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View From The Booth: Hot Hounds filling Highmark

For all the recent good Hounds news, growing attendance might be the most promising.

The Steel Army section has been fuller than usual this season. - PITTSBURGH SOCCER NOW

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC play-by-play broadcaster Matt Gajtka brings his perspective on the sport in his ‘View From The Booth’ commentary. Listen to the audio version.

Riverhounds SC is back on track in Year 2 of its reboot, surging up the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference standings courtesy of a 6-1-1 midsummer surge.

And as shown in the recent announcement regarding the team’s partnership with Allegheny Health Network in building a sprawling training complex, the Hounds’ connection to the greater Pittsburgh community is expected to grow significantly in the next few years.

But there might be no larger story regarding the club than this: No team in the league has had a larger year-over-year increase in home attendance than the Hounds’ 28 percent.

This figure comes courtesy of compiler Mike Pendelton, who reports that Highmark Stadium has welcomed an average of 3,198 fans through 10 league home dates. That’s up from last year’s figure of 2,492, which marked a low point since the Hounds hit the South Side six years ago.

“It’s definitely been something to see,” said third-year Hounds defender Tobi Adewole. “I’ve enjoyed watching the growth of the club. Looking forward to seeing it increase even more as we climb up the table.”

Heading into back-to-back home matches to start August, the Hounds (8-3-8, 32 points) are still a shade below the 3,273 they drew on average in Highmark’s honeymoon season of 2013.

Make no mistake, though. This positive development should be treasured from the players on the field all the way up to owner Tuffy Shallenberger, who told the MonGoals podcast last week that he attributes the attendance gain to multiple factors.

“It starts off with bringing (head coach) Bob Lilley in here,” Shallenberger said. “Everyone knows that. Bringing respect. I think it’s just a more professional atmosphere, and getting our brand out there.

“I think people are starting to respect us as a professional organization, and not just on the team side. We’re really trying. We make mistakes every day but you gotta fix them and move on. It all goes back to that word: Respect.”

For his part, Lilley turns most of the credit right back to Shallenberger, for setting an assertive tone for a team that for much of its 20 years has been focused on surviving as much as thriving.

The Hounds are well on their way to earning a second consecutive USL Cup playoff berth, but there’s more to raising the team’s profile than on-field results.

“A lot of this is due to Tuffy’s sheer will,” Lilley told me last week. “He’s created an environment. He wants to win. He wants to be successful. He wants to develop not just the team, but the business side and youth soccer.

“He has a huge appetite and you want to help him get to where he wants to go. I like to win, and obviously I came in to try to do that.”

The average home crowd growing by about a third is at least partly attributable to the Hounds’ rebound from two seasons in the USL wilderness. Since Lilley took over two winters ago, Pittsburgh is 23-8 — plus 22 draws — in league play. That kind of record in matches that produce a winner will turn heads.

There’s plenty of work to be done, but another top-four finish in the East is within reasonable reach. Lilley said the organization’s goal is to be at or near the top year in and year out — just the kind of high expectation that sports fans are drawn toward naturally.

“We’re seen as an ambitious club,” Lilley said, “and I think fans and the community relate to that, especially when we are out there in the community and we are giving back. And we are.

“We haven’t been afraid to take responsibility, that we want to be a top team. We’re not just trying to squeak into the playoffs. That’s a challenge. That’s demanding on the players, first and foremost.”

For a player like Adewole, who caught on with the Hounds when they were down, the current state of affairs easily beats the alternative.

“The difference is magnificent, honestly,” said the 23-year-old Maryland native. “It’s fascinating to see how far we’ve come since I’ve been here. The crowds have increased exponentially over time, and I feel like they’re just gonna keep increasing and increasing, for Pittsburgh to be an even bigger club.”

To keep the figurative turnstiles whirring, Shallenberger said he hopes to expand the team’s TV package to include more home games; as of now, road matches are broadcast locally on Pittsburgh’s CW, in addition to the annual Fourth of July party at Highmark.

The owner’s reasoning? Prospective fans will get a sense of the atmosphere for a home match via their living room flatscreens. Shallenberger is also counting on an added push from the Riverhounds Development Academy’s expanding footprint and the rising tide of soccer culture nationwide.

The whole effort is as much art as science, but there’s little doubt that the wind is in the Hounds’ sails from a brand-awareness standpoint. Whether that translates to a further attendance boost is yet to be determined, although Shallenberger remains optimistic.

“We’re getting that respect and everything is falling in line,” Shallenberger told MonGoals. “It’s all positive. It’s getting better and better. I just can’t thank everyone enough for the support. I think the numbers are going to continue to rise.

“Hey, soccer’s cool now. It’s a cool sport and everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon.”

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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