CALL FOR SUPPORT: Football is a game of passion and rivalry, but it’s also one of community. Tragedy struck the Hounds’ organization on Sunday, April 15th, when a fire destroyed the home of Pittsburgh forward Kay Banjo’s family. While the family is thankfully safe, they have lost absolutely everything. If you have anything you can contribute, please consider donating to the Banjo family’s GoFundMe at www.gofundme.com/banjo-family-recovery-fund. Every penny helps, so please give what you can. Thank you.
Home Ground: Highmark Stadium; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Manager: Bob Lilley
2017 Finish: 13th, Eastern Conference
Nickname: The Hounds
Before we begin, I feel it should be noted, Mark Pulisic is one of Pittsburgh’s assistant coaches. The surname should be familiar, as this is indeed the father of the young man carrying the weight of America’s footballing future on his shoulders, Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic. I couldn’t figure out how to fit this fun fact in organically, but aren’t you glad you now know it? Anyway, let’s dive in.
Supporter culture is filled with unique paraphernalia: smoke bombs, vuvuzelas, two-poles...and train horns? That’s right, the Hounds’ Highmark Stadium is directly adjacent to an active train line, meaning the rumbling and whistling of freight trains often drown out the crowd and certainly create a bit of industrial intimidation towards any visiting opposition. Following an immensely disappointing 2017 campaign, Pittsburgh will be hoping to mirror that level of industry on the pitch once again.
USL Spotlight Series
Each week, we spotlight one USL club, examining the history of the club, the players, the supporters, and the prospect of success in the near or distant future.
Throughout their tenured history, Pittsburgh has seen its fair share of peculiar stadia. With three high schools and a minor league baseball field in the rear view mirror, the six seasons and counting spent at the gorgeous (and soccer-specific!) Highmark Stadium must feel like heaven for the Steel Army supporters.
Officially founded on March 11, 1998, the then unnamed Pittsburgh club became the first professional outdoor club in the city since the Pittsburgh Miners, who began play AND folded back in 1975. The new club’s first opponent came immediately following the announcement of the original “Riverdogs” moniker. A Charleston, South Carolina single-A baseball team with the same name threatened legal action, prompting a quick switch to the now iconic namesake. Seems Pittsburgh got the last laugh anyway, as those litigious labradors haven’t won a playoff series since the naming dispute.
Unfortunately, it’s also been over a decade since the Hounds managed a postseason victory. 2004 saw Pittsburgh finish the old USL Pro League season with the best record in the league, losing only twice all year. A seven-one aggregate victory over fellow Pennsylvanians Harrisburg City Islanders (now known as Penn FC) took the Atlantic Division champions into the semi-finals. They were derailed in the next round, however, as the Utah Blitzz (not a typo, I promise) took them down one-nil en route to winning the title in a penalty shootout against the Charlotte Eagles.
The Hounds dropped down to the USL Second Division the following year, took a season-long hiatus in 2007, and finally came back to the USL’s top league in 2011, where they’ve been looking to get back on track. The last two years, however, have produced back-to-back finishes at 13th in the east, with little to cheer about at Highmark stadium.
In fact, during the 2017 campaign, the Hounds away form was actually better than at home, driving that train apparently not an effective substitution for parking that bus. Pittsburgh lost seven of their 16 home matches, failing to score in front of the Steel Army on four such occasions. One-sixth of their home goals for the season came in a high-flying opening day draw with NY Red Bulls II. The Hounds came from behind three times, including an 81st minute penalty from Corey Hertzog which was initially saved but sent right back to the striker who made no mistake with the second chance.
Hertzog continued to lead the lines for Pittsburgh throughout the year, finishing the season with 14 goals, nine more than the Hounds’ next highest scorer. The striker took his talents elsewhere in the offseason, however, now plying his trade in St. Louis, leaving Pittsburgh with a massive gap to fill for 2018.
Enter Neco Brett. The Jamaican striker came to Pennsylvania from Portland Timbers 2 and, following two goalless draws to begin the season, decided it was time to leave his mark on the club. In front of a meager home crowd of 840, Brett bagged himself a hat trick in a comprehensive four-nil dismantling of Toronto FC II. After a drab first half, the forward lit the ground up, scoring three straight and setting up the final goal. Bob Lilley’s switch from the classic 4-4-2 of last year, to the 4-2-3-1 of today seems to be paying dividends, and it will be interesting to see if Brett can maintain this form all alone up top.
Undefeated thus far, it seems that Bob Lilley has gotten his squad back on track. This weekend’s trip to Eastern Conference rivals FC Cincinnati will surely be a stern test for the Hounds. When you’re used to playing in front of under 3,000, having over 20K all hoping for you to fail can be just a wee bit intense. Let’s see if this freight train can continue to pick up steam. All aboard!
Saturday, April 21 at FC Cincinnati; 7:00 PM EDT
All USL matches are streamed live on ESPN+, check local listings for televised broadcast options.
Author: Busby Cagle