Pittsburgh Sports Report
August 2002

Leashed 'Hounds
Riverhounds Look To Better Performance On And Off Field
By Eric Poole

On his second full day as interim coach of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Tim Carter stopped a practice scrimmage for the purpose of delivering a message to his team.'

It doesn't take a genius to see that most of your problem is you've spent more time arguing than doing,' said Carter, who took over as skipper July 8, when second-year coach Kai Haaskivi was fired.

While seeing that might not take a genius, it remains to be seen whether Carter has the smarts to turn things around and get the Riverhounds back into the playoffs. As of late July, Pittsburgh was mired in last place in the A-League's Northeast Division.

There still is some hope that the Riverhounds will find a solution. Under the A-League standings rules, teams get four points for a win and an extra point for scoring more than three goals in a game.

What that meant is that, going into their four games in the last week of July and two games in the first week of August, the Riverhounds had a potential 45 points on the table.

'We're not mathematically eliminated,' Carter said. 'But I'm not real good at math.'

There's nothing wrong with that, because math isn't the most important subject for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds 'on or off the field. For the team to succeed, either in the short or long term, it needs better chemistry.

'I played very few seasons that matched the team unity and chemistry on the team in 1999,' said goalkeeper Randy Dedini, who has been with the team since its inception in 1999. 'Since then, our team has slowly but surely become more talented, but the chemistry hasn't been consistent.' The irony here, according to both Dedini and Carter, is that this team isn't marred by locker-room arguments or off-the-field dissension.

'Right now, this team is affected by underachieving,' Carter said. 'We're good on paper, not so good on grass.'

Creating An Image

The A-League 's mission is to develop the sport from youth up. Pittsburgh, Rochester and Richmond are on the forefront to that drive. Three players'defender Jaman Tripoli, midfielder Johnson and Dedini'are full-time employees. In the offseason, they work to promote the game, not just for the purpose of creating fans, but to build a local generation of talented soccer players.

Other players work part-time during the offseason in youth development. During the last school year, Riverhounds players made 70 school appearances. There are also reading programs and soccer camps, most of which are free of charge.

'We're a 12-month-a-year operation,' said Sharon Talarico, director of media operations. 'We never stop in terms of youth development.'

The A-League rookie minimum salary is $1,000 per month for five months, plus either health insurance or housing allowance. Although team officials could not comment on individual salaries, team payroll or the team's profit and loss status (except to say the team is on solid financial ground, according to Cliff Gorski, vice president in charge of communications), Talarico said all of the Riverhounds earn more than the minimum. In addition, the team takes care of all of the players' housing and health insurance costs.

The players' financial packages sends a message that owner Paul Heasley, a Belle Vernon native, is committed to the team and youth development.

Mission Statement

Executing that mission calls for the construction of a soccer complex. The big-ticket item in that plan is a stadium with a capacity of between 7,500 and 10,000 fans. But in terms of youth development, the rest of the facility is more important. In addition to the stadium, plans call for between 24 and 27 soccer pitches, an indoor facility for wintertime training and indoor tournaments, and a dormitory for instructional camps and tournaments.

Projected cost of the facility is in the $25 to $30 million range'pricey for a non-profit organization like Sports Legacy Foundation, the Riverhounds' holding company. However, Gorski says the facility could be developed in three phases, with the stadium and some fields in Phase 1, most of the remaining fields in Phase 2 and the rest of the fields, indoor soccer facility and dormitory in Phase 3.

Sitting On Ready

Sports Legacy Foundation is ready to go with the project. All it needs is a place to put it, no small task in Allegheny County, which has a distinct shortage of 200-acre plots of flat open space in a reasonable price range. Two years ago, Riverhounds ownership thought it had found the answer to its real estate personal ad'3-year-old soccer team seeks large plot of open space'in Collier Township. In May of 2000, the team announced a tentative agreement to purchase 190 acres of land on the former site of Woodville State Hospital. In recent years, the property had served mostly as scenery for spectators taking shuttle buses from off-site parking to Nevillewood Golf Course for the Mario Lemieux Invitational.

The Sports Legacy proposal won enthusiastic support from Collier Township officials.

During the due diligence phase of the purchase, Sports Legacy officials discovered a gas line running beneath the property. Removing it would add about $1 million to the project cost.

Another threat scuttled the plans to build in Collier Township. At the September meeting of township commissioners, 43 Nevillewood residents turned up to oppose Sports Legacy's plans.

'The Nevillewood community (was) telling us that they would keep us in court for 15 years,' Talarico said. If the Woodville hospital proposal had been successful, the Riverhounds would be in their home right now. Instead, Sports Legacy is still looking for a suitable property. The most recent prospect collapsed on July 10, when the Riverhounds allowed a 120-day option to lapse because the site was deemed unfeasible.

For now, the Riverhounds play their home games at Bethel Park Stadium and practice at Hopewell.

Forward Phil Karn says it would be nice for the Riverhounds to play their home matches on a regular soccer pitch, as opposed to the converted football field the team uses now. A regulation pitch would be wider than the football field in Bethel Park and allow the team to use its speed. But not having the facility actually does more to hinder Sports Legacy's efforts at promoting youth soccer.

Last month, the Riverhounds held their annual 3 v 3 soccer tournament, with 144 teams at the McKinney Soccer Complex, run by the North Allegheny Soccer Association.

'It would have been great to hold it in our own complex,' Talarico said.

All's Not Well

There's no soccer complex, and there probably won't be a stadium until at least 2005. That leaves the 47-year-old Carter in charge of youth development.

For now, however, Carter is working on youth development part-time. Since Haaskivi's firing, he is confronted with the daunting task of leading a cellar-dweller into the playoffs. The team says Haaskivi was fired because he hadn't been holding up the general manager duties of his job. He was hired in 2001 to replace John Kowalski as coach and Dave Kasper as general manager.

Kasper, a Chartiers Valley graduate who moved up to the A-League, was in charge of game operations and developing sponsorship opportunities, among other tasks.

One of the Riverhounds' operation problems is that a declining number of fans have turned up to see the games, although Gorski doesn't blame Haaskivi for a 41-percent drop off in ticket sales.

Last season, the Riverhounds had an average attendance of 3,226 per game. This year, after 10 home games, the team had a per-game average of 1,888. Both averages are a decline from the 4,178'third in the A-League'figure in Pittsburgh's inaugural season of 1999.

The most recent fall off might be traced to Jim Pappas' resignation as ticket director after the 2001 season. Pappas was not replaced until March, when Jeff Mercer was hired.

Talarico said the team typically enjoys its best ticket sales in June. This season, the Riverhounds had just one June home game.

According to team reports, Gorski and Christina Heasley, Vice President and Director of Operations were performing much of Haaskivi's general manager duties and will continue to do so at least through the end of this season.

Although Gorski and Talarico say Carter will be considered as a permanent skipper, the interim coach himself has other concerns, like the franchise's long-term health.

On the field, things look worse than they really are. After 17 games last season, the Riverhounds had only one more win than they do this year.

But one big difference was that the 2001 team advanced to the second round of the Lamar Hunt Open Cup Tournament.

Last year, Pittsburgh responded to the challenge by ripping off eight wins in its last 10 games to qualify for the playoffs.

'We got lucky to be honest,' Talarico said. 'Montreal started losing games when we needed them to.'

The Riverhounds' creditable performance in the Open Cup, the United States' most prestigious soccer trophy, helped fuel the 2001 playoff run.

'The players could always fall back on, 'We're playing well in big games,' ' said Dedini. 'Going down the stretch, the Open Cup gave us confidence.'

Eric Poole is a freelance writer based in Elwood City.

   Copyright 1997-2009 Pittsburgh Sports Report [PSR]