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Pittsburgh Hotspurs are back in NPSL playoffs; Face rival Cleveland SC once again

Photo courtesy Ed Thompson

The Pittsburgh Hotspurs senior men’s team cemented themselves this season as a top-level club in the NPSL’s Rust Belt Division and now have become a perennial playoff contender in the league’s Midwest Region by earning a second consecutive postseason berth in 2022.

This Tuesday (July 19), they’ll be facing their rivals, Cleveland SC, for a fourth time this season, in the NPSL’s Midwest Region playoffs, in Berea, Ohio (7 p.m. kickoff).

The Hotspurs finished the Spring regular season with a 8-4-0 record, ending in second place in the Rust Belt Divison, a half game behind front runners Cleveland (8-3-1).

Despite finishing behind in the standings by a mere point, the Hotspurs finally showed they could defeat their emerging Rust Belt rivals twice this season, first at Founders Field on June 19, 2-1, and again, three days later in Ohio by the same score.

In the third match, Cleveland returned the favor with a 3-1 victory on July 8.

In 2021, the teams played three hard fought matches, but each time, Cleveland came out on top.

Photo Gallery: Pittsburgh Hotspurs fall short in top-of-table battle with Cleveland SC

Unlike a year ago, when Cleveland won all three matches, the Hotspurs really feel like they’re on equal footing with their rivals.

Now they up the stakes on Tuesday in their second post season match in as many seasons.

“It’s definitely a rivalry. I don’t think Pittsburgh and Cleveland people don’t see eye-to-eye, when it comes to sports. It’s fun and good for soccer here and there as well,” Hotspurs’ veteran midfielder/winger, Nicky Kolarac said. ”

Led by Kolarac, the club’s 30 year-old venerable captain who has become a Pittsburgh soccer staple of sorts, as the club consists of a blend of some of the area’s best current and soon-to-be collegiate players along with a few wily veterans leading the way.

“We’ve had a breakthrough this year against them, beating them twice,” “We finished 2-1 versus them this year, but this playoff game this Tuesday will be massive. Hopefully we can pull it out. We’ve had some good training sessions, so we’re ready.”

Since 2019, Kolarac has been one of the mainstays for a club that has kept a lot of positive momentum building to this point.

“We are getting better each year,” Kolarac said. “The first few years, we were still searching for our identity as a club, but we are possession-based team, and we’re getting to know each other and have brought a lot more guys back, so that has helped.”

Now, the stakes are higher as they’ll meet in the first round as the Hotspurs, earning the sixth seed, will have to travel to Cleveland, the third-seed, to take on their rival one more time.  In addition, if the Hotspurs could reach the Midwest Regional Finals, they could earn a berth in the first round of the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament.

This year’s edition of the Hotspurs includes a mix of current college players, with many names Pittsburgh soccer fans and those who follow college soccer may be familiar with (see the full list below), along with veterans including Kolarac and Rami Bensasi.

The Hotspurs are lead by Head Coach Dan Brower, along with assistants Peter Mulhern, Tom Campbell and Mark Duffield, who have the task of putting together the squad, implementing a system that works while maximizing the use of many different players who come together for a short sprint that is the NPSL season.

Now the challenge will be beating a Cleveland team that has a lot of experience and success at this level.

“They’ve been playing together for five-six years now,” Kolarac said. “They’re kind of like our veterans, but the entire team. They play a great sytle and they’re hard to play against. They’re similiar to us. Possession, high press, that kind of stuff.

“It’s been an amazing,” Kolarac said, of the Hotspurs development of the men’s senior team from when they started in 2019, to where they are now, competing in the playoffs on a regular basis.

“This year we’re gelling. I think we can get it done, We brought people back from last year. Coach Brower has us playing a good style. We’ve beat them (Cleveland) two out of three games this year already. Hopefully on Tuesday, it’s the same result.”

INTERVIEW WITH NICKY KOLARAC ON PITTSBURGH SPORTS LIVE & ON SOUNDING OFF ON SOCCER PODCAST

On Pittsburgh Sports Live, Nicky Kolarac and John Krysinsky talk about the growth and success of the Pittsburgh Hotspurs men’s NPSL side.

For a more in-depth and longer discussion, check out the extended interview on PSN’s Sounding Off on Soccer Pod, as John and Nicky talk more about Pittsburgh soccer, his experiences playing professionally, playing with the Riverhounds and being part of the ‘Miracle on the Mon’ and much, much more.

Hotspurs 2022 Roster

# Name Position
19 William Afawubo Defender
16 Adebambo Akinjogbin Midfielder
9 Bryan Akongo Attacker
22 Rami Bensasi Midfielder
37 Thomas Bradfield Goalkeeper
3 Giuseppe Croce Defender
5 Cole DeVaul Defender
27 Anthony DiFalco Attacker
34 Lucas Drumond Midfielder
21 Jack Emanuel Defender
36 Ethan Gardner Midfielder
11 LUCAS GODINHO Midfielder
7 Nicholas Graeca Midfielder
29 Will Gruca Midfielder
4 Owain Hawkins Defender
2 Nolan Hutter Defender
1 Keaton Jennings Goalkeeper
13 Simon Kalinauskas Defender
10 Nicky Kolarac Midfielder
17 Justin Kopay Defender
6 Ryan Landry Midfielder
33 Charlie Lawrence Midfielder
20 Ryan Mertz Midfielder
15 Tate Mohney Attacker
18 Logan Muck Attacker
14 Gabriel Norris Midfielder
24 Anthony Panko Midfielder
30 Luke Peperak Attacker
25 Nathan Prex Attacker
28 Austin Rocke Attacker
32 Will Sangpachatanaruk Attacker
31 Nathan Schlessinger Attacker
12 Nick Smith Goalkeeper
26 Colton SPENCE Defender
8 Michael Sullivan Midfielder
35 Johnathan Swann Defender
39 Nate Ward Attacker
23 Garret Watson Goalkeeper

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for 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 US. 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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