In the modern era of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup competition — since Major League Soccer was founded a little more than 20 years ago — no Pittsburgh-area amateur team had ever won a first-round game in the United States’ most prestigious and oldest soccer tournament.
That changed on Wednesday night, when the Tartan Devils Oak Avalon ventured to the Louisville metro area — Jeffersonville, Indiana to be exact — and pulled off a dramatic comeback win (1-1, 4-3 on penalties) against a young, talented Premier Development League team — Dover City Rovers.
While the die-hard and casual sports fans of the Steel City were primarily focused on the Penguins Game 7 conquest of the Capitals that night — this group of amateur soccer players –almost all Western Pennsylvania born — achieved an unprecedented accomplishment.
“It’s extremely special. These guys, (Derby City Rovers), do this every day,” said Robbie Heuler, who scored the game’s tying goal against the Rovers in the 89th minute.
“We (Tartan Devils) all have jobs. Work 9 to 5. We don’t train that much at all, but to come out, and get a result like this, it’s something very special.”
Now Pittsburgh — it’s time to get behind these guys.
The reward for this exhilarating win for the Tartan Devils Oak Avalon is a 2nd Round home match at Highmark Stadium on Wednesday night against a pro team – Louisville City FC.
Pittsburghers love an underdog story — right?
A team made up of many former College players mostly in their late 20s and early 30s — came together a little more than three years ago (at location of team sponsor — Piper’s Pub on the South Side) and formed a strong team in the Greater Pittsburgh Soccer League’s open division.
Little did they think they would have accomplished this much already — having won the GPSL three times — and now being the first team from the region to win an Open Cup game.
Prior to the Open Cup win, team vice captain, E.J. McCormick, spoke about the team’s no-frills approach.
“We’re hard nosed. We’ll run straight through you,” said E.J. McCormick, vice captain, Tartan Devils Oak Avalon (TDOA).
“You can do all the fancy stuff. We’re going to take it and then we’re going to score — and you’re going to lose. That’s our style. It doesn’t have to be pretty — but we really are a ‘Pittsburgh’ soccer team.”
Having only seen this group play once before, in an Open Cup qualifier, I was still unsure of what this team was capable of accomplishing heading into Wednesday’s contest.
And quite frankly, judging from the tension on the short bus ride from the hotel in the Louisville suburbs, across the bridge and to Indiana side of the Ohio River, they probably weren’t sure either.
Then, the match started, and things got even more nervy in the game’s first 12 minutes or so.
The younger, very technically sound — and seemingly more elusive Derby City Rovers were controlling possession and pace of play.
The older, and what appeared to be bit slower Tartan Devils, were on their heels just trying to stay organized in the back.
Kenny Doublette, a big, strong Derby City center forward who was on Louisville City FC roster a year ago, was drawing three or four Tartan Devils defenders around him whenever he touched the ball. This freed up the smaller, dynamic Derby City players like Cory Thomas and Igor Ibrahimkavic — who connected for the game’s first goal in the 12th minute.
The Tartan Devils’ team identity that McCormick boasted about prior to the game was really being put to the test at that point, leaving me with some doubt that they could match-up with the younger Rovers.
Down 1-0, and not connecting passes at all anywhere beyond midfield, and it looked like it would be long night for the Devils.
Instead, moments later, the hard-nosed fighter counter punched the technically sound boxer.
McCormick stunned the confident yet careless Derby City midfield and back line — stealing a lazy pass toward the back line — he got behind the defender with a golden chance to equalize his shot eluded goalkeeper Wyatt Durbin but missed — barely wide right of the post.
It wasn’t just a fluky — one-time chance. It was just the beginning of a match that suddenly saw the Devils start to get it together.
“To be honest, after we gave up that goal, that’s when we started to swing the momentum in our favor,” said Andy Kalas, player/coach.
“Then we started to have the better of the chances the rest of the way.”
It seemed as if the Rovers started to get rattled as the Devils started to play with more confidence. Every ball played through the middle was contested in the form of hard, but clean tackles — and even every ball lost in possession — Devils players showed a fierce effort to win balls back.
I finally thought to myself watching about halfway through the match — this is a “Pittsburgh Soccer Team”.
They’re exactly who they said they are.
The Rovers found out that technical skill and speed can’t win games alone. They needed to play at their best for 90 minutes plus to put the Devils away.
A week or so prior to the match, Tartan Devils Oak Avalon club president John Battersby said something to me that began to really resonate as I watched this match start to tilt in favor of the Devils on Wednesday.
“They’ve been successful at the (GPSL) and in other competitions, basically because they know how to win,” said Battersby.
“It may not be pretty, but when they step foot on the field, they play with a sheer determination to win.”
Make no mistake — the Devils played with heart and desire that probably taught the young Rovers a lesson or two on this night that might benefit the developmental team prior to their PDL season.
They know how to win.
Ultimately, a late goal in regulation, and despite facing countless balls into the box in the overtime periods and having used all of their subs, the Devils remained confident and steadfast through the full 120 minutes.
In a match that came down to penalties — and the fifth and final kick — was experience and toughness that pulled the Devils through to an exhilarating win, while the young Rovers wilted in the face of pressure.
After Rovers’ Greg Fischer‘s lining shot skimmed off the bar and spiraled into the Indiana night — the Devils went to former Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Duquense University and Chartiers Valley standout Travis Mackenzie, who scored twice in the team’s qualifying win in October – -was the man who would come through.
Mackenzie’s shot was a no-doubt-about-it laser that went one direction, while Durbin dove in the other.
This “Pittsburgh Soccer Team” had done it.
They did it their way — they let the Derby City Rovers do their fancy stuff — but in the end — the Devils got the result, and the sweet rewards that come with it.
Now, they’re bringing the Open Cup tournament back to Pittsburgh against a big step up in competition.
Louisville City FC had better not rest easy — because if anything’s a given against the Tartan Devils Oak Avalon — they won’t just come to play — they’ll come to battle.
PITTSBURGH RIVERHOUNDS, STEEL ARMY, AREA SOCCER FANS STEP UP
Immediately after the game, while Tartan Devils president John Battersby had a chance to enjoy the victory — but he also acknowledged to me that also know that hosting a U.S. Open Cup game, for a club that has very little resources would be a huge, monumental task.
By late Thursday, Battersby was assured by Highmark Stadium and the Riverhounds organization, that they would support and handle a lot of the game operations/logistics.
“This morning (Thursday), got phone call from General Manager (Kevin Johnston) from Pittsburgh Riverhounds. He congratulated the team and he proposed how we could work together to get the next round game organized (17th May 7 pm at Highmark Stadium).
With the daunting prospect of organizing such a game when you normally just organize PA West games & scrimmages, it was a great feeling to know that the local professional team was interested enough to reach out and show their support. Bodes well for the future of Riverhounds and soccer in Western PA.
The Riverhounds supporter group — the Steel Army are also doing everything they can to get behind the Devils — maybe even will be doing their best David Puddy “Gotta Support the Team” impersonations come Wednesday night…
General admission tickets for the Tartan Devils-Louisville City match will be available for a mere $5 at the gate — and also they’re available at Ticketmaster (with applicable fee)
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