Hounds

Hunter’s Grind: Hounds set to serve up entree

Bob-Lilley-Pittsburgh-Riverhounds-soccer

The Riverhounds enjoyed a productive season in 2018 — and now they’re ready to take it to the next level.

Bob Lilley addresses the fans and media Saturday at Highmark Stadium. - Chris Cowger / Riverhounds

I need you to watch this.

It provides important — even vital — context for everything that’s to come:

That’s the Riverhounds’ 2018 season sinking deep into the Mon. A promising, probably overachieving run had the overflow home crowd at Highmark Stadium on edge and then… poof.

They weren’t just eliminated from the playoffs. They were eliminated from the playoffs like that. Devastating as it may be to re-live the carnage, know this: Nobody within the organization is OK with that result.

Not owner Tuffy Shallenberger. Not team captain Kevin Kerr. And definitely not head coach Bob Lilley.

Those three made that point abundantly clear Saturday inside Highmark Stadium, where the team and its leaders gathered to celebrate the squad’s 20th-anniversary kickoff event, which was open to season-ticket holders following their final preseason match vs. Toronto FC II.

I think anyone can spike up for a year,” Lilley was telling me. “When you start to repeat that process and change the culture… we want to show that last year was the real deal and that we plan to stay at the top of our conference and challenge for championships each year.” 

Yeah, but what does Tuffy think?

“We’re not ready to slow down,” Shallenberger echoed. “This is exciting. You can feel it.”

OK, so the coach and the owner got together to form a narrative. Cool. The players probably have a different outlook, though.

We set the bar high last year, and our goal now is to beat it,” Kerr told me. 

Well then.

Last season was great and unexpected and fun — but the team craves more. From top to bottom, that much is clear. Need proof? Remember that video I told you to watch earlier?

The goalkeeping was… not ideal, right? The Hounds recognized this fact, and they went out to get Ben Lundgaard via loan from Columbus Crew SC of MLS. The 6-5 keeper was an All-ACC first-team selection at Virginia Tech and the 21st overall selection in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft.

This is just like the time the Pirates had a need at shortstop so they went and signed Manny Ma… OK, I can’t even finish that sentence. Moving on …

• The team announced its inaugural Hall of Fame class at the event. After some words from GM Kevin Johnston, a video played which revealed team founder Paul Heasley, all-time leading scorer David Flavius, first head coach John Kowalski, first-ever draftee (and former coach) Justin Evans and first-ever GM Dave Kasper as the five inaugural members of the Hounds Hall of Fame.

• Upgrades! In his opening statement, Johnston also announced that Highmark Stadium will receive fresh turf for the 2019 season. Construction is set to begin Monday and will conclude before the team’s home opener April 13.

The players are pumped.

“It’s massive,” Kerr was telling me. “We train there every day, we play our games [there]. Along with just the new turf, it will be much easier on the body… We feel like we’re a good soccer team, and the current turf isn’t the best if you want to play good football. So a nice, new turf — hopefully we can be the biggest benefactor.”

Lilley echoed Kerr’s sentiments, saying the turf not only provides physical benefits to his players, but it also represents the seriousness with which they’re taking the team’s continued growth. You know, that whole winning philosophy.

“I think the owner’s making the commitments that are necessary,” Lilley said. “Obviously, it’s our job as a staff and as a team to get the results. But we need the help of the fans and the community to get behind this team, and it’s a competitive league [and] we are working tirelessly trying to really raise the profile of this team in Pittsburgh.” 

• In addition to the new turf, the team will sport a new look in 2019. They revealed their full arsenal of kits for the upcoming campaign:

I won’t proclaim to be an expert in soccer kits, but the black-and-gold and the gray-and-black steal the show here for me. The white is what it is, but those other two are money.

• The players, the coaches and the owner certainly said the right things and painted the right picture… but how did the fans feel? Well, the packed house in attendance literally broke into song mid-way through Lilley’s address. It was an energetic, borderline rowdy atmosphere at times. These fans were fired up, and they weren’t shy about showing it. They’re ready for soccer, and they’re ready for those wins to pile up once again.

• Finally — and this one will be of interest to Hounds fans more than the players or coaches — the team partnered with Full Pint Brewing Company to release SC session copper ale.

The beer will be available at Highmark Stadium and at Full Pint’s taprooms in North Versailles and Lawrenceville. It will also become available in select bars and distributors around the Pittsburgh area.

Bottoms up.