Fans turn out to see Riverhounds christen Highmark Stadium
Fireworks, shot from a barge a few hundred feet away from Highmark Stadium, exploded overhead Saturday night as Pittsburgh Riverhounds defender Rich Costanzo walked along the stands and shook hands with young fans.
The scene smacked of celebration — and why not, as the Riverhounds had just completed the inaugural game at their sparkling new facility along the Monongahela River.
But Costanzo and company wished they had sent their capacity crowd, more than 3,900 strong, home with a better result.
On a night when professional soccer claimed a share of the spotlight in Pittsburgh, the Riverhounds (0-1-1) allowed a game-deciding goal in the 90th minute and lost, 2-1, to the Harrisburg City Islanders (1-0) in United Soccer League Professional Division play.
The result soured an otherwise surreal occasion for the Riverhounds, who from 1999 until this season, called high school stadiums home.
“It's second to none,” Costanzo, a 2004 graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School, said of Highmark Stadium. “And I'm glad it's here in Pittsburgh. I wish this was here when I was a kid coming up through.”
The game, scoreless halfway through the second half, gave fans plenty of up-tempo action. But a goal in the 70th minute sent the Riverhounds faithful into a frenzy.
Just seconds after stepping on the field as a substitute, forward Jose Angulo scored the Riverhounds' first goal of the season in the 70th minute when he charged toward the backside of the 6-yard box and headed in a cross from the deep right corner by Matt Dallman.
Coach Justin Evans believed that moment, though sweet, might've had an adverse effect on the Riverhounds.
“There was so much emotion in here when we scored, I saw our team doing things after that that we usually never do,” Evans said.
Harrisburg answered eight minutes later with a breakaway goal by Sainey Touray, who sneaked a shot between goaltender Hunter Gilstrap's legs from close range.
Then, Harrisburg forward Lucky Mkosana's left foot volley found the back of the net just as the clock struck 90 minutes.
“That was a great feeling to get that first goal here at Highmark Stadium,” Costanzo said, “but one goal won't always do it.”
Harrisburg, pleased by the result, still walked off the field envious of what Pittsburgh now possesses.
“This is what we wish we had,” City Islanders coach Bill Becher said. “Hopefully, we will. We're in talks. But this was just a great game and a great atmosphere.”
The bee-boops of ticket scanners at Highmark Stadium began at 6 p.m., but fans started to celebrate the existence of a fan-friendly professional soccer facility in the South Side hours earlier.
Tailgaters, rare if non-existent when the Riverhounds called Bethel Park and Chartiers Valley High School stadiums home, turned up as early as 4 p.m. to embrace the new venue.
Among those early tailgaters eager to enter the riverside stadium were Bob Zebrasky Sr., 51, of Crafton Heights, and his sons, Bob, 26, and Ben, 24.
Both Bobs attended the Riverhounds' first game, held at Bethel Park Stadium, and remained fans during the decade-plus that followed. Bob Zebrasky Jr. now serves as the vice president of the Steel Army, the Riverhounds' official fan club.
“This is a million times better than we ever thought this would be,” the younger Zebrasky said minutes after he and many other Steel Army members marched from Station Square to the stadium with drums booming and flags waving. “Last year, our biggest group was maybe 30 people. We've seen so many older members come back, and a lot of that has to do with the stadium and with what the front office has done.”
Bob Zebrasky Jr. recalled that when he and his father attended the opener in 1999, they sat on a wall in Bethel Park Stadium because no seats were available in the stands. But seats became easier to find as the weeks — and seasons — progressed.
The Zebraskys sat in the heart of the Steel Army section, located behind the east goal, Saturday. Hundreds of others — some committed club members, some more casual supporters — were shoulder to shoulder with them, a far cry from the days when a much smaller Steel Army sat in its own group a section away from most fans at Chartiers Valley.
“We were kind of the outcasts there,” Bob Zebrasky Jr. said. “Every night was like family night, and we were the weirdos down at the end with the drums and the flags.”
The early tailgating and game attendance of several dozen Steel Army core supporters struck no one as unusual. But fans with far less Riverhounds zest also appeared in the lot west of the stadium.
Josh Nowak, 24, a Beth-Center High School alum, congregated with former classmates as they enjoyed beer and grilled food from about 4 p.m. until game time.
Nowak attended one or two Riverhounds games before Saturday, he said. He enjoyed the sport, but as a Washington County resident, he often lacked the desire to drive north to see games at high school fields.
Highmark Stadium, on the other hand, invited the idea of a short road trip.
“The view is perfect,” Nowak said. “They couldn't have a found a better spot. It's not that bad of a drive, even for us. And for the price and with us growing up with the sport, we had to do this.”
Just a few parking spaces down from Nowak's group, Steve Feinstein, 42, of Mt. Lebanon, watched as his son, Ben, 8, passed and shot at mini nets with other kids.
“The opportunities that they have are so much greater than anything we had,” said Feinstein, who played through high school and now sends his son to the Riverhounds' youth development academy. “We want to make sure we support soccer in this town. It's always kind of a fight here for soccer because of all the other great teams.”
As Riverhounds technical director Gene Klein, an assistant in 1999 and the head coach from 2006 through 2009, looked out at the city from the stands, he said the perception of his organization's professionalism should rival that of Pittsburgh's other teams.
“I vividly remember in 1999, walking into Bethel Park before a sellout crowd, and it was really thrilling,” Klein said. “But it was still a high school stadium. This (venue) takes it to another level. No one can question the professionalism of this organization.”