Kovacevic: A perfect pitch to lure MLS

| Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, 12:04 a.m.

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 dkovacevic@tribweb.com.

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