USL: Pittsburgh Riverhounds Chase Major League Status

Written by Ian Thomson

PITTSBURGH – A balding, middle-aged cyclist chugged along the pathway hemmed between the railway track lining the Monongahela River on Pittsburgh’s South Side and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds’ new Highmark Stadium. He veered rightward to pass behind the venue’s eastern perimeter, pausing to wipe the glistening sweat from his brow as he peered inside the venue’s main entrance. He kicked his bike stand to the concrete beneath, wheezing gently as he slowly disembarked. Two of the gate’s three sections were unlocked and an office door lay open behind it.

“Have you guys got any information about tickets?” he shouted, sticking his head inside the entrance and hoping for a response from inside the small redbrick building.

“Sorry, we don’t have anything printed off here at the moment,” came an apologetic voice from the office where an employee chomped her sandwich while busily preparing for the Riverhounds’ official stadium opening Saturday against the Harrisburg City Islanders.

“Well, how much are they generally?” the cyclist inquired.

“Ten dollars.”

“Oh, that’s great. Have you got any for Saturday night?”

“No, we’re sold out.”

“Wow, that’s fantastic,” the passer-by replied, declaring his intention to attend another game in the near future as he hopped back into his saddle.

View from the main stand at Highmark Stadium (Photo: Ian Thomson)
View from the main stand at Highmark Stadium (Photo: Ian Thomson)

Highmark Changes The Game

Jason Kutney, the Riverhounds’ chief executive and an occasional midfielder for the team, arrived at Highmark Stadium sporting brown pinstriped suit pants and a blue Riverhounds polo shirt under his light jacket. A stadium worker approached to ask him about prices at the concession stalls. Kutney spoke with another employee about removing the gridiron lines left from the Women’s Football Alliance clash between the Pittsburgh Passion and the D.C. Divas on April 6. Four days remained to prepare the stadium for its grand opening and a host of operational issues required attention.

“You name it,” said Kutney, gazing toward the downtown Pittsburgh skyline from his seat on the substitutes’ bench. “Just put a dart board of issues up on the wall and start throwing.” He pointed toward a steel panel separating the ground level of the western stand from the façade of 15 executive boxes on the upper tier.

“Little things like that bother me because you see the discoloration on the steel as it is right now,” Kutney told The Soccer Observer. “Then in the press box we need to get everything right from an I.T. standpoint so we’re ready to go with our live streaming. There’s a lot of tightening right now.”

Saturday’s game marks the end of the first phase of transitioning the Riverhounds from a listless suburban afterthought to a mainstay of the Steel City’s sporting landscape. The franchise has flitted around Pittsburgh’s outskirts since its inception in 1999, attracting attendances that marginally broke into four figures. Highmark Stadium changes the perception of the team with its location directly across the Monongahela River from downtown and next to the riverfront attractions at Station Square. Professional soccer has truly arrived in Pittsburgh, according to Kutney. Bringing Major League Soccer to the city would realize his ultimate goal.

“Pittsburgh has not had any allure over the last 10 plus years to go and watch soccer,” Kutney said. “I say that as a guy that bleeds soccer.

“It’s a tough sell to make me go to Chartiers Valley to watch a Riverhounds game,” the 31-year-old from Freehold Borough, New Jersey added, referring to the high school football field in Bridgeville, 12 miles southwest of downtown Pittsburgh, that served as the team’s temporary home for the past five seasons. “I don’t know if I would do it if I wasn’t involved.”

The Riverhounds' previous home at Chartiers Valley High School (Photo: Ian Thomson)
The Riverhounds’ previous home at Chartiers Valley High School (Photo: Ian Thomson)

Carving Out A Playing Career

Kutney’s familiarity with Western Pennsylvania’s soccer scene began when he arrived at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University in 2000 to play soccer while studying for a degree in finance and investment management. Peer pressure arose closer to graduation as Kutney’s friends and colleagues secured jobs with investment banks. Chad Kutney, a Goldman Sachs employee in New York City, gave his younger brother some unwavering advice – play as long as you can. Charleston Battery of the United Soccer Leagues A-League offered Kutney his first professional contract in 2004.

“Charleston was amazing,” Kutney said. “It was a very well run group. I started to meet and share stories with a lot of other players who had developed some opportunities in the business world through meeting different people.”

One such person was Steve Klein, a former New England Revolution midfielder who was developing a business plan to launch a soccer club called Pennsylvania Classics in Lancaster County. The two players often discussed Klein’s ideas while sharing a room during road trips.

“I started to think you can take soccer and you can meld it into something businesslike,” Kutney said.

Firstly, Kutney concentrated on developing his playing talents under the guidance of Battery head coach Mike Anhaeuser and the leadership of team captain Justin Evans. His agent arranged a training stint with Bob Bradley’s MetroStars at the end of the 2005 USL season as Kutney sought a move to Major League Soccer. Bradley’s departure for Chivas USA and the MetroStars subsequent transformation into the New York Red Bulls after a takeover by the Austrian energy drink company ended his hopes of earning a contract.

Kutney returned to Pittsburgh, where he had been living with his girlfriend during his off-seasons. He signed for the Riverhounds and took a side job at the city’s Greentree SportsPlex tennis and racquetball facility where he had worked during the winter months.

“My job was to wash towels, clean toilets and make sure that there was water on the tennis courts for the players,” Kutney said. “You had a lot of time to think about what could be done with that space. I started talking with the two owners about making it a training center for soccer, taking turf and putting it over the tennis courts. Taking the racquetball courts, leveling them and putting in a fitness center. They were very open to new ideas.”

Pittsburgh recorded a 3-2 win over West Virginia University in a pre-season game on March 22 (Photo: Ian Thomson)
Pittsburgh recorded a 3-2 win over West Virginia University in a pre-season game on March 22 (Photo: Ian Thomson)

Mixing Business With Pleasure

The Riverhounds enjoyed relative success on the field during Kutney’s debut year in 2006, finishing third in the USL Second Division regular-season standings before being bounced in the play-off semi-finals by Charlotte Eagles. Off-field events were less promising. Sports Facility LLC, owner of the Riverhounds and the Washington Wild Things minor league baseball team based 30 miles outside Pittsburgh, announced its intention to disband the soccer franchise.

Kutney had recently decided to sink his roots into the Pittsburgh area and to help transform the Greentree SportsPlex into a premier soccer facility. He now faced the prospect of having to leave town to continue his playing career. He met the two SportsPlex owners at the Bottleshop Café in Bridgeville to toss some ideas around over a few pints.

“What can we do to keep you here?” the owners asked Kutney.

“You can buy the Riverhounds,” was his response.

“It just kind of flew out of my mouth,” Kutney said. “It was a terrible prospect at the time because the Riverhounds were losing money and didn’t really have a foothold in the market. They’d moved around and never really found their niche. We looked at it, they chewed up the business model and came up with something that worked for us.”

A hiatus year followed before the Riverhounds resurfaced at Chartiers Valley in 2008 under new ownership and with Kutney, still on the playing roster, installed as the club’s CEO. A new focus was also in place – to invest in youth training to infuse Western Pennsylvania’s soccer community with confidence while identifying a permanent location for the professional team.

Enlisting An Old Teammate

Justin Evans, Pittsburgh’s first ever signing in 1999 and a native of nearby Peters Township, joined the coaching staff and became the face of the franchise who could connect with the community having trodden the pathway of a local player. San Jose Earthquakes had drafted Evans with the 16th overall pick of the 2000 MLS SuperDraft and he experienced brief spells with the Chicago Fire and the Dallas Burn before dropping to the USL level. His hire presented the unique situation whereby CEO and midfielder Kutney answered to Evans on the field while managing him away from training and games.

Evans replaced Gene Klein as Pittsburgh’s head coach for the 2010 season after retiring as player-coach. His ability to fashion a team capable of competing for the USL championship was hampered by the organization’s investment in its academy program. The development of the 3,500-seat Highmark Stadium, complete with arguably the most spectacular backdrop of any stadium in North American soccer, now acts as a magnet for players.

Ex-Seattle Sounder Mike Seamon was signed in February along with fellow midfielders Ryan Kinne and Alfonso Motagalvan. Former New York Red Bulls strike duo Jhonny Arteaga and Jose Angulo have since followed, giving Evans a roster that he feels can genuinely challenge for this year’s title. Yet any new recruits must accept extracurricular responsibilities.

“The pros here have to understand that they’re not only going to be playing professional soccer in the nicest stadium in our league, but they’re also going to be working for the children,” Kutney said. “We need to get them involved in coaching the youth because that way when the kids show up to the game they see the guy that teaches them how to strike a ball on the field rather than looking on from the grandstand in his street clothes.”

Attracting New Admirers

Parents of academy children provided the bedrock of support for the team during the barren years at Chartiers Valley. Highmark Stadium changes that, as Kutney discovered earlier this week while parking his car outside the venue. He was climbing out of the driver’s door wearing his Riverhounds jacket when a passer-by from Illinois, who was staying at the neighboring Sheraton Hotel at Station Square, approached him.

“Is that your stadium?” the visitor asked, prompting an affirmative response from Kutney.

“It’s unbelievable,” the man replied. “I don’t know a single thing about soccer, but if you sell beer there I’d come to watch a game.”

Thousands of Pittsburgh sports fans have demonstrated a similar willingness. Saturday’s opener sold out before the end of March and 150 additional standing room only tickets lining the open riverside of the stadium have almost been shifted.

Highmark Stadium's main stand (Photo: Ian Thomson)
Highmark Stadium’s main stand (Photo: Ian Thomson)

Shooting For The Top

Kutney sat on the subs’ bench at Highmark Stadium looking toward Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ home venue lying a short hop down the river to his left. He turned his head, pausing to glance at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ PNC Park floodlights further along the North Shore before resting his eyes on the downtown skyline that towers over the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Consol Energy Center.

He reflected on his decision to join the Riverhounds in 2006, taking a step back from his dream of playing top-tier soccer while thinking ‘Let’s move Pittsburgh to the highest level.’ The first phase of his project is nearing completion. Arousing Major League Soccer’s interest in the Steel City starts now.

Pittsburgh’s CEO first raised the prospect of joining MLS in an interview “six or eight months ago,” he said, provoking immediate feedback that his idea was preposterous. Some people said the same thing about Highmark Stadium five years ago.

“Yes, it’s far fetched,” Kutney said. “It’s going to be very, very difficult. It will take much, much more than my team and me to do it. It’s going to take luck. It’s going to take timing. It’s going to take investment. It’s going to take corporations from across the river looking this way and saying ‘That’s a good idea.’ But more than anything else, it’s going to take the soccer marketplace in Pittsburgh truly believing that this can be a Major League Soccer city.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that we had to start this.”

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