Steve Fenn on the triumphant tale of the Riverhounds
A year ago, if trying to strike up conversation with a Pittsburgher about MLS, the US national team, or the local USL Pro club, you’d likely receive blank stares until the polite midwesterner figured out how to gently convey that they hadn’t the foggiest idea what you were talking about.
Last week some of those same people were disappointed that they were unable to attend the soldout opening of their USL Riverhounds’ new downtown home, Highmark Stadium.
Since their founding in 1999, the Riverhounds have been a foster child of US domestic soccer.
The club bounced amongst three high school stadiums, a minor league baseball stadium, and one hiatus year, 2007, in which they reorganized the club, with a stadium under their own exclusive lock-and-key being a major focus.
Enter Highmark Stadium they now have a permanent location just across the Monongahela river from downtown Pittsburgh, in full view of two high-traffic bridges, and a plethora of office windows. Here’s a panoramic comparison between the scene of Saturday’s opener in Highmark and a July 2012 Riverhounds game at Chartiers Valley High School.
The ‘Hounds have allowed their crowds to take full advantage of the view, placing no seating on the river side of the stadium. A byproduct of this being the occassional clearances that become fish food in the Monongahela River. Three balls reached the river alone on Saturday.
In 1999, the same year the Riverhounds were formed, the Columbus Crew, just 188 miles away, moved into the first soccer specific stadium in the United States. 7 years later, the only other soccer specific stadia in MLS were in Carson, CA, Frisco, TX, and Bridgeview, IL.
Lower-tier USL clubs actually followed the Crew’s lead more emphatically than MLS in those days. Between 1999 and 2006, six soccer specific stadiums were built in SC, NC, IN, TX, GA, and NY that today serve as the home fields for NASL, USL Pro, PDL, and NWSL sides.
Since 2007 this trend has reversed, with 9 MLS sides building their own homes, and a complete lack of new construction in the lower tiers.
But with MLS approaching their limit for soccer stadiums, the lower tiers are picking up the slack.
The NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions also moved into a new home, Toyota Field, on Saturday. Both lower-tier stadium debuts were sold out, and both clubs have expressed a willingness to expand seating beyond their modest initial seating capacities (roughly 8,000 in San Antonio, and 3,600 in Pittsburgh).
At the center of everything Riverhounds is Jason Kutney, who serves as the club’s CEO, director of youth development, and right outside back.
After joining the Riverhounds in 2006, new ownership reorganized the club during a 2007 hiatus year and installed Kutney as player/CEO during that period.With all of the issues needing his attention from a front office perspective, Kutney hasn’t been able to practice as much as he would like with the team in 2013, but now that the stadium and all of its issues are taking shape he hopes to push for a starting position, and at the very least force his teammates to push even harder for their own playing time.
Despite Kutney’s absence from the squad for now, the Riverhounds have significantly upgraded their roster over the offseason, bringing in many players in their mid-twenties who were on MLS benches last year, like Jhonny Arteaga, Jose Angulo, and Mike Seamon.
On Saturday against their intra-Pennsylvania rivals, the Harrisburg City Islanders, the Riverhounds did score the first goal in their new stadium in the 68th minute, with a well-worked throw-in creating space for Matt Dallman to cross a ball which found Jose Angulo in front of goal, who headed it home emphatically.
But while the Riverhounds controlled the run of play for most of the evening, their two defensive lapses in the second half were punished as Harrisburg’s Sainey Touray got behind the backline to score in the 78th and in the 90th Lucky Mkosana scored followed a bad Riverhounds clearance.
Driving the atmosphere on Saturday were the Riverhounds supporters group, The Steel Army. Given a home behind the South goal in Highmark, their chants, drums, and cowbell could be heard around the stadium consistently. Not surprising that when Kutney laid out tentative expansion plans to The Shin Guardian (decision to be finalized after the season), his first priority was a larger, permanent stand for the Steel Army with a capacity of at least 1500.
Many of the 3900-plus on hand obviously hadn’t been to a professional soccer match before, since the ‘Hounds average 2012 attendance in Chartiers Valley was less than 1000. Most outside of the Steel Army didn’t seem to know when to get excited, as evidenced by commonly-heard wonderment over the distance goal kicks would travel.
This is a passionate sports city, though, and 93% of those surveyed at the game planned to attend at least 3 matches this year. It should be interesting to see how the crowds’ involvement and understanding of the game changes over the course of this first season in Highmark.
The day after the game, Kutney spoke with The Shin Guardian and said that “as a player it was difficult to watch and not be able to help,” but as CEO he was “just overjoyed,” and it was “hard to walk away from that game and care about the result on the field.” Kutney did say that he had identified opportunities for improvement in concessions, cleanliness, and other minor stadium issues, but considering that the stadium didn’t even get a dry run before its debut, the overall experience was very encouraging.
Indeed, it is rare that you’ll see a crowd so happy after a loss in the 90th minute, but that was absolutely the tone as the Highmark Stadium lights dimmed in preparation for post-match fireworks.
This was an important night not just for Pittsburgh, but for all of US Soccer. Soccer specific stadiums give the beautiful game a validity and presence that gets the attention of those who, like many Pittsurghers, traditionally forget about the sport, and a permanence for locals who love it, like the Steel Army and the droves of multicultural supporters in San Antonio.
Local success is a part of national success because everything in US Soccer is connected on some level. Kutney confirmed that Pittsburgh are currently negotiating an MLS/USL affiliation with one of their closest top tier clubs: Columbus, Toronto, New York, or Chicago.
A few years ago, it could be argued that Pittsburgh was one of the weaker links of professional soccer in the US, but Highmark Stadium and its debut on Saturday night show that is emphatically not the case today