Whatever you call the beautiful game, whether it be soccer or football, it’s absolutely thriving in the United States.
MLS has been treated to an influx of superstar talents like that of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Steven Gerrard and David Beckham. Their influence, coupled with the ever-improving quality of football, has improved the relationship with the people who matter most, the fans.
The 2017 season saw huge numbers of fans enter the stadium with a total attendance around the league of 8,553,245. The 2017/18 season featured an average attendance of 21,875 people which, unbelievably, ranks third amongst the top five sports in the states.
And whilst MLS grows rapidly, so does the game at grassroots level.
This is where the Steel Army comes into it. In a city forged by steel, with its history and tradition steeped in American football, hockey and baseball, there was never much room for football. At least you’d think there wasn’t.
Dawn of a new era
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the USL Championship (the second tier of soccer in the states), formed in 1998, and began playing professionally in 1999. The Hounds experienced success consistently in the first five seasons of its existence finishing in the top five on four occasions.
Unfortunately, they then fell to the third tier of US Soccer, playing there for three years until their hiatus during the 2007 season.
Many believed their absence in the 2007 season may have signalled an end for football in Pittsburgh. Although, the announcement of new ownership reinstated the Hounds’ intentions to rejoin the third division for the 2008 season, and with that, a new era was ushered into the Steel City.
Birth of the army
Initially, small gatherings took place at Piper’s Pub on the South Side of the city and gave birth to a formidable supporters group. Despite being relatively small in number, their voices were ever-present at Chartiers Valley, the Hounds’ inaugural home, in an attempt to support the growing scene of football in a country where it is so greatly under-appreciated.
As the core of the group remained the same, they steadily saw an increase in size, due in large part to the group itself, as the team performed poorly on the pitch.
The 2013 season effected both the team and the Army, as the Riverhounds made their way to a new club owned ground, Highmark Stadium. The attendance among the Steel Army sky-rocketed, and their newly adopted home behind the East End goal became a haven for fanaticism.
Paul Child Stand
The famous East End Stand was affectionately renamed after Pitt soccer legend Paul Child in 2015.
During his playing career in the 70s and 80s, Child had great success playing in the North American Soccer League for the Atlanta Apollos and San Jose Earthquakes. In 2015 he was inducted into the Quakes’ Hall of Fame after scoring 61 goals in 149 games for the club in a total of five years.
However, his legacy became imprinted on Pittsburgh when he began play for the Pittsburgh Spirit of the Major Indoor Soccer League. From 1981-1986, Child starred in 133 games scoring 140 goals.
He became a prominent figure on the board of the Riverhounds, as both director of the youth team, and then assistant manager for the club from 1998-2002.
“A niche thing in the city”
I had the chance to speak with a member of the Steel Army, Daniel Yost.
I asked him about football in the USA, as well as what makes being a Steel Army member so important.
“Soccer is definitely a distant fourth behind the big three (in Pittsburgh), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Personally, I enjoy the fact that it is a niche thing in the city, (because) everybody that’s there at the game are there because they want to be, not because it’s the new popular thing to do.”
He then detailed that Paul Child is a “legend” and that he continues to be a distinguished figure in the community, as he is currently part of the three-man broadcast crew on game day.
In spite of the club’s history of losing seasons, the future has never been brighter. The team itself have been competing solidly, placing third in 2018, their highest seeding in over a decade. The quality of football is at an all-time high, most notably with players like Didier Drogba having graced the pitches of numerous USL stadiums around the country.
Soccer culture continues to ascend, with multiple teams in even the second and third divisions of the US Soccer pyramid possessing ultra groups.
As for the Steel Army, they appear ready to move to the next level. The numbers have never been better, and with the conscientious efforts of members like Dan, the sky really is the limit.