My book, Miracle on the Mon, released in May, centers around a remarkable match played between the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Harrisburg City Islanders in May 2015 when the Hounds made a stirring comeback for the ages. However, the book also chronicles the back story of the Riverhounds’ franchise and the 2015 season which featured a remarkable series of matches between the two in-state rivals battling for relevance and for an upper hand in the second division of soccer in the United States.
I am proud to share this exclusive excerpt from the book, from the Chapter titled ‘Non-Stop Thrill Ride’ which chronicles what happened on the last day of the 2015 USL regular season when so much was at stake for both clubs. In addition, in this post I’ve included videos and photo gallery from that day. The matches that took place preceding this season deciding fourth and final showdown were so exciting and memorable, that when I initially revisited this match, notable players from both clubs interviewed for the book had trouble remembering all of the details. I
The deciding clash of the 2015 Keystone Derby Cup took place five years to the date of this post (September 19, 2015). As the landscape of pro soccer and the USL Championship has changed drastically in the past half decade, this series of matches between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg brought out the best in both sides.
In addition — as a bonus to sharing this excerpt from my book we have a special treat for Pittsburgh soccer fans. I recorded a Zoom Meeting interview session with two key Riverhounds players from that season who grace the cover of the book: Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr. The duo share their thoughts on the book and the remarkable four-game Keystone Derby Cup series.
Look for the video to post on Sunday.
From Miracle on the Mon,
Excerpt from Chapter ‘A Non-Stop Thrill Ride’
(1st Edition pages 123 – 128)
Order your copy today by clicking here
Pittsburgh Riverhounds vs Harrisburg City Islanders:
Keystone Derby Cup – Leg 4 of 4
USL Regular Season Finale
Harrisburg, PA (September 19, 2015)
Of course, the season would come down to the final weekend in Harrisburg, as not only was it the Keystone Derby Cup’s deciding contest, but the winner would clinch one of the two remaining USL Eastern Conference playoff spots, and the loser would have its season end.
This match-up also provided a bit of déjà vu for the coaches. Bill Becher’s City Islanders slid into the playoffs one year prior, by beating Mark Steffens’ Charlotte Eagles. The City Islanders ended the Eagles’ 2014 season in what turned out to be the final USL Pro match for the franchise, and Steffens’ Hall of Fame run in the Queen City.
Also, at stake, arguably, was the legacy of the ‘Miracle on the Mon.”
“We lose or even draw in that last game in Harrisburg, and everything that we did to that point in the season would be lost,” Kerr explained. “Even the 6-5 comeback would be for naught.”
Knowing what was at stake, Tuffy Shallenberger pulled all his resources to give his club an edge. The Hounds owner decided to charter a bus for the loyal Riverhounds supporters.
In just a few days, the Steel Army assembled a contingent of approximately 45 people for the trip, plus there were also additional Pittsburgh soccer fans who took the three-hour drive on the PA Turnpike to root on the Hounds.
After spending a few hours at a local watering hole in Downtown Harrisburg, the Army members marched their way across the Walnut Street Bridge, and onto City Island banging their drums, and singing their songs.
Loud. Proud. And from Pittsburgh, decked out in gold, the Steel Army would give the Hounds a much-needed boost.
Other than being on the banks of a river (the wider and shallower Susquehanna), the Skyline Soccer Complex’s field was a stark contrast to the modern set-up of Highmark Stadium.
“It was a huge home field advantage,” Neil Shaffer, Harrisburg’s captain boasted. “It was unique environment. There was nothing pretty about it. It was a throwback to the early days of the USL. It was a tight-knit community that came out, rallied behind us and came to games at City Island.”
The field was surrounded City Island’s park setting and mini-train tracks which circled around the island. There was a grassy slope surrounding much of the field and bleachers set up on the west sideline. The pitch also was situated next to the more modern FNB Field. The playing surface featured a thick and uneven grass surface that most opponents dreaded playing on.
“The grass was thick, the field was often muddy. It became part of our identity. It was like no other,” Harrisburg’s captain, former Riverhound and Pittsburgh-area native Shaffer added. “And we ate it up.”
The press box essentially was made up of an old trailer situated on top of the slopes overlooking the field, with very small windows that made the Highmark Stadium press box look like the Taj Mahal.
It was my second time to cover a match at City Island, and this time I chose to sit alongside Riverhounds media staffer Ian Tompson on the decaying concrete steps outside the press box just overlooking the midfield line.
Both teams were eager to dictate terms at the outset, as it was a fast-paced match. Both Kerr and Vini Dantas unleashed quality shot attempts turned back by Harrisburg’s keeper, Nick Noble, who was hearing it from the Steel Army contingent to his left.
“They were lege,” Kevin Kerr praised the Steel Army afterwards.
“No other clubs brought fans with them. None were traveling like that,” Noble said. “I can’t tune them out. I’m going to hear them. So, I tell myself. Just go along with it. It loosens you up. Relax a bit. Enjoy the environment.”
Hounds keeper Calle Brown came up big too, to deny former All-Ivy Leaguer and Princeton Tiger Antoine Hoppenot’s chance in the early going.
In the 34th minute, the Hounds unleashed its firepower, stunning the City Islanders in matter of two minutes.
After a few shots were deflected around the box, Lebo Moloto came through again, with his second goal in four days, this time lining up a one-time shot that sailed past Noble to give the Hounds the 1-0 lead.
Seconds later the Hounds countered quickly after a City Islanders giveaway. Dantas found Kerr in space on the right side. Kerr delivered a blast just inside the near post to beat Noble, and just like that, Pittsburgh was leading 2-0.
“We thought, you know what, we are away, and we have to make a statement. We came into this game with the confidence that we can get one in the first half. I didn’t expect two, but we’ll take it,” said Mark Steffens, Riverhounds Head Coach. “It was 2-0 at the half, we knew that they would be desperate, and started coming at us. When that started happening, we started dropping guys back.”
Harrisburg brought a barrage of crosses — and shots at Hounds goalkeeper Calle Brown for much of the second half.
The City Islanders’ persistence paid off eventually in the 74th minute, as they cut the lead in half when Hoppenot redirected a low cross past Brown.
“I just remember that were banging on the door that entire second half,” Shaffer said.
Suddenly, the Riverhounds were on their heels, trying to avoid another City Islanders comeback.
“That was in the back of our minds. That’s when I thought, man, the last 10-15 minutes were going to be the longest of the season,” said Kerr.
Steffens and his staff were prepared.
They began numerous substitutions — bringing on Mike Green, Drew Russell, Miro Cabrilo and Fejiro Okiomah to help hold off the Harrisburg pressure.
As the game reached stoppage time, with the Hounds clinging to a one-goal lead, Harrisburg’s Garritt Pettis tried to catch Pittsburgh off guard after a foul called near the box. Instead of lining up a free kick, he played a quick restart, took a run to the left side of goal, and sent a shot past Brown that just missed the inside of the right post.
Seconds later, City Islanders defender Ken Tribbett unleashed a shot from the right side that again sailed past Brown but missed the goal by inches to the left.
Hounds Team President Richard Nightingale, who made the trip, sat on the edge of his seat in the Skyline Soccer Complex.
“We were holding on and holding on. Harrisburg just missed far post near the end there,” Nightingale recalled.
“Talk about a roller coaster.”
As the final whistle blew — the Riverhounds players rejoiced and celebrated with the fans who made the trip from Pittsburgh, many of them part of the Steel Army that came by a chartered bus.
“Fantastic. To have our fans here, it really gave our guys that little extra energy,” said Steffens.
It was really great to see how the fans traveled to Harrisburg,” Nightingale said. “Over those four games. It was — you couldn’t ask for better series. You couldn’t script it any better. To have two rivals playing like that in decisive game. It was another one of those great nights that season.”
The Riverhounds were presented with the Keystone Derby Cup, which Nightingale brought onto the field at the conclusion of the game to present to Earls, Arena and Steel Army President Maria Petrillo.
The players then brought the Cup to the stands to give to the Steel Army supporters who brought the trophy back to Pittsburgh.
With the win, the Riverhounds completed the season unbeaten in their last six games (2-0-4), conceding just five goals in those games. They took the Keystone Derby by winning three of four memorable contests.
“Watching them lift the trophy on our field, that was tough,” Shaffer recalled. “You never want that to happen.”
It was a bitter pill for Harrisburg to finish the season just short of the playoffs and watching its rivals lift the Derby Cup.
“We just couldn’t score. We had chance after chance. Numerous crosses, but couldn’t convert,” Noble added. “I remember that final whistle, and that was it, our season was over.”
While his players were celebrating on the field, Steffens took it all in by the team bench, in the background, by himself.
That’s when I caught up with the relieved coach.
“I was so pleased with our defensive performance. We’ve gone from being one of the worst teams in the league defending — to in the final third of the season being one of the best,” added Steffens.
In the first-ever Keystone Derby Cup between the intrastate rivals filled with high-scoring games with an astonishing total of 28 goals and a remarkable comeback win for each team, it was the Hounds defense which stood tallest in the finale.
“It was really hard to know what to expect. We won 6-5 at our place, 5-2 in the first game. They had us 4-3 here. But, at this point in season. The way we’ve been playing, I thought it would be a little low scoring.” said Steffens.
Steffens, who won two USL titles and coached in seven Championship games, felt in that moment that his Riverhounds team was playing well enough to make a strong playoff run, much like Harrisburg had done the previous season.
“A lot of teams don’t like to play that last team to get in, because you have everything to gain, and nothing to lose,” said Steffens.
“We’ll be an underdog. And that’s fine. We’ve played well against New York this year, so I like our chances.”
Since losing on the road to Charlotte, on August 22, the Hounds quietly put together a six-game unbeaten string to finish the regular season and enter the USL playoffs as the fifth seeded team (out of six) in the Eastern Conference.
Hounds would have to travel to Red Bull Arena, in Harrison, New Jersey, to take on the fourth seed, and another high-scoring side, NY Red Bulls II.
To read more from the book, order your copy today by clicking here
PHOTO GALLERY – 2015 KEYSTONE DERBY CUP FINALE
(photos courtesy John Krysinsky & Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC)
ADDED BONUS — WE’LL BE SHARING A SPECIAL ZOOM INTERVIEW SESSION WITH KEVIN KERR & ROB VINCENT WHO TALK ABOUT THAT MEMORABLE DAY, THE KEYSTONE DERBY CUP AND MORE ON SUNDAY!
To read more from the book, order your copy today by clicking here
And they even let this member of the media pose with the ‘cup’ at a Turnpike rest stop on the way back…