By Dejan Kovacevic | Trib Total Media
What a wonderful night over at Highmark Stadium …
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.
Maybe 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.
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.
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.