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View From The Booth: Chasing the dream … or vice versa

To have the chance to provide the soundtrack to the season is an honor. I’ll be in my glory this Fourth.

My view from Louisville Slugger Field last week. - MATT GAJTKA

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

Soccer chose me.

Not that I wouldn’t have eventually found the game — and probably fallen for it just as hard — but I didn’t have to search far for soccer as a kid growing up across the border in West Virginia. For that, I mostly owe my brother Mark, whose aptitude for the sport led our family on countless road trips for travel-team tournaments across several summers in the late 90s and early 2000s.

I owe some of my most cherished childhood memories to watching Mark and his friends chase cups here and there across the mid-Atlantic region. Those experiences, plus the hours spent watching World Cup matches and Premier League highlights, put the soccer bug in my mind at an impressionable age.

Skip ahead to college days, trying to get as much broadcast experience as I could at Marshall University. The Thundering Herd men’s and women’s teams needed someone to call play-by-play on student radio station WMUL-FM, and I was the only one to volunteer for duty. My thinking: It was easier to get radio reps this way than wait years to call football or basketball, plus I knew enough about soccer to have the requisite confidence.

In retrospect, my first few test broadcasts were brutal. I was unsure, too reserved and kept reverting to hockey terminology, simply out of familiarity with that game on ice. But eventually I gained my footing with college footy, finishing my senior year as the reliable Voice of Marshall Soccer.

That experience from about a decade ago rushed back into my mind last Wednesday, when I was on the road to Louisville the Riverhounds’ match against the defending USL champs. Turns out, that was not my first trip to Kentucky for a soccer broadcast, as I had convinced the Marshall men’s team to let me accompany them to Lexington back in the fall of 2007 for a Conference USA tilt against UK.

There I was, nearly 11 years later, with nothing but a mic, a scorebook and a laptop between me and the makeshift pitch at Louisville Slugger Field. It’s easier to set up a broadcast these days — you should’ve seen the equipment we had to lug to matches at Marshall — but the basics are still the same.

Learn the rosters. Know the backstory. Focus, lose yourself in the action, and trust your instincts. Oh, and have a ball.

Hall of Fame voice of the Penguins Mike Lange once said in an interview that good play-by-play is like immersing in the flow of jazz. Yes, you need the ‘chops’ to pull it off, but you let the game carry you, not vice versa. Like jazz, it’s probably not going to be perfect, not in free-flowing sports like soccer or hockey, but you hope the body of work is captivating on the whole.

And, yeah, you want to nail the big moments, too.

(I’m still kicking myself over briefly stumbling over Romeo Parkes‘ name in the build up to Kenardo Forbes‘ winner. All you can do is correct the mistakes and keep going. Life metaphor? Life metaphor.)

On my drive home from the Bluegrass State the next morning, still buzzing off the important road win for the Hounds, I had ample time to reflect. The fact that I even have this opportunity is rather unlikely.

After broadcasting some Robert Morris University matches when I was a grad student there in 2014 — hi there, Neco Brett — I contacted the Hounds in early 2015, expressing my interest in climbing into the Highmark Stadium commentary booth by passing along a DVD full of highlights. Thanks to the endorsement of former team PR man Ian Thomson, I got the gig.

At that point, I’d already fulfilled the dream of calling play-by-play for a Pittsburgh pro sports team. I never would’ve imagined it would be the Hounds. Again, soccer chose me.

Three years have passed and I’m overjoyed to have the chance to once again ride with the Hounds. Only Kevin Kerr remains from that wild-and-woolly ’15 team, but two coaching changes and dozens of roster adjustments later, it appears we are in the midst of another special summer for Pittsburgh soccer. (Or, #PghSoccer. Editor’s orders.)

To have the chance to provide the soundtrack to the season is an honor. When I settle in for the Fourth of July call this week, know that I’ll be in my glory.

Sometimes you chase the dream, and sometimes the dream chases you. I’m lucky to say both are the case for me.

World Cup 2026 or bust? Why not.

Matt Gajtka (pronounced GITE-kah) is a columnist, analyst and reporter for Pittsburgh Soccer Now. In addition to his four-year role as play-by-play broadcaster for Riverhounds SC, he has experience covering pro and amateur sports for over a decade. Matt got his start in soccer while calling games for the Marshall University men's and women's Division I teams. He fondly remembers attending Hounds matches at Bethel Park High School, although he lapsed during the Moon and Chartiers Valley years. Like many, the construction of Highmark Stadium in 2013 rekindled his passion for the club and local soccer in general.

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