By John Krysinsky/NPSL.com
On a warm, overcast summer night in the Northern Pittsburgh suburb of Indianola, PA, an intense, physical match took place between the top two teams in the National Premier Soccer League’s Rust Belt Conference, the upstart Pittsburgh Hotspurs and the more-established Cleveland SC.
When Tom Campell’s Pittsburgh Hotspurs club walked off the field, they felt a sense of immediate disappointment from losing a pivotal match that could have pushed them to the very top of the standings for the first time in the club’s brief history as an NPSL squad.
Yet the Hotspurs also came away with a reinforced belief and confidence that they can compete with the most established clubs in the NPSL and a certain level of satisfaction in their continued improvement.
“I am really proud of our guys,” Campbell said. “Three weeks ago, we were beaten by five by them. I thought we could have come away with the three points, but we missed some serious chances in the first half.”
Heading into the season, the NPSL’s defending Midwest Region Champions’ Head Coach Lewis Dunne correctly projected that his club’s most difficult conference opponent in 2021 would be the relatively new kids on the ‘Rust-Belt’ block, from Pittsburgh.
“We knew from the get-go, that regardless of the previous result, that this would be a tough game for us,” Lewis Dunne, Cleveland SC Head Coach, said. “I knew from the start, even at the beginning of the season, that Pittsburgh would be the team in the conference that would give us the most problems. I like the way they play. They have a good group of players, a good coaching staff.”
Despite getting an early goal, the Hotspurs couldn’t stave off Cleveland SC’s strong second half push, losing 2-1 at Founders Field on Friday evening.
“The boys gave it their all,” Hotspurs midfielder and captain Nicky Kolarac said after the match. “It was a tough one because it didn’t go our way. The last time we played them, they beat us 6-1, but tonight, we showed that we could play with them. Tonight, it was for the top of the table. We came up short, but we have three games left to battle for a playoff spot.”
The former Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Saint Francis (PA) University standout, Kolarac, was part of the former Fort Pitt Regiment squad in 2017 and 2018 which struggled to be competitive — eventually folded to give way for the ambitious Hotspurs organization to add a NPSL senior squad.
“I want to be a part of building the game in Pittsburgh – which is why the Pittsburgh Hotspurs were a great draw for me,” Kolarac said to Pittsburgh Soccer Now after joining the club prior to its inaugural season in 2019. “Having grown up and learned the game in Pittsburgh, keeping my soccer career here is exactly where I want to be.”
The Hotspurs also hit some bumps in the road in their debut season in 2019, winning just one match.
In just a couple years, the Hotspurs though have built a thriving internal club culture that is essential for NPSL clubs to find success and bring top players from in and around the region to play for them.
“It’s exciting,” Kolarac said after the match with Cleveland SC. “This is my fourth year playing in the NPSL. It’s been a pretty big step up for us. Everyone’s buzzing. You can see we have a lot of people at our matches. It is looking good. Soccer’s obviously growing in Pittsburgh. It’s lovely to see.”
The most NSPL-battle-hardened player on the Hotspurs roster is Kolarac, but he’s part of a roster which carries a well-balanced blend of former college players, current college players, and a number of recent high school grads who are part of the Hotspurs Academy program.
“It’s a good group, a good mix,” Kolarac said. “I think we fit well and play well together.”
“You can tell, this is definitely a community here, like an event,” Kolarac said. “You can tell we’re all in this together. For the guys who’re in their first year on the team, it feels like we’ve been playing together for 10 years.”
Keaton Jennings is one of the young guys, as the Robert Morris University goalkeeper pointed out, he’s learned a lot and benefited from being part of this team.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” Jennings said. “We have some youth. We have some old guys. Some guys in college. Even some of the guys have been coached by the older players.”
On the field, the Hotspurs knew that if they could get off to a good start in the rematch against Cleveland, they would give themselves an excellent chance to knock off the more established club.
Looking to avenge its lone loss earlier in the season to the conference’s front-running squad and playing before a nice crowd that filled the bleachers at Founders Field, the Hotspurs came out on the front foot in the early moments of the match.
Pittsburgh drew a corner kick opportunity in the fifth minute after a long diagonal ball played to Kolarac, who was playing out on the right attacking winger spot, was cleared off the line by a Cleveland defender.
The Hotspurs opted to play a short corner kick, Tate Mohney delivered a short cross from the right end line that connected with Nolan Hutter for the 1-0 lead.
“It was delightful,” Campbell said. “It was a clever bit of play from Tate. Everyone came up, Drove it into the box. It was fantastic.”
Throughout the first 20 minutes of the match, the Hotspurs were effective in working the ball into the spaces into the width of the final third, creating five first half corner kick attempts.
They nearly doubled the lead when Ethan Hackeburg broke loose on the left side, then unleashed a shot that banged off the left post.
As the half progressed, Pittsburgh sat back more, absorbing more pressure while Cleveland was still trying to navigate on the grassy surface. The Hotspurs would find more opportunities on the counter, while Cleveland’s best efforts resulted in a few dangerous balls in from a trio of free kicks and four corners.
Kolarac found a chance at the top of the box, where he’s developed a knack for scoring this season, with three goals, but Cable was able to make a routine save in the 25th minute.
“We had our opportunities to win 1v1 battles in the corners,” Campbell added. “Keeper made a couple nice saves. We were close a few times.”
In the 42nd minute, the Hotspurs nearly capitalized after a corner attempt, when they kept possession alive. Just inside the left edge of the box, it was Mohney who drove a very hard shot on frame, but was saved by Cable.
In midfield and when defending on the edges of the final third, the Hotspurs got a bit reckless, as both Ethan Hackenberg and Kolarac were booked for late challenges.
Cleveland didn’t waste any time trying to turn the tables of the match after the start of the second half. A quick possession forward resulted in a shot attempt from top of the box being blocked by a wall of Hotspurs defenders. While Pittsburgh tried to keep things tight, they would have their work cut out against an inspired and experienced side which took command of the match in the second half.
“They put us on the back foot from the start,” Jennings pointed out.
Still, there were moments that Pittsburgh hit back again on the counter. After a Cleveland foul in the 54th minute, Lucas Godinho’s free kick forced Cable into making another save.
Four minutes later, the Hotspurs threatened and once again Hackenburg hit the post after receiving a nifty back-heel pass from Mohney.
While Cleveland had the better of play and started to ramp up the pressure, the Hotspurs were left clinging to a precarious one-goal lead despite numerous opportunities to go up 2-0.
As Pittsburgh tried to build-up possession out of its defensive third, Cleveland’s high press laid the hammer down, turning the table of the match.
“We knew we couldn’t waste any time trying for the equalizer,” Dunne said. “We didn’t want to keep giving them hope to hang on. We knew an early goal (in the second half) would be massive. For us, it was a change of attitude, a change of mentality.”
Vinny Bell was there to intercept a poor pass, then CSC’s leading scorer accelerated into the left side of the box to split the Hotspurs’ back line, then with Jennings to beat, he went to his right, to get around the Pittsburgh keeper for the easy finish.
“That was massive for us,” Dunne added.
With the match deadlocked at 1-1, Cleveland continued to be the more dangerous side.
There were a few more shaky moments for the Hotspurs as they attempted to play the ball out of the back as most of the action stayed for large stretches in the attacking third for the visitors.
Eventually, Cleveland would stretch out Pittsburgh’s defenders and midfield, finding room to create room for the game-winner.
In the 83rd minute, one of Cleveland’s founding players, Chris Cvecko, worked his way on the right end line, then with plenty of room to operate, delivered a perfect cross into the center of the box. connecting with Thomas Beck, who drove a header into the left side to beat Jennings for the go-ahead goal.
“Eventually, they broke us,” remarked Jennings.
Despite a few more advances forward in the final seven minutes plus stoppage time, the Hotspurs struggled to generate the same quality chances they created earlier in the match.
“We had a lot of really good chances in the first half, but we couldn’t put them away,” Jennings added. “We put them in, it could have been a different result.”
With the win, Cleveland takes command of first place in the conference, as they now own a 6-0-1 overall record, while the Hotspurs drop to 5-2-0, but still remain in solid position to earn its first NPSL playoff berth. Both clubs have three games remaining in the NPSL regular season.
Despite the loss, Campbell has seen remarkable progression and camaraderie with his club.
“We started with some individuals and talented players, but there’s a togetherness now,” Campbell said. “It shows in the way we play. Our lines stay closer together. We go up together, we drop off together. Everyone backs each other and praises each other. It’s been a fantastic thing to see.”
Could this be the beginning of a new Pittsburgh-Cleveland rivalry that has been sorely lacking on the pitch.
“There was needling going on out there,” Dunne remarked. “I love it. It brought out the best on both sides.”
“If we can secure a playoff spot, honestly, we want to go as far as we can and we know we’ll see them (Cleveland) again,” Kolarac said. “Anything can happen. We love hanging out with each other. I hope we can go far with this team.”
Photo Credit: Ed Thompson/NPSL.com