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View From The Booth: How to fortify a soccer culture

Dan Lynd, in his Pitt days. - PITT ATHLETICS

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.

Obviously, we here at Pittsburgh Soccer Now have a vested interest in growing soccer in the region, since that development would naturally elevate our reach.

But first and foremost, we’re here because we love the sport and want to see it do well. To put it another way, we want to see soccer reach its potential in Pittsburgh, regardless of what we think that level might eventually be.

Much of what you’re seeing lately on PSN is tailored toward the promotion of local soccer, from John Krysinsky‘s One-On-One interview series to the college and high school notebooks that will ride through the fall along with regular coverage of the biggest amateur matches in the region.

Ultimately, though, the struggle in ‘growing the game’ — to use a popular phrase — is that there are several separate tribes of footie folks in the area, all with their own interests.

Some participate in and/or support youth soccer clubs. Some are attached to prep programs or area colleges. Some follow the Riverhounds. Some just like watching various international leagues and ignore the local scene entirely.

With the possible exception of that last group, there’s both room under the big tent for all and the potential to chase a common cause. The more that soccer rises in prominence in the region, that should lift the experience for everybody … at least in theory.

That’s why 2018 has been highly encouraging, at least for this commentator. And it’s hard to figure out where to start in terms of the good news.

The recent establishment of the Riverhounds Development Academy’s apprenticeship program is as good of a spot to begin. Any effort to link the RDA to the pro team more solidly is a win in my book, because it’s a step toward building what countless clubs around the world have: A true feeder system, but also a direct path from the grassroots to the first team.

In that way, there’s additional linkage from the Riverhounds to the community, but another development in this area has been completely and pleasantly organic. I’m talking about the prominent contributions of Robert Morris’ Neco Brett and Pitt’s Dan Lynd to the Hounds’ big season.

Assuming Lynd’s injury isn’t a long-term thing, both local college alums will slot into key roles as the Hounds explore uncharted late-season territory in the USL. That’s not just a fun tidbit for media types like myself; that’s a real connection to the greater Pittsburgh sports landscape the Hounds have seldom enjoyed in their history.

Now, we can’t expect the club to give preferential treatment to players with Pittsburgh notoriety, but it’s encouraging that Bob Lilley and staff didn’t let the competition scoop up some serious talent in their backyard. That was especially critical in the case of Lynd, who played for the Hounds’ defunct U-23 team a couple of years back while setting records at Pitt.

What fun it’s been to marvel at Brett’s push for the Golden Boot, to admire Lynd’s growth as a starting keeper, to see larger crowds congregate at Highmark Stadium as the summer has progressed. In Year One of the Lilley Era, this feels like the start of something, not a one-off.

Selfishly, it’s been terrific to get back into the commentary booth after a year off, too. As someone who attended his first Hounds match at Bethel Park High School back in 2000, it’s been a trip to have the call on ESPN+ and occasionally the local CW affiliate.

The excitement you hear in my voice during the broadcasts comes from the heart. My role might be ancillary, but the more I can assist the Hounds — and soccer in general — in getting a seat at the Pittsburgh sports table, the better. There is great joy in building something, I find.

The same can be said for the soccer culture around here. Yes, there are competing factions at all levels but the pros, but there’s never been an easier time to get organized behind a cause, sporting or otherwise.

Not to toot our own horn too much, but the creation of Pittsburgh Soccer Now last spring was another step in the right direction to elevate soccer to its rightful place around here. Hopefully, we can continue to build on the positive momentum generated over the past several months and celebrate all those taking part in the world’s game in western Pennsylvania.

Much like the Hounds might say, if we have our way, this is just the start.

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.

PItt MF Michael Sullivan

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