USL: New Pittsburgh Riverhounds President Richard Nightingale Outlines Plans For Club

Written by Ian Thomson

PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Riverhounds owner Tuffy Shallenberger has stayed out of the limelight since acquiring the team and Highmark Stadium last year. He prefers to set up the club’s press conference podium while wearing his baseball cap and jeans rather than to be standing behind it in a sharp suit.

That changed Wednesday – well, partly – when Shallenberger welcomed a media gathering to announce the United Soccer Leagues Pro Division side’s new executive line-up and coaching staff.

Richard Nightingale, a 16-year veteran of sporting-goods maker Nike Inc., joins the Riverhounds in a presidential capacity with Jason Kutney moving from the chief executive role into a new sporting director position. Former Charlotte Eagles head coach Mark Steffens was confirmed as Pittsburgh’s head coach with last year’s interim appointment Niko Katic becoming his assistant.

It has been less than six weeks since a federal judge approved the Riverhounds’ restructuring plans after Shallenberger filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March.

“It’s probably one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in my business career,” said Shallenberger, dressed in jeans and a personalized Riverhounds training top despite shunning the cap on this occasion.

“If we’d not made that decision the future of pro soccer in Pittsburgh was very bleak,” he said.

“Now the future is very bright.”

Nightingale has been brought in to oversee the operations of the team and the stadium. He lived in Pittsburgh for two years during the mid-1990s and will relocate back to the Steel City in the New Year from his current home in Portland, Oregon. The vision for the club that he outlined Wednesday featured a few notable takeaways, including:

  • An end to Pittsburgh’s affiliation with the Houston Dynamo or any other Major League Soccer franchise.
  • The creation of a professional women’s team within three years to play at the highest possible level.
  • Bringing international soccer events to Highmark Stadium.
  • Transforming Highmark’s bar area into a full-time social environment by broadcasting European soccer games on weekend mornings and incorporating memorabilia from Pittsburgh’s soccer past.
  • Improving the club’s branding and use of social media to enhance its engagement with the city’s soccer community.

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MLS franchises had been mandated to either affiliate with a USL PRO team by 2015 or enter their own reserve sides into the third-tier league. It appears that there is no obligation on USL teams to enter into such an agreement. Pittsburgh is choosing to go it alone after a bumpy ride on the field with Houston.

Nightingale has discussed his intent to “take our fate into our own hands” with USL chief executive Alec Papadakis and received the green light. The club will still seek to bring in short-term loan players from higher divisions if the roster becomes depleted through injuries or suspensions, but there will be no formal partnership in place.

The incoming president was at the Pasadena Rose Bowl in 1999 when Brandi Chastain smashed home the winning penalty kick in a shootout against China to clinch the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the United States. Nightingale has also witnessed the success of the Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Soccer League with crowds of over 13,000 regularly watching top players like Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath.

The Riverhounds have produced some talented girls’ teams recently with the Under-15 side lifting a national championship last July despite playing at U-16 level. Creating a women’s team is a natural progression that gives those youngsters an aspiration to reach the professional level in their home city.

Discussions with U.S. Soccer executives Dan Flynn and Jay Berhalter have already taken place, Nightingale said. Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and Orlando City president Phil Rawlins are two other acquaintances that he can consult for advise based on their experiences of running and building up the women’s side of their respective franchises.

Nightingale’s conversations with U.S. Soccer have also touched on the possibility of hosting a U.S. women’s team game.

“They’re very open to that,” Nightingale told The Soccer Observer. “They want to bring the women’s team to new markets where they don’t traditionally play and people want intimate environments.”

Any such event would represent a homecoming for current national team and Houston Dash defender Meghan Klingenberg whose younger brother, Drew, played for the Riverhounds’ Professional Development League team this past summer. A decision may rest on whether Highmark Stadium’s capacity is raised to 5,000 seats from its current level of 3,500 – another component of Nightingale’s plans.

Englishman Nightingale helped to orchestrate Manchester City’s first two tours on U.S. soil. An expansion at Highmark would also increase its likelihood of staging glamour summer exhibitions featuring touring European teams. England’s Wigan Athletic played the Riverhounds in 2013 shortly after winning the F.A. Cup.

One feature of the club’s recent bankruptcy was that financial projections entered the public domain. Those figures indicated a trebling of advertising and marketing costs over the next three years as the Riverhounds seek to elevate their brand. Nightingale will be scrubbing those projections and creating new budgets, but he admitted that advertising will command a larger percentage of expenditure going forward.

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Kutney’s new role as sporting director will see him reporting to Nightingale with responsibility for overseeing Pittsburgh’s senior team, the PDL side, the Riverhounds Academy and its various youth teams. Kutney traded playing in midfield for negotiating the bankruptcy minefield last season. He expressed his excitement to be returning to a position that allows him to focus on soccer.

Winter press events lacquered in positivity have become something of a ritual for the Riverhounds in recent years. Highmark’s construction ahead of the 2013 season was supposed to herald a new dawn for a team that had previously missed the USL playoffs more often than not. A slow start and seventh-placed finish that year led to a quick post-season exit at Orlando City.

The Houston affiliation and signing of former Fulham striker Collins John were meant to catapult the Riverhounds toward a title charge this year. Constant to-ing and fro-ing from the MLS contingent undermined Pittsburgh’s team chemistry and John disappeared without trace by mid-July.

Optimistic beams radiated across the Highmark Stadium suite again on Wednesday. Pittsburgh’s soccer fans are accustomed to the show.

The difference this time around could be that Shallenberger has made key moves to maximize the respective talents of those within his bolstered front office.

 

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