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US Open Cup marks new heights for Steel City FC

A chance to shine on the club’s biggest stage to date pays homage to years of work and preparation, now paying dividends

The U.S. Open Cup is the most storied tradition and competition in U.S. Soccer. Each year, the very best the country has to offer enters a showdown unlike any other – single-elimination knockout, winner-take-all, with the best professionals and amateurs alike taking to the field and dreaming of lifting the Cup as the best in the land.

With that historic institution reimagined in the face of a challenging offseason – as covered by PSN’s John Krysinsky on a recent podcast with several members of Steel City FC – it nonetheless carries on in 2024 with potentially even more excitement for 2024, including all 32 Open Division amateur clubs facing professional opposition to kick the tournament off in round one.

Among those Open Division challengers is Pittsburgh’s own Steel City FC, making their tournament debut to properly celebrate the men’s side’s fifth-year anniversary. They’ll face off against 2022 National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) champions and 2023 NISA finalists Michigan Stars FC in their opening match, hosted at Pittsburgh’s Ambrose Urbanic Field on Thursday at 7 PM ET.

You can check out PSN’s full preview, featuring player and coach interviews ahead of the match, here.

Plus, check out Pittsburgh’s rich history in the Open Cup chronicled, here. 

But while the on-field action certainly will be the highlight Thursday night, this appearance marks a substantial step forward for the Steel City organization as a whole – elevated to the brightest spotlight the club has featured under to date. A fact that is certainly not lost on Steel City FC owner Tom Ovenden.

“This was one of our longer term goals as a staff, achieving access to this platform is a big deal for the brand and what we are trying to do,” Ovenden said of the USOC. “Accessing this competition gives the club national recognition and legitimizes what we are doing as many players in our academy program have played a part in getting us here.”

In the previously linked podcast, Ovenden discussed the challenges faced by the USOC in the face of Major League Soccer’s (MLS) attempted withdrawal from the competition – seen by most as a cynical attack on a historic institution – and resulting pared-down participation for 2024. However, since confirmation of the 2024 format – including the chance for all amateur participants to compete against professional opposition – Ovenden sees a chance for the Cup to revamp, grow, and present new opportunities for clubs like Steel City.

“It certainly has put the competition in the spotlight, it gives us a better chance to advance to later rounds which is exciting, and a good narrative to sell to sponsors and get new fans out to the games to see what it’s all about,” Ovenden said. “I think the recharge that it has given the competition from the top is excellent and hopefully will make the cup more relevant.”

While everyone hopes to see the competition grow and see MLS ultimately return to the fold in full, the meaning of the competition – even now – remains at an all-time high for all lower-league professionals and Open Division amateurs. One that every player and coach looks forward to as one of the biggest highlights of the year, and certainly one that marks a substantial achievement for those involved.

““We were thrilled when the decision was made to go on with the tournament last month,” said Steel City veteran Ryan Mertz. “This has been a goal for the club for years, and for us as players, it has definitely been special paying attention to and knowing that we’re a part of the decisions being made at the top of soccer in the states. We’ve spent a lot of hours together in the last few months preparing for Thursday night, and it has definitely been a process that we’ll be proud of when we look back on it. We hope to have the opportunity again in the coming years.”

Steel City is emblematic of what is often lost in discussions about the Cup’s future at the highest levels. For most Open Division and lower-league professionals, the Cup represents something to strive for in the progression of players, clubs, and growing the game in this country. At this level, it’s about representing a community, doing what’s best for those around you and providing opportunities that would never exist without the tireless efforts of those involved for nothing more than the love of the game.

With 12 Pittsburgh-grown locals on Steel City’s gameday roster – including six current or graduate members of Steel City’s academy – the value of achieving qualification to the Open Cup and what that means for every young talent growing in this city is a major part of Steel City’s reason for being.

“Even if just one academy player plays in the actual game, having our academy players strive to make this roster is a win for us as a youth organization,” Ovenden explained. “If our academy players aren’t making the grade then it means our squad is of a high quality and that’s what it is about. We are becoming a place where good players come to get better.”

With supporters groups from MLS, to USL, to NISA, to the Open Division leagues all rallying around the Cup in the face of adversity, the response of fans has been heartwarming to see. That will be on full display in Pittsburgh on Thursday, with the Steel Army heading to Ambrose to lend their voice to a club that means as much to the community of this city as any other.

And ultimately, for the health of the game beyond MLS and the continued existence of the U.S. Open Cup as U.S. Soccer’s north star for all clubs and players, it’s up to you to rally too. Attend your local U.S. Open Cup games, go beyond that and attend your local club’s league matches, support them by purchasing tickets and gear, and lend your voice to support them.

Because when you come out to support Steel City – when you come out to support local soccer – you help make dreams like playing in the U.S. Open Cup happen. You help make that happen not just for a specific team or players, but for your neighbors, the kids you see at the park playing a pickup game, the families who support their children’s dreams of playing for their academy club, their college, their local professional team.

When you support local soccer, you support your community, and that can mean so much more than you know. So come out this Thursday to Ambrose, cheer for the home team, and show those players who grew up in Pittsburgh, trained here, and are representing this city, that you represent them.

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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