With the Great Lakes Conference Cup staring at them when they took the field, Steel City FC came out on the attack and never relented in defeating rival Cleveland SC, 2-0, to capture its first-ever conference title, at Founders Field in Cheswick on Saturday night before a lively crowd.
With the win, Steel City advances to the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL)’s Midwest Region semifinal against an opponent to be named later (date and match time are TBA).
Gabe Norris and Ryan Landry scored in each half respectively, and the Pittsburgh side clamped down to limit Cleveland’s chances as goalkeeper Garrett Watson earned the clean sheet by making two saves.
“It’s a big, big night for the club. It takes more than the 18 that were on the pitch, but they were phenomenal,” Dan Brower, Steel City FC Head Coach said.
“We have a wide range of talent, and age groups, with players from 16, 17 years old, to 33 years old. It’s a major accomplishment for our club to be able to win the conference.”
Steel City came out from the start by playing direct in exposing the space that Cleveland was giving them in pockets in and around the final third. In the second minute, midfielder Nick Graeca made an ambitious move toward the top of the box, where he let a blistering shot away right at Cleveland SC keeper Pedro Alves, who made the save.
For most of the first half, the home side were on the front foot, earning a number of corner kicks, and nearly converted in the 18th minute when target forward Tate Mohney’s shot chance was saved by sprawling Alves, who came way off his line to deny the shot.
“We wanted to put them on their back foot from the start,” Norris, a rising junior at Robert Morris, added.
Cleveland attempted a few diagonal balls to the corners, but Steel City’s backline remained unfazed and had plenty of support. Cleveland midfielder Jannis Schmidt took the only substantial shot for the visitors in the first half, from beyond the box, that sailed well over the bar in the 26th minute.
It felt as if it would be a matter of time for Steel City which kept bringing pressure. With veteran Kolarac leading the attack, taking a ball down the right width in the 36th minute, they nearly capitalized again as the former Pittsburgh Riverhounds midfielder found Mohney on the top corner of the box. The Duquense rising senior took a couple touches, then laid a pass right on a platter for Graeca, who hit his shot attempt off the bar.
“Having a veteran like Nicky (Kolarac) to kind of notice, when they drop off, and we can start building, playing the way we want to play,” Norris added. “As a young guy, I am listening to everything Nicky says. Having a captain on the field with that kind of experience is huge.”
Graeca would get his redemption moments later.
On a quick counter attack, Graeca made an overlapping run, then, after taking a touch, delivered a ball into the space for Norris, who was making a run to the post.
Norris smashed his one-time opportunity into the back of the net, setting off a celebration as he ran to the near side corner flag.
“I knew that the late run would finish it off,” Norris explained.
“I am a pretty defensive (holding midfielder) six. I saw Nicky kind of jogging, and maybe I thought I could give him a break on this one because I knew I could get there. I looked at him, and he said get on your horse. I started going 100. Ran off the back shoulder to beat my defender and find out if I could seek the ball out, and I got lucky enough to get a foot on it.”
With Steel City holding the 1-0 edge, Cleveland made a few advances to try to put back an equalizer before the half, but none would amount to much.
Steel City ended the first half with 6-2 edge on shot (three on frame), 5-2 advantage on corners, while they were willing to concede possession to Cleveland, but continued to press and play direct at times.
In the second half, Steel City stayed on the attack, as Norris, who said he watches highlight films of English footballing legend Stephen Gerrard, let one rip from 28 yards out that banged off the post, for the second shot attempt that hit the woodwork in the match.
As both teams started to go to their respective benches, Brower knew that he had plenty of outstanding options that would provide fresh legs and keep pushing forward when opportunities arose.
Two of those subs connected in the 80th minute to put the match away, as Ryan Mertz, former Upper St. Clair and University of Delaware standout — and member of Pittsburgh’s first family of soccer — delivered a well-placed free kick after a Cleveland handball to the far post area, which connected with former Duquesne University and Shaler High School star Ryan Landry.
Landry’s header put the exclamation point on the Steel City victory, and the team saw out the final 10 minutes by keeping the ball and make an exhausted Cleveland SC side chase the match to the very last whistle.
“I keep saying, this is what happens when you bring all the talent in Pittsburgh together,” Norris exclaimed.
POST MATCH INTERVIEWS WITH HC DAN BROWER AND GABE NORRIS
- Brower clarified that his club will need to win one more match in the NPSL tournament to reach the Midwest Region Final, to be assured of a spot in the 2024 Open Cup tournament.
- Brower was distracted just enough, by being asked to pose for a photo following his interview with Pittsburgh Soccer Now, and got the Gatorade container (filled with water) dumped on him.
No one deserves this more than Dan Brower. He is the best coach I have ever played for.
— Legend (@tbuckets1929) July 16, 2023
- Cleveland SC was playing on short rest, having secured their spot in the final by defeating Michigan Rangers FC with a 1-0 victory in a rain-soaked, weather-delayed match on Wednesday evening in Grand Rapids. Julian Pellegrini emerged as the hero, scoring the match-winning goal in the forty-seventh minute.
- This was the third meeting between the two clubs this season. In their previous matches, Steel City FC secured a 3-2 victory on their home turf, while both clubs played to a 1-1 draw in Cleveland. Interestingly, Cleveland and Steel City will meet for the third consecutive season in the NPSL playoffs. Cleveland emerged victorious in both previous encounters, defeating Steel City FC, formerly known as Pittsburgh Hotspurs, 4-0 at George Finnie Stadium in the Midwest Region Quarterfinals in 2021 and again in 2022 at Krenzler Field with a 2-1 victory.
- Cleveland SC was aiming to reach the Midwest Region Semifinals for the fifth consecutive season. However, Steel City FC is determined to overcome its historical obstacle and defeat Cleveland SC for the first time in the playoffs. With both teams hungry for victory, an intense battle on the pitch is expected.
- Steel City’s attacking front has been led by Nathan Prex and Tate Mohney, each scoring five goals this season.
- In their previous clash with Cleveland on Founders Field, Mohney, Anthony DiFalco, and Ryan Landry found the back of the net. Defender Justin Kopay was recognized as a member of the NPSL Team of the Month for June. Founders Field, their home ground, is a unique venue as it is the only natural grass pitch in the Great Lakes Conference and also serves as the home of the Pittsburgh Harlequins Rugby Football Club.
- Cleveland SC’s second-year Head Coach, Vlad Muresan, successfully neutralized Michigan’s strengths in their recent match, and he hopes for a repeat performance from his squad at Founders Field. The team will need to recover quickly after a rain-soaked and weather-delayed match in Grand Rapids just two days ago. Julian Pellegrini, the hero of Wednesday night’s match, scored his second goal of the season, both of which came against Michigan. In the previous encounter in Cheswick, Chris Cvecko and Marcus Pereira showcased their scoring prowess by finding the back of the net.
Steel City FC Roster