Two years ago, Corey Hertzog thought his career was over. The former Penn State All-American and first-round New York Red Bulls draft pick had just suffered an opening round loss in the USL playoffs with FC St. Louis when he hit a crossroad.
“I called six or seven teams,” Hertzog said after training with Reno 1868 recently, “they all said I was too old.”
When Hertzog reached out to Bethlehem Steel’s coach Brendan Burke for a potential move back home, Burke told him he couldn’t sign any player over 24 years old. Hertzog, then 28, spent the previous six seasons in the USL where he ascended up the league’s top goal scorer’s list, but as more MLS clubs fielded younger reserve teams full of Homegrowns and Academy players, Hertzog found himself on the outside looking in.
Reno, entering their third season as a club, signed Hertzog as a free agent, and Hertzog responded with a career-high 19 goals and 6 assists, earning his fourth USL All-League selection.
Now in 2020, Hertzog is the elder talisman on a club that’s geared for a USL playoff run.
After drawing with Sacramento Republic FC 1-1 in the final Donner Pass Derby of the season two weeks ago, Reno finished atop their rivals in Group A, and last week’s draw against Las Vegas Lights and win over Tacoma Defiance ensured Reno will stay at Greater Nevada Field all the way to the USL final. Reno hosts LA Galaxy II this Saturday night in the first round of the playoffs.
At the start of the season, Hertzog had visions of picking up his 2020 campaign right where he left off from his career year. He scored both of Reno’s goals in a 4-2 preseason loss to San Diego Loyal SC then played 90 minutes in the season-opener against Tacoma in which teammate Christiano François tapped home the winner from a rebound off Hertzog’s shot. That was the last game Reno would play for over four months after the league shut down due to Covid-19 on March 18. Hertzog tried to stay sharp physically while waiting to see if and when the season would return.
“We had to video everything around our home within a mile,” he said, “so our trainer could create individual workouts.”
Though some teams may have struggled with the disruption, Hertzog said Reno benefited because players carrying injuries could recover and coach Ian Russell had more time to teach his new man-marking system over regular Zoom meetings. Reno dropped their first game back from the break to Sacramento on July 19 as players shook off rust while adapting to the new style, but since then, Reno has gone 10-1-3 with their only loss coming against Sacramento a month after their July opener. The two teams also drew 3-3 on September 12. Hertzog has started all 16 games this season and is third on the team with 5 goals and tied for second with 3 assists. Twice this year, he’s been named to the USL Team of the Week, and his 67 career USL goals places him third all time as he closes in on Jorge Herrera’s 72.
Hertzog’s record-scoring performances make this author and former Penn State player proud, but what has the Happy Valley soccer alumni buzzing is the title he won over the break in the Nevada Sports Network’s Celebrity Pong Championship. Hertzog defeated two-time Olympic gymnast Jake Dalton three games to two in the final with an outstanding display of skill and poise that had been cultivated in the State College house on Gil Street that Hertzog shared with his teammates. But there were no hard feelings from Dalton as now Hertzog’s daughter attends Dalton’s gymnastics school.
For many in the greater Philadelphia area, Hertzog’s career achievements come as no surprise. The All-State player from Antietam High School was recruited by Barry Gorman at Penn State, following a long line of Reading Nittany Lions that includes Troy Snyder, Jerry and Mike Moyer, and Drew Kaufman, among others.
“My first year I was timid and nervous,” Hertzog said about his freshman season, “but I gained confidence my second year playing alongside Jason Yeisley.” After two goals and two assists in 2008, Hertzog led the team with 11 goals and 6 assists as a sophomore in 2009. But his breakout season came a year later when he led the nation in scoring with 20 goals and 46 points and shared a Big Ten season record for goals with Indiana’s Dema Kovalenko (’97) and Aleksey Korol (’99). Hertzog was also named a semifinalist for the Hermann Trophy.
The New York Red Bulls took Hertzog, who spent two summers playing for Reading United, with the 13th pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft despite an earlier attempt by the Philadelphia Union to nab him as a Homegrown. He signed a Generation Adidas contract with the Red Bulls and spent his rookie season learning from Thierry Henry, the club’s captain at the time. Hertzog made his MLS debut on March 26 against the Columbus Crew and scored his first goal that June against New York FC in the U.S. Open Cup, and while he continued to work and improve his game, he followed Henry’s habits and soaked up his wisdom.
“Training with Henry had the biggest impact in my career. He used to always say, ‘soccer is the most simple game, it’s the players that make it difficult.’”
Opportunities became sparse for Hertzog as he played behind Henry and Juan Agudelo, and after the arrival of Kenny Cooper and Tim Cahill the following season, Hertzog was loaned out to the Wilmington Hammerheads where he scored 11 goals and earned his first USL All-League selection. Afterwards, his career followed a twisting path that tested his mental fortitude. In 2013, the Vancouver Whitecaps picked up his rights in the MLS Re-Entry draft but loaned him out to Edmonton FC. A year later, Seattle drafted him, but he moved to Orlando City, the final year before the club jumped up to the MLS. Hertzog and many of his teammates did not move up with them.
But where players in a similar situation may have given up or moved on, Hertzog continued to chase his dream.
“The biggest thing with my game is my personality,” he said. “I’m always going to work the hardest. I know I’ll score goals and work harder than you.”
For years, Hertzog scored goals in bunches. After a season with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL, Hertzog joined the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in 2016 and scored 14 goals in back-to-back seasons, earning USL All- League each year before his move to St. Louis where he reunited with his Orlando City teammate Anthony Pulis, son of Premier League manager Tony.
The transitions meant Hertzog played in a number of systems, some of which favored his high energy style where he could make penetrating runs in and around the box and pressure defenders, displaying a rare combination of aggressiveness and elite finishing.
“In Pittsburgh, we played a lot of half-counter and press, which suits my game better,” Hertzog said. “In St. Louis, we sat back and played for full counter attacks. At Reno, we press, we work hard, so the style very much fits me.”
Nearly a month ago, Hertzog moved back into an attacking midfield role due to his experience and tactical awareness, and now he’s the one helping his teammates transition from the club and college game like Henry had done for him years earlier. “My advice to younger teammates has to do with attitude and work rate because those are the only two things you can control,” he said.
Hertzog’s been around the USL long enough to witness the changes. As more clubs like the Union promote younger players into their second teams, many clubs like Reno and Sacramento continue to field experienced squads with the intention of building a fan base that could lead to a future MLS franchise. But Hertzog said it also presents some interesting preparations from one opponent to the next.
“We’ll play Tacoma or Timbers II, where players are still learning about themselves and learning systems, beat them 7-1, then switch onto the next game against Sacramento.”
Some of Hertzog’s teammates were still in elementary school when he was leading the NCAA in scoring.
“Last year, In San Antonio, I scored my 50th USL goal, and my strike partner scored his first. He was 15.” But when asked about what his career would be like if he were the young kid today, he said, “I played ten years too late. I would have loved being a Homegrown or an Academy player, playing for the Steel.”
Hertzog’s not one to dwell in the past. His career is still going strong, and the veteran role he now occupies with Reno has him looking forward to the postseason and future seasons on the sidelines whenever his career comes to an end. “I really want to coach. I read the game and see the game differently. I could be a coach that helps the young talent.” Hertzog expects to start his coaching license pathway soon and has the advantage of jumping ahead due to his lengthy professional career.
His perspective on the game has also changed with his role as a father. “All I wanted to be was a dad. Now I play for my daughter and my wife. You don’t realize how important they are.”
Hertzog recalls the excitement of watching his daughter run onto the field after a win and said, “even after a loss, she’s smiling and happy, and you remember that it’s just a game.” Hertzog and his wife, Shazia, are expecting a boy this winter, and who’s to say if this is only the beginning of the next generation of Hertzogs to dominate on Jeffrey Field.
For Hertzog, there’s a sense of enjoyment whenever he plays. His outgoing personality won over Henry in New York, and it’s that same attitude that makes him a model for the younger players on Reno.
No matter what has happened throughout his eight-year professional career, the MLS disappointments, the one-year contracts, the location changes, new parental roles, the future uncertainties, he’s always going to put his head down and grind, and do it with a smile, showing the country that he’s still that same kid from Reading, who picked up bits and pieces from other places along the way.