Riverhounds make change in ownership with MLS in mind

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Riverhounds majority owner Tuffy Shallenberger also has become the majority owner of Highmark Stadium, the team announced Tuesday.

The franchise sees the move as another step on its quest to one day join the ranks of Major League Soccer, America’s top professional division.

“In terms of making this jump and pushing ourselves in an alignment with the MLS at some point, we needed to make some changes on the ownership side,” Riverhounds CEO and former Duquesne player Jason Kutney said.

“He brings financial support to the club, but also from a visionary standpoint…he’s got ideas on how we can build this thing that us, as soccer brains, don’t necessarily see.”

The team also announced it re-signed reigning USL Pro MVP Jose Angulo, who led the league with 15 goals, as well as midfielder Matthew Dallman, who set the league record for assists. Both were given two-year contracts.

By allowing Shallenberger to control 51 percent of the team and the stadium, Kutney’s ownership role was decreased. He saw it as a necessary and welcomed step.

“For me it was a no-brainer. My objective here is to have the Riverhounds reach the top,” Kutney said. “I didn’t look at it as I lose, I looked at it as a net gain for the Riverhounds. I didn’t hesitate or think twice about it. I went and sought out Tuffy.”

Shallenberger wants to expand seating in the “Steel Army” supporters section at Highmark Stadium and eventually increase overall seating, as well. New sound equipment will be installed for next season, he said.

The Riverhounds’ average announced attendance in 2013 was more than 3,000 — up significantly in their first season at Highmark — and the stadium can hold a maximum of about 4,000, Kutney said.

With additional seating added in the supporters section, Kutney expects the maximum capacity could rise above 5,000, an increase he believes is warranted.

“In our opinion, the fans have spoken,” he said.

And if attendance continues to increase, Kutney and Shallenberger would like to wrap the corners of the stadium with seating to resemble a bowl stadium, which could push capacity above 6,500.

All these plans, of course, come with the MLS in mind.

“Overall, [a] bigger, more professional field,” Kutney said of his vision. “Our belief is that if we put a championship-caliber team on the field and we’re winning…we’re going to need every bit of 7,000 seats.

“That’s kind of the magic number for us and for our league, 7,000. If you can hit 7,000 and you can fill 7,000 consistently, you can then look at that next jump.”

That jump, from America’s third-tier league to its first, is about attendance and finances as much or more than it is about winning, Kutney acknowledged. The MLS does not use promotion and relegation. His team must grow.

He has nothing but confidence.

“I think reasonably, you have to consider that it’s going to be somewhere between seven to 10 years,” Kutney said when asked for a realistic estimate of when his club could join MLS. “When I say reasonably, I think nothing shy of seven to 10 years.

“I believe [the MLS] will be looking in seven to 10 years for a market similar to Pittsburgh,” he said.

“Will it be Pittsburgh? That’s up to us.”

Nick Veronica: nveronica@post-gazette.com and Twitter @NickVeronica.

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