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Steel FC outlast Tartan Devils to advance in Open Cup qualifying

Steel FC and Tartan Devils FC battle on Sunday in 2nd round Open Cup qualifying. Photo courtesy Brad Oskowski

Steel FC outlast Tartan Devils to advance in Open Cup qualifying

In a battle between two Pittsburgh teams that know each other all too well, upstart Steel FC pulled away from Tartan Devils FC in extra time, beating its Greater Pittsburgh Soccer League (GPSL) rivals 3-1, to advance to the third round of Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup’s qualifying.

Steel FC responded in the second half when trailing, getting an own goal from a dangerous cross in the 73rd minute for the equalizer, then Rob Heuler and Max Flick added a pair of goals in the overtime period. Tartan Devils took the lead early in the second half, as Neil Shaffer pounced on a loose ball in the box to give the six-time defending GPSL champs the lead.

Having lost in league play to the Tartan Devils twice this year, including two weeks prior in the postseason final, it was a sweet victory for Steel FC.

“It’s like a monkey off our backs,” Brian Luchini, Steel FC manager said. “They beat us a few times already this year. After the final, we were hurting then. We’re hurting today. But, with this effort, I have no complaints whatsoever. It feels great. We did what had to do tonight. It worked!”  

BRAD OSKOWSKI’s PHOTO GALLERY 

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The first half was a feeling out process for both sides – with Steel FC looking dangerous with a few countering opportunities, missing a few chances. Tartan Devils were a bit more methodical and patient in getting forward, finding more time on the ball in the first 45 minutes.

Steel FC had to start the match with 10 men, as Lamine Balde, penciled into the starting line-up, wasn’t ready to start the match, leaving Luchini with an interesting call.

The last thing I wanted to do was burn one of our subs,” Luchini said, as Balde was a little late in dealing with Pittsburgh traffic, but was confident in his decision to start with 10 men. “Luckily he showed up and was able to get out there a few minutes into the match.”  

This match continued to get more physical with each 50-50 ball at midfield and on balls played in the air, as every ball was hotly contested.

Battling at midfield, Heuler was dealing with keeping up with former DC United and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC midfielder, Rob Vincent.

“He’s a hell of a player. Always enjoy it – playing against him. It’s a tough mark that’s for sure,” Heuler said. “It’s a pleasure playing against him”  

Newbies in this competition, and even a top-flight GPSL club for just two seasons, the more athletic and stronger Steel FC had to keep pushing forward against the more experienced, craftier Tartan Devils.

The two sides weren’t giving in easily.

“They have a strong back line. Against them, you have to get to the ball first, then try to create immediately,” Greg Annan, Tartan Devils forward said. “They give you nothing. Even a player like me, who’s a quicker player, their strength negates things, makes it harder. You see a lot of chippy little fouls called. That’s their game. It works for them.” 

Early in the second half, in the 52nd minute, Steel FC had the first legit chance, as Lamine Balde chased down a long ball played deep into the right edge of goal box — beating Tartan Devils FC goalkeeper Winter Fondi to the ball, then re-directed it toward the goal area. The ball skimmed across the goal box, and just past the left post.

The Tartan Devils got forward quickly following that sequence, Less than a minute later, midfielder Neil Shaffer pounced on a loose ball in the center of the box, redirecting it into goal for the game’s opening tally in the 53rd minute.

“Obviously we gave up an early one in the second half. It got us down a little, but it also gave us that push,” Heuler said. We kept pushing and believing in ourselves. Had to stick to our game. We battled. We like to get in on the ground. Get it out wide. Sometimes put it in the air.” 

Steel FC brought more pressure pushing for the equalizer — and it would pay off in unlikely fashion in the 73rd minute.

Midfielder Matt Bischoff got the ball out into a wide left side — and sent a ball toward goal catching Tartan Devils defender, and captain, Andy Kalas who was caught off guard by hard cross headed right at him. The ball came in pretty fierce by the near post where Kalas was positioned but couldn’t react quick enough to clear, and it deflected off him and into goal to level the contest.

“It was definitely going our way,” Annan said. “Then that own goal changes everything. The momentum switches. And we had to go to overtime.” 

Luchini said the goal gave his squad a lift.

“We started to get more shots in box,” Luchini said. “We had a renewed energy.”  

The late moments of regulation belonged mostly to Steel FC, although Annan got one ball through to the left side for Rob Vincent, who quickly tried to get a shot on frame that was deflected. The ensuring corner kick was defended well by a well-fortified Steel FC.

With a few recent college players leading the attack, Steel FC nearly got the game winner in the 89th minute, when Flick received a pass from Lewandowski who made a nice spin move to beat Vincent to move into the final third. TDFC’s Winter Fondi was there though to make the routine save to deny Flick’s shot on target.

The Tartan Devils were solid in defending in the closing moment too — facing numerous Steel FC corner kick attempts.

In the first overtime period, the Tartan Devils had the first quality chance when Leo Herrmann ripped a low shot, but was denied by Steel FC’s keeper Brendan Birmingham. 

From that point forward, it was all Steel FC.

Finally, after a few shot attempts, Balde made a terrific move on the right corner of the box to blow past TDFC’s Matthew Fonagy, then taking the ball deep to the end line.

From there, Balde saw Heuler making a late run to the top of the box from the midfield — and found his midfielder in a great position, with no one marking him.

A one-time Tartan Devil Open Cup hero, Hueler would provide the clinical finish to give Steel FC the 2-1 lead in the first overtime period.

“Lamine made a couple of nice moves. He got to the end line. Christian (Lewandowski)’s sitting on the six, he’s taking everyone’s attention,” Heuler said. “I moved in, and he played a perfect ball to me. I just redirected it inside foot, back post. Just pass it in there. I didn’t have to have a lot of power on it.” 

Luchini praised Lewandowski, the former Mt. Lebanon and Washington College standout, for his presence throughout the night in drawing multiple Tartan Devils defenders.

“Christian had a heck of a game. The pressure. Headers he won. The physicality,” Luchini said. “All defenders were sucked in on that goal, and give Rob a lot of credit, he calmly put that one in.”  

Even with a decent contingent of Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC supporter group fans from the Steel Army pulling out songs from circa 2015 when Vincent had a breakout scoring season, the Tartan Devils couldn’t pull out any late magic in the second overtime,

Playing on the pitch where he played collegiately for Point Park Univeristy, Flick added the insurance goal in the 115th minute, drilling a shot from 17 yards that caught under the bar, then bounced down into the goal to deliver the dagger to the Tartan Devils’ hopes of returning to the proper tournament.

Steel FC would finally get one over on their league nemesis.

“They’re a good squad. We’re a good squad. Can’t beat them every time,” Annan said. “They figured us out tonight. They had some good chances, they finished. We had some, we didn’t. We go back to the drawing board. See what next year brings. Most of these guys will be back. I guess we’ll have a little chip on our shoulder, “Annan chuckled. 

Steel FC will now await what the third round of the Open Cup qualifying will bring, but for now, they’re savoring this victory. 

“It was an all-around battle. Props to them. They’re a very good team. This is the first one we got on them,” Heuler said. “We’re excited. We’re really hoping to get that qualifying berth into the Open Cup.”  

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the United States. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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