Kovacevic: Riverhounds' debut a thing of beauty
The beautiful game, the game played across the globe, the game embraced … well, pretty much everywhere but our own US of A, finally made its first meaningful entry into our city limits Saturday night. And fittingly, that entry might have been best appreciated through the windshield of someone driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel.
Like a bicycle kick to the solar plexus.
“We've heard about it, read about it, looked at drawings and all that,” Ben Cole of Brookline was saying. “But until it hits you … wow.”
Make no mistake: That was exactly the goal when the folks running the Riverhounds — that's Pittsburgh Riverhounds now, formally — invested more than $10 million in the all-private Highmark Stadium that opened with an 8 p.m. kickoff, climaxed with a Jose Agulo header goal in the 69th minute to christen the place for the home side, concluded with a so-what 2-1 loss to Harrisburg and was capped, naturally, by fireworks over the Downtown skyline.
It was what the franchise owners, front office and backers had sought over a seven-year quest to emerge from near-total obscurity at suburban high school facilities.
It was the culmination of some serious brass to shove soccer — love it or loathe it — hard into public view.
And it was, indeed, beautiful.
The pitch, tucked tight between the Mon and Mount Washington and framed by parallel shelves of train tracks, had new freight humming past every half-hour. The overflow crowd of 3,900-plus filled the chilled metal bleachers, the suites behind one end zone, the Steel Army rooters' section at the other and, neatest of all, the 250-plus standing along the strip of sidewalk 40 feet from of those tracks. A ship from the Gateway Clipper fleet sweetly passed at exactly the point of kickoff and tooted a horn. And somehow drowning out all that were the cheering, chanting, singing, drum-beating, vuvuzela-blowing and …
Forget the match itself. With all due respect to the visible passion of the participants, few will remember that Harrisburg scored twice in the final 12 minutes or its correlating impact in the United Soccer League, something of a Triple-A feeder for Major League Soccer.
We aren't there yet, to be kind.
But all life forms begin microscopically, all having a one-in-a-million shot to grow into something great. And if you had to start somewhere in Pittsburgh, you couldn't have dreamed up a more powerful setting than this.
“We could have stayed out in the suburbs, even built a new place there,” said Jason Kutney, the team's CEO, midfielder and spiritual soul . “But we wanted this. We wanted people to look across the river and at least think about soccer.”
We aren't there yet, either.
Nor are we at the point of gauging whether the MLS will ever follow. Kutney bluntly assesses that as requiring roughly a decade.
But the interim looks like a blast, and not just for the venue.
The skill level won't conjure up images of the Brazlian nationals, but this match had finesse, precision, chemistry and above all aggression from both sides. The Riverhounds' attack, as coach Justin Evans had promised, was full-throttle.
The stars will be rare, but Colombian forward Jhonny Arteaga played for New York in MLS last season and is a big deal at this level, even if he downplays it: “I'm here to win a championship like everyone else.”
The autograph lines won't be as long, but goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap will high-five your kids even as he takes the field.
There won't be limousines escorting the athletes, but you just might bump into players riding the Duquesne Incline on their way to work. Kutney rents apartments on Mount Washington for a few of them.
There isn't much excitement in hosting the Rochester Rhinos, but there will be this summer when Toronto of the MLS shows up. And, if ongoing talks bear fruit, I hear that Newcastle, a marquee team from the English Premier League, will visit, too.
Judging by the enthusiasm Saturday, no one will mind.
Least of all Louis and Isabella Youngmayer of Monroeville. They're a Hungarian immigrant couple in their 80s, and they've witnessed every game the Riverhounds played dating to inception in 1999, baking cookies for the players before each one.
“Every game, no matter the weather, they were there,” Kutney said. “With cookies.”
The Youngmayers were there Saturday, too, bundled up under a blanket. Only they didn't have to pay and never will again. The Riverhounds provided lifetime tickets to Section 104, Row E, Seats 24-25. Best in the house.
“I can't believe how beautiful this is,” Isabella said at halftime. “We are so, so happy to see this for soccer in Pittsburgh.”