Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC play-by-play broadcaster Matt Gajtka brings his perspective on the team throughout the season in his ‘View From The Booth’ column.
If you’re a soccer fan, you’re used to the snide remarks, even if they seem to be lessening these days. On top of that, if you’re a supporter of Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, you’ve probably felt the need to proselytize for the club, too.
But I’m here to tell you — even in the aftermath of a revised USL Championship rule biting the Hounds in the backside — that the team’s status in North America’s second-tier pro soccer league isn’t something to be lamented or something to apologize for.
I know it’s tricky. If you were raised a Pittsburgh sports fan, you’re implicitly taught that the so-called ‘major leagues’ are where it’s at. Actually, the fact that we have teams in the MLB, NHL and NFL to cheer for is taken as a birthright around these parts.
When I left home to attend Marshall University four hours away in Huntington, W.Va., I realized how much I took that fact for granted. Turns out not everyone lives within a reasonable drive of a big-league sports experience. Working in minor-league baseball and junior-level hockey hammered that fact home even further.
It’s that life experience that pushes me to see the opportunity in being a part of the Hounds as they currently exist. This is a team a fan — or a broadcaster — can wrap his or her arms around.
Sometimes even literally.
There’s symbolism to be found in the way the Hounds allow youngsters onto the field after home games to meet and greet the players. For practical reasons, that can’t happen at PNC Park, Heinz Field or PPG Paints Arena.
I was reminded last week of how different the Highmark Stadium experience is from our town’s larger sports venues. Not only can supporters wander onto the turf after matches to chat up players and support staff, the team makes it a point following the final whistle to dap up the Steel Army.
Call me easy to please, or a shill if you must, but that’s just cool.
Beyond that, though, I use the historical prism of pro hockey in this area when I think about the Hounds. While the Pirates hockey club had a brief NHL stint in the late 1920s, for the better part of a half century Pittsburgh’s pro pucks were shot at the American Hockey League level, basically the equivalent to the USL Championship in the modern soccer landscape.
It’s been more than 50 years since the AHL’s Hornets skated their last game at the old Civic Arena, but they laid the groundwork for what’s blossomed into a vibrant regional hockey scene. (Much like the local soccer team, the Hornets also had to endure a hiatus while they looked for a suitable home.)
That’s where we’re at right now with the Hounds, who are in the midst of their 20th anniversary season. You could choose to focus on the sheer amount of work ahead to further establish a soccer foothold in Western Pennsylvania — from the pro club on down to the youth level — or you could be boosted and inspired by the chance to take a little bit of ownership in building something fresh.
In reality, both aspects go hand in hand. As Jason Kutney once told me, ‘The club is what you make it.’
That’s doubly true for a team like the Hounds. In supporting teams as established as the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates, that opportunity simply isn’t there to the same degree. Because of where the Hounds are in their history, any of us can play an important role in their growth.
For me, that’s a feature, not a bug.