With apologies to what was a compelling 120-minute tet-a-tet between the Riverhounds and the invaders from our nation’s capital, the most indelible impression I took away from Wednesday’s fourth-round U.S. Open Cup tie was the make-up of the congregation.
The nearly 4,000 folks who filled Highmark Stadium to the point of overflow quite simply got it.
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They weren’t there merely to have an enjoyable evening at Station Square, something they could have achieved at one of the many establishments on the southern shore of the Monongahela. No, the people who showed up for the greatest spectacle in Riverhounds history were there to cheer on the home team.
While that type of thing might be taken for granted at Heinz Field, PNC Park and Consol Energy Center, that is not often the case at Highmark, where a minor-league atmosphere often prevails (with the notable exception of the Steel Army supporters’ group).
In other words, the action on the field is sometimes secondary.
Not so on a pulsating Wednesday night. Legitimate soccer fans showed their faces as the Hounds of USL – technically a third-tier league in the U.S. Soccer pyramid – tested their skill and cohesion against the top team in the MLS’ Eastern Conference.
Admittedly, D.C. United rested several of its regulars after a taxing match in Orlando three nights prior. That’s typical for MLS clubs in the early stages of the U.S. Open Cup, but it doesn’t mean there was substandard talent out there in the black and red.
Although D.C. featured only one Sunday starter for Wednesday’s opening kickoff, eight of the 12 outfield players used by United coach Ben Olson have appeared in at least 10 MLS games this season. That didn’t stop the Hounds from largely controlling the run of play, even without the services of creative midfielder Lebo Moloto, who was out with an injury.
Judging by how soccer-savvy the gold-clad fans were, they probably realized that this wasn’t United at full capacity. Still, that didn’t seem to matter, as the Riverhounds partisans lustily cheered the “small stuff” that makes for a solid match: 50-50 duels won, hard-earned throw-ins, well-timed sliding tackles and high-quality touches.
In the nomenclature of other Pittsburgh pro sports, this was akin to appreciating a Penguins defenseman forcing an opposing forward offside, a Steelers running back picking up a blitz, or a Pirates baserunner breaking up a double play with a hard slide into second base.
We knew there were real soccer fans in Pittsburgh, but this was one of the few times they’ve shown up for a Riverhounds match in full throat. It wasn’t a European club game or international friendly that captured their collective imagination; rather, it was the local side.
This was evident in the warm applause offered the Hounds’ way at the conclusion of the second extra-time session. I mentioned on the broadcast that it might be coming, and it arrived organically just before the final whistle.
There are many adjectives to describe a moment like that, but I’ll use just one: major-league. Now the challenge – for both the team and local soccer fans – is arousing that level of passion on a more regular basis.