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New Era manifests: The Journey of 2018

By Anthony Picardi, 11/01/18, 2:00PM EDT


There are aspects that are seen...

A ring of symbolism representing a new head of a brand. Stripes of Black and Gold alternating down a pitch. Striker-level seats presenting previously unperceivable angles of action.

There are aspects that are seen.

But more than the palpable, a new era is a feeling. A movement. Something intangible that anything perceptible derives from.

A new grandstand in the east stemmed from passion that could not be contained within old renderings. A never-before-seen crowd begot from enthusiasm that sparked within a region. A full venue rested in the presence of those who witnessed Pittsburgh sports history.

And it was a substantial cap to a campaign.

Although one significant moment could culminate a season, it does not conclude an era. For an era alludes to things to come, and 2018 unleashed just the beginning.

The Buildup

Flanked by Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC owner Tuffy Shallenberger, Bob Lilley took a seat in front of the Pittsburgh media for his first time as the club’s head coach.

“Thanks, Tuffy,” Lilley said after being introduced on Nov. 14, 2017, to the crowd at Highmark Stadium. “I’m excited to be here. Thanks to all of you for showing up. Looking forward to get started here in Pittsburgh.”

When Lilley arrived in the Steel City, the franchise was in the midst of a transition. The jerseys the team recently donned during its home playoff match did not exist. Neither did the grandstand in the supporters section – for that had just been constructed preceding Highmark Stadium’s first-ever postseason showdown this past Oct. 20.

Leading up to a season ticket-holder event on the heels of a losing 2017 campaign, the club prepared to inject new energy into Pittsburgh soccer. Releasing a new logo, kits and stadium seating alongside the banks of the Monongahela River, the team set its sights on growing the game in western Pennsylvania. It wanted to embody the very soccer ball surrounded by city elements within its new trademark.

“It is turning into more and more of a soccer culture in this country,” Lilley said at the season ticket-holder event this past February. “Hopefully we can create that type of energy in and around the team here in Pittsburgh.”

On Oct. 20, this exuberance came to fruition. With the team sporting Black and Gold stripes down the front of its jerseys, the record crowd of 5,189 at Highmark Stadium reflected this look, wearing gold shirts of their own to help create an extraordinary postseason atmosphere – one that will be desired and pursued for years to come.

The Hounds hired Bob Lilley as the 10th head coach in club history on Nov. 14, 2017.

“Ultimately, we want to build a consistent winner here that’s in the playoffs every year,” Lilley said when he was introduced as head coach, “and ultimately wins a championship.”

Constructing a New Era

A historic night at Highmark Stadium originally began away from the venue.

With the commencement of preseason training camp on Feb. 5, the club elected to condition indoors at Southpointe Fieldhouse due to winter weather. Even with it being the first practice session of the season, Lilley drilled the very style of play that would earn the squad its first-ever home postseason game at Highmark Stadium.

As athletes competed over the entire length of the fieldhouse’s pitch, Lilley stressed aggressiveness and playing the ball forward.

“They say, ‘aw, you’re a great defensive coach,’ and I’m like, ‘when we’re winning, we’re getting goals and we’re defending well,’” Lilley said at his introduction press conference. “You got to get it right at both ends.”

When Lilley and his coaching staff began the team’s construction, a large number of athletes were invited on trial to compete with those already under contract. Neco Brett, the club’s leading scorer, began as a trialist. Mouhamed Dabo, Pittsburgh’s leader in tackles, began as a trialist. Hugh Roberts, a three-time USL Team of the Week honoree, began as a trialist.

Of the old faces who returned to Pittsburgh, Kevin Kerr was seemingly the most identifiable with the fan base. The midfielder first joined the club in 2013 – the inaugural season of action at Highmark Stadium. Kerr currently sits second in franchise history in appearances and points, but despite his tenure he never had the opportunity to play a postseason match on home turf prior to this season.

Just like the fans hadn’t had the chance to watch a playoff game beside the Monongahela River.

“The biggest difference is the results,” Kerr said soon after the regular season started. “This club has always had a pretty good level of talent. This year we may be a little bit deeper, but there’s just a different mentality with this group of boys. It’s not always pretty. We try to play the right way, but if it comes down to it we’re willing to get dirty and do whatever it takes to get the result.”

The enthusiasm that Kerr felt in-season, and western Pennsylvania felt on Oct. 20, dates back to this February, when fans enjoyed a kickoff event to a new era and players logged their first time together as teammates. All of it was in anticipation of something much greater in nature.

“Everything,” goalkeeper Dan Lynd said about what he looked forward to after the team’s first February training session. “I think it’s an exciting time for the Hounds. I’m excited to work with [goalkeeping coach] Hunter Gilstrap again. He was my coach in college for two years. I’m looking forward to improve every day, and hopefully we’ll be ready for Nashville.”

The Journey

For 419 minutes, Riverhounds SC’s fresh slate translated into a clean sheet.

Lasting over the course of more than four games, Pittsburgh shut out opponents and obliterated old defensive records in the process. For a season that kicked off against Nashville SC on March 24, the Hounds did not allow a goal until a match against FC Cincinnati on April 21.

“It’s a matter of our guys being comfortable together,” defender Joe Greenspan said after the squad’s first shutout of the season. “Knowing how we play, covering each other, everybody knowing their roles and then combining that into a team effort, which we did over the course of the preseason and last week. Continue to build on that going forward.”

In the midst of a historic year felt by western Pennsylvania, defense was at the center of its nucleus. Of 34 regular season games, Pittsburgh logged a USL-leading 17 shutouts. Never did an opponent score more than two goals against the Hounds – only the second time in the club’s 19-season history had it achieved this exploit.

In addition to the feats in the defensive third, Riverhounds SC did not leave out fireworks on the other end of the pitch. And it was no secret where the team’s strength was heading into the season.

With a home playoff game in his crosshairs, Kerr was joined by a wealth of talent in the midfield. Longtime rival and passing wizard Kenardo Forbes came to Pittsburgh after playing for the Rochester Rhinos. Christiano François also made the trip from Rochester to the Steel City after leading his old club in assists in 2017. The squad even received talent from the highest division in United States soccer, as Ben Zemanski brought more than 100 MLS appearances with him to the City of Bridges.

“It’s getting there,” Kerr said seven games into the campaign. “The pieces are starting to fall into place. As a player, you always look around the squad and look around the field to see if you can develop some chemistry with people. The last two years I had good chemistry with Corey Hertzog and before that Rob Vincent. Right now, [Neco Brett] is a player I really enjoy playing with.”

Three of Kerr’s four helpers came off the foot of Brett this season, and these three passes were just a small piece that led to the striker’s team-leading 15 goals. Brett, a Robert Morris University product, held down the attack in 2018 and his 37 points are the third most for a single season in club history.

But a truly excellent offensive team is just that – a team. More than one player needs to contribute for a squad to have impact in the offensive third. Of 22 different players to suit up in the field for the Hounds in 2018, 15 blasted a shot into the back of the net.

Everything came to fruition during a late-September Keystone Derby Cup-clinching showdown, as the team got it right at both ends. The defense locked down Penn FC en route to a 2-0 shutout victory. The offensive depth radiated, as both goals came off the feet of players, Kay Banjo and Andrew Lubahn, who notched their lone tallies of 2018.

When the Hounds hoisted and paraded around FNB Field with the Derby Cup, they celebrated not only a rivalry series championship but also postseason berth. And just a few days later, the entire city celebrated the clinching of a home playoff game at Highmark Stadium.

“It’s a big win,” Greenspan said after the match on the rain-soaked grass surface at FNB Field. “I think, especially, just to put in a full-90 minutes. It was a tough night. Rain delay. The field wasn’t great, but everybody put in a shift. Everybody battled – to keep a shutout was even better.”

Fill the Mark

Highmark Stadium would glitter gold, but the grandstands shimmered silver in the midst of a training session. The only roar came from a passing train rather than waves of fanatics, and the pitch was brightened by afternoon sun in lieu of stadium lights.

But in just three days, the venue would house an atmosphere fit for primetime.

“We expect a lot of stuff,” François said prior to the playoff match. “We know the fans want that. That’s what they want. They’ve been following us all season, so I think we did our best and hopefully on Saturday we give our best.”

The 100th game in Highmark Stadium history saw a record 5,189 fans in attendance.

The scene appeared to be something out of the Phil Alden Robinson-directed film “Field of Dreams.” Cars circled around Station Square with Highmark Stadium being the hub of fandom. Music at tailgates echoed into the sounds of the city across the Monongahela River. All of which provided the rising action to a climax that featured soccer under the lights.

As the match unfolded, 90 minutes turned into extra time, and 120 minutes became a penalty kick battle. All captivating an audience, a city, a region, while the sun set into the night over Highmark Stadium.

“We’ve made tremendous strides,” Roberts said after the postseason game. “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, for this crowd, this atmosphere and for everybody.”

There are aspects that are seen. But more than the palpable, a new era is a feeling. A movement. Something intangible that anything perceptible derives from. For a playoff game at Highmark Stadium was a substantial cap to a campaign.

“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 what we’re doing, and we see more crowds like this. It was a big game, and we need to have more of these in Pittsburgh as we go forward.”

And 2018 unleashed just the beginning.