Kovacevic: Why Pittsburgh’s falling for this team


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Steevan Dos Santos makes a heart symbol toward the crowd after his goal Friday night at Highmark Stadium. - RIVERHOUNDS SC

Cars were parked, pretty much at 45-degree angles and altogether illegally, along a grass embankment near Highmark Stadium. Others were stretched out from the base of the Duquesne Incline to the stuffed Station Square garages. And the line to carve out creative new spaces spilled all the way back onto West Carson Street.

This was traffic. Overflow traffic.

For soccer.

In Pittsburgh.

In late August, mind you, with the Pirates and Reds starting at the same time a couple rivers away, with fireworks as an extra lure over there, with high school football kicking off across the City League and WPIAL, and with everything else a sweet-breezed, summery Friday night offers the citizens of Western Pennsylvania.

"Great crowd, great atmosphere," Joe Greenspan, the Riverhounds' big center back, was telling me after this 1-0 shutout of Loudoun United FC in front of 4,074, the biggest assembly here since the season opener, bigger even than the Fourth of July. "That's great for all of us to see."

It was jarring, if I'm being completely candid. This stadium's been up for five years, and this has always been when it'd start winding down. But average attendance is up dramatically, from 2,401 last season to 3,434 this season. And on this night, it wasn't just that people were cramming the seats, the bleachers, the standing-room areas, the suites, the pub, the merchandise shop ... it's that they were watching. When there was something as routine as a quality through-ball, there was an immediate and vocal reaction.

And it was that much more for the higher-level entertainment:

That was Steevan Dos Santos with a fifth-minute finish that almost looked too easy, taking a Neco Brett chip inside the box, whirling around to notice the Loudoun back line had badly butchered an apparent offside trap, then rapping his settling touch through Loudoun's visibly hesitant keeper, Earl Edwards.

I asked Dos Santos if maybe he thought he'd been offside:

Good stuff.

And this was nearly better by a mile:

That's Brett noticing from the far half of the pitch that Edwards had come well off his line and trying to launch it over his head.

"I saw that he was way out, and I thought it'd be a good time to try it," Brett said.

And had he ever succeeded at such a thing?

"Oh, yeah. In college. Go check it on YouTube."

I did. And yeah, he did this at Robert Morris in the fall of 2014:

Anyway, by the time this one landed on the top meshing, the place had let out a huge gasp/groan.

Similar to this:

Greenspan, my man of the match, commanded the back line throughout despite a second-half injury to the back of his knee that had him limping much of the night. And what's above was his top moment, sensing that Kyle Morton might miss on his punch-out attempt and instead sliding back to support any volley over him.

Most impressive, once it came, Greenspan didn't panic and boot the ball straight ahead into the stands. He patiently turned to get it downfield with gusto.

"Just looking to make the best play there," he downplayed when I brought that up.

But the fans loved that, too, and let it be known loudly.

Tuffy Shallenberger, the franchise owner, has been telling me for a while, "There's something special happening here," and I'm becoming less skeptical of that with every passing weekend.

I'm not sure why it's happening, but it's certainly fun to try to figure out.

Anger with the Pirates?

Eh. In my experience, most Pittsburghers are all talk when it comes to protesting Bob Nutting and company. On this same night, PNC Park had an announced crowd of 20,091, or five times what was here. It's hard to imagine that anyone chose soccer out of some defiance.

The growth of soccer in the U.S.?

I'm sure that's part of it. It's still not fully in the mainstream, but it's closer than ever, and it's no longer the domain of little kids or, from the fan perspective, limited to following our men's and women's national teams or the countless leagues overseas. Major League Soccer is a real thing that's really here to stay, and USL, the Hounds' league, is now entrenched as our country's second division and both are being embraced at least enough to remain on upward curves.

Harmony among local youth programs?

Uh, no. And probably not in our lifetime. That's an extremely competitive industry, here and everywhere else, because that's where the money is made. But there at least have been some initiatives to reduce the rancor and accept the Hounds as the region's headline act.

The quality of these very Hounds?

Honestly, this is it, I think.

Pittsburghers love to cheer on a winner, and that's all they've done at Highmark Stadium in regular-season matches since the last loss July 21, 2018. For real, the Hounds are now 12-0-9 at home since that date, the lone exception, of course, being that excruciating playoff loss to Bethlehem Steel FC. Since Bob Lilley took over as coach, they're 19-4-12 here.

For this season, the Hounds are 12-4-8, fifth in USL's 18-team Eastern Conference and six points behind first-place New York Red Bulls II, who they just beat a couple weeks back in Montclair, N.J. The conference's top eight teams qualify for playoffs, and the top four get home field.

That's very real contention.

And it's built on an uncommon balance of very real talent for this level: Brett leads the team with eight goals, followed by Dos Santos at seven, Upper St. Clair native Robbie Mertz with six and the venerable captain Kevin Kerr with five. There isn't a singular USL star on the roster, and none will emerge as such, either. But there's all the chemistry, all the commitment that have long been part of the Lilley brand wherever he's been.

Well, except on this night. Because Lilley hated this particular performance. A lot.

"I don't think we respected the moment," he'd say afterward. "It was a home game, a great crowd for a Friday night. We didn't pass the ball, we didn't defend well as a team. We had guys playing all on different pages. ... It was the worst game we've played in a long time."

He's undoubtedly right. Loudoun's a 5-12-5 side with no individual topping five goals, and the Hounds could -- no, should -- have ridden Dos Santos' early goal to much more. Instead, they lapsed into all kinds of selfish play, from aimless passes to poor positioning on the attack to lax tackling to ... as he put it, "The longer you record me, the worse it'll get."

Also, it was a win. But that's Lilley. And that's also part of what's endeared him to the Hounds' season-ticket base and Steel Army supporters in such a short time. He won a USL championship in Rochester in 2015, even took down MLS opponents in the U.S. Open Cup, largely on the strength of a disciplined but aggressive -- and thus, definitely not boring -- brand of soccer. In Pittsburgh, his fire's been seen and heard by all, during and after matches.

The man was positively mortified after this one, gathering his players at midfield for an audible evisceration, then a brief press gathering, then a quick exit from the stadium.

At least as quick as all that exiting traffic would allow.

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