A Football Town With a Soccer Problem
Despite three Stanley Cups championships and five World Series titles to its name, Pittsburgh is undeniably a football town. Every time Monday Night Football comes to town, Pittsburghers are treated to hearing ESPN’s crew praising our city’s blue-collar work ethic, as well as noting how that work ethic is reflected in our football team. They’re not wrong. The Steelers have a unique bond with their city that few other teams in the NFL, let alone in the whole of professional sports, can claim. For example, the Terrible Towel, originally a tool for supporting the Steelers, has become just as strongly associated with the city as a whole.
Surprisingly enough, this won’t wind up being a post about football, so much as it’ll be about fútbol. Considering Pittsburgh’s passion for the sports world (maybe “passion” is the wrong word to describe our relationship with the Pirates in the last twenty years, but bear with me), it surprises me that our own Pittsburgh Riverhounds don’t get more in the way of love from the ‘Burgh’s historically spirited fanbase.
Okay, fine. Maybe it’s not all that surprising. Most Americans—not just Pittsburghers—have had a tense relationship with the game of soccer since we gave up the game in grade school. (Admit it, you only played for the orange slices at halftime. I know I did). I get it. You want touchdowns and home runs. Even hockey goals are more exciting than soccer goals, partially because you know the names of the guys who are scoring them, and partially because the powers that be have made it impossible for hockey games to end in a tie. Ties are boring, and any game that offers the outcome of neither a win nor a loss must also be boring. Period. End of discussion.
Hold on a second. The Steel Army would like a word with you. On Sunday, I headed down to Station Square to see the Riverhounds square off against Antigua Barracuda FC. The Hounds trounced Antigua, by a score of 4-1, but the highlight for me was the passionate supporters group who gathered on the bleachers behind the goal line, and spent nearly the entire game shouting, chanting, singing, beating drums, waving flags, and generally stirring up a ruckus, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a sustained level at a professional sporting event. Sure, every once in a while someone will get a good chant going, (“Let’s Go Bucs, “Let’s Go Pens,” “Here We Go Steelers,” etc.) and I won’t deny that 65,000 people waving Terrible Towels in unison is a pretty exciting sight to see, but it always seems that, eventually, stadiums are awash in a “Too Cool to Care” attitude, and the fan participation dies down after about a minute and a half. What I witnessed on Sunday in Highmark Stadium (the capacity of which is around 4,000 bodies) was almost a full 90 minutes of unabashed engagement, from truly passionate fans. The Steel Army takes its cues from traditional English supporters, (no hooligans though, as far as I could tell, so feel free to bring the kids) and even though their numbers are significantly smaller, they make up for it by being very loud and very invested in the outcome of the game. I get the feeling that if you spent some time with the Army, you’d become just as invested. Even if you don’t see the appeal of soccer as a game, or if you don’t understand it completely, I’ve said it before: there’s something exciting about a group of people bonding over city pride, and the Army has city pride in droves.
If I still haven’t convinced you by way of my “passionate soccer hooligans” argument, (even though they really do seem like lovely people) at least do yourself a favor and go check out the stadium. Situated in Station Square, Highmark Stadium opens out onto the Monongahela River and offers a really awesome view of the Point that faces opposite Heinz Field and PNC Park on the Allegheny. The Hounds carry their ten game unbeaten streak (unfortunately, that does include ties) into a match against the Charlotte Eagles on the Fourth of July at 7:00 PM. Tickets start at $9.50. What better way to celebrate your country’s independence than with cheap semi-professional soccer? Then, toward the end of July, (July 19th, to be exact) Wigan Athletic comes to town. For those who are unfamiliar, Wigan Athletic is a club from across the pond in Merrie Olde England. They’re also the reigning FA Cup champions, which is kind of a big deal. Think March Madness multiplied by eleven or so. Every football club in England (all 758 of them) automatically qualifies, then they duke it out for the oldest association football championship in the world. So now the victorious Latics are bringing the FA Cup to Pittsburgh, and would probably be missing out if they weren’t given the whole Pittsburgh sports experience that one might receive at a Steelers, Pirates or Penguins game.
But if you really must avoid the association football, you can head down on July 3rd at 6:30 PM for a free concert and a great view of the Three Rivers Regatta Fireworks show. At least you can be sure that the fireworks won’t end in a tie.