Pittsburgh Riverhounds Look Forward After Reshuffling Team Leadership, Stadium Management


New Riverhounds president Richard Nightingale introduces himself during a press conference at Highmark Stadium on Dec. 17, 2014. (Photo Credit: Riverhounds.com)

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Riverhounds are looking ahead in more ways than one after a difficult 2014.

Not only did the team miss the USL Pro playoffs in its second year at Highmark Stadium, it also had to navigate an arduous bankruptcy process that threatened to scuttle pro soccer in Pittsburgh.

The Riverhounds began that forward lean in earnest Wednesday afternoon, but while the hiring of new head coach Mark Steffens is sure to resonate more with sports fans, Richard Nightingale’s arrival as team president could prove to be the more significant occasion.

A native of England who came stateside to play soccer as a young adult, Nightingale has been asked to strengthen and better define the Riverhounds brand, which is still relatively new. Although the pro team has been around since the late 1990s, it was reborn with the construction of Highmark Stadium two years ago.

The Riverhounds’ presence is tough to ignore these days, with their South Side jewel evident to anyone who crosses the Fort Pitt Bridge. Now, they have to further edge their way into the consciousness of Pittsburgh sports fans.

For Nightingale, who previously served in an executive role with sports apparel giant Nike, that means evangelizing for soccer in general addition to the Riverhounds in particular. His plans for Highmark Stadium include what he called a “proper pub” behind the west goal and an eventual seating expansion, but Nightingale is after a cultural shift as well.

“I’d love to see tailgating outside the stadium hours before games,” he said. “I want people to plan their social lives around the Riverhounds.”

One thing that could boost the Hounds profile in 2015 is a better start. They have suffered through disastrous first halves during their first two years at Highmark, limiting the buzz around the team to an extent.

That’s where Steffens comes in. Along with franchise stewart Jason Kutney, who shifts from president to sporting director, he will shape the roster to his liking.

The 61-year-old Steffens made the playoffs in 14 of his 18 seasons with the USL Pro’s Charlotte Eagles, although 2014 was a rare down year. If the Hounds play Steffens’ way, it’ll be a crowd-pleasing brand of soccer.

“I like to have a possession team that moves the ball very quickly,” Steffens said. “I like a team that attacks. I told the first pro team I coached that I’d rather win 4-3 than 1-0.”

Not to be forgotten in the franchise reshuffle is former interim head coach Niko Katic. A favorite of the Steel Army supporter’s group for many years, Katic spearheaded a second-half push in his coaching debut after the Hounds dismissed Justin Evans.

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While he won’t be the bench boss in 2015, Katic agreed to stay aboard as an assistant coach.

“Niko has always been a soldier for the club,” Kutney said. “It never ceases to amaze me what he is willing to do for the team. It was an enormous ask for him (to transition from player to coach in midseason). He put in the work and I give him a tremendous amount of credit for that.

“He’s been the heart of the Riverhounds on the field and we look forward to him developing further as a coach.”

In a move reminiscent of the 1979-80 Penguins, the Hounds also announced that their home uniform would be black and gold in 2015, thus aligning with the “big three” Pittsburgh teams.

That can’t hurt the Hounds’ chances of winning hearts and minds. Neither will Steffens’ reference to the “We Are Fam-A-Lee” Pirates of 1979 in his introductory address.

But the enthusiasm emanating from Steffens and Nightingale was also obvious on the smiling faces of Kutney and owner Tuffy Shallenberger. Their statements to the assembled media portrayed just as much relief as joy.

“Last year was a very difficult year,” Shallenberger said. “Having to put the Riverhounds in Chapter 11 reorganization was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in my business career. Sometimes you’ve got to make the tough decisions, and if we hadn’t done that, the future of pro soccer in Pittsburgh would’ve been very bleak.”

Kutney, who played the last seven seasons of his nine-year pro soccer career with the Riverhounds, was practically glowing on the dais.

“The Pittsburgh Riverhounds have been my life,” said Kutney, a New Jersey native and former Duquesne star. “I would have died for this team. To know that this day was coming…this is what it’s all about for me.

“These past two years (working on the business side) have been the some of the most difficult times I could have imagined. I’m excited to take on a role where my focus is soccer. That’s what it’s all about for me. That’s my passion and that’s what drives me.”

The Riverhounds face an uphill climb no matter who is in charge on the south bank of the Monongahela. However, on this third week of December, it was tough to not get caught up in the excitement.

“Anybody who gets involved in soccer in the United States, you know you’re in for a bit of a challenge,” Steffens said. “But that’s a good thing. I love challenges.”