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Beautiful night, beautiful city, beautiful game

By Dejan Kovacevic | Trib Total Media

What a wonderful night over at Highmark Stadium …

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Wasn’t planning on writing about this. Wasn’t planning on writing anything, actually, as it was something of a day off. But 10 of the past 11 columns have been about baseball, so I’ve tried to pick up the slack on other sports here on the blog, and the Riverhounds’ international friendly last night with Wigan Athletic FC — a 4-1 loss, with the outcome being very secondary — moved me right back to the laptop upon getting home.

I do a lot of sporting events in a lot of places and, for reasons I’m not sure I fully grasp just yet, this one had a special feel to it.

Maybe it was the surprisingly palpable buzz beforehand of the SRO crowd of 4,000-plus paying an average of $40 a pop to enter. And no, these weren’t soccer tourists showing up to root for the FA Cup winners. It was clear from the outset they were there to root — and sing and chant — for the home side.

Maybe it was seeing everyone stay to the finish after a half-hour lightning delay and steady rain.

Maybe it was Jose Angulo’s world-class strike to briefly put the Riverhounds ahead in the eighth minute, which had to be seen to be duly appreciated.

Hence, I asked the club to produce this clip for you …

I don’t care about the setting or opposition. That’s big-league stuff. And it wasn’t a fluke. Angulo has accounted for the bulk of the team’s offense all season with 11 goals, and you have to wonder at this point why some MLS team somewhere won’t give him another chance. What he does you can’t teach.

robvincentMaybe it was the superlative play of Rob Vincent in the left midfield. He was  the Riverhounds’ best — and most creative and most ambitious — performer, aggressive on the attack and equally diligent in defending.

It wasn’t a coincidence, I’m guessing. Vincent also is a Liverpool native who was visibly moved by facing a club that only last season was in the English Premier League. When he was substituted in the second half, he took his place on the bench, turned to a teammate and beamed, “How cool is this?”

Maybe it was the realization that this was the equivalent of the Wheeling Nailers taking on the Penguins at full strength. Or the Altoona Curve taking on the Pirates. And the truth is, I’m probably underestimating the gap.

Maybe it’s that the Riverhounds held their own for long stretches, notably in the first half when the score was 1-1, and they did so by sticking with Justin Evans’ relentless emphasis on moving through the middle of the field. That’s the hard way to instruct soccer, but it’s the right way. It’s the way to get better, and the Riverhounds do it all the way down to their academy children. There were safer — probably smarter — approaches Evans could have taken against this opponent, but they did what they do and, in spurts, did it well.

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Maybe it was seeing — and hearing — the skill and tightness of the Wigan squad up close, as in no more than 10 feet away from the action at times while standing over by the railroad tracks. One thing I noticed: With all due respect to the Riverhounds, when they’d receive a long service with the foot, you could hear it. It would kind of clank off. When the Wigan guys did it, dead silence. The ball would just deflate upon touch.

Maybe it was the wit of the Steel Army from the more-vocal-than-ever supporters’ section, including the classic “Sal-ly Wig-gin!” tease at the Wigan keeper. Poor bloke probably had no clue.

Maybe it was the glowing praise of Owen Coyle, Wigan’s manager, for the city and the setting and the opponent, as he told it to Trib beat man Matt Grubba afterward: “The fans really seemed to enjoy the game. The supporters were fantastic, and I think it was a win-win situation. When you bring a team from England, it’s like a prize scalp for them, and that’s understandable. To be fair, it’s a credit for them as a young football club, the way they went about it. Our impression of Pittsburgh: We’d come back in a heartbeat, no doubt about it.”

Maybe it was Coyle walking over to the Steel Army after the match and applauding.

Maybe it was seeing Evans insert pretty much everyone on his roster — even No. 3 keeper Ryan Hulings, a victim of my fierce boot only a week earlier — to get the experience of facing an international team.

Maybe it was seeing Jason Kutney, the team’s CEO/midfielder/heartbeat, get inserted as a very late sub himself. And oh, what timing, his first task being to join a wall inside the Riverhounds’ box.

“I probably had one coming in the face,” he joked later.

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Maybe it was standing with Kutney at midfield as fireworks were blasting over the Mon, most every seat still filled, as the man most responsible for bringing quality soccer to the city seemed to get caught up in the moment: “I still have to pinch myself. I still can’t believe I’m standing here in this spot in this city, and all this is happening. And we’re only getting started.

Yeah, maybe it was that.

Author: Dejan Kovacevic

Dejan Kovacevic, a lifelong Pittsburgher, is an award-winning sports columnist for Trib Total Media covering the Steelers, Penguins, Pirates, Pitt and, recently, his fourth Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He also appears on WPXI-TV's 'Subway Final Word’ and hosts a weekly show on TribLIVE Radio. For 2011, he was named one of the country's top four columnists by the AP Sports Editors. For 2012, he was named one of the country's top three columnists by the National Headliners. For 2013, he was named the state's top columnist by the Keystone Press Awards and top columnist in Western Pennsylvania by the Golden Quills.

Comments

  1. Ghost says:

    The visiting team’s manager sounded like a very gracious guest. Maybe word will spread across the pond that a trip to Pittsburgh for a friendly is good time at a gorgeous venue with appreciative fans. I hear even AW was spotted in the crowd. Had his shirt off and his face painted.

  2. Pgh Soccer Mom says:

    Thank you so much for writing this and supporting what these young men are doing!

    DK: I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I’m not doing it to be supportive or nice or anything of the kind. The Riverhounds are doing things in a first-class way and are earning the coverage they’re getting. That was quite the event.

  3. Ghost says:

    Around the same time reports came out that a deal between the White Sox and Rangers for Alex Rios fell through, we were hearing the specifics of why Rios was pulled for not running hard to first base. Turns out he could have beaten out a double-play due to a bobble if only he hadn’t been dogging it.

    Don’t know if this had anything at all to do with the deal falling through — probably it didn’t. But knowing full well the next chapter of his life and livelihood might about to be decided, how could Rios be dogging it like that?? If that’s all he cares, we absolutely shouldn’t bring him into the Pirates.

  4. diehard says:

    Great article DK. I’ll take what you’re saying about the team as genuine, and really appreciate that you’re putting this out there. It would be great to see this in the print edition as well, but I’ll take it on the blog. Thanks for giving Pittsburgh soccer it’s due.

    DK: I’ve done two Riverhounds columns this year. Well … one, really, plus the silly thing with the penalty kicks. I’ve got another one in me that will be much more straight sports-type stuff if/when this club gets back into the playoff picture.

    Honestly, I kind of enjoyed doing this one this way, with my own online layout, use of photos, the video, the whole thing.

  5. JD says:

    I’m sure you had fun tonight, but why does minor league soccer always get its own special thread when the minor league arena football team not get a mention?

    I don’t live in Pittsburgh anymore, but from what I read, the arena games vastly outdraw the soccer games. What gives?

    DK: The Power is a dying franchise in a barely viable league. And I’m not sure where you’re getting the attendance figures. They can’t give seats away for arena football.

    The Riverhounds are a team with a real plan to go big-time, and you’re seeing it in action, not just talk. Doesn’t mean they’ll get there. But it does mean that if you can charge $40 a head and fill your facility with passionate fans wearing your merchandise and chanting and singing about individual players by name … yeah, that’s an edge.

  6. Mizery says:

    Great article DK. Looked like quite the event. Can’t wait to see what the Riverhounds do next.

    DK: Thanks, Miz.

  7. Chuck says:

    DK, you know I’ve been here from the beginning, and I just want to thank you for writing this article. I must say that this first season has exceeded even my expectations. Tonight wasn’t about the final score, it was much bigger than that. As the year goes on and the Hounds put together sell out after sell out, even with a poor record it just proves to me that soccer can indeed work in this market. Ignore the haters, come on you Hounds.

    DK: I’ll acknowledge, too, that I thought the team would be better and that the public STILL wouldn’t take to it as has happened. The team has disappointed. The reception hasn’t.

  8. tomp says:

    If my memory is correct, has the last 2 pirate losses ended with a flailing Mc Kenry pop up?

    Oh well, i guess it’s better than Inge doing it, but it means very little .

    Would nice to have a somewhat feared bat up there in that situation, but the current Pirate braintrust leaves it up to a guy not even hitting .190.
    By the way, when has the last time The Fort has reached safely via hitting the ball?
    Enough of this Rios talk, even though Tabata is and always be a DOG, in my book.

    This bench really needs an enema, and this club is asking for trouble by waiting for the calendar to hit July 31st, before doing something about it.
    The Fort, and Inge must be replaced, or this team is going to be on the short end of a bunch of games like this.
    Sad thing, this won’t be the last time this scenario plays out.
    I still think if this team is going to add an outfielder/1st basemen, he should bat from the left side, or better yet, be a switch hitter.
    Make a move for Morales, and get a guy who can come through with a pinch hit , now and then.
    This has to be the worst bench in baseball, at the present time.
    It could be easily upgraded, so personal feelings should not be used as a factor.

  9. JW says:

    Not to take anything away from the evening, but while the Nailers are probably an apt comparison to the Riverhounds, Wigan is probably more like the Calder Cup champions than the Penguins, or even a bottom-of-the-NHL team. (My recollection from last century is that Premier League teams receive about ten times the TV money that the next division teams do, and the Latics’ post-relegation roster probably reflects that.)

  10. tdb1977 says:

    DK – I was following the action on the pitch through your tweets last night. I got giddy with excitement when you tweeted out that the Hounds had taken the 1-0 lead. I began to to think how cool would it be for the Hounds to beat Wigan. Then 3 minutes later, they scored and that excitement seemed to be quailed some. I crashed for the night before the 2nd half so I was unable to follow the rest of the action. I’m might proud of the local team holding their own tonight. I am also impressed with how the local crowd was really into this match from the way it sounds. It seems that the Hounds have a great following right now. I found it particulary funny that the local fans where chanting “Sally Wig-gin” to the Wigan net minder – where he probably no idea why. Thanks so much for covering ALL sports and not just the big three (Pirates, Penguins, Steelers).

  11. Karen22 says:

    Very enthusiastic article, Dejan! It made me want to be there…and I hate soccer! Go Hounds!

  12. Karen22 says:

    +1 and TOUCHE!

  13. kr70 says:

    Good to hear Ryan Hulings had no permanent damage.

  14. Drew71 says:

    Just for the record.

    The VAST majority of those of us who do not love or even like soccer are not haters, tho I see the Snidely Whiplash – Dudley Dooright story line played out all the time among the small minority of “haters” and the small minority of “lovers” who want to see hate in any sign of noncommittal.

    I’m not calling YOU out, Chuck. I’m simply playing off your use of the word Hate to make a point. I have no idea if you see my lack of interest in soccer as “hate”. If you do, then yes, i AM calling you out.

    I hope the Hounds do well for the good of the city and the benefit of my soccer loving friends. But that is well-wishing, not to be confused with fan-lee-ness.

    Let me put it in another light.

    I don’t enjoy steak or most red meat. Not a moral stand. Not a vegan, though I sometimes eat like one. I haven’t joined PETA. I just don’t enjoy the flavor and very rarely eat it. That does not make me a meat hater, or a hater-of-meat-lovers.

    I’m just saying, sometimes PETA and anti-PETA types and sports fans develop the same sort of you’re-fer-us-or-agin-us false story line that works better in a Snidely Whiplash cartoon than in real life.

  15. MadTurk says:

    20 days without meaningful hockey? YUCK!!! Let the amateurs play in the Olympics.

  16. Jody Fleming says:

    DK,
    I still can’t believe that the Riverhounds played the reigning FA Cup champions in Pittsburgh, and actually held a 1-0 lead. I really applaud you for writing this article and giving the Hounds the exposure that they deserve.

    It’s hard being a soccer fan in Pittsburgh, and I thank you for the coverage.

    DK: If you look at the pics of Wigan in their home stadium, which is huge and beautiful, you get an even better feel for what it meant to have them play here.

  17. Drew71 says:

    There are two ways to upgrade a bench.

    1. Acquire other bench players who are marginally better. I refer to them as “marginally” because if they are dramatically better, they probably would be starters.

    2. Acquire a starter or two who push a current starter or two to the bench, thereby upgrading it…as well as the starting lineup.

    Of course there is no rule that you can’t try to do both, since for instance a current 1B starter pushed down to the bench cannot replace a backup catcher.

  18. JP says:

    Try telling Sidney Crosby that the Olympics aren’t meaningful.

    Try telling Dan Bylsma that the Olympics aren’t meaningful.

    Mostly, try telling Evgeni Malkin that the Olympics in his home country aren’t meaningful.

    Something tells me they wouldn’t agree with you.

  19. Drew71 says:

    I think I’d like it better if they shortened the season rather than condensed it.

    I know. Never happen. Money.

    But when there have been labor stoppages in the NHL or NBA forcing shorter regular seasons, I’ve found the games to be better as each game has a little more urgency to the fans. And maybe to the players, too.

  20. Very well said, Drew.

  21. Drew71 says:

    Thanks, Snidely WhipLuck.

    - Dudley DrewWrong

  22. Drew71 says:

    My wife calls me Dudley.

    But I think she means something else.

  23. Jordan White says:

    If the Riverhounds remain on their current projection i.e. do well in their current league (I see theyre not doing so hot this year), graduate to a better league, and continue to host relevant international friendly’s… Jason Kutney will become a soccer legend for generations in Pittsburgh.

    Heck maybe he already is.

    At this point, he runs a pro (semi-pro?) team, got a beautiful field built on prime real estate, and has attracted a great opponent and scores of fans in what, the first couple months?

    The guy just blows me away. Pittsburgh has always had a sub-surface soccer appetite. To me, he’s the real story in all of this. He’s in his 30s? How does someone pull this off? Poor analogy here, but that’s like if I built a golf course, then convinced the US Open to hold a qualifier there, then inserted myself into the competition because its my course. Step 1, how do you build a golf course? *Mind is blown*

    DK: You’re right, Jordan, and there’s a lot to the story. Ran into Paul Child over there a couple weeks ago — to do some great Spirit name-dropping — and he felt much the same way. Says a lot.

  24. Drew71 says:

    Ah. That would make it a beautiful mind.

  25. Thundercrack says:

    Where am I?

  26. Drew71 says:

    On a beautiful blog

  27. DK reamed us in bold the other day for making people feel unwanted because they like a certain sport and some don’t.

    So I’ll keep my opinions to myself from now on, but I thought you said it here better than I could have.

  28. 21sthebest says:

    Please don’t keep your opinions to yourself Lucky.

  29. 21sthebest says:

    Beautifully stated!

  30. Drew71 says:

    Beautiful post.

    Well. Marginally beautiful.

  31. MadTurk says:

    very nice post and I agree

  32. Drew71 says:

    And thanks, Lucky.

  33. Drew71 says:

    Thank you.

    But the word of the day is Beautiful.

    Hey. It’s not MY word. I’m just following orders.

  34. MadTurk says:

    By no means I did mean not meaningful for the players, of course they like it. I am speaking of a fan for the regular season.

    Yep Drewster I agree and a shorter season in any sport except football would make the regular season more important and fun.

  35. JohninOshkosh says:

    RIP Helen Thomas.

    I digged your style.

  36. MadTurk says:

    The beautiful and maybe blog. Both topics apply in this thread. :-)

  37. Thundercrack says:

    “reamed us in bold”

    1. Love that term
    2. Using that term makes it the Post of the Day.

    3. If it isn’t in bold, is that just finger-wagging and not a reaming?

    Where’s the rule book or manual to this blog?!

  38. Drew71 says:

    Beautiful.

  39. Beautifully stated, John.

    She was born in KY. Hard to imagine.

    She was beautiful in her early pix from the 40′s and 50′s.

  40. Jerry says:

    I disagree.

    To compare the Riverhounds and Wigan to the Nailers and Calder Cup Champs isn’t fair. The disparity of the Riverhounds and Wigan is much much more than a league apart (ECHL to AHL). The Riverhounds are a 3rd tier soccer team in a country which top league (MLS) isn’t even in the top 10 leagues in the world. Dejan was just using the Penguins to show how wide the gap is between the two soccer clubs.

    Also, your assumption that the post-relegated roster is much worse than last year’s roster is just flat out wrong. If you look at the additions and departures for Wigan this transfer window, they haven’t been on a selling spree it has been about even. Remember, by winning the FA Cup they qualified for Europa League which will lessen the revenue blow of relegation.

  41. Drew71 says:

    I wonder where fray-less Arriba is today.

    Too many bold reamings?

  42. Arriba Wilver says:

    I remember seeing clips from JFK news conferences and how he dealt with her. He was very charming, but dismissive at the same time. I think she was the first woman allowed into those.

  43. Arriba Wilver says:

    Oops, didn’t see this before I posted.

  44. Drew71 says:

    Ah. It’s one in particular.

  45. Arriba Wilver says:

    Which one is that?

  46. Drew71 says:

    It’s the noon hour. So up pops the bold print.

    Just like an alarm clock.

    Or maybe somebody needs one.

  47. Aero says:

    You are right about Angulo. I was at the game vs. Orlando on Wednesday and he totally outplayed C. J. Sapong, who was called up to KC (MLS) after the game. I have a feeling he will get a chance to move up soon.

    DK: You would hope. Even if you’re the Riverhounds and you lose a player like that, you gain the reputation of a place that sent a top performer to a higher level.

  48. Aero says:

    The Riverhounds have struggled offensively for the last several seasons. Having a player with Angulo’s scoring ability has been so refreshing this season. Hopefully the amazing success at Highmark will generate the revenue to bring in even better players next season- and last night looked like a license to print money. As someone who was at a lot of games at Chartiers Valley the transformation is simply astounding- 400 fans to 4000, the stadium might be too small…

  49. Gooner says:

    To provide some further context/history/etc…Wigan is a classic Cinderella story.The town is a rugby town first and foremoest.The football team has been in existence for over 80 years but they didn’t even become pro until 1978. It took them until 2005 to be promoted to the top flight of English football. Wigan are owned by Dave Whelan, who runs the English equivalent of Dick’s Sporting Goods (he actually broke his leg in a losing effort in a F.A. Cup final in the 50′s). Their upset win over Manchester City in the final is a giant slaying of massive proportions.

    The Wigan core is that of lower Premier League quality and anybody who follows the game in England will recognize the majority of their roster. Former coach Roberto Martinez moved on to Everton (viewed as a much bigger club) this summer. Current manager Owen Coyle has a reputation as a good guy. He authored his own Cinderella story when he brought Burnley up to the Premiership in 2009.

    Summer signing Grant Holt is one of the few footballers who has scored goals in all four pro divisions in England. Callum McManaman didn’t show much last night but he was instrumental in their F.A. Cup run and is viewed as a talented prospect. Bigger clubs such as Arsenal and Spurs have been tracking James McCarthy and he is also viewed as an exciting young talent. Their staring goalkeeper didn’t play last night nor did their captain Gary Caldwell. Mainly in defense, Wigan had a number of players playing out of position. I assume about 6 or 7 starters from last night are going to be their starters for the season.

    DK: That’s much appreciated. Welcome to the blog!

  50. Jordan says:

    I’m a Wigan Athletic fan and I would like to thank the Riverhounds for the excellent live stream they provided for fans staying up late in England. It was an entertaining game and Pittsburgh showed some quality at times in the game.

    The Pittsburgh fans were great! Filling the stadium and singing all game.The Highmark stadium also looks like an amazing venue; if I ever find myself in Pittsburgh I will try and see if I can attend a game.

    I’d never heard of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds before, but you seem like an excellent club with great fans. Good luck in the rest of your season!

 
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