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.