Riverhounds: Pittsburgh Perseverance Personified

The Riverhounds ... cornered for a stadium no longer...

The Riverhounds … cornered for a stadium no longer…

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.

....

If these fields were MLS players, Pittsburgh just got Osvaldo Alonso in return for James Marcelin

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).

Kutney (front and center) bringing the 'Hounds to the forefront.

Kutney (front and center) bringing the ‘Hounds to the forefront. (courtesy Whirl Magazine)

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

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22 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Linda Sheridan on 2013/04/19 at 4:47 AM

    My older son, played for the Riverhounds right after gradation from Duquesne University for the summer! Really nice crowd and fun for kids! Godspeed to the Riverhounds in their new soccer specific
    stadium!!!

    Reply

  2. One of the best features about Highmark is the open side facing downtown. What a way to draw a sports mad city in by making it the fourth stand. KC and one other MLS stadium have bridges visible in the near background. Any lower tier organization can take a marginal location and use the skyline or iconic landmark for instant buzz. Smart planning trumps massive cash. I’ve been watching Highmark’s development through FB. My club is Detroit City FC, NPSL. Our home opener is May 19 at a high school field with a open view of downtown Detroit. Whether the name will survive the money future money that may find it is up in the air. The supporters in the stands transferred the strong emotion for their city into the team. The owners are local businessmen riding the wave of Detroit’s recent explosion of the under 35 creative crowd who find open opportunity there. City Til I Die.

    Reply

    • Posted by Andrew on 2013/04/29 at 9:10 AM

      I’m also a DCFC season ticket holder (as I assume you are) and success stories like this make me very excited and optimistic for the future of our club and other lower division clubs. I’m hopeful that DCFC can move up to USL Pro by the end of the decade, mainly for the reason that it will give us more home matches to attend.

      There have been a number of encouraging stories coming out of the lower divisions lately (Orlando, San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Detroit, Chattanooga, etc.) and since MLS can only top out at 24-30 teams max, the future of the game in the US is in the second, third, and fourth divisions. Here’s a great article that I’m sure many of you have read but goes into excellent detail about this:

      http://www.xiquarterly.com/2013/03/12/a-bohemian-footprint-supporting-american-soccer-nationwide/

      Reply

  3. Such a great success for soccer teams, even little ones, to be able to thrive and build new stadiums. Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come for all minor league teams.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Jim on 2013/04/19 at 7:57 AM

    Very cool. Looks like a little gem. Any chance of a review of San Antonio’s new digs? That facility looks sweet, but I can’t find many pictures, even on their website.

    Reply

  5. Posted by DCC on 2013/04/19 at 8:22 AM

    A little off in your generalizations… there are actually a decent amount of MLS supporters in the city. I’m guessing me and my friends were part of your survey before the match regarding number of games we plan to attend. The location and the significantly upgraded roster will have more fans interested. The poor roster has kept me away for years. But I’m not sure where your Pittsburgher comment comes from… go to a GPSL match, any indoor facility, the thousands of youths playing in club programs, etc. and strike up a conversation with people who are interested in the game. They will know about MLS, USMNT, or other leagues. Hope you continue to cover soccer in Pittsburgh and I hope the Hounds and city have great success.

    Reply

    • Thanks for the feedback.
      I don’t deny that a lot of Pittsburghers are soccer fans, especially those that are under 35. But many of my friends in the North Hills and co-workers downtown have historically been hostile-to-ambivalent, and Highmark has perked their interest.

      I’m hoping to attend quite a few Riverhounds games this year and write a followup at some point.

      Reply

    • Posted by markbalt on 2013/04/19 at 10:13 AM

      You are spot-on with regards to GPSL, indoor. I play GPSL and at PISA (indoor) in Pittsburgh. I moved here from NYC 5 years ago and was pleasantly suprised how popular the sport is here.

      Reply

  6. Posted by Philswin08 on 2013/04/19 at 8:23 AM

    I now have a Pitt team i can get behind. Who knows maybe in 10 years MLS will be host to a proper Keystone State Derby!!

    Reply

  7. Bonus Materials –
    There are a lot of interesting things doing on with the Riverhounds, but I wanted to be somewhat concise in the article. Here are a few things I found interesting, but couldn’t fit in for various reasons:
    1) Kutney was a very open interviewee, and said that while the club would love to be in MLS, he knows that day is at least 10 years off, and a lot of progress will have to be made in the interim.
    2) In the meantime, their main focus is being “a capacity sport.” He sees three phases of seating expansion, but wouldn’t commit to any expansion until the season ends. Steel Army first, then the corners, and last either 2nd level or riverside stand that would be cantilevered over the train tracks there. Either tertiary approach would require extensive engineering and approvals, though.
    3) The Riverhounds are aggressively pursuing an English club for a July friendly. Kutney said they’re having promising concurrent discussions with an EPL side and a Championship side. At this point they are mostly evaluating the different cost of those 2 scenarios, but nothing is certain.
    4) the field is FIFA 2-star certified artificial turf. Because the stadium is also used for high school sports and a women’s tackle football team, Kutney said that in this climate they didn’t feel grass was a viable option.

    Also, I’ve gotten some feedback on Twitter and Reddit from a few Pittsburghers that seemed to be offended by the opening paragraph and my comment about some non-Steel-Army fans “didn’t seem to know when to get excited.” This are simply my personal observations. This stadium has sparked interest in many of my friends and co-workers who have historically been hostile-to-ambivalent about soccer. And I did hear fans on Saturday marveling at length of goal kicks, which to me is a sure sign of pro soccer newbies.

    Reply

    • Posted by Philswin08 on 2013/04/20 at 6:12 AM

      As much as I would like to see a European side play in Pittsburgh, do you really think the Riverhounds can provide the competition and guaranteed money necessary for that to happen? To properly prepare for their season I would think an MLS team would be the minimum level of competition required.

      Reply

      • Posted by Steve Fenn @SoccerStatHunt on 2013/04/20 at 10:06 AM

        In my interview with Kutney, he was very confident that a friendly with an English side will happen, but wouldn’t guarantee it. Essentially, he said they have both options on the table now. To choose the EPL side, they’d probably have to commit to bringing in temporary extra seating & raise ticket prices for that match alone significantly. The Championship side would be decidedly cheaper, but logically not as big of a draw.
        Competitively, i don’t know. The ‘Hounds will be in midseason form, & the English club will be adjusting to new arrivals, & probably playing some reserves. Even so, if I were a Pittsburgh player I’d be nervous.

        Reply

  8. Posted by Mark on 2013/04/19 at 10:06 AM

    This article seriously underestimates the savvy of soccer fan in Pittsburgh. Specifically, in the two paragraphs:

    “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.”

    and

    “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.”

    Are you serious? I was at the game in the main stand (not the supporters section) and was in a group of several other guys that played at the collegiate level and currently play in the the highest division (out of 5!) in GPSL (western PA adult soccer). Soccer is huge here in Pittsburgh, and most people agree, fans are pretty savvy.

    Also there is an issue with the tickets for the stadium. Many tickets are reserved for organizations that purchased seat (I’ve heard 70% of capacity). So yes, the game was sold out but as you can see there are many empty seats because the companies and clubs that have those season tickets did not release them to be sold other people that were looking for tickets. I hope they resolve this issue so the “sell out” games can actually be at capacity.

    Reply

    • Obviously we travel in different circles. In my office downtown and socializing generally in the Northern suburbs, I’ve come across many people who have been either uninterested or hostile toward pro soccer. Some of those people became interested by because they saw or heard about Highmark.
      Maybe I should have noted that Pipers Pub and other areas are hotbeds of soccer interest. Sorry if this aspect of the story offended you.
      As for experience in the stands, I wandered through all sections and suites on Saturday. There were definitely people there who were taking in a pro soccer match for the first time, and seemed to be struggling to follow the game. I’m actually kind of glad that, per your comments, my impressions weren’t representative of the whole crowd, but that doesn’t change the fact that lots of fans seemed to be learning about the game on Saturday.

      Reply

  9. Posted by Crow on 2013/04/19 at 1:29 PM

    Good to see soccer growing again in Pennsylvania. Right before I left late last year, the Harrisburg Heat made their comeback to the Indoor League after years of inactivity. I was at a Harrisburg City Islanders game last year and was surprised at the crowd- probably close to 3,000 despite the “field” they were playing on. The Hershey Wildcats used to draw close to 10,000 in the Ben Olsen days.

    Jimmy McLaughlin and a couple other of talented Union academy kids have been playing with the Islanders. I think they could expand and get a real stadium like the one in Pittsburgh.

    Reply

  10. Posted by s44 on 2013/04/21 at 12:46 AM

    OT in this thread, but Sunil finally won something… and it’s big.

    Reply

  11. Posted by JGD on 2013/04/21 at 4:10 PM

    Dat grass…

    Reply

    • It’s not grass. I couldn’t find a good place in the article to mention that Highmark has artificial turf. Per CEO/RB Kutney, it’s a necessary evil of multi-use facilities in this climate. Any PA grass would be in a horrible state after hosting Riverhounds matches alongside women’s tackle football (the Pittsburgh Passion are the 2nd-biggest tenant), and all kinds of high school sports, concerts, fairs, etc.

      Reply

  12. I find it interesting that soccer is thriving in many markets where baseball is fading. I see cities like Seattle and Kansas City where the MLS attendances are starting to outpace the baseball attendances. Of course, there will always be baseball, but is it growing? My gut feeling is that it is not, certainly not at the pace of professional soccer. I could see Pittsburgh on that trajectory.

    Reply

  13. [...] One small step for Pittsburgh, one giant leap for USSoccer. – theshinguardian.com [...]

    Reply

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