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Miracle on the Mon

On This Date: First Match in Riverhounds History (excerpt from ‘Unleash The Hounds’ in Miracle on the Mon)

My book, Miracle on the Mon, released in May 2020, 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 “Unleash the Hounds” which chronicles the origins of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which played their first match 25 years ago today.  

From Miracle on the Mon... Excerpt from Chapter ‘Unleash The Hounds’

(1st Edition pages 12-16)
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Unleash the Hounds (excerpt from Chapter 3 of John Krysinsky’s ‘Miracle on the Mon’) 

As the Stingers attempted to revive a burst of excitement for soccer that the Spirit temporarily brought a decade earlier, the sport was starting to find new footing when the FIFA World Cup was hosted by the United States in 1994.  

Still, the closest the World Cup would come to Pittsburgh would be at venues in Washington D.C., Detroit and New Jersey, all which felt to most soccer fans in Western Pennsylvania a world away. 

When it came to building sustainable soccer culture, Pittsburgh was still far behind. 

The excitement and momentum from the 1994 World Cup were followed by the creation of Major League Soccer in 1996. While this soccer revolution in the United States didn’t go completely unnoticed in Pittsburgh during this time, there still wasn’t a trace of a professional outdoor club or even higher-level training opportunities for promising young players anywhere to be found.   

“My parents sent me off to Germany and England, all by myself when I was just a kid, to develop as a soccer player, because those opportunities here in Pittsburgh simply weren’t available at that time,” Justin Evans, a native of Pittsburgh’s South Hills area suburb Peters Township. Evans would play collegiately at Penn State and St. Bonaventure in the mid-to-late 1990s.

While more youth clubs were popping up in the area, soccer remained a fringe sport in the region, with no professional team anywhere in sight. 

One man though, had a vision to build a club because he saw his son didn’t have any local professional players in the region to watch and admire up close. 

Paul Heasley’s inspiration formed when his son, Lucas, began seriously playing soccer. There were no local role models for Lucas to look up to, so it became Heasley’s aim to create a club embodying the character of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania which could fuel the ambitions of youngsters in the region and give them a pathway to become professional soccer players.

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds franchise was officially born on March 11, 1998, when Heasley became the owner of the professional soccer club. 

“That gave a lot of kids a lot of hope,” Evans said. “There’s something you can do here. You don’t just go to college and then start your 9-to-5 job. It gives kids something to look forward to, something to look toward. It was tremendous, the opportunity he afforded us and a lot of young players to follow their dreams.” 

Heasley, a successful businessman and native of Belle Vernon, PA, wanted the Riverhounds to be a team that embodied Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, and made a point to build a team with local players.

The new soccer club would be part of the A-League, which began operating in 1995, emerging from the restructured American Professional Soccer League which started in 1990. It was the first American professional soccer league to emerge after the North American Soccer League (NASL). 

For one year, in 1995, the A-League was at the top of the U.S. Soccer Pyramid, but it became the second division after Major League Soccer began play in 1996.  

The first three picks in the history of the Riverhounds franchise were Evans, Steve Bell (also from Peters) and Gary DePalma of Upper St. Clair.

“I remember him just talking to me and saying, ‘Hey, we made you our number one draft pick for a reason. You are a Pittsburgh kid,’ Evans shared after Heasley’s passing in 2013.

“That was something that was very important to him.”

Heasley turned to a few local soccer icons to build his new club: Dave Kasper, who was the first coach for the Duquesne University men’s program in the 1990s would be brought in as the first general manager, and John Kowalski, who made his permanent home in Pittsburgh after his run as head coach of the Spirit, would become the first Riverhounds head coach. 

One of the first orders of business for the club was to conduct a contest to name the team, in June 1998, after a naming committee of five local businessmen with an interest in soccer was established to name the club. The Pittsburgh Riverdogs was selected as Mike Giegel submitted the winning name. By December, the Charleston Riverdogs, a minor league baseball club, threatened legal action against the Pittsburgh soccer entity, forcing the club to change the nickname to the Riverhounds.  

Kowalski turned to a couple more notable Pittsburgh-area soccer names to fill out his coaching staff, by adding Gene Klein and former Spirit and NASL star Paul Child.  

“Dave (Kasper), I played for when I was 10 years old. He was the right guy to build the team,” Evans added. “John (Kowalski) brought a world of experience, and I learned so much from. It was the ideal combination to get a pro team started in Pittsburgh,” Evans said.

After his tenure with the Pittsburgh Spirit, in the late 1980s and into the 1990s Kowalski added a few more impressive pieces to his soccer coaching resume. 

U.S. Soccer tabbed Kowalski’s leadership of U.S. National futsal teams in the 1989 and 1992.

His accomplishments at FIFA’s first ever Futsal World Championships remain unmatched, as they would be the highest of any U.S. Men’s National team have ever finished in a FIFA competition.

In 1989, Kowalski took the U.S. team to the FIFA Five-a-Side event in the Netherlands, utilizing a mix of young, up-and-coming U.S. players along with a handful of veterans.

Three years later, Kowalski led the USA to its highest-ever FIFA finish, a second place in the 1992 world championships, losing 4-1 to Brazil in the final.

Kowalski was also the interim coach of the US Men’s National Team in 1990-91, leading the USA to victories over Olimpia of Paraguay (1990 champions of South America and world club champions), Canada and a draw with Mexico.

In 1993-94, Kowalski was head coach of the U.S. U-20 MNT, which included many players who would later star for the USA or go into the professional game, including Clint Mathis, John O’Brien and Jovan Kirovski as well as Chris Klein and Jay Heaps. 

It was also at this time, Kowalski built the men’s soccer program at Robert Morris University, and later in the decade became the head coach of Major League Soccer’s Tampa Bay Mutiny for a few seasons.  

“John was so knowledgeable, coming from MLS, Klein said. “We all leaned on him, but as a group, and as a staff we had great synergy. Not only did it come from the coaching staff, but the front office too.  John was the guy that really took charge. Paul was out there pounding the pavement, going to schools, doing clinics, and visiting every group he could in the area to sell the game.” 

“It was really exciting to be part of it from the ground floor. John, Paul and I, we all recognized how special this was. Everything we did was new. It was fresh, it was exciting. The buzz was exhilarating,” Klein said. 

“The Spirit were gone. There were a lot of people who missed soccer and wanted it back. The interest was there. It was exciting to be there from the very first tryout. We had a couple hundred people trying to make the team.”   

Playing at Bethel Park High School, the Riverhounds averaged what Klein describes as a ‘miracle in of itself’ of more than 4,000 fans per game in their first two seasons.

“We had that concept of the city,” David Flavius, one of the original Riverhounds, who would go on to hold many club records, said.

“Hardworking, Steel City-minded players. We have to go out and put in the work, put in the effort. That happened on a consistent basis.”

Photo Gallery: First Ever Match — Pittsburgh Riverhounds vs Cincinnati

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Flavius recalled that he can still hear the chants that the large crowds would greet the team with as they took the field.

“Unleash the Hounds,” Flavius said. 

“I can still hear it in my head. No matter where we were, winning, losing, that crowd would get us back into the game.”

“We couldn’t say anything about the crowd for the first two years. The stands would be full on both sides. The experience for the first year was awesome, unbelievable. I don’t even know where those fans came from, but they would be at the game.”

That first season, in 1999, the Riverhounds finished in fourth place overall with a 16-12 record, earning A-League Organization of the Year honors, while Kasper was lauded as A-League’s Executive of the Year and Tenywa Bonseu earned All-League First Team honors.  

 

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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