My book, Miracle on the Mon, released last 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 “Keystone Derby Cup” about the rivalry between Pennsylvania’s two USL franchises that faced each other with regularity from 2004 through 2018. In 2015, the clubs formally create the Keystone Derby Cup series, when the games reached an all-new level of intensity.
From Miracle on the Mon,
Excerpt from Chapter ‘Keystone Derby Cup’
In the very early years of the Riverhounds franchise, their primary in-state rivals were the Hershey Wildcats, who had an impressive run in the A-League. Under the direction of Bob Lilley, the Wildcats were among the top clubs in the league, making it as far as the league’s Championship match in 2000.
However, that franchise was having trouble turning a profit, and had to fold by the end of the 2001 season. The void for professional soccer in Central Pennsylvania was filled In September 2003, when the City Islanders franchise was born. As the team prepared for its inaugural season in 2004, Bill Becher was named the first head coach of the club.
“I actually helped a little bit with the start of the City Islanders franchise,” said Lilley, who attended nearby Carlisle High School.
“They were going in third division. Before I went to Vancouver to coach the Whitecaps (in the A-League). I helped with tryouts. Billy (Becher) for me was always a solid, consistent player, indoor and outdoor. We’re similar in age. Played together. Easy going guy. Always seemed to get the best out of his players.”
The City Islanders home would be on Harrisburg’s City Island, surrounded by the waters of the Susquehanna River, at Skyline Soccer Complex. The soccer field sat adjacent to the much more modern and sparkling FNB Field, the Harrisburg Senators, a minor league baseball stadium.
The City Islanders would initially compete with the Riverhounds in the USL’s second division in 2004, finishing second in the Atlantic Division and fifth overall in their inaugural season as they qualified for the playoffs.
In the Atlantic Division Final that year, the City Islanders faced the Riverhounds, who were having a record-breaking campaign. The Hounds were too much for the City Islanders, winning an aggregate two-game, home-and-home playoff series by a combined 7-1 score line.
While the Riverhounds held the upper hand in the first year of the rivalry, shortly after, under Becher’s guidance, the City Islanders would ascend to become one of the stronger clubs in the USL’s Second Division, while the Hounds franchise started to teeter downward in the standings into the late 2000’s and early 2010’s.
During the one year the Riverhounds went on hiatus, in 2007, the City Islanders would become the USL Second Division champions, shocking the top-seeded Richmond Kickers in the finals in a match decided by a penalty kick shootout score of 8-7.
Even after the Hounds returned to action in 2008, Harrisburg continued to have the upper hand in the series, finishing higher in the standings in five of the next seven seasons.
“They (Harrisburg) didn’t have a large budget. Bill could always find players,” Lilley added. “He gave them freedom to express themselves. Always had attacking players that could cause problems.”
In fact, Becher guided the City Islanders to the USL Pro championship final twice, in 2011 and again in 2014.
Former West Virginia University standout goalkeeper Nick Noble played in Europe, then with the LA Galaxy for a few years. Then he arrived in Harrisburg in 2011.
His first impression?
“The facilities were terrible, but there was a following. People came out to watch, and supported us,” Noble said. “It was an intimate place and we knew we had home field advantage. Considering we had limited resources, we did pretty well.”
The City Islanders made a number of impressive runs in the Open Cup competition. They took on the nickname ‘Giant Killers,’ defeating Major League Soccer teams in the tournament a total of five times from 2007-2012.
In 2012, with Noble in goal, the City Islanders played one of the wildest Open Cup matches in the history of U.S. soccer on City Island against the New England Revolution.
After the 90 minutes of regulation play, the match remained scoreless.
In the first 15 minute extra time period, the MLS squad overpowered Noble and the City Islanders to storm ahead, parlaying finishes from Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen and Benny Feilhaber into a 3-0 cushion.
“Because of the way we played, we ended up in a lot of high scoring games, and there were times we’d given up goals early in matches, but we came back many times in those years,” Noble said. “We never really believed we were out of any game.”
Sure enough, even against the MLS side, the City Islanders mounted a furious come-from-behind effort, scoring three times in the final nine minutes of the match on the strength of goals from Brian Ombiji, Sainey Touray, and in stoppage time, J.T. Noone’s equalizing blast from 22 yards.
“It was nearly midnight when we went to penalties,” Noble recalled. “It was such a crazy night. There were just a handful of people who stuck around.”
With the City Islanders leading 4-3 in the shootout heading into the fifth round of kicks, Noble dived to his right to turn away Benny Feilhaber’s effort to secure an improbable win.
A week later, the City Islanders beat the New York Red Bulls at Skyline Soccer Complex to earn a trip to the 2012 Open Cup Quarterfinals, where they lost to Philadelphia Union.
“Billy always found a way to perform well and find a way against good teams. Did a good job maximizing personnel. Bill had a way of getting his players comfortable. Got them ready for big moment. The overall record for Harrisburg was probably not much over .500 but they had a certain ability to play some best soccer when the games mattered most, in playoffs and Open Cup.”
Becher would compile a 152-129-95 overall record in 14 years on City Island, with the club boasting an impressive 12-5-3 mark in Open Cup competition.
It was the City Islanders who spoiled the Hounds debut in Highmark Stadium in 2013.
“It felt great, actually, spoiling our rival’s debut in their new stadium,” Noble said. “I remember watching the fireworks after. It was a great feeling.”
Over the years the two clubs often competed to sign the same players, and it was a common theme to see numerous players wear the crest for both clubs at different points in their careers.
One of those players was Aliquippa native and Robert Morris University grad Neil Shaffer, who returned to the Keystone State in 2014 to sign at the last minute with the City Islanders.
“We were on year-to-year contracts,” Shaffer explained.
“I played two years with the Riverhounds (in 2011 and 2012), then went to Seattle to play for a year, and came back to have great opportunity to play a key role with Harrisburg.”
The former Riverhounds’ midfielder/defender would thrive as Becher’s chief lieutenant on the field, becoming a team captain for a club that would make a run to the 2014 USL Cup Final during the same season the Riverhounds floundered in bankruptcy and near the bottom of the standings.
In 2014, Becher’s group needed to win in the last game of the season against Mark Steffens’ Charlotte squad just to get into the playoffs.
“It came down to team chemistry. Those teams we had in Harrisburg, we often had great camaraderie,” Noble explained. “Especially at the USL level where a lot of guys that really are still playing for the love of game. We played together, and never gave up. I played in a lot of places and for a lot of teams, but that was a team that gelled well. We beat Orlando City and Richmond to make it to the final, and we were in it until the end, before losing at Sacramento before 20,000 fans.”
“We had some really good players, and Bill (Bechner) was so well organized. We got on a nice roll that year toward the end of the season and into the playoffs,” Schaffer said.
“And like Justin (Evans) in Pittsburgh, he was someone who was so deeply connected to soccer in Harrisburg.”
When Nightingale took on his position with the Riverhounds organization prior to the 2015 season, one of the ideas he proposed to the City Islanders was to create a Keystone Derby Cup series between the clubs each season. The Cup would be awarded to the club with the best head-to-head record in Pennsylvania at the end of the USL season.
“We wanted to create a rivalry. Provide a spark. Something people could look forward to. Raise spirits for everyone, and have something people could sink their teeth into,” Nightingale explained.
When Nightingale reached out to City Islanders officials, he found that they were very much into it.
“The teams were pretty evenly matched, and we were able to create something special — and that first season, we would play each other four times in the regular season,” Nightingale said.
“When I think of a rivalry,” Vincent, who grew up in Liverpool, England, was part of Everton’s Youth Academy and experienced the full-blown passions of the Liverpool-Everton Merseyside Derby.
“I think of a rivalry, I think a mile apart. But, three hours down the road? There was a feeling. Previous seasons, we didn’t have good results against them. Every time we played them, we lost or tied. So, that first game, and there was now a trophy sitting right there on the sidelines, suddenly we felt that there was a greater sense of importance, we wanted to win those games.”
The Steel Army, as it grew incrementally during those formative years, really latched on to this rivalry, and started to make it a priority to include a road trip to Harrisburg every year.
“They were the closest team. Arguably ‘the Philly’ of our Pittsburgh rivalry,” Longtime Steel Army member Mike Shoemaker said. “We were always able to go there all the time. They never liked us coming out to games. They hated us. We could just go there. And have somebody that we didn’t like. It was so cool to be a part of that.”
The Riverhounds players understood what those games started to mean to their emerging supporters’ group.
“It (Keystone Derby Cup) felt a bit manufactured at first, but as the season wore on, it became real, and very intense, and most importantly, it was great for the fans.” Earls said.
“All we did as players was play for the fans. We knew how much it meant to them to play for the Cup. That’s all that matters. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to play, and to win every match for the team and for myself, but to do that for the fans, that was most important.”
Would adding this trophy really matter?
“Yeah, sure!” Kerr emphatically responded when asked about the meaning of the Derby Cup.
“Realistically we looked at where we were in the league, and where we were each year. This was an opportunity to win a trophy. When we played, it was intense. More than your average game.”
The feeling was mutual on both sides.
“Even going back to the earlier years, those matches meant everything,” Shaffer said. “With the Riverhounds, we looked forward to playing Harrisburg. And when I was in Harrisburg, it was the same. Most of the players already knew each other, and both sides always wanted to win.”
“I remember the first year I played in the series, going back to 2011, and how incredible (Riverhounds’ goalkeeper) Hunter Gilstrap played against us,” Noble said. “I knew I had to be on my game against those guys.”
“It was a rivalry in every sense. It was in-state. Whether one was struggling. They were going to be competitive, physical games. Certainly our biggest rival. For me, it was similar to WVU-Pitt rivalry. We all knew each other pretty well but you wanted to win those badly.”
Nightingale and Riverhounds officials, along with the City Islanders and sponsors from the PA Lottery, unveiled the new silver Keystone Derby Cup prior to the first meeting between the clubs on March 30, in the Riverhounds’ new pub at Highmark Stadium.
With a new Cup to play for, Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Harrisburg City Islanders would see each other a lot more that season.
“We would play them four times. That’s a lot. You want to make sure you come out on top. The Steel Army always came out for those games. We could sense they always wanted to win a bit more and we fed off that,” Vincent said.
“And things got feistier on both sides.”
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