So-called experts have long proclaimed soccer as America’s sport of the future. It is definitely the most popular sport in the world, but like the metric system, we refuse to adopt it.
It’s kind of like the claims Dippin’ Dots has been making about the future of ice cream since the 1980s. So far, neither prognostication has come to fruition. Nevertheless, I went to see for myself what the future of American sports looks like by attending a Pittsburgh Riverhounds professional soccer game.
My first observation: Highmark Stadium is the crown jewel of the Monongahela River. The 3,500-seat soccer mecca is snugly placed between the Mon on one side and Mount Washington and West Carson Street on the other. When I go to a new stadium, I find myself looking for ways to peek in and watch for free. The developers of this field must have had cheap people like me in mind when they designed it, because you cannot get a glimpse in. (Unless, of course, you decide to risk scaling the harrowing hillside.)
This was a big night in the Pittsburgh soccer world — the last regular-season home game, against the Rochester Rhinos. The night was so significant that even Mayor Bill Peduto was in attendance, sans the “mayor” sash I wish he would wear like Diamond Joe Quimby does on The Simpsons. The Goodyear blimp even hovered above the festivities. Although it was there for aerial footage of the Pirates-Cubs game across the river, I pretended it was aware of the playoff implications of this match, too. The Hounds desperately needed a win or a tie to keep their 2015 United Soccer League playoff hopes alive. Standing in their way was the once-beaten Rhino squad.
As the contest began, a group of about 50 people seated behind the goal started making a ruckus. These people are the soccer diehards known as the Steel Army. This unofficial branch of the Pittsburgh military sings, chants and beats on percussion instruments from the beginning of the match until it’s over, roughly 90 minutes later. Part enthusiastic college pep squad and part soccer hooligans, this rowdy ensemble makes the experience even more enjoyable. They even used the word “jagoff” in one of their chants; they are impossible not to love.
Soccer still has not caught on in this country. Maybe it is because no one is crashing a car into a cement barrier at 180 mph, or because no one is getting a helmet driven into their head by a 260-pound linebacker who runs faster than a Smart Car. We like fast action and violence, subtleties be damned.
It does take some getting used to — for instance, the clock ticks up instead of counting down, and it is not absolute. The referees will let the squads play on after time expires as long as it looks like there’s a play going. Announcements concerning sponsors are made while the ball is in play. So I watched the first 69 minutes and no one had scored. Then the Steel Army and the thousands in attendance disrupted the silence. The Hounds’ Lebo Moloto, the attacking midfielder from South Africa, got a pass from Robert Morris grad and Canadian Miro Cabrilo and booted it past the outstretched arms of the Rochester goalie.
After an almost 70-minute scoring drought, my scant knowledge of the sport led me to believe it was a safe lead. But with only seven minutes to go, Rochester tied it up to dampen the enthusiasm. Stupid Rhinos, I hate them so much.
The deadlock forced the Hounds into a must-win final game on the road in the Keystone Derby against the Harrisburg City Islanders. A 2-1 victory that night propelled the Riverhounds into the Eastern Conference playoffs, where they’d take on the New York Red Bulls II: the poor man’s version of the New York Red Bulls. The Riverhounds lost 4-2 in overtime.
Highmark Stadium is one of those places in the city that you have to see to believe. A British soccer announcer from the BBC remarked that this stadium is the most beautiful soccer stadium he has ever seen. High praise, even from a snarky Brit. Yes, there are cheap seats: They start at $10 for standing-room-only tickets. High-end seats — for the Sewickley and Fox Chapel crowd — are only $20.
It’s time to get on board. The future of American sports has arrived, complete with a state-of-the-art stadium that even sells Dippin’ Dots. Buy them and watch the game — it will feel like you boarded a time machine and are hurtling into the future!