Hounds ignite 5,182 with home-opening romp


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Pittsburgh Riverhounds forward Steevan Dos Santos celebrates with teammates – CHRIS COWGER / PITTSBURGH RIVERHOUNDS

The Highmark Stadium parking lot provided my first clue.

I dodged pedestrian after pedestrian, tailgater after tailgater and car after car on my way to the Riverhounds' home opener against Hartford Athletic. Parking spots weren't scarce; they were non-existent. I looped and I looped, sounds of cornhole bags smacking hardwood and Garth Brooks from Silverado speakers laying down the backing track to my dilemma.

The game starts soon. I gotta find a spot. 

On my third lap, I found a worker.

Hey, man, not trying to be that guy but I'm media. Is there any special parking or something so I can get inside? 

His response provided my second clue.

"Media? Oh yeah. Right here."

He took two steps to his right, removed a cone from a previously blocked spot, and I was free. Front and center. The Hounds take care of the press like that.

They do on a night like tonight at least, when the team returned home after a 1-1-2 road stretch to open its 2019 campaign along the Mon. This wasn't just the Hounds' home opener — it was a shot at redemption after getting bounced from the playoffs in devastating fashion last October, a chance to prove that stellar, 15-win 2018 season wasn't a fluke.

And they wasted no time in solidifying that fact.

From the jump, the Hounds controlled the game, dominating possession early and thwarting any Hartford retaliation with ease.

Then, 14 minutes in, forward Steevan Dos Santos did this:

The crowd's reaction provided my third clue.

Perched atop the streetside bleachers, the press box began to shake — literally — as the fans below lost their collective minds. Six months of waiting came to this, and the payoff was oh-so-sweet.

Forget that Hartford entered the contest 0-5 with a minus-nine goal differential. This wasn't about them. This was about the Hounds and that header Dos Santos just blasted into the back of the net.

“He’s doing a great job for us," Hounds midfielder Neco Brett said of Dos Santos after the game. "He’s doing the dirty work. Everybody’s doing their jobs. He’s working really hard so it could be a little bit easier on the midfielders, and we appreciate his work."

From there, the Hounds cruised into halftime with a 1-0 lead, which proved to be a curse. Hartford charged out of the gates to start the final 45 minutes of play, putting the Hounds on their heels and notching a long-range tying goal off the foot of former Hound Jose Angulo in the 54th minute.

"As soon as it bounced, I knew we were in trouble," Hounds midfielder Kevin Kerr was saying postgame. "He used to do it all the time in training, and he scored a number of memorable goals here... I thought he was fantastic all night."

The overall theme here, however, was even more troubling to Kerr. The team came out with authority then let off the gas, allowing Hartford back in the game. That's just not acceptable.

Thankfully for Kerr and the Hounds, it all ended there. The team promptly took back control, culminating with the eventual game-winner from Kerr himself in the 74th minute.

"I saw a couple of subs about to come on and I thought, 'I probably got about a minute or two in here. I need to get a shot off,'" Kerr said with a grin. "It couldn't have worked out better."

Shortly after, in the 81st minute, Brett sealed the Hounds' 3-1 victory with this:

Then came my fourth and final clue from the loudspeakers inside Highmark Stadium.

Tonight's attendance: 5,182. Thank you to everyone for coming out and supporting your Hounds. That's 5,182. 

Yep. That's... a lot of fans. I turned to my right to pester Hounds Director of Communications Tony Picardi, who is an encyclopedia of Hounds knowledge, to double check.

"Yeah, that's more than double from last year. I'm kind of in shock," he told me.

Indeed, after some further research, last year's home opener brought 2,006 fans to Highmark Stadium, just 39 percent of today's turnout.

All the clues added up to this: Pittsburgh, at least for today, was genuinely excited to watch some soccer. That 5,182 figure is far smaller than you'll find across the river at Heinz Field or PNC Park or on Fifth Avenue at PPG Paints Arena to be certain, but the experience at Highmark Stadium had it all. Cramped parking lots. Tailgating. Spilled curly fries on the steps. Tight quarters between halves. Spilled beer splashing onto your shoes with every step. Feverish, overboard fans.

Hounds head coach Bob Lilley was telling me all about it after the game, and while he was clearly satisfied, you could sense something else in his response, too. Lilley wasn't surprised or shocked by it. He simply felt the team finally got what it deserved, that soccer got what it deserved in Pittsburgh.

"I thought tonight was as good an atmosphere as I've seen in a long time," Kerr echoed. "Very similar to the home playoff last year... I think there is a lot of truth that people want to see a winning, successful team. We were able to do that last year, and we're super excited to continue it."

The next step comes next Saturday, April 20, when the team tackles game two of a three-game homestand against the USL Eastern Conference-leading St. Louis FC (4-1-1).

• You can't not love Kerr's demeanor, man. It's impossible. He tied Hounds Hall of Famer David Flavius for the franchise's all-time assists record (25) on Dos Santos' early goal, and when asked what that meant to him, he fired back with... this:

•  The Hounds out-shot Hartford Athletic 18-9 in this contest and also bested them with shots on target 6-2.

•  Hartford Athletic conceded 17 fouls to the Hounds' 10.

•  The Hounds controlled possession 51.7% to Hartford Athletic's 48.3%. Watching the game, that stat surprises. The Hounds felt even more in control in the flow of the game.

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