All eyes on Riverhounds at home opener
As many as 3,500 sets of eyes — a sellout crowd — will watch the Pittsburgh Riverhounds' inaugural home game at Highmark Stadium from the stands Saturday night.
But hundreds if not thousands more will witness the game — if only for a few fleeting moments — from Mount Washington or the Fort Pitt Bridge or the Wyndham Grand hotel at the Point.
Because of the new venue, which sits next to Station Square and opens up to the Monongahela River and downtown, professional soccer is at its most visible point of existence in Pittsburgh since the mid-1980s, when the Spirit played the indoor version of the sport at Civic Arena.
A satisfying debut at 8 p.m. against the Harrisburg City Islanders (0-0) could help the 'Hounds (0-0-1), formerly tucked away at high school stadiums in the South Hills, bolster support from diehard fans and likely boost the buzz among the city's casual followers.
“To have (the stadium) here with the backdrop of the city, it's very surreal,” said coach Justin Evans, a 1995 Peters Township graduate who became the first player signed by the Riverhounds in 1999.
“The tricky part is keeping the players in check and letting them know that this is just another game, a game we need to take care of. We need to make this (stadium) a fortress, where teams come in and don't want to play here, and where it's very tough for them to get points. So we're on two different levels: Very, very excited, but on other hand, we need to keep it very even-keel for the players.”
Saturday is the culmination of a process that, for Evans, Riverhounds CEO/player Jason Kutney, director of team operations/assistant John Rotz and others, began several years ago. Evans said the concept of a soccer stadium in the heart of Pittsburgh became more reality than dream in January 2012, when he and his cohorts viewed artistic renderings and blueprints. But during the months that followed, doubts still existed.
“When you embark on a project like this, there are so many things that you think would be easy, and they're just not,” Evans said. “Just little hiccups along the way, and we found a lot of them. To overcome that adversity, I think we've shown pretty good strength.”
The Riverhounds, who play in the United Soccer League Pro Division, opened training camp in early March and practiced twice a day for as many as six days a week. Highmark Stadium's novelty has hardly faded for team members; the view remains beautiful. But the players are eager to get the full experience — bright lights, loud fans and on-field competition.
For two of the team's four native Pittsburghers, the home opener likely is the best belated birthday gift they'll receive.
“You can't ask for a better present than this,” said midfielder Stefan Lundberg, a Kiski Area alum who turned 24 on Friday. “We've played away trips against teams that have huge followings, so we're used to a crowd. But that crowd was never for you. We had some nice crowds at Chartiers Valley every once in a while, but nothing will compare to this.”
Said goaltender and Ambridge alum Greg Blum, who also turned 24 on Friday: “I remember going to soccer tournaments on my birthday as a little boy, but nothing compares to something like this. To get the win would really top it off.”
Jack Megaw, a 2010 Point Park graduate and London native who frequently visits Pittsburgh, and several of his friends agreed as they watched games at soccer hangout Piper's Pub on Thursday afternoon in the South Side: Highmark Stadium has put the Riverhounds in position to succeed on the public relations front.
“I know lots of people who I wouldn't necessarily have thought would be interested in (the team),” Megaw said, “and now they're saying they want to go to a game. I don't know how you could resist it with that backdrop.”