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Riverhounds aiming high in 2014

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 4:09 p.m.
Conor Ralph | Tribune-Review
Darren Amoo, left, congratulates Jose Angulo after his goal in the first half of the Riverhounds game against the Los Angeles Blues on July 6, 2013. The Riverhounds were defeated by a score of 2-1.

It's one thing to set grand goals, but it's quite another to set up a script where anything less than full achievement of those goals is failure.

Listen to the men running the Riverhounds, Pittsburgh's growing-by-the-day soccer franchise, and it's simple to see they're all about the latter.

“We're here to win a championship in 2014,” said Jason Kutney, the spiky-haired CEO and part-time midfielder. “We're not going to run from that.”

“We're going for it,” said Tuffy Shallenberger, the deep-pocketed owner and Connellsville businessman. “This is the year.”

“I know what the expectation is,” said Justin Evans, the veteran coach. “They've given me the tools to get that done, and I've got to deliver on it.”

Get the picture?

The goal — the immediate one — is to win a USL Pro championship.

It's ambitious in light of the Riverhounds being a fairly ordinary side most of last summer, their first inside city limits at Highmark Stadium, at 10-8-8. They surged heading into the playoffs but were scrubbed out 5-0 in the first round by eventual champion Orlando City.

But it's also a realistic goal in light of several bold moves this offseason:

• Jose Angulo, USL Pro's MVP last season after a league-leading 15 goals, was signed to an unusual, two-year, full-time contract that pays him a Major League Soccer wage. The aim is to make Angulo the face of the franchise, a role he says he'll embrace.

“I'm all about building the sport here in this city and this great stadium,” Angulo said.

• Matt Dallman, whose 12 assists were a league record, was retained to a similar contract. Like Angulo, he chose the Riverhounds over offers from MLS teams.

“Having the chance to play here and with Jose, it's a dream,” Dallman said.

• Joseph Ngwenya, one of the three finalists for the USL Pro award MVP after scoring nine goals for Richmond, was signed to shore up the midfield.

“It seems like they're trying to put together a championship team,” said Ngwenya, 32, a veteran of 118 MLS matches and international competition with Zimbabwe.

• Anthony Obodai, a veteran of four seasons with the legendary Dutch side Ajax as well as Ghana's national team, was signed to specialize in defense through the midfield. Obodai, 32, was with Phoenix of USL Pro last season.

• An affiliate agreement signed last month with the MLS powerhouse Houston Dynamo will mandate four players are stocked in Pittsburgh. Those haven't been chosen yet, but Dynamo promises quality.

As compared to most of the rosters in USL Pro, this one will be stacked. The Harrisburg and Dayton rosters, for example, are filled mostly with local players. Their revenues don't allow for bigger spending.

The combination of strong attendance at Highmark — an average of 3,316 within a loose capacity figure of 3,800 — and Shallenberger's enthusiasm have put the Riverhounds in a powerful position to rise above.

And from there?

“Our goal is MLS, whether that's soon or years from now,” Kutney said. “We look at what Orlando City did, and that was to first build a strong team that drew a lot of fan support, and now they're ready for that step.”

Orlando City averaged 8,053 at the mammoth Citrus Bowl but is headed toward its own soccer-only stadium and, in November, was named 21st MLS franchise.

“It's ambitious for us to think that way, and we realize that,” Kutney said. “But that's our mindset, and we want that to be our fans' mindset, as well.”

The Riverhounds' season-ticket sales, which began this month, are pacing ahead of last season's, Kutney said.

The goal there?

“Sell out every game,” he said, “then keep growing.”

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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