Whether it's the stadium, the Riverhounds themselves or the league they play in, a lot about pro soccer in Pittsburgh is unrecognizable after two decades ago.
The Hounds plan to acknowledge that history during their 2019 season -- the team's 21st in existence but 20th season on the field -- and Friday they revealed some of those plans, including the start of a Hounds Hall of Fame and unveiling a 20-year anniversary logo.
The club hosted a press conference at Highmark Stadium that began with a video featuring the Hounds' original coaching staff -- John Kowalski, Paul Child and Gene Klein -- talking about the team's founding, interspersed with clips of those early years when the team played at Bethel Park High School. Current Hounds coach Bob Lilley, who played for the indoor Pittsburgh Stingers in the mid-90s and coached against those first Hounds teams, then talked about just how different things are now.
"It's exciting to be here for the 20th anniversary having seen those early Riverhounds teams at all the places I've coached. It was never easy to come into Pittsburgh; I've been at the high schools (where the Hounds played), and we're so fortunate to have this stadium now," Lilley said. "I think one of the challenges here is reintroducing ourselves. The scale of the USL -- the USISL as it was known then — was a much smaller scale and there were many teams, not just us, that were playing in venues that was not conducive to high-level soccer. That's what the challenge is: It's reeducating the community, the media … we're spreading it as aggressively as we can."
As a result of the Richmond Kickers and Rochester Rhinos voluntarily dropping to USL League One -- the newly christened third division -- the Hounds are now the second-oldest club in the second division of U.S. Soccer behind only the Charleston Battery. The USL Championship, as the second division is now called, has been a magnet for big-money investment in recent years, with owners from the NBA and MLB buying into the league's expansion along with soccer legends such as Didier Drogba, who has had a successful run as player/co-owner with Western Conference champion Phoenix.
That puts the Hounds in the position of being part of the USL's old guard, but owner Tuffy Shallenberger has continued to make the investment to keep the Hounds competitive in a league that has grown to 36 teams and is entering the third year of a TV deal with ESPN.
"I don't need to share with you guys how much Tuffy has done here since he's taken over," Lilley said of Shallenberger, who was not at Friday's event. "The investment in Coraopolis (toward a new soccer complex), the added seating, the payroll and budget is going up. It's getting higher-level players, and we are committed to this project."
In addition to unveiling a special 20th-year logo Friday, director of operations John Rotz announced the start of a Hounds Hall of Fame that will see its first class inducted in July.
"We decided to add an element to the organization that recognizes those individuals throughout our history and their contributions to the club itself and to the game of soccer in the city of Pittsburgh," Rotz said. "The inaugural class will be announced prior to the season, and that class will be voted on by club legends, club officials and also by media throughout the area."
If the 2018 season was the start of a "New Era" for the Hounds, as the team called it when they unveiled their current primary logo and brought Lilley in as coach, the 2019 season is starting off with a nod to the club's long, if often tumultuous, history.
Never one to take his mind off the task at hand for long, Lilley did turn his thoughts back to this season with a historic note of his own, one that he surely hopes is a harbinger of things to come this fall.
"The last time I was part of a 20th-anniversary season, it was 2015 in Rochester. And 2015, Rochester, in the 20th-anniversary season, won the championship," Lilley said. "I'm hoping we can make that happen again."
The Hounds kick off preseason later Friday with a 7 p.m. game against Cleveland State. They also host Division II Gannon at 1 p.m. Sunday, wrapping the first of four straight weekends Lilley has lined up two exhibition games for his team as seeks to add to the 14 players currently under contract.
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