As smoke plumes rise, the aroma of sizzling burgers on a grill fills the air on a hot summer day in Pittsburgh.
It is nearly three hours before kickoff and there are already dozens of kids kicking a soccer ball, while even more fans have pitched tents and cracked open cold beverages to combat the heat.
For the Steel Army supporters group, this is home.
Every matchday, the Steel Army supporters of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds arrive early in the West Lot outside Highmark Stadium to carry on the rich tailgating tradition that this sports-mad city is known for.
Especially after not seeing their fellow Riverhounds supporters much of last year due to the pandemic, most fans noted how this year’s tailgates take on even more meaning.
“We only get 16 games per year, a few more if we’re lucky,” joked Dan Yost, Board Member for the Steel Army. “It doesn’t matter how hot or cold it gets, we will be here because this is our opportunity to come together as a community.”
That commitment and appreciation for community speak directly to why the Steel Army has found so much success in recent years.
Founded in 2007 by a group of passionate fans who watched English Premier League matches together at Piper’s Pub in the South Side area of the city, the Steel Army has built a reputation that draws upon the best parts of old and new Pittsburgh.
During the early days, it was all about building awareness and expanding the base.
“I’ll be honest when we first started the Steel Army we had no idea if it would ever catch on,” said Maria Petrillo, one of the founders of the Steel Army supporters group. “When it was just a dozen of us back in those early days, we didn’t have high expectations. But now, the Steel Army is growing every year and we continue to see the passion for soccer in our city multiply.”
That’s all thanks to the culture that the Steel Army has worked hard to create.
As supporters will tell you, the year 2013 was a real turning point for the Riverhounds and the Steel Army when the team moved from Chartiers Valley High School Stadium to Highmark Stadium. That’s when Pittsburgh Riverhounds moved into the beautiful riverfront stadium amid the backdrop of the Fort Pitt Bridge and downtown skyline.
“Of course, the first thing you notice when you come to a Pittsburgh Riverhounds match is the view,” shared Liv Donnan, one of the Steel Army supporters. “But after that, you’ll experience the camaraderie of the Steel Army and hopefully become part of our family.”
When asked about what makes the Steel Army so unique, Maria continued, “In many ways, the Steel Army represents new Pittsburgh. It’s people from all backgrounds and experiences coming together through a shared love for community and sport. Of course, we’re all passionate about the Riverhounds and want to win every game, but we also want to leave a positive impact in our city in the process.”
This year, the Steel Army raised more than $2,400 during the month of June to support the Persad Center, a mental health and substance abuse outpatient counseling center that works to improve the lives and well-being of the LGBTQ+ community in the region.
They then doubled down on that commitment to the LGBTQ+ community and positive changemaking when a recent partnership with Chick-fil-A was announced by the club. After learning of the news, the Steel Army supporters urged the Riverhounds front office not to bring in Chick-fil-A as a food vendor at Highmark Stadium because of its track record on social issues. Soon after, the team canceled its deal with the fast-food provider.
“By becoming a member of the Steel Army, I feel like I’ve been able to play a small part of something bigger than myself,” Yost noted. “It has been incredible to see how the sport of soccer has grown here in Pittsburgh and the role we are able to play in the community as a whole.”
Today, the culture that the Steel Army has built an atmosphere in Pittsburgh speaks for itself as Highmark Stadium has become a must-see destination for USL Championship soccer.
Tailgating with the Steel Army
From community fundraisers to unique tailgating traditions, the Steel Army creates a one-of-a-kind culture that every fan should experience.
Don’t be surprised if you witness both drinking competitions and chess matches going on side-by-side. That’s because a few fans have made it a tradition to play a game of chess, even though they lost a few pawns long ago and have to use bottle caps as replacement pieces. You may also get offered a hotdog from Steel Army President Josh Brokaw or a jello shot from founder member Maria Petrillo.
“When someone new shows up, we want to make sure they feel welcomed and part of the group,” emphasized Yost.
Never wanting to be wasteful, the group also has a longstanding tradition that happens right before the group enters the stadium.
Without much warning, one of the Steel Army leaders will yell “Thunderstruck” and the excitement among the tailgaters will reach peak levels. Then, like a game of telephone, those close enough to hear the initial announcement will start spreading the word to others. Soon enough, everyone has received the news and the Steel Army supporters will be gathered in a circle with drinks in hand.
That’s when the familiar intro to AC/DC’s Thunderstruck will beam through a portable speaker and a few dozen brave members of the Steel Army supporters group will use the beats of the chorus to finish off the leftover drinks at the tailgate.
It’s all part of the fun, welcoming experience of a Steel Army tailgate in Pittsburgh.
The positive vibes don’t stop at the tailgate either.
For the full 90 minutes, the Steel Army can be seen bouncing and singing behind the goal at the east end of Highmark Stadium. They know that their voices can help the team and the players rely on that support to push them through matches.
“These players are just as much part of our community as the supporters,” explained Maria. “They volunteer at local organizations and coach our youth teams, so we always want them to know that we support their efforts on and off the field.”
Win or lose, the Steel Army supporters stick around after each match to thank the team. Even if that means waiting almost an extra hour, as happened earlier this season. Following a match earlier this season when the team played poorly, Riverhounds coach Bob Lilley decided to give his players an extended dressing-down in the team huddle after the game.
Unphased, the Steel Army supporters waited patiently.
When the team talk finally ended, most of the stadium had cleared out but the Steel Army supporters were still there ready to thank the players for their effort.
It just goes to show that the Riverhounds and soccer in Pittsburgh is more than the wins and losses.
In a town that lives and dies by its sports teams, the Steel Army has created a fan culture that puts community above all else.