Beyond Bethlehem: Inside Steel FC’s Penalty Kick Victory
12 yards. In that space comes thrills, shot nerves, heartbreaks, and pure joy. That’s just a minuscule of the emotions that run through fans as they watch a match decided by penalty kicks like Bethlehem Steel FC experienced on the road at the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on Saturday night.
Playing in just its second USL Cup Playoff match in club history, Steel FC had to show experience beyond its age to rally for extra time and penalty kicks. We all know what happened next, a strong run by Michee Ngalina into the box to finish off passes from Chris Nanco and Santi Moar. After a late goal by the Riverhounds left Steel FC clinging to life with 15 minutes left but a foul outside the box set up James Chambers’ free kick beauty to even things.
After 120 minutes, it came down to penalties and the captain provided the inspiration.
“I just said to the boys that we’ve worked so hard to get to this point,” Chambers said. “I told them to be confident, pick their spot and hit it.”
As he had during the match, the captain took it upon himself to calm the nerves of his teammates. Chambers stepped up to the spot toward the Pittsburgh supporters section and fired a right-footed into the top left corner. “I just wanted to score the first one to settle the nerves of everyone down and thankfully I managed to do that. A lot of the guys may not have been involved in a situation like that before so I just wanted to make sure we started off on a positive note.”
Following a make by Pittsburgh, the pressure fell to Chris Nanco. The second-half substitute who flipped the match in Steel FC’s favor with his pace gave the head nod to the coaching staff when asked who wanted to step up to the spot.
“Coach picked the order but I knew that being one of the more experienced guys on the team that it would help take the nerves off the other guys,” Nanco said.
After a long stare down goal from Omar Holness, a right-footed strike down the middle by Moar which was followed by Drew Skundrich’s goal, things fell to extra penalty takers which got interesting.
“Going out onto the field, Coach had only listed the first five people that would be taking their penalty,” Matt Mahoney said. “We were all standing there and saw Drew sink his fifth penalty. Then [Matt] Real, [Olivier] Mbaizo and I looked at each other and were like so who’s going sixth? Between the three of us, we decided I would go so I just walked to the spot trying to focus on myself. Focus on hitting it hard and accurately on target and if the keeper is going to save it, he’s going to have to work for it because I didn’t want to let my teammates down.”
The 23-year-old didn’t, scoring with his right into the bottom corner. While the players battled their nerves on the sideline head coach Brendan Burke had to watch like the rest of the fans at Highmark Stadium.
“It’s excoriating having to watch but again our guys were fantastic,” Burke said “They stepped up, nobody missed so I don’t know what complaint can you have. A couple of the guys admitted to me that they were nervous after the fact but everyone stepped up confidently, buried their PK. That was a fantastic Pittsburgh team that we beat today and it took every ounce of energy that we had.”
As both teams continued to trade penalty kick goals after Matt Real scored, the eighth round arrived with Philadelphia Union defender Olivier Mbaizo taking his shot. After continuing the scoring streak the 21-year-old Cameroonian pointed to goalkeeper Jake McGuire for support.
“Olivier didn’t say much but he motioned that he and the rest of the team had confidence in me,” McGuire said. “As a goalkeeper, I know I’m not “expected” to make the save so all the pressure is on the shooter, not me and that allows me to relax and read any hits on where the player will shoot.”
Feeling the moment to win was upon him, McGuire stared down Pittsburgh’s Ray Lee and dove to his right. Lee went the same direction but fired it wide of McGuire and the post to send Steel FC to its first postseason victory.
"As soon as I saw him step up to the ball, I knew exactly where he was trying to put it," McGuire said. "When he pushed the bar wide, I knew exactly that meant for the team and it didn't matter to me that I didn't save it. The only thing that mattered was that we were going through to the next round."
“It felt amazing, I’ve been a part of many historic moments throughout my career but this is one of the first to happen in my professional career besides making the postseason last year,” Nanco said. “I didn’t know what to do, I just started running around looking for anyone to grab and celebrate with.”
"You saw the videos, it was pure euphoria for the team," McGuire said. "The coaches, the staff and everyone to get the organization's first-ever playoff win. It's a moment that I'll always be proud of."
Bethlehem Steel FC looks for more history this weekend as it travels to defending USL Cup Champions Louisville City FC on Saturday, October 27. Steel FC will be looking to show how far it’s come from last season’s postseason exit where they were shutout by Louisville on the road. Kick off from Slugger Field is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and will be broadcast live on ESPN+.