Weeds sprout from the sidelines of Harrisburg’s Skyline Sports Complex. Large patches of dry grass pepper the pitch and make the ball bounce erratically on the players. Rickety bleachers provide a view of the Susquehanna River and the State Capitol rotunda glowing in the night. There could not be a more fitting setting for an important minor league soccer derby with playoff implications.
City Island seemed unaware of the stakes associated with the Keystone Cup contest. There was plenty to distract them away from the play. Kids dug their feet into the beach volleyball courts while the adults filled up on bottomless drinks at “Socceritaville.” The sound of the mini-train circling the island interrupted the PA announcer’s relentless giveaway of prizes. It was half soccer, half carnival.
The Steel Army ended any chances of a fun family-friendly atmosphere when they crossed the pedestrian bridge and marched into the grounds. The battalion greeted the home crowd with a chant of, “we should be the capital, not you.” They had a much different objective than the locals trying to pleasantly enjoy their Saturday night. They came for the cup.
“When we stepped on the field and they were chanting, it helped our intensity,” said Lebo Moloto.
That intensity showed as the Riverhounds opened the first half pacing themselves to beat of the drum. Defenders went into challenges with a little more intent than their opponents while the attackers worked tirelessly to get behind Harrisburg’s back line. The traveling fans made all the noise in the park and turned the match into a home game for the Hounds.
It took only 15 minutes for trouble to find the Steel Army. A security guard came over attempting to silence their support. The group refused to back down. They adapted their songs with PG-13 language and remained as loud as ever. Not long after they were rewarded for their continued commitment.
Moloto’s opening strike brought subdued celebration. The blue smoke just trickled into the sky and fan reaction to the goal was hardly outrageous. They knew it would take more than one goal to seal this unpredictable rivalry.
Then Kevin Kerr broke free right in front of his followers a minute later. The much-taunted Islanders keeper Nick Noble was the last man standing in front of the Scotsman. Kerr pushed the ball beyond him and into the net.
Kerr wasn’t just on, but over the moon after scoring the critical second goal. He wheeled over to his fan base and shot his imaginary arrow into the sea of gold. Members of the Steel Army lined up in the front row to share in the moment. The shouts were deafening and the smoke fired out of its canister this time around. Danny Earls rushed over to tackle his teammate into the boards. The rest followed shorty and huddled together knowing that the goal could be the payoff of an arduous journey.
“The Steel Army were ledge,” said Kerr. “They gave us a massive boost.”
Harrisburg refused to go away gently. They compiled most of the possession in the second half right in front of the Steel Army. The tension around the ground went up a notch when the City Islanders pulled one back on 75 minutes. A collective gasp from the whole crowd could be heard when Ken Tribbett’s header with three minutes remaining went inches wide.
The final blew whistle after what seemed an eternity for Pittsburgh. There would be no late game equalizer this time. Head coach Mark Steffens and his squad celebrated their postseason clinch. The Steel Army was jubilant over claiming the Keystone Cup over their turnpike foes. The two collided into one happy scrum at midfield. They staked their ground on foreign soil by winning the battle that will go down in Hounds’ history.
The postgame festivities soured quickly for the hosts. The Harrisburg-colored light and navy blue balloons tied to the cup were clipped off to disappear into the night. The captain Earls eventually grabbed hold of the trophy and proceeded to be swarmed by the rest of his team. They relinquished the cup to the Steel Army to do who knows what with it. Fireworks provided an unintended congratulation for the visitors.
It wasn’t a grand finale for the Hounds however. New York Red Bulls II awaits them next weekend. Even more members of the Steel Army are expected to make the trip to Red Bull Arena. Harrisburg offered a magical night, but it also increased the ceiling for the Hounds’ hope. Like the Steel Army says, where the Hounds go they will follow.