prepare him to return to the Hounds as a pro.

“I want to see more people like me come through in the future,” he said. “I always think the more soccer, the better. It just gives more opportunities for guys that are looking to play professionally and just the more teams, the more opportunities for more guys,”

Completing the pathway from Academy to First Team is fruit of a long-term vision planted by the USL and its clubs, investing in player development to promote the growth of the game in local communities around the United States. Both the Hounds and LouCity have current USL Academy signings on their rosters this season, with Pittsburgh’s Pablo Linzoain and Louisville’s Hayden Stamps having already made their Championship debuts.

The clubs have also made a significant impact on their respective city’s soccer communities. Last week, LouCity was one of four USL Championship clubs selected as a Team Base Camp for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, with its world-class training facility potentially set to welcome some of the world’s best talent in two years.

“Soccer in Louisville is grown a lot, and even back in Elizabethtown, where I'm from, it's grown tremendously,” said Wilson. “There's a lot more soccer players, a lot more people growing interest into the sport, and I think you see we keep producing better and better players.”

In Pittsburgh, meanwhile, the construction of Highmark Stadium just over 10 years ago has been followed by the establishment of the AHN Montour Health + Sports Medicine Center, which now houses both the Hounds and Riverhounds Development Academy. The club also recently announced plans for another facility in North Huntington, further expanding its footprint.

“Going through the academy when you're younger you're always going to the pro games,” said Dragisich. “We really started to grow, the club got more success in the league and the fans have really started following. It's really cool to see just how much it has grown since the start of the academy.”

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC's Nate Dragisich with friends and family members following his USL Championship debut against Orange County SC on March 16. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

With their first professional seasons have also come professional debuts. Dragisich came on in the final minutes of a home match versus Orange County SC on March 16, the first of three appearances so far this season.

“That game we were down, so when I went in it was just get in, get in the spots where you can be dangerous,” he said. “Whenever I got subbed in and was running onto the field, it felt like a really cool moment. My family was there, my best friends growing up were there, it was good to finally make my pro debut in front of the home fans, in front of family.”

For Wilson, playing for his dream club in Louisville also meant a switch of position and an evolution from that of a technical, impactful college left-winger to a slightly more defensive but complete right wingback. The new position brought him to score his first professional goal on April 6 in the LIPAFC derby match versus Indy Eleven – televised nationally on CBS – as Wilson cut diagonally from the right flank into the box to bury the assist of teammate Wilson Harris.

“It was amazing. To score at home with my family my fiancée there, unbelievable feeling to be able to score in front of the home crowd at Lynn, to hear the fans erupt,” said Wilson. “I love playing in this system and I think me and the other wingbacks are able to help the team in a lot of ways defensively and attacking wise especially.”

Louisville City FC's Jansen Wilson celebrates his first professional goal against Indy Eleven at Lynn Family Stadium on April 6. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

With half a season under their belt, both Dragisich and Wilson have come a long way since watching their clubs as youngsters.

Now, their professional dream has only just begun.

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