Pittsburgh is a great city for soccer — even if you root for the Tampa Bay Rowdies | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh is becoming a soccer mecca — even for the away team

click to enlarge A goalie dives to intercept a ball kicked by a Rowdies forward
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Riverhounds goalkeeper Eric Dick makes a diving save against the Rowdies on April 6, 2024.
It was a cold Saturday night in Highmark Stadium, especially for my fellow Tampa Bay Rowdies who came north from Florida. That's right, Pittsburgh — I root for the away team. Like others who moved here after time elsewhere, I'm one of the spots of color (in this case, green) in the sometimes monolithic sea of black and gold.

While social media would have you believe any away-team fans get a good heckling at our city's beautiful stadiums, fellow Rowdies fans told me their main complaint was the temperature and the 0-0 result that gave Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC their first point of the season. The only ribbing I got for my green and gold stripes was a friendly finger-wag from Amo, the Hounds' mascot. And for houses divided between Rowdies and Hounds fandom, the result was possibly the best-case outcome.

For soccer supporters, more generally, the fact that Pittsburgh draws fans from the Sunshine State is a testament to the durable growth of the "beautiful game" at all levels across the U.S.

The USL Championship isn't the same draw as Pittsburgh's "Big Three." Saturday's Hounds attendance was visibly down from the sold-out home opener if still healthy. Like baseball, the league's northerly teams' spring attendance has a way of fluctuating with the weather.

But one difference with soccer is the youthful spirit and sheer ebullience of the fans — some, like Rowdies fan Danny Gregoire, have grown up with the sport, and they follow it with the same vigor as baseball fans skipping work for day games in the golden era of America's pastime.
click to enlarge Fans in green and gold cheer on Tampa Bay while bundled against the cold.
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Tampa Bay fans including Danny Gregoire (far right) cheer on the Rowdies at Highmark Stadium on April 6, 2024.
Danny has been a Rowdies fan "since he came out of the womb." He and his family caught a game after the end of the Penguins' thrilling overtime win versus the Tampa Bay Lightning, and all were complimentary of Highmark Stadium's vista.

"The view looks really cool. The train was cool that came by for the game," he told Pittsburgh City Paper. The family formed a small Rowdies away bloc near the front of the Highmark grandstand.

The Rowdies became Tampa Bay's second pro sports team after the NFL's Buccaneers by mere months in 1974. La Mega business development exec and soccer reporter Amadeo Eichberg has been a Rowdies fan dating back to America's first flirtation with soccer.

"[The Rowdies] used to pack the house back in the days of Tampa Stadium," Eichberg tells City Paper. He and other fans were galvanized by the original NASL that brought the likes of Pelé to the U.S. That league, unfortunately, expanded too fast and folded in 1983.

Eichberg, who now lives in Pittsburgh and covers the Riverhounds, has fused his nostalgia with excitement for soccer's growing importance locally. "I guess I'm hoping for a tie," he said as both team's players took the field.
click to enlarge A man with a Rowdies scarf near a Bud Light beer tent.
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Phillip Masterson cheers on the Rowdies at Highmark Stadium on April 6, 2024.
But soccer fandom, for many Americans, has long been less about geography than serendipity.

I didn't have an American soccer allegiance when I moved to Florida from Germany but was primed by the recent European Championships. While working a summer job, I happened to be in downtown St. Pete at the same time a Rowdies game was getting underway. I immediately glommed onto the team's beautiful green and gold hoop-sleeved uniforms and returned for another game before I moved to the ’Burgh. That I get to see the Rowdies in Pittsburgh each USL-C season has only strengthened my enthusiasm in the 10 years since.

Rowdies fan Summer James, meanwhile, saw Tampa Bay play Loudoun United and was hooked by the Rowdies' dynamic offense. She and her husband, Jesse —a Hounds fan — used to coach soccer, and as they sat behind the Rowdies during the match, Summer says she was fired up by the dialogue on the bench.

"I listened to them talking to each other back and forth, and they were just so aggressive," she told City Paper. "And I was like, 'That's my team.'"

The Jameses live in central Pa. but regularly come to Pittsburgh to watch hockey or cheer for their respective football teams — for Jesse, that's the Steelers, but for Summer, it's the Giants. She's used to occasional ribbing but says Pittsburgh fans usually keep it light-hearted.

"It's always good-natured," she said. "You're entitled to how you want to be as a fan, but I'm just here to have a good time and help my team win."

Both the Jameses came away from the April 6 tilt with a point for their respective teams. They, like other fans young and old, had plenty of action to cheer for. The Hounds recorded more touches than Tampa Bay, and keeper Eric Dick recorded his first clean sheet for Pittsburgh. As a bonus, the Hounds' Kenardo Forbes 196th appearance made him the team's all-time caps leader, and fans got quite the halftime show from cowboy Loop Rawlins and his flaming lasso.
click to enlarge A cowboy in black twirls a flaming lasso high over his head
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Loop Rawlins performs a flaming lasso routine during halftime of the Riverhounds vs. Rowdies game on April 6, 2024.
For us Rowdies fans, there was also lots to enjoy, though Manuel Arteaga was unable to reach the net with a vicious shot in the last 10 minutes. But perhaps the biggest thing to celebrate for all fans is the seeming stability, vibrancy, and energy of soccer in America — even at the second level down on the pyramid.

As I walked back to my car, a dad stopped to compliment me on my jersey. He said he'd grown up in Tampa and watched the original Rowdies. Even though his family is being raised in the Riverhounds tradition, he said it was "really cool" to see enthusiasm for the team of his youth.

I'm inclined to agree. If USL-C soccer is established enough that away fans like myself can find our counterparts in the stands, that's a great sign for soccer in the Steel City.

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By Mars Johnson