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Steel City FC prepared for ‘do or die’ USOC opener

Ahead of USOC-opening clash against Michigan Stars, Steel City FC’s players and coaches are ready for a tough challenge and unique opportunity

Every spring, the most magical event in U.S. Soccer gets underway. A tournament where amateurs can take down pros, where the various divisions and leagues all come together for one big winner-take-all showdown, and where players, coaches, and clubs can make their names known far and wide. This Thursday, that opportunity comes to Pittsburgh when Steel City FC hosts their debut U.S. Open Cup match against professional opposition in the Michigan Stars from the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA).

After earning their way into the tournament with an undefeated 2023 National Premier Soccer Leagues (NPSL) season that saw the team win the Great Lakes Conference and advance all the way to the Midwest Regional Finals before falling to eventual NPSL champions Tulsa Athletic, Steel City is ready for the toughest challenge the club has faced to date – one they face with zero fear or apprehension.

“Honestly, we’re buzzing for it,” said team veteran Ryan Mertz.

“We’ve been looking forward to Thursday night ever since we earned the opportunity last summer. It’s a season opener and a do-or-die on a national stage all at once. Representing the city where we were raised makes it all the more special. We can’t wait to see the turnout under the lights at Ambrose.”

With the Steel Army supporters group planning to be in attendance, it should be a special turnout indeed at the Pittsburgh Panthers’ home facility of Ambrose Urbanic Field. And entering that den on the other side of the field is formidable opposition indeed. The Michigan Stars, competing professionally in NISA since 2019, have reached back-to-back league finals in the past two seasons – including claiming the 2022 title for themselves. It’s a difficult opponent that Steel City FC head coach Dan Brower has a healthy awareness of leading into the match.

“We’ve watched their 2023 US Open Cup match, some of their regular season matches, and a couple of playoff games as they marched to the NISA Final,” Brower said of the Stars.  “We’ve looked at a good amount of film and one thing sticks out – our opponents are winners.  We will be playing a side on Thursday who know themselves very well, and we’ll have to be prepared for 90-plus minutes.  Our hope is to give something that our supporters can be proud of.”

Facing such tough opposition can be daunting, and with a roster featuring the fruits of a robust and growing player development model – including six Homegrown academy graduates or current players – the club is relying on an equal balance of youth and veteran leadership to help guide the club in preparation. Current Steel City FC academy players Ben Conti and Luke Fiscus find themselves on the 18-man gameday roster and spoke effusively about what those veterans mean to up-and-coming talents like themselves.

“Having very skilled and experienced players like Nick Kolarac and Marcello Borges as teammates is super helpful on and off the pitch,” said Conti. “Being a part of a squad with players of their caliber gives us young guys a better view and knowledge of the game on the pitch, as well as the mentality that we need off the pitch. During these few months of training with our First Team, we’ve been put in tons of unfamiliar environments, and having guys like Marcello and Nick can really help calm the nerves and assist us in perfecting our craft.”

“They also are role models to not just us, but all young players in the club,” added Fiscus. “Just watching them play is something special, seeing how they react to certain situations, for example when they make a mistake you never see a head go down, they’re always right back on the ball ready to go again. That type of passion for the game is truly inspiring for us young players. Learning from them, and picking up that professional mentality has been a big help in our preparation for this important match.”

For an event like the Open Cup, which means so much to so many across lower-league professional and amateur clubs, veteran leadership can transcend just one club – especially when representing a shared city. Steel City’s Ryan Mertz is fortunate to have talented professional siblings – including sister Landy at the National Women’s Soccer League’s North Carolina Courage after a collegiate career at Pittsburgh, and brother Robbie Mertz entering his fifth year with the cross-town Riverhounds – the latter of whom has been instrumental in helping his younger brother prepare for a challenge he’s well familiar with after the Riverhounds stellar performance in the 2023 edition of competition.

“Yeah, we’ve had a few conversations about it as we usually do before one of us plays a big game,” Mertz said of Mertz. “His advice is mostly about the mindset of these cup games. It’s about playing with bravery, without any fear of the game’s outcome, and with confidence that we will win. We’ll have to do all of that while also being disciplined because Michigan will certainly be capable of punishing our lapses. And of course to enjoy the night, which I will. It’s going to be a great night. Our game schedules have overlapped a lot over the last two summers, so I’m looking forward to having him in the crowd again on Thursday.”

In total, the 18-man roster features six current players or graduates of the Steel City FC academy. Additionally, there are 12 Pittsburgh-grown talents born and raised in the area, from the aforementioned former Riverhound Nicky Kolarac, to multi-year Steel City veterans like Nolan Hutter and Rami Bensasi. Between them, those Homegrown academy talents, and new additions such as Marcello Borges – most recently with fellow USOC qualifiers FC Motown – Steel City truly represents the city they call home and that value is not lost on coach Brower.

“Our Academy players know that their club has a vehicle that could connect them to the highest levels of play in US Soccer,” Brower touted. “Our ‘kids’ are growing up in our winning culture, and our First Team’s more experienced players are learning that ‘if you are good enough, you are old enough!’  We believe we have the right balance within the squad.”

“Of last season’s qualifying squad, due to NCAA rules, our thirteen Division 1 players are ineligible for the Cup,” he continued. “With only 8 of our 18 US Open Cup rostered players having 2 or more years with the First Team, our pyramidal player development model at Steel City FC has some of our Academy’s highest potential U16-19 players having played themselves to the top of our pyramid.”

“Six of our Academy players or former Academy graduates are on the Cup game roster.  This unique year-round training program that connects our Academy to our First Team helps us to prepare for early events such as our upcoming US Open Cup match.”

But even with the challenges of building a roster without NCAA-tied available talent in mid-March, Brower is confident that preparation is going as planned and that no matter the opponent, the work remains the same. With a tough NPSL conference – now including the addition of 2023 NISA champion Flower City Union – the players have had, and will continue to have, the chance to cut their teeth against some of the most difficult competition on offer in the region.

“It really doesn’t differ much, every opponent must be respected, where their (and our) strengths and weaknesses in all phases are analyzed,” Brower explained. “Our match plan will be developed from this analysis. Without a doubt, a professional side will pose some additional problems for us but, no doubt, our process of preparing the squad remains the same.”

“It’s important to note that our NPSL conference just expanded and added last year’s NISA champion, so we will face some of our region’s best amateur and professional clubs in a variety of competitions.”

With the challenge laid before them, and just a few days until both sides take the field for a tough-fought battle, Steel City are locked-in on living up to the moment. In what will surely be a landmark moment for the club, Brower, the players both veteran and young, and the organization as a whole, are ready for the biggest moment in the spotlight the club has had to date.

Be sure to join the Steel Army and come out to support your local soccer club – this Thursday (March 21st) at 7 PM ET at Pittsburgh’s Ambrose Urbanic Field.

Glory on the Grass

Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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