When the Pittsburgh Riverhounds play their home opener on Saturday against the Harrisburg City Islanders, the team will have something they’ve never been able to claim — their own stadium.
Since their first game in 1999, the soccer team has called four different fields their home but has not been the primary tenant until now.
This year the Riverhounds are playing at Highmark Stadium next to Station Square. The field, built for the team, has 3,500 seats and a standing-room-only capacity of about 4,200 people.
Riverhounds Head Coach Justin Evans said the new stadium, with views of the Pittsburgh skyline, PNC Park and Heinz Field, will be a major factor in winning games.
“Playing at Chartiers Valley, or (Washington) Wild Things Stadium, or at Moon, or at Bethel Park wasn’t necessarily the most intimidating place to play,” Evans said. “Teams didn’t really care about it, didn’t get too up for the games, just came in and did their job and got out.”
Evans, who was the first player signed to the team in 1999, said a lot of fans would turn out for games when the team began at Bethel Park High School. But as time went on, fewer and fewer people would show up.
Bob Zebrasky, vice president of Riverhounds support group Steel Army, said he was 13 years old when the team played their inaugural game.
“I remember going to the game with my dad," he said. "It was sold out. We actually had standing-room-only tickets. We sat on the wall at Bethel Park High School and watched the team, and it was just kind of unreal because I’ve played soccer my entire life, and it was just really cool to have an outdoor team.”
Evans said the process of getting a permanent home began when new ownership took over in 2006 and forced the team to take a one-year hiatus to reorganize its business structure.
The new owners created the Riverhounds Academy, a soccer school for kids and started to solicit private funding for a new venue.
Construction on the $10.2 million stadium began in July 2012 and wrapped up this month.
Zebrasky said Steel Army was pushing the team’s front office for a soccer specific stadium since the group's creation in 2008.
“We’ve always been a thorn in their side about ‘When can we expect this? When can we expect this?’" Zebrasky said, "and we were actually at the unveiling of all the stadium plans. So that was great. It kind of hushed us up for a little while. They kind of said, ‘We’re going to do this so just bear with us,’ and less than a year later they broke ground and put a stadium up.”
In soccer, supporters groups (known as ultras in Europe) usually are formed by a team’s hardcore fans. They normally sit in their own section of a team’s home stadium, march to games and have their own chants and songs to show their support.
Zebrasky said Steel Army began with only a dozen supporters, and attendance was spotty in the early days. But with the team moving to the Station Square stadium the group has been growing, and more people have been going to general assemblies.
He said that with the new members, they can start to create their own traditions, beginning with pre-game marches of about half a mile from Station Square to the stadium.
Riverhounds defender Rich Costanzo said the team owes a lot to its fans.
“I know how Pittsburgh fans are, and we want to be considered one of the top professional programs just like the other sports,” he said. “And they want the Penguins, the Steelers and the Pirates to win, and we expect to win here as well.”
Costanzo said even though some teams in the Riverhounds’ league have soccer-specific stadiums, none have one in such a great location.
The Riverhounds currently play in the National Division of the United States Soccer League Professional Division, considered the third tier of American soccer.
Evans said that while they’re looking for a championship this year, the team plans to break into Major League Soccer in the next five to ten years. Those goals may be difficult due to MLS’s previous comments that they’ll only take 20 teams into the league. The 19th, Montreal Impact, began this season.
The Riverhounds have already played their first game of the season against the Richmond Kickers tying 0-0, the first time in four years the Riverhounds have played in Richmond and not lost.