CITY ISLAND, HARRISBURG
The match that Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl called “the most remarkable game in world soccer this year” was played at City Island’s Skyline Sports Complex on a rain-soaked night in late May. Down 3-0 in overtime to Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution in the third round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, the Harrisburg City Islanders scored 3 goals in under 10 minutes to force the game to penalty kicks.
“Nine minutes,” said Harrisburg City Islanders’ General Manager John Gregg in an interview with MODE Magazine. “Nine minutes exactly. A minute’s a long time.” Harrisburg would go on to win 4-3 on penalty kicks, advancing to the Open Cup’s Sweet 16. “Hunger and fight,” explained Gregg. “Our style of play is hardworking, knowledgeable and built around just having guys that fight.”
The City Islanders are a professional team founded in 2004, currently playing in the USL PRO division and affiliated with the MLS’ Philadelphia Union. In 2007 the squad won the USL-2 Division title, and in 2011 were runners-up for the USL PRO Championship. Harrisburg has had a good deal of professional sports success in the past, including the Harrisburg Senators’ 4-year Eastern League championship run from 1996-1999. Unlike baseball however, American soccer pits teams from all leagues and divisions against each other in meaningful games. In the annual Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, the City Islanders compete in a 64-team field that includes Major League teams like the New England Revolution, the Portland Timbers, the NY Red Bulls and David Beckham’s LA Galaxy. The City Islanders’ tournament performances have led to a reputation as giant-killers; in the Islanders’ nine years of competing on City Island, they have yet to lose to an MLS team at home.
What makes those wins even more impressive is that Islanders are competing year after year with a sustainable roster that emphasizes local talent and MLS development. “We have a good mixture of players who mesh well together, and 7 local products that played in the Mid-Penn,” explained Gregg. “We go a different route than most teams. We have a budget we work hard to stay within, and get guys who are hungry and want a chance to play.” The current roster includes local talents such as Harrisburg’s JT Noone and Middletown’s Jason Pelletier at midfield, as well as international players like Kenyan midfielder Brian Ombiji and forward Sainey Touray from Gambia.
The Islanders’ developmental system has attracted the attention of front offices from multiple leagues, producing talents like the Union’s Sheannon Williams and Chase Harrison and DC United’s Ty Shipalane. “We get a lot of interest from players who are hungry to get into the MLS,” said Gregg. “I’d be surprised if any other team in our league has put more players into the MLS from year to year than we have.”
Spearheaded by Gregg and Head Coach Bill Becher, the Islanders’ system aims to cultivate local athletes of all ages. Their youth academy has over 400 players enrolled, with both boys and girls teams from U-9 through U-23. “We’re trying to provide kids with good quality coaching through our programs as a supplement to their club teams,” explained Gregg, “in hopes that one day we have more kids playing for the City Islanders that grew up in our program.”
HARRISBURG V. NEW YORK
On Tuesday, June 5, the Islanders hosted their fourth round Open Cup matchup against the NY Red Bulls at the Skyline Sports Complex. “Watching a game on City Island is an experience, especially in the summertime” said Gregg. “With the skyline in the background, things going on in the river and bands and music playing, you can’t go to another stadium in our league and have a better experience. It’s a unique place.”
Seeing a Harrisburg squad made up of rising talents and local players take on the highest level team from New York gave the match the atmosphere of a March Madness game. Fan groups including the Sons of the Susquehanna were active for the entire match, organizing chants and taunting opposing players. “We chant, drum, sing, wave flags, and ignite smoke bombs and flares at every home game,” explained Sons of the Susquehanna President Ray Stellhorn. The S.O.S. usually overwhelm the cheers of any visiting fans, but at the NY match they were faced by the Viking Army, a group of hundreds of Red Bulls fans who packed the Skyline visitors’ section and filled the air with clouds of smoke from their flares.
The voices of the Viking Army boomed through the stadium, until Sainey Touray scored a header off a pass from Ombiji in the 13th minute, giving the Islanders a 1-0 lead they would hold through the first half. At half-time Gregg spoke briefly about the Islanders’ early lead. “There’s a lot of game left,” he said, not willing to get comfortable against a multiple-time MLS Conference Champion. The Red Bulls came back early in the second half, tying the game with a wide open shot in the 59th minute. The Red Bulls remained on the offensive for the majority of the half, but goalkeeper Nick Noble and the Islanders’ defense were able to fend NY off for the rest of regulation.
For the second Cup match in a row, the Islanders’ offense exploded in extra time. Jason Pelletier went to Touray in the first few minutes of the period to go up 2-1, before Lucky Mkosana put the game away for Harrisburg, scoring off a corner kick in the 118th minute. Fans rushed the field as the Islanders’ theme song blared through the Skyline Sports Complex’s loudspeakers, and Harrisburg was slated to face Philadelphia in the fifth round at the end of the month.
THE HEAT IS ON IN 2012
Prior to the City Islanders’ debut, Central PA has been home to a number of soccer clubs, most notably the Harrisburg Heat who competed at the PA Farm Show Complex from 1989 through 2003. After nearly a decade-long absence the Heat will be returning to action this fall and General Manager David Grimaldi met with MODE to discuss the comeback.
A former captain of the Cleveland Force and an alternate for US Olympic team, Grimaldi was Deputy Commissioner of the Major Indoor Soccer League when the Heat folded. “There was a time when the Heat were drawing 6,000 to 7,000 fans on a regular basis,” said Grimaldi. “It was a perfect storm of circumstances – Farm Show construction, off-site parking, television contracts and travel costs – that caused the Heat’s capital requirements to get too high.”
When Grimaldi later became Commissioner of the MISL, bringing indoor soccer back to Harrisburg was a top priority. “Indoor soccer is a very concentrated form of soccer,” said Grimaldi. “You’ve got a lot action, shots and goals. It’s a smaller environment and the speed of play creates a greater level of intensity. It’s a true fan experience.”
The Heat will be competing as part of the Professional Arena Soccer League, and participating in multiple tournaments including the Ron Newman Cup and the US Indoor Open Cup. The Harrisburg Heat will hold their home opener at the Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg on November 17. Season ticket packages including 10 homes games begin at $80, and are available at HarrisburgHeat.com.
On June 26, the Islanders traveled to Chester, PA, to face the Union in an Open Cup quarterfinal match at PPL Park. After giving up 2 goals in the opening 10 minutes of the match, the Islanders were down 3-0 at halftime. Islanders’ fans that made the trip were being drowned out by the Sons of Ben, a group of Union supporters who made the Viking Army look passive. The match seemed destined to be a blowout, but when the second half began the Islanders demonstrated their hunger and fight once again. Brian Ombiji scored for the Islanders in the 52nd minute, followed immediately by Morgan Langley in the 54th to bring the score to 3-2. For a few minutes the home crowd seemed stunned as another Islanders comeback appeared inevitable, until a Union penalty kick silenced the rally. The Islanders went on to lose the match 5-2, ending their US Open Cup run and one of the most exciting months in Harrisburg professional sports history.
The Islanders’ season continues through the summer, as they seek to return to the finals and win their first USL PRO national title. Tickets are available for all of the Islanders’ remaining home matches, including games against Antigua, Dayton and Los Angeles in July. To purchase tickets or find more information, visit CityIslanders.com or call 717-441-GOAL.