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Column: Not so new anymore, Highmark Stadium now hosts a nostalgic Hounds home opener

Kevin Kerr during training session this week. Photo by Ed Thompson.

Column: Not so new anymore, Highmark Stadium now hosts a nostalgic Hounds home opener

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard

 

A lot can happen over the course of seven seasons.  

On Saturday, April 13, 2013, the Riverhounds SC played its the first regular season game at Highmark Stadium.

Highmark Stadium’s field turf was bright and new.

Kevin Kerr had only been in the United States for about a month — and was part of the starting line-up for the first time as a Hound.

Jose Angulo came to Pittsburgh as a talented 24-year old a professional soccer player looking for a chance with a team where he could finally get to shine, and put his goal-scoring talents to good use.

Robbie Mertz was just entering high school at Upper St. Clair and playing for local club, Century United, dreaming like most teen age soccer players of someday playing professional soccer.

And on that day, I couldn’t contain my excitement about the fact that professional soccer was going to have a home of its own on the banks of the Monongahela River with Downtown Pittsburgh as its backdrop. I contacted my friend, and editor of Pittsburgh Sports Report, Tony DeFazio, and asked him if I could cover this opening match for his website.

Little would I know, my soccer life would have a new chapter.

After spending much of the previous two decades coaching– at just about every level imaginable (college, high school and youth) – I would suddenly get involved in the game by bringing my journalism background along with my knowledge and passion of the sport to report and cover professional soccer in our region.

My thoughts as I entered Highmark Stadium were simple: Wow, this is really happening.

It was all so new, I am not sure anyone knew what to expect. Fans packed into the new stadium, and they were treated to a new Pittsburgh sports experience.

I had been to Hounds games before when the team played like nomads at various high school stadiums in and around our region, but only intermittently following the team.

Upon my return, that night was my first real introduction to the Steel Army.

They provided what every pro soccer franchise should aspire to have — a driving heartbeat pounding through the course of every home match in support of its team. At Highmark, the drums, chants and songs was a beautiful sound to hear along the Mon for the first time.

Yes — I was hearing “Ole, Ole, Ole” echoing in a Pittsburgh crowd.

Now, that was sweet music to my ears.

Indeed, it was a momentous night for soccer.

The result wasn’t exactly stuff of legend.

The Hounds lost, 2-1, to a team we would see a few more times again over the next six years, Harrisburg City Islanders.

That’s a whole other story, maybe one worth writing a book about someday. In fact, hold that thought, I’ll have more on that sometime in the near future.

If you want to read more about the specifics from that night, I did this piece two years ago.

ON THIS DAY (2013), Highmark Stadium hosted its first Riverhounds SC match

This new stadium brought a sense of excitement — and hope for the franchise.

Here are some quotes and anecdotes that I gathered from that day.

JUSTIN EVANS, Riverhounds Head Coach in 2013, first player drafted by the Hounds in 1999 and Peters Township native–and to be enshrined in the club’s first-ever Hall of Fame Class in 2019: “Our ownership has really stepped up and brought in some good players, and we believe this is going to be a very positive season. The new guys are bringing a higher level of competition for spots, We’ve just got to find some chemistry and I am confident we will be able to do that.”

It was probably fitting that José Angulo scored the first goal for the Riverhounds, on his first touch, in the first game ever played at Highmark Stadium. Angulo entered in the 70th minute of the Hounds 2-1 loss to interstate Keystone Derby rivals, Harrisburg City Islanders — and he made an immediate impact.

In that moment, Angulo found himself in what would become a familiar place — on the receiving end of a brilliant Matt Dallman service.

With a perfectly timed and powerful header, the Colombian-American who grew up in New Jersey, and the soccer veteran from the Pacific Northwest who had played in Germany (and was responsible for recruiting Kerr to the Steel City) each gave Pittsburgh soccer fans something to cheer about that night, and for the next few seasons.

EVANS: “It almost didn’t happen. Jose was having trouble getting his shoes on, but he was able to get in the game.  Thank goodness because it was a fantastic goal.”

ANGULO:  “That first year was special, It was something new (Highmark Stadium).  There was definitely a buzz in Pittsburgh at that time. The stadium was packed for most every game, and the group of us players really embraced it.”

KERR (the only remaining player still on the roster from the Hounds 2013 team): “That year was, along with our 2015 season, some of the most fun I had playing here in Pittsburgh. “Jose, he has such a unique skill set than other forwards. And to be fair, Monday through Friday, sometimes I wasn’t sure if he was our best player.”

“But every Saturday, every game, he did show up.”

The opening result losing to the City Islanders, didn’t dampen the spirit of Evans, his players and the front office staff which stuck around signing autographs for fans well after the post-game fireworks extravaganza.

While the fireworks would not become a regular post-game tradition, the autograph signing sessions have provided an experience and what’s become a long-standing tradition for many young soccer fans to see their heroes after every game.

EVANS: “It was a terrific night for soccer in Pittsburgh.  A great night for our organization,” said Evans. “It’s just too bad we had to lose.” 

That opening night would lead the way to a new era of Pittsburgh Riverhounds soccer.

That first season followed with a USL Golden Boot and an MVP season for Angulo and Dallman became the all-time single season assist leader.

It’s been an era of many ups and downs at Highmark Stadium.

There was bankruptcy, ownership change, a Miracle took place on the Mon, a kick heard round the world — and much more.

A few years ago, when the Hounds celebrated its fifth season at Highmark, I put together a list of my favorite Riverhounds moments during this era.

Five Seasons On the Mon: Top Riverhounds Moments @HighmarkStadium

This list holds up pretty well, with one glaring omission:  last year’s playoff game.

Even though it was a loss, it still proved to be one of the seminal moments in the Highmark Stadium era as more than 5,000 fans packed the stands for the first-ever playoff game.

COMING BACK TO PITTSBURGH

The Hounds opponent on Saturday are the struggling expansion side Hartford Athletic FC, who’ve lost each of its first five matches.

They bring back two former Riverhounds: Angulo and Ray Lee

Coincidentally, these are two men who’ve contributed and bookmarked as key figures in the story lines from the first and last Hounds games played in Highmark Stadium.

As already noted, it was Jose Angulo who scored the first goal in Highmark Stadium history.

This won’t be the first time for Angulo to return to Pittsburgh, as he came back in April 2017, with Saint Louis FC, when he scored in the first half.  In the 30th minute, surrounded in the box by a bunch of Hounds defenders, Angulo, like he did so many times at Highmark Stadium in 2013 and 2014, found enough space to turn around and find an opening to beat goalkeeper Keasel Broome.

Just like old times.

“I have a saying, I think the goals at Highmark (Stadium) are always bigger,” chuckled a smiling Angulo after that match.
“I don’t know why, it seems that way though.”

Lee, on the other hand, experienced heartbreak at Highmark, by being the first, and only player to miss in a epic penalty kick shootout, in the Hounds USL Cup playoff loss to cross-state foe Bethlehem Steel.

It was a bitter, and unfair moment for a player that provided a solid campaign as the Hounds left back who played a key part of a very special season in 2018 as the Hounds entered the conversation as serious title contenders for the first time in the Highmark Stadium era.

“Someone was going to miss at some point. Unfortunately, it was us,” Hounds coach Bob Lilley said after the defeat. “It’s a tough game to lose when I felt we were the better team tonight and for much of the season, but that’s playoff soccer.”

And, in the harsh reality of professional sports, Lee was also not brought back to Pittsburgh, as the Hounds chose not to pick up his contract option.  Lee signed with Hartford in the off season.

There’s nothing tougher in soccer than having to go through an off season after missing a PK that ended a promising season.

That’s what Lee endured, but he’s found a new home, and he’s now part of building a new foundation for a new franchise.

Good for him.

Despite the club’s struggles, both Angulo and Lee have provided steady veteran presence for the expansion club. Lee has played and started in all five matches, providing steady work as a left back, leading the club with 450 minutes played.

“Some people may have their notions on them, but we respect them like we respect every team,” Hounds defender Tobi Adewole told Rachael McKriger this week. “This is a strong league and every team is a good team. We need to come in with the same intensity every game.”

Adewole will also be glad to see his former teammate and roommate.

“It’ll also be good to see Ray.”

Angulo, who’s no longer the young talent, but at age 31, a savvy veteran who is hopeful to keep climbing the ranks of USL all-time goal scorers, as he currently sits with 47 total goals.

In an injury shortened 2018 season in Oklahoma City, he didn’t score in just four appearances. This season, in five appearances, he’s still without a goal, but he’s second in shot attempts (8) and shots on frame.

Who knows, maybe Angulo will hit the back of the net one more time at Highmark Stadium?

FINALLY, A HOME GAME

Most every Riverhounds player we’ve heard from shared their own excitement for finally getting a chance to play again at Highmark this season.

Throw on top of that –after six seasons — the original turf was finally replaced. 

Our Mark Goodman will provide a lot more feedback from players and coaches this week in Riverhounds Notebook about the new field turf surface.

“It should be nice on the new turf,” Robbie Mertz, Upper St. Clair native and one of the newest signed Hounds, said to USLChampionship.com.

“It’s a good surface for passing and receiving the ball. The other thing is just knowing where we’re going to go with it and making sure we take survey of our surroundings and knowing where we’re going to go with the ball next.”

The Hounds have endured four consecutive matches on the road due to new turf being installed at Highmark Stadium. Adewole also acknowledged this week that winning the home opener against Hartford Athletic is a must to continue momentum after getting their first win of the season vs defending USL champs Louisville City last week.

“We want to come in and win the game, which we’ve been failing to do in our first three games,” Adewole said. “We want to have a strong performance, which is always a goal for us. As a team, we need to come out with these three points and make that part of our culture, make it every game for us.”

It may not seem like a long time since Highmark opened, but when you see it from Mertz’s perspective, it’s a bit startling to realize that he suddenly represents a new generation of players who grew up watching games at Highmark, who now can set foot on the (new) pitch to play for the Hounds.

“I’ve been to quite a few games growing up so just to be here on the team now, potentially with a chance to get on the field on Saturday, it would be amazing at the home opener,” said Mertz.

“I’m just really thankful and really blessed to be here.”

I couldn’t have said it any better.

Let the new home season at Highmark begin.

 

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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