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Decade in review: An ambitious era for professional soccer in Pittsburgh

Highmark Stadium, home of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, opened in 2013. (Ed Thompson file photo from 2018)

Decade in review: An ambitious era for professional soccer in Pittsburgh

Ten years ago, in 2010, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds were still nomads, playing at Chartiers Valley High School, barely surviving in the third division of United States soccer pyramid in a revamped league that took on a new name, USL Pro.

The Steel Army were just coming together, trying to build a loyal, local following of soccer fans who would embrace soccer fan culture in the United States. The team was drawing less than a thousand fans per game.

As the 2010’s began, it would be safe to say Western Pennsylvania wasn’t exactly a soccer hotbed — and while its longest running professional soccer club continued to survive, things weren’t looking promising.


As we close the decade, we can see how drastically things have changed among Pittsburgh soccer’s landscape.

I will be looking forward to sharing more in additional posts, including the ten moments that defined the decade of the 2010s in Pittsburgh soccer, and looking at the past decade in college, high schools and youth soccer in separate posts, but first, here’s a look back at professional soccer’s most ambitious decade in the Steel City.

The Highmark Stadium era begins 

When looking back at the 2010’s — it would be hard to start and end without the addition of Highmark Stadium, and its primary tenants, the Riverhounds SC, who celebrated its 20th season in 2019.

When Highmark Stadium opened in 2013, located right on the banks of the Monongahela River, at Station Square with Downtown Pittsburgh in the backdrop, it provided a new sense of excitement for Pittsburgh soccer on many levels, but especially for its main tenants, and its biggest fans — the new Steel Army supporters group.

Since being founded in 1999, the Hounds organization continued to press forward in the hopes of having a permanent home.

That became a reality on January 10, 2012, when it was formally announced that Highmark Stadium would be built as a soccer-specific stadium on the land where the former IC Light Amphitheater once resided at Station Square.

“The team hasn’t been part of what a team in the City of Champions should be,” said Ben Cole, then president of the Steel Army, the team’s supporters group, said in a New York Times article. “We have fought with the fact that when the team doesn’t perform well, attendance does dip.”

The season before playing at Highmark Stadium, the Riverhounds drew 984 fans per game.

“It’s second to none,” Richie Costanzo, a 2004 graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School, said as he prepared to play for his hometown team at Highmark Stadium on its opening night in 2013.

“And I’m glad it’s here in Pittsburgh. I wish this was here when I was a kid coming up.”

Highmark Stadium became a facility that caught attention from around the U.S. Soccer community, and even around the soccer world.

NY Times: A New Stadium in Pittsburgh

“It’s a battle to become relevant,” the Riverhounds’ chief executive and still a player at the time, Jason Kutney, said. A New Jersey All-State midfielder from Freehold, Kutney first came to Pittsburgh when he was recruited to play for Duquesne University in 2000. “This couldn’t happen 10 years ago. The fact that it’s happening now is a testament to people openly embracing the game of soccer.”

Pittsburgh Riverhounds Soccer Club’s roller coaster ride through 2010s

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds enjoyed a renaissance in that first season in Highmark Stadium, seeing increased attendance numbers and even after a very slow start, putting a playoff-qualifying club on the field.

They even hosted an international friendly against the reigning FA Cup (England) Champion Wigan Athletic FC, and fielded a club with a league MVP and Golden Boot winner (Jose Angulo), assists champion (Matt Dallman) along with some promising talent (Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr among others).

However, at the start of the 2014 season, things took a disastrous turn.

With major overruns in costs coming from the building of Highmark Stadium, the club had no choice but to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and look to reorganize its structure with a new majority owner, Tuffy Shallenberger.

Shallenberger, an owner of a construction business based out of Fayette County, successfully proposed a reorganization plan before Federal Bankruptcy court, and the Riverhounds house would begin the process of getting itself in order.

The Riverhounds persevered through the decade, would enjoy memorable moments and some embarrassing low times too — but showed that professional soccer during a period of growth across the States, does have a viable place in Pittsburgh’s sports landscape.

Here’s a look something published on Pittsburgh Soccer Report in 2017, chronicling the five most memorable moments for the Riverhounds in the first five seasons at Highmark Stadium.

Five seasons on the Mon: Top Riverhounds Moments at Highmark Stadium

For those of us who experienced those early years in the Highmark Stadium era, they were certainly fun, and memorable. In fact, they have inspired this scribe chronicling this in more detail in upcoming project (more details to come in the New Year!).

However, with attendance plateauing around 2,400 fans per game from 2014 through 2017, and the club only qualifying for the playoffs in 2013, and during a brief resurgent season in 2015, something was still missing.

As the decade came to a close, under Shallenberger’s ownership, the Riverhounds remained determined to field a winner at the highest possible level. The Hounds invested in the resources to meet United States Soccer’s standards to remain in the second division, which would formally become USL Championship in 2018.

The Hounds survived bankruptcy, erased doubts of potential voluntary relegation to the third division — and finally began to tap into its potential as a top-flight second division club on the U.S. soccer landscape with the hiring of Bob Lilley in late 2017.

Doing it his way, Lilley sets course to build a winner in Pittsburgh

Lilley saw the potential for Pittsburgh, and what had already been built, and quickly built a winning product.

“This club is generally poised to jump to the next level,” Lilley said in his introductory press conference. “I think hopefully – getting a little more on the winning side will help propel that a little more.  Because I think it’s a great market, it’s a great city. I’ve been all over, but I am excited about this project because I want to experience this city because it’s such a great sports city.”

Since hiring the USL Hall of Famer, and two-time USL Cup champion, Lilley as its head coach, the Hounds finished third overall in the USL Championship in 2018, then had a top-of-the-table in 2019.

View From The Booth: Playoffs to come, but let’s toast the champs

After attendance plateaued after the 2013 season pretty much through the rest of the decade, the Hounds started to see incremental increases in attendance toward the end of 2018, and into 2019 as Highmark Stadium expanded from 3,500 seating capacity, to 5,000, plus standing room.

Indeed, a winner did also provide a boost in attendance. The Riverhounds’ attendance jumped from 2,401 to 3,729 in 2019.

View From The Booth: Hot Hounds filling Highmark

In the past two years, the Riverhounds have celebrated a milestone season (20th Anniversary) and underwent a re-branding.

Riverhounds unveil 20th anniversary, announce Hall of Fame

Hounds pay homage to Pittsburgh's traditions, history and more on new crest

So, at this point, you could probably blow up the 2017 article and recreate a new list of the most memorable moments for the Hounds in the Highmark era. (I’ll take a crack at that in the 10 Moments that shaped Pittsburgh Soccer in the 2010s) Three home playoff matches have been played at Highmark Stadium before more than 15,000 fans, with more than 6,000 fans packing Highmark final professional game of the 2010s, a 2-1 heartbreaking 2OT playoff loss to Louisville.

In addition to its success on the field, the club announced a new venture to take soccer in Pittsburgh to an entirely other level into the 2020s. This facility planned at Montour Junction, will rival and might even be nicer than what some Major League Soccer franchises have built.

Hounds partner with Highmark to construct new training and health facility

An ambitious decade has led to a promising future for Pittsburgh’s professional soccer franchise.

A decade ago the Riverhounds’ future appeared to be fairly uncertain and bleak, and as they enter the 2020s, a stronger foundation has been established.

PSN’s Riverhounds SC Player of the Decade: Kevin Kerr

Kevin Kerr: Hounds’ venerable soccer warrior at home in Pittsburgh

Much has been written about the Riverhounds SC here on Pittsburgh Soccer Now, and previously on Pittsburgh Soccer Report — and the one constant through the Highmark Stadium era has been Kevin Kerr, a Scotsman, who grew up mostly in Germany, and after trying to find his way early in his professional career, really found a home in Pittsburgh.

Kevin Kerr has made 178 appearances in seven seasons in Pittsburgh, scoring 29 goals and adding another 26 assists to now be tops in the club’s 20 year history.

PSN’s Riverhounds SC Coach of the Decade:  Bob Lilley

Bob Lilley has an overall record of 34-9-25 since becoming the Hounds coach. Here his is, in his natural state: yelling. Credit: Riverhounds via twitter

Bob the Builder

Bob Lilley’s only been with the Riverhounds for two seasons, but in those two seasons he’s transformed the franchise.

The Hounds reached the top of table in the USL Championship in 2019, even after a poor start (2-2-7).

The detailed-oriented and supremely focused veteran coach has used his soccer know-how, unique approaches and leadership to an organization that desperately needed to taste a winning culture. Lilley’s now set a high standard for excellence, and Pittsburgh soccer fans will expect nothing less than being at the top of the standings — and competing for USL Cup crown each year.

Lilley and his boss, Tuffy Shallenberger wouldn’t want it any other way.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds (2010-2019) 

Yr            Div                                                    Record                Finish                  Postseason                                    Attendance
2010
3
USL Second Division
7–8–5
3rd Semifinals 2nd Round
941
2011
3
USL Pro
7–11–6
10th Quarterfinals 2nd Round
1,125
2012
3
USL Pro
4–15–5
10th Did not qualify 2nd Round
984
2013
3
USL Pro
10–8–8
7th Quarterfinals 2nd Round
3,273
2014
3
USL Pro
9–14–5
11th Did not qualify 4th Round
2,686
2015 USL
11–9–8
5th, Eastern Conference 1st Round 4th Round
2,630
2016
3
USL
6–17–7
13th, Eastern Did not qualify 2nd Round
2,494
2017
2
USL
8–12–12
13th, Eastern Did not qualify 2nd Round
2,639
2018
2
USL
15–5–14
3rd, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals 3rd Round
2,401
2019
2
USL Championship
19-4-11
1st, Eastern Conference Semifinals 4th Round
3,729

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. 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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