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COLUMN: Pittsburgh, it’s time to embrace an electric soccer atmosphere

COLUMN: Pittsburgh, it’s time to embrace an electric soccer atmosphere

In six years, there have been plenty of riveting, exciting moments at Highmark Stadium.

Yet, on Saturday it will be a momentous night as we’ll finally have a home playoff game hosted by the Stadium’s main tenants — Riverhounds SC.

It’s been a long time coming for this franchise that has been through a lot since its inception since 1999.

Highmark Stadium – Pittsburgh’s Mecca for Soccer

RELATED: Five years on the Mon, a look back at Riverhounds most memorable moments 

As we’ve reached the 100th game of the Highmark Stadium era, which began in 2013, a home playoff game has become a reality.

Saturday’s match is the culmination of a turn-around season for the franchise under new coach Bob Lilley, his coaching staff and a talented group of players that have taken the franchise to new heights — a third place finish in what has become an ultra-competitive United Soccer League Eastern Conference.

And, how fitting this centenary milestone will be a home playoff game — against a cross-state rival, Bethlehem Steel FC.

One thought that’s been going through my mind, is the memory of the Pittsburgh Pirates finally hosting a playoff game after a 21-year drought in 2013. The atmosphere at PNC Park that night for the one-game Wild Card playoff was nothing short of electric and could be felt watching from our television sets at home.

Wouldn’t it be something if a similar experience could be replicated at Highmark Stadium this Saturday.

As part of its requirements to be a second-division pro soccer franchise in the United State, the Hounds were required this season to increase seating capacity at Highmark Stadium to 5,000 seats.

Those seats finally arrived last week.

With the added seating, it appears that this will be the biggest crowd in Highmark Stadium history.

Quite frankly, those of us in soccer circles here in Pittsburgh have sensed that a home playoff game could finally become reality when Lilley was hired in November to replace Dave Brandt.

It’s been fascinating to watch first-hand, a seasoned coach who has won multiple championships at this level, Lilley, every step of the way this season. Lilley’s attention to detail in assembling the team in the preseason, to watching them navigate through the ups and downs of a grueling and unprecedented 34-game regular season as a team that was many things — but ultimately one that lived up to the hype and is simply very difficult to beat.

The most loyal Riverhounds and Pittsburgh soccer fans have been starving for a consistent winner. There was a taste of it in 2013, and then again in 2015.

But both seasons for those teams ended with first round playoff defeats in Orlando, and then in New Jersey.

This year’s team has delivered an elusive home playoff game.

Now it’s time for the fans to do their part.

To me, one of my favorite memories of the first game ever played at Highmark was getting my first real introduction to, and seeing up-front and in person, the passion of Pittsburgh’s soccer supporters group — the Steel Army.

In the South end of the stadium, the Army are always loud and provided Highmark Stadium exactly what it needed — songs, pounding drums, chants and ultimately a sense of soccer fan culture that had mostly been non-existent in Pittsburgh. While they’d started up a few years prior to this, the Army really found its base — and a home on the banks of the Mon.

While overall attendance numbers have been up and down — and we’ve seen a drop from the first season at Highmark Stadium — the Steel Army have always provided unwavering support. I’ve often said to the members of the Army, and to those who experience a Hounds game for the first time, imagine what it would be like when they come in greater numbers.

Riverhounds home games played before a lively, completely packed, standing room house in the past six years at Highmark Stadium can probably be counted on one hand.

Closest we’ve seen to that was the June 2015 match against DC United when a standing room crowd was hanging on every touch.

Just go back and watch when Kevin Kerr gets fouled to set up the PK, then Rob Vincent steps up to take the penalty — just look at how everyone’s hanging and watching in anticipation. And then when the ball hits the net, and the crowd which includes people standing all the way around the field, erupts in unison.

That matched ended up in a loss, and we haven’t seen that type of atmosphere here again on that level.

Those are the moments Pittsburgh soccer fans are craving — and one that ends with a win.

Ticket sales for this week’s game have been going well, but from my understanding, with the expanded seating, they’re not quite at a sellout yet, but pretty close.

The team, the players, coaches and everyone involved with the club will be ready.

There’s no doubt the Steel Army will be charged up, will bring it and will set the tone for the rest of the crowd to follow.

Heck, even the members of the media that have followed this team closely over the years and those that have only recently been around — are embracing what this means for Pittsburgh soccer and this franchise.

RELATED: ‘View from the Booth’ The two-sided emotions of playoff time 

It’s playoff time.

And now, it’s time for all of Pittsburgh to get behind a soccer team that has earned a home game.

Let the fun begin.

_____________

#PGHvBST COVERAGE

Mon Goals: Playoff Preview

Gajtka (report from practice 10/17): Defend or attack? Hounds aim to do both vs Steel FC

Goodman (report from practice 10/16): Hounds begin prepartions for USL Playoff first round vs Steel FC 

Also still to come:

Ed Thompson’s photos and report from Friday’s training

Riverhounds Rabbi – Scouting Report on Steel FC

Game day live blog and coverage (John Krysinsky & Ed Thompson)

 

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, and more. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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