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In competition that ‘predates all of us’ Steel City FC add an exciting new chapter for Pittsburgh area clubs in the US Open Cup

On Thursday, when Steel City FC host the first ever US Open Cup match at Ambrose Urbanic Field, when they take on the Michigan Stars in the first round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, it won’t be an unprecedented occasion, but it will provide an exciting new chapter for Pittsburgh-area amateur clubs who have competed in the country’s oldest ongoing national soccer competition for over a century.

“This competition predates all of us.  MLS, the other leagues, going all the way down the list,” Ed Ellsworth, Steel City FC Coach, said in a recent episode of Sounding Off on Soccer Podcast.

Despite some recent controversy, with Major League Soccer (MLS) and the U.S. Soccer Federation being at odds over the top-tier league’s participation in the tournament this year and for the near future, the US Open Cup shines a very big spotlight on the clubs at all levels.

The moment has arrived for Pittsburgh’s National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) club, Steel City FC, to step onto the US Open Cup stage.

“This competition is the heart of who we are, as a U.S. soccer community. It’s literally the most democratic competition in the country.  It is a real inflection point in U.S. Soccer’s history,” Ellsworth added.

“Who’s going to dictate the future?  We can have discussions like pro/rel (promotion vs relegation), the system that we have now, and that’s fine. That’s the path that MLS has taken.  But, having a closed system, where only MLS dictates the rules to U.S. Soccer,  That’s a different discussion, and I don’t think that’s right.”

Steel City FC have been charting their own path and preparing for this opportunity since the end of the 2023 season, when they earned a spot in the National Tournament by virtue of finishing as one of the NPSL’s top eight clubs.

Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s Colton Coreschi caught up with players and coaches earlier this week, as they’re are ready to compete on Thursday night.

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

Pittsburgh’s History in the US Open Cup

Immigrants flocked to the local mines and industrial jobs in the late 19th century, and by 1894, soccer made its first appearance. Unlike many other early hotbeds of American soccer, the soccer teams around Pittsburgh were primarily sponsored by commercial businesses rather than ethnic cultural clubs.

Pittsburgh teams entered into the National Challenge Cup (Now the U. S. Open Cup) for its inaugural 1913-1914 tournament, where Braddock made a major splash.

Taking on powerhouse Bethlehem Steel squad, Braddock turned what should have been an easy 2nd round romp into a fight for survival, with Bethlehem finally breaking a 2-2 draw with two minutes remaining in extra time

It’s probably fair to say that from the early 1930s through the late 1950s, Pittsburgh teams were second to none at fielding clubs that were prominent contenders for both the US Open Cup and the National Amateur Cup.

By the early 1930s, some of the top clubs in the region began an extended string of successful runs both locally, and in national cup competitions as Pittsburgh soccer entered its Golden Era.

The major powers in the Keystone League during the Golden era were Heidelberg Tornadoes, Harmarville Hurricanes, Castle Shannon, Morgan SC (also at times known as Morgan-Strasser), Gallatin and Beadling.

During this run, Pittsburgh-based clubs made eight appearances in the U. S. Open Cup final between 1942 and 1955, winning four titles.

Pittsburgh Gallatin were the first Cup winners in 1942, beating the Pawtucket Rangers by an aggregate score of 6-3 in a home/away contests in the Final, including their home pitch at Legion Field in Stan Musial’s hometown of Donora.

For most of this run, these clubs competed as amateurs, however, Morgan Strasser was a founding member in 1946 of the North American Soccer Football League, playing as the Pittsburgh Strassers. The NASFL was the first attempt to create a semi-national soccer league in the US, the first since the original ASL of the 1920s, and the first covering the Midwestern part of the country. The Strassers, although they won the Penn State Challenge Cup that year, did not do so well in the NASFL featured some strong teams.

It did not take Morgan long to find their championship ways after the NASFL experience, as they clawed their way to the finals of the 1949 U. S. Open Cup (now competing as Morgan SC), and defeated the American Soccer League’s Philadelphia Nationals 4-2 (after a 1-0 opening loss) to take the title.

Heidelberg did them one better in fighting to the 1949 U. S. open cup final (where they lost to New York German-Hungarian 2-4 and 6-2). Harmarville finally made the big time in 1950, starting a string of victories second only to the successes of Morgan-Strasser.

Harmarville led the way with the most titles from the Pittsburgh region, having won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 1952 and 1956. They also played in the Cup Final in 1953.  U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame players Ray Bernabei and Bobby Craddock played for Harmarville.

Although Beadling remains the longest running club in the Pittsburgh region, they would not reach an Open Cup final at any point in its illustrious history, but they were the last club from this Golden Erea who would go on to play in a National final — as they made it to the 1958 National Amateur cup final (losing to St. Louis Kutis)

No team from the region has made the finals of any national competition since then — this includes the professional clubs that have existed from a few short-lived experiments (Phantoms in 1968, the Canons in 1972 and the Miners in 1975) and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, who have reached the quarterfinal round twice (2001 and 2023).

Pittsburgh amateur clubs continued to enter the tournament, but with very little success as it was primarily Harmarville with appearances in the 1960s and 1970s, but bowing out of the tournament in the first round each time they entered through 1975.

Then, Pittsburgh’s history in the Open Cup hit a dark period that lasted more than 25 years. as the Riverhounds became the first area team to enter the tournament after the introduction of MLS and A-League teams to the format. The Hounds’ made their Open Cup debut in 2000. 

With a few exceptions here and there, the Riverhounds have competed in the National Tournament most every year since.

The first amateur/lower division side to enter the Tournament this Century representing Pittsburgh was the Fort Pitt Regiment, who qualified after a strong debut campaign in 2014.

The Regiment were led by Pittsburgh soccer coaching legend, John Kowalski, and included eventual pros Neco Brett (Robert Morris University) and Max Flick (Point Park University).

PA West surrenders Fort Pitt Regiment, ending four-season run in NPSL

Coming out of the gate, the Regiment had an impressive debut season, claiming a league title, then making it to the Midwest Conference Finals, where they lost to Lansing.

“That was a close-knit group,” Tim McCoy, who was responsible for administrative oversight for the club and PA West President at the time, added.

“They were a solid team, with some notable players who would go on to play professionally.”

A stellar inaugural season earned the Regiment with its first, and only berth in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup proper tournament in 2015, when they lost a heartbreaker, 1-0, at West Virginia Chaos.

It was the closest the Regiment ever came to having a formal match against the bigger kids on the Western Pennsylvania soccer block, the Riverhounds SC.   

Actually, that was the closest we’ve ever come to having a Pittsburgh Derby match in the National Tournament since the heyday of the Golden Era.

The Chaos would fall to the Hounds the following week, 3-0, at Highmark Stadium.

A few years later, in 2017, the Greater Pittsburgh Soccer League’s upstart club, the Tartan Devils Oak Avalon, a true amateur side, earned their way into the tournament through the qualifying round.

Hosting Maryland-based Aromas Cafe FC, the Tartan Devils triumphed by a 3-1 margin.

Tartan Devils FC win first ever Open Cup qualifying match, top Aromas Cafe FC, 3-1 

That win in the qualifying round was good enough to get the Tartan Devils into the proper tournament, where they would have to face the Derby City Rovers that May.

In what has to be one of the most dramatic matches in Pittsburgh soccer history, the Tartan Devils, an older squad, took on the Rovers, a very young PDL (now USL League Two) club, with many college-aged players, in Southern Indiana.

After hanging around despite absorbing tons of pressure in the first half and early second half, the Devils didn’t give in, found a way to get a late equalizer, then carried the momentum into extra time and eventually into a penalty kick shootout, where their experience lifted them through to the second round.

It was the first time since the Golden Era that a Pittsburgh-based amateur club advanced in Open Cup.

COLUMN: Determined Open Cup Underdogs Tartan Devils FC: A Pittsburgh Team

A few weeks later, the Tartan Devils didn’t find themselves with an opportunity to face the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, but instead, hosted USL Championship side Louisville City FC, at Highmark Stadium, who would go on to lift the league’s Cup that season.  In a rather strange scheduling snafu from US Soccer — the Hounds were drawn into a second round match against lower division outfit Chicago FC.  The Hounds were victims of a Cup-set for the second consecutive year to a lower division side, losing in embarrassing fashion, 2-0.

For the Devils, hosting the Open Cup at Highmark Stadium provided a moment to savor, but they were easily disposed by Louisville City FC, by 9-0 margin. 

We produced the following video, produced by Nick Milliron, captured the action and excitement on that night.

Now, a new chapter will be written by Steel City FC on Thursday night, at Ambrose Urbanic Field, as the NPSL club will take on a professional side in the Michigan Stars.

In a tournament filled with plenty of drama, unpredictability and unsung heroes — this should be an eventful night of soccer in Pittsburgh as the National Tournament is back here at the grassroots level.

Pittsburgh Area US Open Cup Champions and Runner-Up

1942 Gallatin (champ)
1949 Morgan-Strasser (champ)
1951 Heidelberg (runner-up)
1952 Harmarville (champ)
1953 Harmarville (runner-up)
1956 Harmarville (champ)

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).

Glory on the Grass

Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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