Ray Lee stood and waited for the children to come.
That's how it works here at Highmark Stadium for soccer. The Riverhounds play a match. They win, lose or draw. And when the referee blows the whistle three times, the players meet briefly at midfield, trot over to thank the Steel Army supporters, then scatter to designated spots about the pitch and wait for the children to come for autographs. And they'll sign every last cap, jersey, program, whatever it takes to entice them back someday.
This wait for Lee was taking far longer than the norm. No one would approach him but for consoling teammates.
Still, he never budged. He stood and waited. Eyes glazed. Shoulders slumped. But chin up, still looking.
Finally, one young boy walked up. Couldn't have been older than 8.
"Mr. Lee? I'm sorry for your loss. I'm sorry."
"Thank you," Lee replied, barely audible.
He then reached for his Sharpie. But he couldn't find it, fumbling around his kit's pockets in vain.
One never knows what goes through the hearts and minds of our youngest. But this boy, maybe sensing this, maybe not, outstretched his right hand -- no hesitation, full extension -- for a shake.
"Thank you for a great season, Mr. Lee," the boy would say.
"Thank you," Lee would reply again, no more audible than the first.
The boy and his dad walked off. Lee stood there. Chin still up, still looking.
One day, this just might be seen as the match that mattered most.
If the Hounds ever truly take off in our city, if their names ever become known beyond the diehards and the youth academy kids, if their 4,000-seat stadium is ever filled more frequently than the Fourth of July, mark my words: This will be the one cited as the pivoting point.
Because people cared. They genuinely, emotionally, rubbing-their-eyes cared.
Oh, the result itself was excruciating. The first playoff game ever played in the place wound up a 3-2 loss by shootout to Bethlehem in the United Soccer League's single-elimination Eastern Conference quarterfinal. And this after blowing two leads, including one in overtime.
Just like that, the best season in the franchise's 18-year history, the best crowd in stadium history at 5,189 ... all went up in an Army-like yellow puff.
"Brutal," captain and midfielder Kevin Kerr would tell me afterward. "Just rips your guts out."
The result for Lee was something else entirely:
Yeah, for those who weren't there, that's exactly what it appears to be: Final shot of the shootout. A left-footed shank that might as well have missed the left post by a million miles.
Few exercises in organized sport are crueler than soccer's penalties. They're not so much about who succeeds but about who fails. And to that point of the shootout, seven rounds deep, every single shot was converted, most of them easily. So as each ensuing player would stride to the line to take his turn, it became painfully clear that someone was going to need to lose this rather than win it.
The order for the first five shooters was chosen by Bob Lilley, as that's always the coach's call. But he left the order of the next five shooters up to the players standing out at the center stripe, locked arm in arm. All 10 have to be used, even the keeper. So the players, working off history, instinct and even body language, saved Lee for eighth. Only Hugh Roberts, a defender, and Dan Lynd, the keeper, would go after him.
Here's Lee a couple minutes before his kick, captured by our Matt Sunday, all the way off to the right:
Lee's an intense dude. It's served him well throughout his professional career, and it served the Hounds well all summer. But there's a fine line between intensity and nerves. The shootout isn't for everyone, and it wasn't for him.
I approached Lee, too, to ask about the shot. Until I saw his eyes and I just couldn't. I congratulated him on a fine season.
"Thank you," he replied, barely audible.
Todd Pratzner, a fellow defender, wouldn't leave Lee's side. Even while Lee waited for the children, Pratzner stood close by, arms folded, watching his friend.
Other defenders did likewise. This was Joe Greenspan, leader of the back line:
Those guys cared. They cared a lot.
As much credit as Lilley's gotten from the fan base -- and he and assistant Mark Pulisic deserve a ton -- and as much credit as team owner Tuffy Shallenberger's similarly earned for having boldly brought those two winners aboard, the players bought into Lilley's demanding ways, embraced each other and improved year-over-year from 8-12-12 with crowds routinely in triple-digits to 15-5-14, third place in the 16-team conference, home field for a playoff match and, of course, this crowd.
And that's really the thing: It isn't just the people at Hounds HQ who care. Not anymore.
Want to hear something wild?
James Chambers, Bethlehem's often obnoxiously animated captain, tied the score at 2-2 on a free kick in the 109th minute. And in roughly the same motion, he rushed toward the Highmark bleachers and cupped his hand over his ear. You know, as if to say he couldn't hear all the fans' noise anymore.
That happened in Pittsburgh. Think about it.
With each of the Hounds' two goals came the two loudest sounds I'd heard in the place:
And when it ended, I saw people all over the place in palpable shock.
Those people didn't come down here for the view. They sure didn't come for the weather, which ranged from rainy to windy to tropical storm at a couple stages. Oh, the $1 beer, amazing proximity to the action, and all of Highmark's other attractions didn't hurt, but that's been there for five years. That's not what this was, either.
They came for soccer.
No, actually, they came for a Pittsburgh sporting event.
They'd become invested in this team, these players and, you'd better believe, this game.
The seats were all gone by Friday, though the team kept right on selling SRO, including a thick walkup. Tailgating began hours before kickoff in the Station Square lots, which overflowed and spilled out onto nearby embankments. The big pub, the bleachers, the new rows along the train tracks, the Army were all crammed. Gold T-shirts were given out at the door, but the focus on the action was all-organic. The ref was booed when he needed to be booed. The roar for Kerr as a late sub was a telling show of respect for the most tenured player. And by the overtime and shootout, people were cringing, chewing nails, even turning away because they couldn't stand to watch.
"For me, it was right when we walked out of the tunnel," defender Jordan Dover told me. "We couldn't believe it. We couldn't believe the place was like that."
My favorite: One teenaged fan stood up on a chair in a suite balcony, presumably to get a better view, only to turn around himself once the shootout had begun.
No, wait, it was this: Well after the match ended, a few fans lined up where the still-giddy opponents were exiting the pitch and heckled them mercilessly.
"Yeah, but you guys still have to go back to Bethlehem!"
Heckling at a soccer match? Here?
This wasn't some gimmicky, one-shot event attended by the casually curious. It was a Pittsburgh sporting event.
Because an unprecedented number of people cared.
"What was the attendance?" Dover asked me.
I'd already mentioned it to him, but I repeated: 5,189.
He made a fist with his right hand and thumped his heart.
"We're proud of that," forward Christiano Francois told me. "We've come a long way, our team. We hurt right now, but we've come a long way. Look at all these people here in October, getting wet. That's very important to us. When we come back next year, we're going to be stronger here and there."
He pointed to the main bleachers. And maybe he's right.
“It would’ve been nice to give them a great victory tonight," Lilley said. "They were awesome. They were fantastic. I hope they believe in us, in what we’re doing, and we see more crowds like this.”
“We’ve made tremendous strides," Roberts said. "To even lock up a home-field advantage, to be top three to where this team has been over the years, it’s been tremendous for us. This crowd, this atmosphere ... everything.”
Shallenberger had been insisting to me for years that all the Hounds needed was to win on the field to win off it. He's Connellsville to the core, and he correctly read that the regional market would buy into soccer if there could be a sense of community behind it. Not just the youth groups the team's been chasing for years, but the common Pittsburgh sports fan.
He was right. He wouldn't want to hear that now, crestfallen as he was by this loss.
"It wasn't good enough," he'd tell me of the Hounds' showing, eyes still beet-red. "We let everybody down."
No, with all due respect, they didn't. The 2018 Hounds lifted themselves and, by extension, hope for soccer to a height not seen in these parts. With a full offseason of faith restored -- Lilley's hiring and many moves came too late last year to significantly impact season-ticket sales -- the repercussions of this can be real.
Now, someone take my man Ray down to the big brewpub and buy all the boys a round.
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