Highmark Stadium will be set for soccer action by the 2013 USL Pro season. (Rendering courtesy of Riverhounds.com.)

Riverhounds seek to parlay new home into prominence

More than a decade ago, my family regularly traveled to Bethel Park High School to watch the Pittsburgh Riverhounds compete in the old A-League, which was the continent’s second-best soccer league at the time.

The Hounds enjoyed some great successes while in the A-League, three times qualifying for the U.S. Open Cup, which welcomes teams from all levels of American soccer. Although the team never made too much noise in its league playoffs, it defeated Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids in the 2001 U.S. Open Cup and advanced to at least the second round of the yearly competition each time it participated.

In 2004, the Riverhounds dropped out of the A-League, but posted a first-place finish in the USL Pro Soccer League, a third-tier circuit. The club has stayed in so-called Division 3 soccer since then, but a lack of stability has contributed to middling results in the meantime.

Those off-the-field issues included a one-year hiatus in 2007 due to ownership uncertainty, a two-year stint playing in Washington, Pa., at CONSOL Energy Park, the home of independent baseball’s Wild Things franchise, and a recent switch to Chartiers Valley High School for home matches.

But now, following almost a decade of transience, the Riverhounds are on the verge of moving into new Highmark Stadium, a soccer-specific facility nearly complete on the south shore of the Monongahela River near Station Square. Featuring clear views of the iconic Pittsburgh skyline and a central location near downtown, Highmark Stadium promises to usher in a new era of pro soccer in western Pennsylvania.

However, even with the Hounds scheduled to start playing on their new field in 2013, carving out a place on the busy Pittsburgh sports scene will be a challenge. Yes, the increased visibility and convenience provided by the construction will greatly aid marketing efforts, but this post by David Kilpatrick on the New York Times’ soccer blog nicely details the challenges ahead for the Riverhounds organization.

At the above link, Hounds CEO Jason Kutney alludes to the “younger demographic” growing up with soccer much more than previous generations, which helps in the “battle to become relevant.” Kutney also acknowledges that the team’s on-field performance will have to greatly improve to attract long-lasting attention and affection. The Hounds finished 4-15-5 in the 2012 USL Pro season.

I found it interesting that Kutney was quoted expressing aspirations to make Pittsburgh an MLS city someday. Certainly the success of the 16-year-old league in similar-sized markets like Kansas City, Columbus and Seattle is promising in that regard, especially since all three boast high-quality facilities designed primarily for soccer.

For now, though, the Riverhounds will have to prove they have the ability to grow a sport that is mostly hiding in the Pittsburgh shadows. One could compare the current state of soccer in the region with where hockey was during the days of the AHL’s Pittsburgh Hornets. Once it was established that local sports fans had room in their hearts for pro hockey, the NHL felt comfortable bringing the expansion Penguins into being in 1967.

The Riverhounds would be wise to look to the Hornets for inspiration, especially since the Hornets were consistent contenders – and champions – in the AHL. In today’s crowded entertainment landscape, it will take equal parts on- and off-field skill to bring the Hounds brand to prominence.

Highmark Stadium will be a game-changer, but it can only be part of the plan if the Riverhounds are to put Pittsburgh on the national soccer radar.

Tags: MLS Pittsburgh Riverhounds Soccer

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