Five Seasons On the Mon: Top Riverhounds Moments @HighmarkStadium

 

As the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Harrisburg City Islanders renew acquaintances Saturday evening, the Riverhounds will host a celebration commemorating its fifth season at Highmark Stadium.

This seemed like a good time to have a little bit of a trip down memory lane — looking at the highlights in the stadium’s short history — and I’ve come up with my Top Five Riverhounds moments at the facility during this time.

The Hounds aptly titled Saturday’s festivities “Celebrating Five Seasons on the Mon” — and you can click here to see the full list of activities planned.  Among the things the Hounds will be doing will be honoring original club members who participated in the first-ever game at Highmark Stadium, also against the City Islanders.  The only players, that were on the field on that opening night, that are expected to be there on Saturday will be Kevin Kerr and Mike Green for the Riverhounds (Hunter Gilstrap who was GK that night, is a coach now), and City Islanders’ Nick Noble and coach Bill Becher.

So much has changed in five seasons.   In 2013, the USL was USL PRO.  Back then they had 12 teams, including a team that played no home games (Antiqua Barracuda F.C.). Now, USL has 30 teams and counting, and has moved from the second to the third division in U.S. Pro Soccer set up.

For the sake of this article, I will leave this list limited to Riverhounds games, however, I will have to admit, there have been some very memorable moments in other contests, most notably, the WPIAL High School Boys and Girls Championships played each year since Highmark opened as well.

In addition, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that have also been many games played by other teams that call Highmark Stadium home that have won Championships, like Point Park University and Carlow University soccer teams as well as Central Catholic boys football.   The University of Pittsburgh men’s football team also hosted its Blue – Gold scrimmage there in 2015.   And then there was a Steve Miller concert that sort of took place on one stormy Pittsburgh summer night, but I’ll leave that story for another day.

Again, focusing on the main tenants of the facility, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, I came up with a top five — and a few honorable mentions, simply because there were some memorable games and moments that that I thought couldn’t be excluded when talking about the first five years of Riverhounds soccer in Highmark Stadium.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Okay, lets get this one out of the way right now…

MOST NOTORIOUS MOMENT

The Romeo Parkes game.

Yes — it’s hard to ignore — but this now infamous incident happened at Highmark in early May 2016 in a game between the Hounds and the team that would end up winning the USL Cup, New York Red Bulls II.   Parkes, who scored earlier in the match, and was the Hounds leading scorer early that season, was sent off with a red card after an incident with Red Bulls’ Karl Ouimette.

Of course, it didn’t end there.

As the two were walking off the field, Parkes delivered a studs-first kick to Ouimette’s back, flooring the Red Bulls midfielder, where he laid on the ground for nearly 10 minutes and eventually left the field in a stretcher.  Parkes, who lost control of himself, had to be restrained by some of his teammates, and even one of the Red Bulls players and fellow Jamaican countryman, Junior Flemmings.

Parkes’ contract was immediately terminated by the Hounds and he was not only banned from USL for the season, but also faced a ban from FIFA for the rest of 2016.

It was a black eye in a season that quickly spiraled out of control for the Riverhounds.  While the video of the incident went viral, as many people from all corners of the globe got their first look at Highmark Stadium through an ugly incident.

Once his ban was lifted near the end of 2016, Parkes returned to El Salvador to play for the team he played for prior to being in Pittsburgh, Isidro Metapan, where he’s since scored eight goals.

FIRST EVER PK SHOOTOUT

It was an uncharacteristically cold May night.  There were very few fans in attendance for a 2nd round U.S. Open Cup match that the Hounds barely publicized locally.  Maybe there were 500 people there at the start of the game, by the end of the second overtime period, there had to be about 200 left.

The USL PRO Hounds were pushed to the limit on that night in May 2013, and then again in May 2014, by the same pesky amateur team from Chicago — RWB Adria with a goalie by the name of Igor Dimov, wearing Rob Gonkowski‘s favorite number.

The Hounds out shot the Croatian-based team both games by more than 15 shots each game, but somehow the Chicago amateurs, many who were found in the Highmark Stadium parking lot after the games smoking cigarettes and drinking a few post-game brews before boarding their bus, found a way to hang around each time.

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The first encounter went to penalty kicks (the first and only pro game to feature PK shootout at Highmark Stadium) — and the Hounds advanced (5-3), converting all five kicks past Dimov.

The following season, after trailing 2-1 in the second half, the Hounds forced OT on a Danny Earls goal, then Jhonny Artega scored the game winner in extra time for the 3-2 win which helped them advance to take on Chicago’s MLS team — the Fire.

DALLMAN’S FALL-AWAY WINNER 

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In 2013, despite the opening of Highmark Stadium, the Hounds had to shake off a bad start to the season, and played some really great soccer in June and July to get back into the USL PRO playoff race.

A game against long-time league foes Wilmington at Highmark on a Sunday afternoon in late July was a critical match-up between two teams fighting for the sixth and final playoff spot in the 12-team league.

With the scored tied 1-1 late in the second half, the Hounds leading assist man, Matt Dallman, who usually did his damage on the flank serving in balls, was the unlikely hero.

As a ball was played toward Hammerheads goal keeper Troy Hernandez, Dallman came flying through the box, beat Hernandez to the ball, turned and blasted the ball into the net with his left foot as he was falling backwards to give the Hounds a much needed 2-1 win.

“No one was really going for it.  Everyone was kind of hesitant.  I think the defender didn’t know if the goalie was coming out,” Dallman told me after the game.

“I made a run for it.  I was able to get it and put it back across the goal and thankfully it went it.”

The Hounds would move past Wilmington in the standings, and earn the playoff spot that marked a successful first season in Highmark Stadium as the team featured a USL record breaking scoring duo of Dallman (13 assists) and Jose Angulo (15 goals).

WILD ONE WITH WILMINGTON

In its second-ever home opener at Highmark Stadium on April 13, 2014, the Riverhounds mounted a furious comeback that fell short.  In the second half, in the final 30 minutes — the teams traded goals furiously and in the end, it was a goal that didn’t count that everyone that was there probably remembers the most.

In stoppage time, with Riverhounds vs WilmingtonWilmington holding on to a 4-3 lead, Joseph Ngwenya knocked in a Dallman cross. As he celebrated, he ran toward the sideline, as a sellout crowd at Highmark erupted into frenzy.  But Ngwenya’s goal was waved off, as the flag went up.

He was offside.

At that moment, it seemed as if everyone in the stadium were centered on an unforgettable image of Ngwenya’s pure joy as he was running toward the sidelines to celebrate, which turned in a split second, to disbelief as he dropped to his knees.

It seemed to be a defining moment that summed up that game, and the 2014 season for the Hounds.

So much so, that the Riverhounds even included it in its year-end video.

 

MOTHER OF ALL HIGHMARK STADIUM POST-GAME REMARKS 

There have been some very well known post-game remarks from disgusted coaches that go down in sports folk lore — that many of us have heard and seen over and over again.

Some that come to mind include former NFL coach Jim Mora‘s “Playoffs!” rant or a handful of Bobby Knight tirades or masterful sarcasm of Jim Boehiem.  

Riverhounds Coach Niko Katic

At Highmark Stadium, Niko Katic, a recent former player who had become the team’s interim coach after the dismissal of Justin Evans in 2014, only had this to say after his team’s disappointing 3-1 loss to league leading Richmond at the time.

 

“No heart. No passion. No desire to win the balls. No desire to win the tackles,” Katic said as we all stood there taking this all in on the field after the game.

“There was no desire to play for this organization and no respect for themselves, let alone the game of soccer.  There are people that would do everything to play this game, be in our shoes to play the game. I’m disgusted by the effort,” said Katic.

And with that, Katic walked away.

Essentially it was his “drop the mic” moment.  I was writing the game summaries for the team at the time, and didn’t use that quote, but was very tempted.

The team would pick things up following that loss, only losing once in the next seven matches and keeping its playoff hopes alive through the final weekend of the season.

 

EMOTIONAL FAREWELL 

I was very tempted to put this one in the top five.  But, in the end, this moment was too bittersweet, and it was also a sad signal of the end of a brief, but first-class run of USL Hall of Fame coach Mark Steffens at the helm of the Riverhounds.

Steffens led the Hounds to the USL Playoffs in 2015, engineering a turn-around that positioned Pittsburgh as one of the highest scoring outfits in the entire league.

Things changed drastically in 2016.

Having not won a game entering the third weekend of May, and having lost earlier in the week to a amateur side, Lansdowne Bhoys, 2-0, in the U.S. Open Cup at Highmark, Steffens was informed by team owner Tuffy Shallenberger ahead of the team’s league game against Toronto FC II that he would be let go, but could finish by coaching one last game.

When the Riverhounds Lebo Moloto scored a goal against TFCII on a beautiful, bending shot after receiving a short pass from a corner kick, he immediately ran over to hug his coach.

Steffens Lebo Hug
Lebo Moloto hugs Mark Steffens

The rest of the team followed — and it became one, simultaneous group hug and outpouring of emotion.    The Hounds held on to win their first game of the season, but by that time it was too late, as Steffens’ tenure as coach had ended.

While Steffens’ fate has already been sealed, and he had a very special moment with his players, he still had a post-game press conference to attend.

Halfway through the presser, after calmly getting through a few questions about the game, Steffens quickly became overcome with emotion, and announced to the media (and the rest of the world) that he was being let go, and that was the last game he had coached in Pittsburgh.

A few days later, we were introduced to Dave Brandt, the Hounds new coach.

At the time, I said that who ever replaced Steffens had pretty big shoes to fill.

 

Now we’re ready for the top five….

 

TOP 5 RIVERHOUNDS MOMENTS AT HIGHMARK

5. US OPEN CUP WIN VS TAMPA BAY ROWDIES (May 27, 2015)

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I remember at the time, Matt Gajtka, who was covering the Hounds in multiple roles that year and serving as the team’s play-by-play announcer, said to me before the match that this could be the biggest game in the team’s history.

I acknowledged that in the short history of Highmark Stadium, it certainly was a game that would be important because with a win the Hounds would advance to the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup — hosting a Major League Soccer team for the first time.

This game between Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay proved to be a hard fought battle between two teams that were coming off league wins only days before.  Neither could capitalize on chances for much of the game, that was until the very late stages.

Rob Vincent was having quite a breakout season prior to this game,  leading the USL in goals.   Then he started to come up with some big goals in big moments, starting on this warm late May evening as the contest reached the 90th minute.

The Rowdies gave Vincent a little too much room as he broke into open space, while stumbling a bit in the middle of the field as he entered the final third.   Vincent then let loose a perfectly placed shot in the lower left side of goal to lift the Hounds to a 1-0 win to help Pittsburgh advance past the (then) NASL side.

 

After the game, Gajtka and I acknowledged to each other that this game would go down as probably one of the biggest wins in team history, and the results of this match would set the stage for a few more “bigger” games — and even more clutch goals by Vincent to follow in the coming days — and weeks.

4. HIGHMARK STADIUM OPENER (April 13, 2013)

This will always be a very special night if you are a soccer fan in Pittsburgh.   The Riverhounds finally had a home — with magnificent sight lines — and there was a new feel of excitement throughout the facility that night.

It was almost a feeling that no one really knew what to expect and what was to come. But it was a great sight to see a packed stadium in Station Square for a soccer game.

Since the date passed a few weeks ago, I already commemorated this night by posting my original story from that game here on Pittsburgh Soccer Report.   As I also had written about recently, the first goal in stadium history was scored by Jose Angulo only seconds after he entered the contest on an assist from Dallman, who was boxed way in the corner but somehow managed to send a perfect cross into the box.   Angulo would go on to lead the Hounds in scoring for the next two seasons,

The evening was marked by the usual pomp and circumstance that included a ribbon cutting ceremony, many dignitaries in attendance and a number of other events that marked the occasion.

Unfortunately, the Hounds allowed a game-deciding goal in the 90th minute and lost, 2-1, to Harrisburg.

Prior to moving into Highmark, the Hounds had called high school stadiums and a minor baseball park 30 miles south of Pittsburgh home.

“It’s second to none,” Richie Costanzo, a 2004 graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School, said of Highmark Stadium on that night.

“And I’m glad it’s here in Pittsburgh. I wish this was here when I was a kid coming up.”

But to me, one of my favorite memories of that night was getting my first real introduction to, and seeing up-front and in person, the passion of Pittsburgh’s soccer supporters group — the Steel Army.   In the South end of the stadium, the Army were loud and provided Highmark Stadium exactly what it needed — songs, pounding drums, chants and ultimately a sense of soccer fan culture that had mostly been non-existent in Pittsburgh.

While they’d started up a few years prior to this, the Army really found its base — and a home on the banks of the Mon.

 

3.   Hounds Play FA Cup Champs Wigan Athletic In Friendly (July 19, 2013)

We’ll stay in 2013 for the third spot in my list of top five Riverhounds moments in Highmark Stadium.

As part of the inaugural season at Highmark, the Hounds went out of their way to set up a match with a European club that would be coming to the United States that summer for preseason friendlies.

The Riverhounds hosted the reigning F.A. Cup Champions, English side Wigan Athletic F.C. in an international friendly, losing 4-1 before a sellout crowd at Highmark Stadium.

After a lightning delay pushed the start of the match back about 15 minutes, Angulo didn’t waste any time striking first.

The Riverhounds leading scorer made a nice individual run on the left side and drilled a shot past Wigan goalkeeper Nicholls Lee in the 2nd minute.

“I got past a few guys, things opened up and I got it off,” said Angulo.

Wigan manager Owen Coyle knew his team may have been a little complacent but was impressed by Angulo, who would go on to win USL PRO MVP, and the Riverhounds.

“It was a great play and an unstoppable shot. They really came out, played well from the start,” said Coyle, who would later come back to the States to coach Houston Dynamo.

“The place went crazy. That’s why we came here. We needed a good experience and there’s some talented players here.”

On the other sideline, Riverhounds coach Justin Evans chuckled.

“I wish we had another lightning delay after that.”

Wigan stormed back to score four unanswered goals for the final line of 4-1.  The fans (and teams) were treated to a full Zambelli fireworks show afterwards.

The Hounds have not played match against an international side since that memorable evening.

 

2.  HOUNDS TAKE D.C. UNITED TO THE BRINK (June 18, 2015) 

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Much like the Wigan match, this one packed Highmark Stadium to beyond full capacity, but the stakes were a bit higher.

This was the first, and only time that the Hounds would host an MLS team at Highmark Stadium.

In a closely contested match, one that the Hounds scrapped to a 1-1 deadlock after 90 minutes, the United overpowered Pittsburgh in the box in extra time on two goals from set pieces to win 3-1. 

Vincent scored on penalty that leveled the match.  He must have made quite an impression on United coach Ben Olsen, as he would later be invited to go on trial, and eventually have his contract bought out by DCU.

Despite the loss, the game and the atmosphere it created left Pittsburgh soccer fans loving it — and craving for more.

Unfortunately, the Hounds have yet to get a return match against an MLS side (other than closed scrimmages with affiliate partner Columbus Crew), after losing in the 2nd round of the US Open, but hopefully we’ll see more of these in the coming years.

 

1. MIRACLE ON THE MON (May 30, 2015) 

 

There will likely be hundreds and thousands of games played at Highmark Stadium, but none may ever top what we saw on May 30, 2015.

Up until that point, after three seasons, I had never felt the Highmark Stadium stands shake.

But as the Hounds mounted a furious come-from-behind effort, it felt like the stands were going to collapse.

It was 6-5 come-from-behind win for the Riverhounds, against its interstate rivals, Harrisburg, in the first year that the two teams would be playing for the Keystone Derby Cup.

The Hounds had trailed by scores of 3-0, 4-1, 5-3 in the 88th minute, and yet still came back to win the match.

“A few minutes to go, two goals down, you’re thinking.  Honestly, I don’t know what we were thinking,” chuckled Vincent.

“Actually, thinking you’re not going to come away with three points. But we showed tons of character to keep going all the way to the end.”

That’s right, they scored three goals in stoppage time for the win.

“Being down two goals with a minute to go in the game, and then tying it, then getting the winner. It was amazing. I really don’t have a lot of words for that,” said Mark Steffens, Riverhounds Head Coach at the time.

This game has been well-documented here on Pittsburgh Soccer Report.   You can find the exhilarating details in my accounts of what transpired on that night.

HOUNDS COMPLETE COMEBACK FOR THE AGES (Game Story)

THE ANATOMY OF A MIRACLE WIN (Analysis) 

Even earlier this year, when Barcelona completed a ridiculously incredible comeback in the Champions League round-of-16, after trailing PSG 6-1 in aggregate goals, one of the participants from that match, was thinking along the same lines as anyone else who has witnessed the miracle on the Monongahela that evening.

If you need to relive this magical night at Highmark — thank goodness for the stellar work from the Hounds production team, announcers and that this can live on YouTube for eternity…

 

So, hopefully we have many more exhilarating moments like this to look forward to in the years that come on the banks of the Mon.

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