Fourth of July at Highmark Stadium, home of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, has become an annual tradition dating back to the stadium’s opening in 2013, but this year’s game will be the first for Hounds forward Mark Forrest.
“It’s a big thing out here and they typically sell out every year and the stadium is a great spot for fireworks,” said Forrest, who joined the Hounds full-time after graduating from Lehigh University six weeks ago.
The Hounds opponent will not only be a cross-state rival but a team Forrest is very familiar with — from his experience having their head coach as a youth coach when he was 12 to a scrimmage in their inaugural season, seeing the players on game days and attending home games on campus. Forrest was also a teammate of Zach Zandi’s on Reading United and trained with the Steel last summer.
“It will be good to play against them,” Forrest said.
A Berks County native who was born in England and spent his early years there, Forrest scored 41 goals and added 21 assists in his four seasons playing for the Mountain Hawks. He said the close proximity to the Steel — his former Lehigh teammate Jamie Luchini was part of the Steel in their inaugural season — was beneficial both to the program and him personally.
“I think it definitely did a lot of good things for our program and for soccer in the Lehigh Valley in general,” he said. “And then just to share facilities with them in the fall when they had games you’d see them in and out on game days.”
Forrest was drafted 77th by the Chicago Fire in the SuperDraft and ended up joining the Riverhounds as a preseason trialist but was faced with the choice of figuring out how to start a professional career when he was a semester shy of earning his degree.
“I was sort of in a weird spot because I never really gave much thought to leaving school early and not graduating,” he said. “I just didn’t feel like looking my parents in the eyes and saying I wasn’t going to graduate college with everything they did to get me there.”
Pittsburgh ended up offering him a contract and agreed to allow him to finish his degree in management before joining the team full-time after graduation.
So before his pro career could actually begin, Forrest was attending classes, meeting with classmates four nights a week for a class where teams developed startup technology companies and doing his best to stay fit training on his own and joining the Lehigh team for workouts.
“I’m really glad I did stay but it was kind of a weird time to be honest,” he said.
Forrest joined the Hounds in late May and made his USL Championship debut on June 2 against Indy Eleven. He also came off the bench against New York Red Bulls II on June 23 and started and played 69 minutes in the U.S. Open Cup fourth round loss to Columbus Crew on June 12.
The 22-year-old is considered young on a team with a veteran core, but he’d be considered a veteran like Zandi is on a Steel team that had an average age under 20 in their win over Hartford Athletic last weekend.
“I think it’s interesting to see the very two different models,” Forrest said talking about the Steel’s approach as an MLS affiliate focused on developing players at much younger ages. “Bethlehem should absolutely be commended for some of the opportunities they’ve given to their young players but I think Pittsburgh does show you can go to four years of college and have opportunities to play in the USL Championship.”
Forrest played at The Hill School and for Lehigh Valley United prior to college. Though he grew up, initially in England, in a family where soccer was king — his younger brother Euan Forrest will play at Lehigh this fall — it wasn’t until he hit a growth spurt in high school that pro soccer was even a thought.
“I hit puberty much later than everybody else so I went from being the best player on the field to the smallest, slowest player on the field at 13-14,” Forrest said. “I’m glad now that happened because I had to learn how to really play being physically limited with what I could do and then when I grew it became a little bit easier from there and then once I started scoring goals and doing everything expected of me the conversation started to change.”
Now listed at 6-foot-3, Forrest’s size is a strength but just one aspect of his game.
“Mark is a big forward who knows where to go to score goals,” Hounds head coach Bob Lilley said when his signing was announced.
Given his late arrival and some of the players ahead of him in the depth chart — veterans Christian Volesky, Neco Brett and Steevan Dos Santos — it’s understandable that Forrest isn’t starting or playing every game.
“Training every day is a battle and we’re getting after it in training,” Forrest said. “For now I just keep plugging away.”
How to Watch
What: Bethlehem Steel FC at Pittsburgh Riverhounds
When: Thursday, July 4, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh, Pa.
*Brotherly Game has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Brotherly Game and SB Nation may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our guiding principles.