Kovacevic: Slow, steady for soccer in 'Burgh
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No, there weren't any padlocks on the 8-foot wrought iron gates at Highmark Stadium. They swung open as scheduled 5 p.m. Saturday, two hours before kickoff of the Riverhounds' home opener, and they welcomed a record, overflow crowd of 3,754 for what wound up ... well, a rather sloppy, deflating 4-3 beatdown by the Wilmington Hammerheads.
Forget the result, though, or even golden striker Jose Angulo's latest gem of a goal.
What a sight the whole scene was.
The fans filled every inch of the place, from the grandstand to the railings at the top to the standing-room walkway parallel to the train tracks. The freight train, just as it did in the stadium's inaugural game, whistled by at the moment the match began. The Steel Army rooters section doubled in size, thanks to about 300 recently recruited Pitt students. There was a genuine warmth between those in the stands, those on the field and, yeah, that mysterious yellow orb in the sky. And all this amid steady sponsorships and overall ticket sales being 30 percent higher than the same point a year ago.
Even with the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filed last month by Tuffy Shallenberger and the rest of the Riverhounds' ownership, there wasn't the slightest sign that the team, its small but sturdy fan base or the sport itself was about to take a step backward.
“We're here to stay. We're only just getting started toward where we want to be,” Jason Kutney, the Riverhounds' savvy, spiky-haired CEO was saying. “If you look around at this scene, these fans, our team, the growing popularity of playing soccer and watching it on TV, that isn't about to change.”
No, it isn't. And for those of us, oh, 6 billion or so who embrace the beautiful game, the world's game, that's a wonderful thing.
Including those of us in the city.
It's not just the Riverhounds and their remarkable second-year stadium, one that's drawn raves from Major League Soccer higher-ups, the New York Times, pretty much everyone who's experienced it. And it isn't at all the seemingly never-ending boost in youth participation, which seldom translates into fandom once the kids grow up.
Rather, it's the broader recognition in the U.S. of the sport at its highest levels.
“What you have now in our country is people watching English Premier League and other international matches on TV who are becoming real, dedicated fans,” Peter Smith was saying by phone from Miami. He's from Upper St. Clair and is one of the organizers of the July 27 match at Heinz Field between AC Milan and Manchester City. “People are adopting teams as their own. They're watching with passion. They're learning about the game from where it's played best.”
The Heinz Field friendly is selling “quite well,” Smith said without wanting to give a specific number, and could bring more such matches to Pittsburgh. But they're already here in another sense. The World Cup could grab our attention like never before if the Americans live up to unprecedented promise. Right now, the EPL and other elite leagues can be seen around the clock on ESPN, NBC Sports and Fox Sports. The ratings steadily are rising for those, as is the fun culture of congregating to watch them at specialty bars such as Piper's Pub on the South Side. If you aren't wearing your colors in Piper's, you might as well order to go.
MLS still isn't close to global quality, but it does offer a visible, tangible goal for players who'd like to play beyond the chase-the-ball-around phase of their childhood. Ben Zemanski of Upper St. Clair is in his fifth season as a midfielder for Portland. As happened with hockey after R.J. Umberger broke through as an NHL first-rounder, others will follow. More and more, Pittsburgh-area youth teams, including those at the Riverhounds' academy, are performing well in national tournaments.
Soccer will succeed in the U.S. It'll succeed in Pittsburgh, too. But it'll take more time.
That goes for the Riverhounds.
The men running the team have spoken of joining MLS in the next decade. That's admirable. But the fact is the bankruptcy will slow that. It absolutely has to. Most MLS owners are billionaires. The franchise expansion fees in recent years have ranged from $70 million for Atlanta to $100 million for New York. And that's to say nothing of MLS-standard stadium construction, which runs up another $150 million or so.
The Riverhounds built Highmark Stadium for $10.1 million with no public assistance. That's admirable, too. But they also blew it by biting off more than they could chew, and now — unless they do the right thing and repay all debts in full, as the Penguins did a decade ago — they're going to have ticked off a ton of people in town.
Kutney recalled last summer rushing through the stadium process to such an extreme that, “I felt like I was sprinting down a dark hallway not knowing what I was about to run into. It felt like I couldn't sleep, eat, even breathe.”
Well, slow down.
Find a way to handle those Hammerheads, sell some tickets and T-shirts, take in the sunshine and follow the tide.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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