USL is growing up. The shakier, underfinanced teams (like the Richmond Kickers) are starting to migrate down the American soccer pyramid to USL League One and below. The stronger teams (like Nashville SC) are making improvements in hopes of fulfilling the requirements needed to jump up to MLS. People like to joke that USL is a garage league, and that’s still true to an extent.
But don’t forget that Apple Computers started in a garage, eventually outgrew it, and went on to become Apple Computers.
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds are growing too. Their average regular-season attendance last year rose a whopping 55% – from 2,401 a game in 2018 to 3,729 per match in 2019. That is the largest growth of any team in USL. Two sold-out post-season playoff matches also added to both the improved atmosphere and increased revenue for owner Tuffy Shallenberger.
The Riverhounds are growing, but in order for that growth to become a trend and not an hiccup, some improvements at Highmark Stadium are going to need to be addressed in order to facilitate continued growth. Here are my suggestions for 2020 and beyond:
1) Upgrade the East Stand
It was a great leap forward for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in 2018 when, in advance of the team’s appearance in the USL playoffs, the club vastly increased the capacity of the Paul Child stands at the east end of the stadium. The previous stand, a pair of seven-row aluminum bleachers that seat about 275 apiece, was the kind you’d see at a high school football game. The Hounds replaced one of those two stands with a twenty-five-row stand that seats roughly 750 people – an improvement that brought the club into compliance with US Soccer Division 2 requirements that dictated that clubs needed to be able to accommodate 5,000 fans.
— Matt Gajtka (@MattGajtka) October 17, 2018
At the time, it was great. It opened up the east end and improved the ability for Steel Army to jump around and get rowdy, while also inviting more folks to come join the wild and crazy smoke-bomb-filled party behind the goal.
But when one takes a step back to view the east end of the stadium in its totality, it’s kind of mess. That large stand of benches is paired with the original seven-row stand that has plastic seats, which aesthetically looks strange. There’s entrances on the south end but also a weird sub-bleacher tunnel too. Spare goals and random concessions detritus are stashed next to and under the benches, and a pair of shipping containers holding stored who-knows-what are there to complete the look. It has a very ‘Blade Runner’ mixed with ‘tumble-down scrapyard in Westmoreland County’ feel too it. For a team trying to compete with the amenities of PPG Arena and Heinz Field, it is qualitatively a precipitous stepdown.
When Hounds owner Tuffy Shallenberger announced the new Coraopolis training facility and the purchase of some of the parking facilities around the stadium, he also mentioned that those facilities would ultimately allow the team to make some improvements to Highmark Stadium, including expanded club level luxury seating and larger and better locker rooms on the west end. But the East End is really in need of some love soon, for the good of the club’s image as an emerging high-level sports team in Western Pennsylvania.
The first step would be to get a pair of bleachers that match each other, which also has a better entryway and also contains space to store and conceal stadium equipment from public view.
A second important addition to the stands would include improvements that would help the Steel Army supporters group to experience the game. Like hard-core football supporters the world over, Steel Army members regularly stand for all 90 minutes of the match. Historically in other stadiums, that can lead to injuries when overly-exuberant fans teeter into one another. Dangerous crushes have also occurred. Starting in 2014, football clubs in the UK and the US began installing so-called ‘safe-standing areas’ – stands with a spot for each supporter to stand in with a supportive rail. Since the first US safe stand was added in 2015 at San Jose’s Avaya Stadium, seven clubs in Major League Soccer have added standing-only section. Transforming the Paul Child Stand to a safe stand would be a massive statement about the importance of nurturing and increasing soccer culture in Pittsburgh.
Another improvement that would serve the supporters section would be a proper capo stand. The capo serves as the leader of chants and songs, and in many stadiums, that capo has a stand that gives them some space and better visibility to pump up the crowd. It would be great if the Hounds could help Steel Army to bring the noise.
As Louisville City FC open their new ground this season, the spectacular Lynn Family Stadium, they will be raising the standards for every team in the league. With 11,700 seats, two-safe standing sections, and a first-class soccer-specific atmosphere, LouCity’s facility will be the aspiration of every team in the league. The Riverhounds don’t necessarily need to keep up with the Jones, or even attempt to outdo them, but they certainly can’t fall too far behind them either.
2) Upgrade the Concourse
There’s no doubt I could simply say ‘the Hounds should spend $65-100 millon to build a first class 10,000 seat stadium at Highmark.’ But that’s not likely to happen in the foreseeable future, so in the meantime, the team needs to make some improvements. In terms of urgency, behind making the East Stand look and feel better, there’s a need to improve the situation on the concourse underneath the main stand.
Anyone that attended the sellout matches last year learned that Highmark Stadium, which originally held 3,500 fans, is now seeing audiences of 5,400 and more. The concourse underneath the main grandstand is still the same width; the concession stands are still the same size, and the bathrooms are still the same despite a 54% increase in maximum attendance. That needs to be addressed.
There are obvious logistical challenges to this problem that will need to be overcome. To increase the width of the walkways or the size of concession stands will likely require building under the grandstand, which might ultimately require rebuilding an entire main grandstand from scratch – not an easy or cheap option, but one that is becoming increasingly necessary. As Highmark becomes busier, the only options to improve the stadium will ultimately be to either use the existing space better, or to enlarge the space.
For Highmark Stadium to expand its footprint in order to have more space for the concourse and concessions, the stadium could also expand onto Station Square Drive – requiring the city to sell off a roadway that is the easiest path to take to go from the Fort Pitt Bridge to the shops and hotels at Station Square. Station Square would still be easily accessible from the Smithfield Bridge, but there might still be stiff resistance to removing a useful roadway to get to a riverboat cruise or the Hard Rock Cafe. It’s not a simple problem to solve.
In the realm of football club headaches, everything listed in this section is more blessing than curse. ‘There’s too many people coming to Highmark – where will they all pee?’ is the kind of problem that fans who witnessed this team playing before an near-empty stand at a local high school would have killed for. But in order to continue the upward trajectory of this team into the top echelon of USL clubs, both in attendance and profitability, there will need to be more space to roam, more things to buy, and more restrooms to use on gameday.
3) Create a Proper Location for Postgame Conferences
The first time I ever covered a postgame conference at Highmark and discovered that it would take place on the field with a black backdrop parked on the pitch, I thought ‘Well that’s quaint.’ But the 30th time you do it, it loses some luster.
Trying to hold your microphone in the rain; losing feeling in your fingers outside in the cold; having kids run up to the guy you are interviewing mid-sentence; having the backdrop blow over in a stiff wind; trying to shout your questions over the din of the stadium music bumping ‘Welcome to the Jungle’; eventually, all of it gets a little old. Having done postgame at the Colorado Rapids and LAFC and Seattle Sounders facilities, as well as Pitt Men’s and Women’s Soccer, I can say that the situation the Hounds have created is less than ideal. It’s not a big deal, and I fully recognize that I’m a total snob for making a request for a Highmark Stadium amenity that only affects maybe a dozen people. But if the USL wants to emerge from having a reputation as a garage league, then outdoor post-match conferences in a city that averages 140 days of precipitation a year should probably go the way of the dodo.
I have no idea where this should take place. Perhaps there’s a spot in the main building to do this, but probably not. Maybe there’s a space to add a small, simple 20 x 20 foot concrete room for conferences at the east or west end of the pitch, that might also be a concession location or a luxury suite on busier days.
All I’m saying is – my notebooks keep getting wet, guys.
4) Update the music
Every recommendation I’ve made up till now would cost the Riverhounds tens of thousands, if not millions, of dollars, and would likely take place for the start of the 2021 season, at the earliest. In contrast, this upcoming suggestion won’t cost the Hounds a dime.
The music has got to get better.
The music a team plays is a signal of a lot of things – the team’s aesthetic; the vibe of the club; the tastes of the fans; or the overall sensibilities of soccer as a whole. Soccer fans in the US are overwhelming cosmopolitan and worldly; they have a strong Latinx fanbase; and the sport trends towards young people with interests in the popular music of the day.
By contrast, the music I hear at Riverhounds games is a mix of mid-90s and 2000s dad rock, antiquated bubble gum pop, and even some country.
I’ve heard a fair amount of hair metal at Highmark, but never any punk, although most Steel Army fans are far more amenable to the Misfits and Operation Ivy than they are to Guns N Roses and Def Leppard. I’ve barely heard any hip-hop at a Hounds match, and I’ve never heard any rap music at all, despite the fact that the city’s two most favorite sons of recent years are Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa. How is it that in two years at Highmark, I’ve never heard ‘Black and Yellow’? How is ‘We Dem Boyz’ not the official team song? Did they overplay these songs in the ‘Burgh the years before I arrived?
As it stands, the two notable songs the team plays are the White Stripes ‘Seven Nation Army‘ as the players march onto the field, and The Fratellis ‘Chelsea Dagger‘ when the Hounds score a goal. Although vastly overused in world soccer, I have a soft spot for Seven Nation Army, and the song also contains the line ‘Everyone knows about it / From the Queen of England to the hounds of hell.’ So I get why it’s played. But ‘Chelsea Dagger’ is:
- a bad song
- 10 years-old
- not about soccer
- a bad song
- about seducing a dancing girl named Chelsea
- not going to fire you up, at all
- such a bad song*
All the music needs an update, in order to both attract new fans and to interest the existing ones. Urban music, modern music, Latin music, electronic music, music from Pittsburgh, and music that reflects the tastes of the players would all be upgrades over what we’ve currently got. I’d love for a soccer team to steal the idea from baseball idea of ‘walkup music’**, and instead make it ‘custom goalscoring music.’ Imagine a soccer team that gave each player their own custom-selected ‘goal song’ – so that every player would get their tune blasted on the loudspeaker when they put one in the back of the net.*** I guarantee you – every player on the team would pick something better than ‘Chelsea Dagger’.
So there you have it – my suggestions for improving the Highmark experience this year. For the purist, the soccer is the key, and they’ll stand at the side of a muddy pitch in a pouring deluge if it means their team can win. For the rest of us, we want to win, AND we want there to be some fringe amenities to make things a touch more enjoyable. If not this year, then hopefully soon.
— — — — — — — — — — — —
* It is entirely possible that this song has become a sacred cow amongst the faithful. It could be that this is now considered ‘THE’ Riverhounds song, and that some noob reporter from Colorado lacks the proper Yinzer-i-ness to legitimately comment on the holy and sainted traditions of the Riverhounds and their fans. To all that, I would simply counter that traditions are what you make of them, that no song just 10 years old could truly be a tradition, and most importantly, that this song is really, really bad.
** Baseball’s best walkup music is certainly Charlie Blackmon’s ‘Your Love’, if only because the PA cuts out right as the band screams ‘I don’t wanna lose your love…’ and 40,000 people scream ‘TONAAAAIIIIGHT!‘
*** In case you were wondering, I would pick the Misfit’s ‘Die Die My Darling‘ as my goal song.