Kling Can Carry Pittsburgh Soccer Into Future

There’s no hiding that bringing the MLS to Pittsburgh is the ultimate ambition for the local soccer community. There’s also no hiding the logistical hill to climb in order to make it happen. Either a new 20,000-seat stadium or a transition to Heinz Field will be required. Attendance at Riverhounds matches hasn’t been consistent enough to prove though that investing in a MLS franchise would be a viable business venture. The question then becomes how to energize the fans in a way that brings them out in droves and captures the league’s attention. Women’s soccer might be the answer.

Women’s soccer within the city is currently experiencing success from the top down. Meghan Klingenberg captivated her hometown by showing her world-class talent as a fullback on her way to winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup. More than 30,000 packed into Heinz Field on August 16th for the USWNT’s celebratory friendly against Costa Rica will prove the reach of her inspiration.

Klingenberg hasn’t advanced the women’s game in Pittsburgh solely on her own however. Even the amateur and youth levels make strides to build the sport towards a bigger future. Steel City FC has gained a cult following in the Women’s Premier Soccer League. The girls’ teams of the Riverhounds Development Academy have also won several regional and national competitions. Klingenberg’s achievement will skyrocket the popularity of soccer among young girls in the area. Steel City FC developed the framework to help expand that interest. Perhaps it’s time to bridge the two sides together.

The United States’ top flight women’s league, the NWSL, will most likely want to piggy back on the attention the Women’s World Cup received and start expanding. Pittsburgh would be a great choice considering everything I mentioned above. The city needs very little to accommodate a NWSL franchise. Steel City FC can be brought into the fold since they already nailed the name and logo. A couple thousand seats added to Highmark Stadium would make it of comparable size to other NWSL grounds. A partnership with the Riverhounds (something that President Richard Nightingale already spoke about) could give the development academy a direct route to the professional game. Introducing Klingenberg as the marquee signing would be the last step in making this franchise appealing to local fans. This could be the city’s avenue to the MLS.

A few NWSL clubs such as the Portland Thorns and Houston Dash formed as branch offs from their MLS counterparts. Pittsburgh has a chance to do it the opposite way. This new team would hardly struggle to sell tickets if it featured an athlete that this city now adores. A packed Highmark Stadium with the beautiful downtown skyline on display for national television certainly could capture MLS commissioner Don Garber’s eye. The Riverhounds and this NWSL franchise could work hand-in-hand to create the desired soccer market to be considered for MLS expansion.

Major roadblocks still stand in the way of the MLS coming to Pittsburgh, but embracing the NWSL first could be a big leap forward in accomplishing that goal. A women’s professional team would increase attendance and revenue while helping the local soccer scene gain national recognition. If it all lines up perfectly then 30,000 at Heinz for a soccer match could become a weekly occasion.

Columbus Tally a Trillium

The Columbus Crew’s 2-0 victory over Toronto Saturday night marked the 1st game in the 2015 Trillium Cup. Now in its 8th edition since Toronto was formed, the Ohio crowd was happy to see their team get back to its winning ways after the Canadians swept the series last season. Historically dominated by Columbus, the rivalry has never really been of much importance to either team. Named the Trillium Cup since the trillium is both the state flower of Ohio and provincial flower of Ontario, the two clubs have been forced into this rivalry due to their geographical proximity around the Great Lakes. Although the Crew would claim their old foes Chicago and D.C. their true enemies and more bad blood exists between Toronto’s Canadian counterparts, this hasn’t stopped both clubs’ supporters from getting excited for this particular matchup.

In fact, it is the supporters that have kept this rivalry alive. Most contests see the two supporters groups, Columbus’s Nordecke and Toronto’s Red Patch Boys, put all their pageantry on display. Brawls have even been known to break out in past encounters. Saturday’s match was no different. A huge group of traveling supporters came down across the border to unveil a huge banner on the south side of Mapfre Stadium that read, “home or away we are with you.” However, a strong second half performance from the Crew had the Columbus supporters singing their state capital’s name until the end.

The Red Patch Boys will make their journey back north reflecting on what went wrong. Their team started out hot and had the better of the play during the first 20 minutes. Michael Bradley was able to transition Toronto into offense, getting the ball onto Sebastian Giovinco’s feet. Giovinco then used his speed to quickly push into the attacking third, finding Jozy Altidore in threatening areas. However, momentum started to shift and it was completely gone by the end of the first half. Justin Morrow was sent off after he brought down Ethan Findlay, who the official deemed had a clear path to the goal. Columbus then went on to use the man advantage to take all three points.

Although the call was questionable, Toronto fans cannot argue that the red card is a symptom of a large issue. Their defense continues to be the weak spot of the team and the front office did nothing over the offseason to address that weakness. Although Altidore and Giovinco will most likely make Toronto one of the most formidable attacks in the MLS, they will be unable to operate to their full effect if the back line continues to let opponents in behind them. After going down to ten men, Columbus had acres of space and every deficiency of Toronto’s defense became obvious. Their complete inferiority in the air saw both Iraqi international Justin Meram and newcomer Kei Kamara score on headed goals. The back four was disorganized throughout the match and Federico Higuain found it way too easy to play through balls past them.

Bradley and the failed Jermain Defoe experiment took much of the blame for Toronto’s failure to make the playoffs last season, but their defense was the real culprit. While it is still way too early in the season, things look to be heading in the same direction. Nothing has been made easier by the addition of New York City FC and Orlando City in the East. If the defense continues to leak goals, then expect Toronto to be in the market for a Center Back this summer.

The next installment of the Trillium Cup will be on July 25th, when Toronto returns south for their rematch. A Columbus win will guarantee them their 6th Cup in the rivalry. The Red Patch Boys will hope otherwise. They’ll have their passports on file, because the next time they unroll that banner in the south end of Mapfre Stadium, they’ll be expecting some structure to their back line and the Bradley, Giovinco, Altidore trio to be charging down the field.