Kovacevic: A perfect pitch to lure MLS
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Thursday, November 29, 2012, 11:26 p.m.
Updated: Thursday, November 29, 2012
Seldom does something bad come of dreaming big, especially in the bullishly competitive world of sports.
But there's big, and then there's this.
“I want Pittsburgh to see soccer, to experience it, to fall in love with it,” Jason Kutney was saying one afternoon this week, standing at midfield of the budding Highmark Stadium by Station Square.
Kutney is the 31-year-old, spike-haired CEO/midfielder/Mr. Everything of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, a minor league professional soccer team we've had since 1999.
Yes, they still exist.
Assuming you were aware they ever did.
As we talked, construction crews rumbled around us — the place won't host soccer until April — the Gateway Clipper streamed by one way, a train on the adjacent track rolled by the other way, and Downtown's underappreciated First Side glistened from across the Mon.
There are sweet settings for sports stadiums, and then there's this.
“Just beautiful. Nothing like it anywhere,” Kutney said. “With Mount Washington on one side, the river and skyline on the other, and us right here in the middle of it all. This is where we needed to be, right in Pittsburgh where everyone could see us. We knew that, and we're here. We're real.”
It's a modest place, to be sure. Its privately financed cost will be $10.2 million, its seating capacity 3,102, and once season tickets go on sale, all 13 home games can be had for $150.
It's a modest level of play, too. The United Soccer Leagues' 11-team pro division is the nation's third tier, though it's seeking to become a primary feeder for Major League Soccer.
It'll even lead to a modest lifestyle for the athletes. (I loved this part.) Most players will live in apartments atop Mount Washington leased by Kutney, and they'll commute to games and practices via the Mon Incline, just like the coal miners did a century ago.
But you have to start somewhere, and, man, the place is beautiful.
One end zone, mostly done, will hold the 502 “Steel Army” fans Kutney expects will follow from the franchise's previous home-in-the-hinterlands at Chartiers Valley High School. Behind that is a miniature soccer field to entertain toddlers. The other end, still rising, will be the team's headquarters building, including 15 (nearly sold-out) suites facing the field. There might be a party deck on top, too.
It's the surface that stands out, though, both aesthetically and symbolically. Kutney and the other franchise owners bought a first-class $1 million synthetic surface that has no non-soccer markings and no advertising, all aimed at gaining FIFA certification.
Yeah, that FIFA.
Approval came last month.
“People told me I was nuts not to paint football lines on it. But this is a soccer field, and we're proud of that,” Kutney said. “We want to show that we're about soccer. We're about respecting and growing the game.”
The growing will be most intriguing.
Kutney admits it will take “a ton of hard work” to embed the Riverhounds locally, and he's right. Even if you set aside that we haven't embraced soccer on any significant scale since Paul Child, Stan Terlecki and the indoor Spirit folded in 1986, and that this town prefers its sports consumed from cold-activated cans, there's also a history of disdain for minor league sports.
I was reminded of this in a chat last week with Lynn Swann, owner of the struggling Power in Arena Football, when he said, “This is a major league town. You've got to fight for every inch.”
And let's not even mention all the pro basketball teams that have imploded. Or Xploded.
Here's what might make this endeavor different, at least at its inception: It's the Riverhounds' goal to gradually go big-league, to work toward MLS membership within a decade.
Sounds crazy, right?
Maybe it is, but Kutney flatly states “that's the end-game,” and he's already heard from MLS officials who have expressed delight with the stadium.
“A lot of us in the league have seen what they're doing, and my own feeling is that it's a game-changer for soccer in Pittsburgh,” said D.C. United general manager Dave Kasper, former coach at Duquesne and original GM of the Riverhounds. “I'm thrilled for that franchise and what's to come.”
Kutney has also had way-early talks with the city and Station Square about how the stadium might expand. It could be only to three sides, of course, but the capability is there to reach MLS' average capacity of 18,000 by simply adding vertically.
“We don't want to get ahead of ourselves,” Kutney said, “but the goal is the MLS.”
There's dreaming big, and then there's cantilevering extra seating over West Carson Street.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.
- Penguins GM Shero: ‘Whole idea’ was improvement during playoffs
- Ribbon, wristband solemn reminders for Penguins coach Bylsma
- Key acquisitions have Penguins primed for run to Stanley Cup
- Robinson: Steelers rookie Wheaton could be impact receiver
- Veteran Clark envisions finishing career as a member of Steelers
- Penguins to face Bruins in Eastern Conference final
- Marijuana supporters rally at the Point
- Knoch volleyball star Sanks glad to end recruitment trail
- Starkey: Pirates’ Huntington never looked so good
- Restaurant battles online reviews
- Locke, Pirates power past Brewers at Miller Park
You must be signed in to add comments
To comment, click the Sign in or sign up at the very top of this page.
Totally cool to watch this young savvy group of professionals develop a healthy soccer presence in Pittsburgh. Everything the Hounds do is done the right way. They are developing a loyal future fan base with the best youth soccer training program in Western PA. A stadium with a signature skyline view. A competitive on-field product that is fun to watch. An exciting time for Pittsburgh soccer. Go Hounds!!!!!
Submitted by: Melissa on Friday, November 30, 2012
great to see this news about the riverhounds and the sport getting this attention in the city. Its long overdue and well deserved!
Submitted by: Dave on Friday, November 30, 2012
At long last...soccer comes to town!!! The Riverhounds program has provided an amazing atmosphere for learning and progressing soccer in the Pgh area...the interest in their academy program has been growing by leaps and bounds!! It is wonderful to see this beautiful stadium smack in the heart of Pittsburgh...a place to call their home...not on the outskirts of town - tucked away on a high school field. We are excited to see how the program grows and can't wait to sit in the stands and cheer them on in April. Thanks for the article...it's nice to see a program that has given so much to its fans and community receive some much deserved attention.
Submitted by: j on Friday, November 30, 2012
The Riverhounds Academy has done wonderful things for youth soccer in Western PA. This stadium is another great step to help soccer grow in our region. I look forward to watching many games with my daughter in the new stadium! Congratulations to Jason and the entire Riverhounds organization for getting this beautiful stadium built!!!
Submitted by: Shawn on Friday, November 30, 2012
The Highmark Stadium is the next step in developing a total soccer community in the Pittsburgh region. The region is in dire need of a comprehensive system to develop youth players - the Riverhounds have stepped up to tackle this monumental task. The existing Club system is very profitable to those running the clubs, but is a hindrance to the region showcasing the tremendously talented players from Pittsburgh. There is a long way to go, but the building blocks are falling into place. I for one will be at every Riverhounds home game, and cannot wait to see the youth teams turn Highmark Stadium into a fortress! Kudos to the Trib for bringing this to the attention of so many readers!
Submitted by: Dejan on Friday, November 30, 2012
@Justin: Hard to imagine it won't. We're one of the few bigger cities in America that doesn't have a beltway system, so all traffic essentially has to pass through Downtown. And a big percentage is over the Fort Pitt Bridge or on Parkway East. Can't imagine people won't look over there and wonder what's going on. Remember, it'll be vital not just for Riverhounds games, but also for three high schools, Point Park, Carlow and possibly Duquesne. That's a lot of soccer activity shoved in everyone's faces, and it really doesn't compare at all to Heinz Field, PNC Park or Consol in that way.
Submitted by: Dejan on Friday, November 30, 2012
Thanks, Chuck. Jason Kutney made crystal clear to me they're looking for soccer fans. They want to hear cheers, boos, taunts, songs, chants, whatever goes with it. They're not looking to be a kiddie act. As he put it to me several times, they want to be "real."
Submitted by: Justin on Friday, November 30, 2012
Thanks for the article, DK. I for one have no idea what soccer is all about, but with this facility the atmosphere should be enough to welcome some new fans to the game.
Submitted by: Chuck on Thursday, November 29, 2012
Fantastic article Dejan. Personally I am beyond excited for this upcoming season. It will be interesting to see how the Hounds market this team...do they try to make it a family atmosphere full of youth soccer teams, or do they strive for hardcore fans with songs, chants, and the occasional curse word? Personally I am hoping for the latter. Soccer can work in America, and I think smaller markets are where it can really be successful, just look at Portland. With the right amount of support I think a possible MLS team is something Pittsburgh can strive for.