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Foot Soldiers

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With the World Cup underway, soccer has made its once-every-four-year return to the attention of mainstream America. The familiar debate—in our media and among the masses—of whether soccer can become a long-standing, popular sport here in the United States, and here in Pittsburgh, rages on sports talk shows and at water coolers.

While many take sides in that discussion for the next few weeks, one thing has become clear: there are now pockets and legions of loyal, die-hard and rabid soccer fans that are continuing expand in record numbers here in the United States.    

The United States National Team has found support from The American Outlaws, founded in 2007, and in a short period of time, has grown to over 125 chapters with more than 18,000 member across the country, including one here in Pittsburgh. 

Cities like Portland and Seattle have thousands of fans that are loyal supporters of their professional clubs that are providing many fun soccer fan rituals in front of packed stadiums. 

Soccer fandom in the States is really beginning to hit its stride.  

And Pittsburgh is getting in the act.  

PITTSBURGH's STEEL ARMY
On Saturday night, at the conclusion of a hard fought scoreless draw with their in-state rivals, the Harrisburg City Islanders, and after exchanging post-match handshakes, Pittsburgh Riverhounds players led by their Interim Head Coach Niko Katic had one last thing they were determined to do before they left the field at Harrisburg's Skyline Sports Complex. 

"I wanted to make sure that we said thank you to our fans who came all the way from Pittsburgh to support us, to cheer us on today," said Katic. 

It's been a tough year for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. With greater expectations following their inaugural season in Highmark Stadium, they have struggled in USL PRO League play. After Saturday night's draw with the City Islanders, the Riverhounds (1-7-5) remained at the bottom of the league table.   

Goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap, who held on for his first clean sheet of the season, couldn't help but praise the support from the loyal fans, who took a charter bus trip to root on the Hounds. 

"They're an absolutely incredible group of supporters, we don't deserve to have them following us around after some of the performances that we've put together as a team, but they've been there every step of the way," Gilstrap said. "Tonight, they made us feel like we were at home," 

ARMY ORIGINS
Like the American Outlaws, the Steel Army was recently formed in November 2007 by a group of soccer fans after the Pittsburgh Riverhounds announced a new ownership group and a return to USL for the 2008 campaign.

The initial gathering of a few members was held at Piper’s Pub on the South Side of Pittsburgh. Starting as small ragtag group, the Army quickly developed into a dedicated core that has supported the Hounds ever since.

"We started with just a small group, maybe 10 or 20 people would show up for games, at first, when they were still playing a Chartiers Valley (High School)" said Brian Dyson.

The 2013 season was a major season for both the Riverhounds and the Steel Army.

After the Riverhounds moved into their newly constructed Highmark Stadium in Station Square, and the Steel Army found a new home behind the east end goal.Riverhounds

"It was a huge jump. It gave us an incredible boost," said Dyson. "Before that, nobody wanted to go to a high school stadium to watch pro soccer."

Over the course of the 2013 season, Steel Army membership exploded as more and more new fans came to Highmark Stadium. Dyson said that their membership has nearly reached 100 people, and often many people join the fun in their section along side the regular Army members

Fans like Josh Brokaw, who recently moved to Pittsburgh from Columbus, where he was a supporter of the Columbus Crew, jumped at the opportunity to support professional soccer in Pittsburgh once the team moved to Highmark Stadium.  

"I was there in the beginning of the Crew franchise, and enjoyed being part of the great following they now have, with three different groups of loyal supporters," said Brokaw. 

Most organizations like the American Outlaws and the Steel Army, have become non-profit organizations, with membership dues, that include various benefits and help fund game day supplies, events, and keeping an inventory of merchandise. 

"Here, with the Steel Army, and with Highmark Stadium, it's great to be part of something like this as a soccer fan, especially because it's so new," added Brokaw.
 
SOCCER SUPPORTER RITUALS
As the Army continues to grow, they look forward to new members bringing ideas and rituals to the group. Saturday's bus trip to Harrisburg, was the first big, organized road trip for the Steel Army as a large group, as Dyson took the initiative to organize the effort. 

Once the packed bus departed from Highmark Stadium, a cold beer (or two), cracked open, and day-long festive trip began.  

Members gravitated in the back of the bus began singing some of their traditional songs (U.S. Soccer's popular "I Believe" is one of their trademarks), but they were practicing a bunch of other songs that they would have in store for their opponents later that night.  

Even poking some fun at themselves and their home city, as the bus rolled down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, members were repeatedly sounding choruses of: "We are yinzers, we are the biggest jag-offs on the road"

Dyson, a teacher by day, emphasized that it's all in good, clean fun. 

"Yeah, we might push the envelope a little bit, but we are sure to not do go over the top," he said. "We realize that we do have often keep things rated 'PG', as we don't want to offend too many people." 

The group has even come up with a song for Riverhounds forward and reigning USL PRO League MVP, Jose Angulo, aptly named "Angulo."

"Jose (Angulo) loved it, and was humbled when we did it for the first time," said Dyson. 

In addition to songs and chants, the Steel Army incorporates a variety of ways to show their spirit, including a traditional march into Highmark Stadium, beating a giant bass drum throughout matches, an occasional smoke bomb appearance, creative signage, waving flags and even a gigantic head of Fred Rogers that is a part of the group.
 
The relationship between the Riverhounds players, and the Steel Army may be the most intimate of all of the professional sports teams in Pittsburgh.

"No doubt, we love what they do for us, and we always try to show our appreciation," said Katic.  

"I think that's what makes us unique.  We have a bond with the players that the other teams, and take nothing away from them—the Pirates, Penguins and Steelers—really don't have with their fans," said Dyson.

While Pittsburgh may not be on par with some markets, like Portland, Seattle and even Columbus, where the growth in rabid, loyal soccer fans has begun to reach a fever pitch and over 20,000 fans pack their stadiums on a regular basis, the Steel Army believe that rabid soccer fans will continue to increase in Pittsburgh.

"It will take some time. There are soccer fans everywhere. And now that we have Highmark Stadium, the main thing that will bring more droves of fans, is Riverhoundsthem (Riverhounds) winning," said Dyson. 

The World Cup will come and go, and despite their struggles, the Riverhounds have a loyal group that are sticking with them. 

"Hope they don't waste opportunity now. World Cup will help create a buzz about soccer around here, but we're not going anywhere," said Dyson. "We hope more people will join the fun."

You can follow the Riverhounds and Pittsburgh soccer by following John Krysinsky on Twitter @johnkrysinsky

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