As we anticipate the Pittsburgh Riverhounds next game, at home Saturday (5 p.m. kickoff) at Highmark Stadium against FC Cincinnati, one of the big success stories in U.S. soccer a season ago, passionate fans on both sides seem eager for a rivalry develop between the two sides.
In just one year, FCC’s has already seen the creation of an impressive six independent supporters groups. One of them, Die Innenstadt, will be taking part in a bus trip (sponsored by Cincinnati Soccer Talk website and has purchased a large number of tickets for Saturday’s game. They will be sitting adjacent to the Pittsburgh Steel Army, located in the Paul Child Stand, in the East End of Highmark Stadium.
In fact, Die Innestadt will be expecting to have more than 150 fans, many who will be here for the weekend.
“Our biggest goal is to bring home a win for FC Cincinnati. We’re determined to have a hell of a time trying, and our goal is to turn this road game into a home game for the team,” said Ryan Lammi, Die Innenstadt supporter.
The Riverhounds have been a part of the American soccer landscape for almost 20 years in the second and third division levels, with support from a small, loyal soccer fan base in a market that has never fully embraced soccer, but hasn’t dismissed it either.
FC Cincinnati, on the other hand, had a sparkling debut in 2016, setting USL attendance records and having a solid season on the field, finishing 3rd overall in Eastern Conference, led by former U.S. National Team player John Harkes and a breakout season by Sean Okoli, who has since signed with Major League Soccer’s NYCFC.
Early last season, the first match between the two sides in May took place before a then record crowd of more than 23,375 at Nippert Stadium. FCC’s ownership, with very close ties to the Cincinnati Bengals, really tried to pump up its fan base by spotlighting the “Pittsburgh-Cincinnati” rivalry in other sports — namely capitalizing on the animosity between the AFC Central’s Bengals and the Steelers.
FCC even paraded a number of Bengals players out as “Honorary Captains”, including Adam “Pac Man” Jones and Vontez Burfict, prior to the contest, which Pittsburgh were defeated 1-0.
The two teams didn’t meet again until the end of the season, when they played two games 10 days apart at Highmark Stadium. These contests were mostly anti-climatic in terms of fan interest, as they played to a scoreless draw, then a 1-0 match with a bizarre penalty being awarded to FCC enabling Okoli to add one more goal to his USL Golden Boot leading total of 16 goals.
Now, as the teams head into a week two clash here in Pittsburgh on Saturday, the Riverhounds have pushed ahead of FCC in the standings after a week one draw against the defending league champs, NY Red Bulls II, while FCC took a 2-1 road defeat against the team that spoiled their first ever home playoff game, Charleston Battery.
Earlier in the week, when I asked one member of the Hounds front office about looking at Cincinnati as a potential rival and what the chances of countering FCC’s actions from a year ago to help fuel some animosity and interest for this season’s lone game at Highmark Stadium with the Queen City squad, the response wasn’t entirely dismissive, but the answer returned to me was that the organization’s focus is on winning games first, and they’re not so concerned about stirring things up, and they seem content to let the rivalry materialize organically.
The Steel Army though, are bracing for an invasion.
Many members have been trying to get fellow Pittsburghers on board to get out to the game.
Here’s what Steel Army posted on its Facebook event page for the game:
“This will be our biggest test of defending the stadium since the DC United game two seasons ago (at Highmark Stadium when Hounds lost 3-1 to MLS side in OT), and we have no intentions of being made to look bad in our own house.
So, this is the call to arms. If you have had that friend, relative, or co-worker that keeps saying they want to go to a game, THIS IS THE GAME TO GET THEM TO HIGHMARK!”
Lammi sees this game as the potential start to what could be a very good rivalry.
“I would love for Pittsburgh to become a true rivalry with FC Cincinnati. The proximity between the two cities definitely lends itself to that dynamic, and there’s a natural rivalry there between the two cities in other sports (Reds vs. Pirates, Bengals vs. Steelers, Cincy vs. Pitt, etc),” added Lammi, who certainly sees Louisville as a chief foe, especially after last season’s inaugural ‘Dirty River Derby”.
“Pittsburgh was near the bottom of the table last season and failed to score a goal against us in the three matches we played, so it’s difficult to develop a rivalry under those conditions. With the 3-3 shootout the Riverhounds had with Red Bulls II last week, perhaps things will be a little different in 2017.”
The fact is, with its success (already 11,000 season tickets sold for 2017!), FCC is already in the conversation to make the move to next level of American soccer. They are one of 12 cities that Major League Soccer (MLS) has identified as viable places for expansion teams at the top of the American Soccer Pyramid.
Pittsburgh is a different proposition in terms of where it stands on the radar of professional soccer in the U.S. The Hounds organization, at this point despite its relative longevity, appear to be focused on building a successful business model at the current (second division) level in a market that already has three major league teams.
The Steel Army have carried its flag in support of the Hounds for 10 years, and while they have not achieved the same success in recruiting what Cincinnati’s groups like Die Innenstadt have (more than 500 members in first year!), they’ve established a proud tradition and provided what the Riverhounds organization has needed — a passionate, loyal supporter group that is there through it all.
CHECK OUT OUR INTERVIEWS WITH STEEL ARMY MEMBERS MARIA PETRILLO AND ELIZABETH BROKAW PRIOR TO THE HOME OPENER
The Army has traveled to Harrisburg for three straight seasons and also made trips to Rochester and New York. The organization and team ownership has returned the favor for their loyalty, even helping with the costs of some of those bus trips.
Since Harrisburg City Islanders came into existence in the mid-2000’s, they’ve been part of a natural rivalry that has picked up steam in recent years with creation of the Keystone Derby Cup — that was won in memorable, and thrilling four-game series in 2015 by the Hounds, and then by City Islanders in 2016.
No offense to Harrisburg, but a Pittsburgh-Cincinnati soccer rivalry could be bigger. Being that Cincinnati is bringing a passionate group to Pittsburgh, may be the type of thing that could get Pittsburghers more charged up to support its soccer team. This is the type of rivalry that has the potential to get more casual sports fans in Pittsburgh interested in supporting its soccer team.
So, maybe Saturday, we might see the beginning of a budding new rivalry.
It will sure be interesting to look over to the East End of Highmark Stadium to see the Paul Child Stand to be filled in Back and Gold, but just next to them, to see a section filled in Orange and Blue.
“We’re thrilled to visit y’all in Pittsburgh, and even more excited to bring home the W,” added Lammi.
“We would love to have a true rivalry form with the Riverhounds. Maybe this match will be the start of that.”
**NOTE** Lemme also added that a large contingent from FCC’s group will be taking the incline up to Mt. Washington, where they will be watching Dortmund vs. Schalke match at Redbeards, which will be opening up early that morning for the group. They said Riverhounds/Pittsburgh fans are welcome to join them.
FCC SIGNS FORMER ARSENAL DEFENDER
On the field — FCC announced today the signing of Justin Hoyte, a former right-back for English Premier League club, Arsenal, for the 2017 season.
“To add a player that has Premier League experience is a major addition to our squad,” commented Head Coach Alan Koch.
“Justin’s personality and humbleness for someone who has already achieved a significant amount in the game is enriching for our group. Our younger players can use him as a mentor as they grow their careers. I also know that Justin is incredibly motivated to be successful here in North America and I look forward to working with him. He is a versatile defender and will compete for a starting position in our team immediately.”
During his time at Arsenal, Hoyte was part of the squad that won the 2003-04 Premier League championship. He also won the FA Youth Cup with Arsenal in 2001. Hoyte has made 80 premier league appearances, seven champions league appearances and has logged nearly 300 games as a professional.
Hoyte last played with Dagenham & Redbridge FC, of the National League (England) in 2016 before entering free agency and signing on with FCC.