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View From The Booth: More skin in the game

It’s actually beneficial to burn this moment into our brains. All the more fuel to get invested again in the spring.

My literal view from the booth prior to Saturday's playoff kickoff. - MATT GAJTKA

View From The Booth: More skin in the game

Editor’s note: Riverhounds SC play-by-play broadcaster Matt Gajtka brings his perspective on the team throughout the season in his ‘View From The Booth’ column.

As the credits rolled on the 2018 season for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, I didn’t feel much like moving. Perhaps you can relate.

It wasn’t until Ray Lee‘s lefty PK sailed wide that I truly believed Bethlehem Steel FC would advance through the Hounds, so there wasn’t time to get all the way from denial to acceptance in the five minutes it took to sign off the broadcast.

And so, I sat there, staring out at the soggy Highmark Stadium turf as Bob Lilley‘s final team talk of the season wrapped up and several members of the Steel Army staggered around, trying to make sense of what just happened.

I realize that I wrote multiple times this season that this Hounds team was one to be enjoyed and appreciated, but those are usually emotions of perspective. When you’re gutted, there is no perspective.

(As an aside, I will say that I find it very possible to be fair to both teams on the air, while also hoping that one side prevails. Just in case there are any Steel fans reading this and questioning my ability to call a game involving the Hounds objectively.)

During the game, I was fine. The mental challenge of play-by-play is more than enough to insulate me from negative possibilities and all the demons that torture a fan’s mind.

Much like the athletes themselves, I have to focus on the next play, or else I’m going to screw up the gig. Especially in the high stakes of a playoff match, with each touch of the ball taking on increased importance, I simply can’t zoom out too much to consider what it all means.

But once the mic goes dead and I take the headset off, I can put my fan hat back on.

And my first thought at that moment late on that damp, dark Saturday night? Damn, that hurt.

It turns out that when you have skin in the game, the sting is greater than it might be otherwise. I’ve cheered for teams from the outside — Penguins, Pirates, Steelers and, until 2015, the Hounds — without actually working for them, and I’ve been on staff for a minor-league baseball team, two junior hockey teams and a university’s athletic department.

Once you’re actually, literally a part of a team, a couple of things happen … at least from my experience.

First, you get invested in performance and outcomes like never before. Some deal with this in different ways than others. I might not be literally cheering out loud like I used to in the stands, but every play is tearing me up inside in a more intimate way.

Second, you empathize with the players and coaches like never before. When you work alongside people, you can better appreciate their struggles and triumphs. Even in the case of the Hounds, who just employ me on a game-day basis, it really does feel like watching friends and family out there on the pitch.

So, yeah, it took a while for me to muster the will to write the final score of that USL Cup Eastern Conference quarterfinal in my scorebook. The next day was reminiscent of a hangover, even though I didn’t exactly drown my sorrows Saturday night after the game.

You know what, though? In a sick way, this is what we want. In order for the Hounds to capture the city’s heart, there has to be some pain. Unlike in 2013 or ’15, this was a Pittsburgh soccer club expected to make a postseason run, not one that was happy to be there.

That James Chambers missile of a free kick — and subsequent Bethlehem celebration — should feel like an uppercut to the solar plexus all the way through New Year’s Day.

Watch it again. I dare you.

Sorry for the ‘Clockwork Orange’ treatment, but the edge Hounds diehards should carry into 2019 can only serve to further stoke the necessary passion to continue to lift up the club.

There was some sentiment around Hounds staffers that this unsavory result was a missed opportunity for the team in terms of capturing the attention of Pittsburgh sports fans. While I might’ve agreed in the very immediate aftermath of the unsavory result, I simply have to disagree.

In the run-up to the first USL playoff game at Highmark Stadium, the Hounds brand was getting regional exposure like I’ve rarely seen before, if ever. Pittsburgh pro soccer was in the mainstream, if only for a few days.

But the point stands that more people were viscerally engaged with the team than I can remember. Obviously it would’ve been preferable for the long-term health of the organization if the playoff run lasted more than one week, but the heart-rending nature of the loss to Bethlehem certainly proved memorably epic, if nothing else.

This might be the last thing a long-time Hounds fan wants to hear, but a brutal defeat can often be as emotionally galvanizing as a glorious win, if not more so. It all depends on the follow-up, and that’s on us.

As I eventually figured out Saturday night as I gazed into the distance, it’s actually beneficial to burn this moment into our brains. All the more fuel to get invested again in the spring.

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