By: Tyler Kaput
With a competitiveness and grit matching the team’s surrounding towns, the red-and-black team from Joliet will need to be “Steel Strong” to meet its lofty 2023 expectations.
Steel City is embracing the pressure to win while entertaining their ever-growing, affectionate fan base.
In a busy four months of soccer, Steel City will embark on several campaigns, testing the squad’s depth and resilience.
First is the 37-team, 7-state Midwest Premier League. Steel City sits 3rd in the all-time aggregate Heartland Conference table. The season runs from May 17th to July 31st.
Next is the USASA Cup, which crowns the country’s semi-pro champion. Last season, Steel City was a regional quarterfinalist after beating two Kansas City-based teams. This year, the Joliet side lost a heart-breaker - in penalty kicks - to historic Schwaben AC on April 18th. The match had finished 1-1 before before Jake Lysik extra-time penalty put Steel City up late. But Schwaben equalized in the 118th minute, forcing penalties.
The ‘granddaddy of them all’ is the Illinois State Cup, Illinois’s 124-year-old tournament. It’s been 104 years since a team from Joliet won the cup. The cup begins in late May.
MIDWEST PREMIER LEAGUE
The league is a gauntlet, and its Heartland Conference stakes claim to being among the toughest semi-pro circuits in the country.
The eleven-team conference is headlined by the nine-time and current National Semi-Pro champions, Bavarian United SC. Rivals also include Chicago House, which became a professional team two years ago and is currently making a US Open Cup run, and RWB Adria, a 5-time US Open Cup participant.
The conference added another heavyweight for 2023, Czarni Jasło. Jasło found success in the United Premier Soccer League, boasting a 9-0-1 record in league play. Jalso has been Steel City's "bogey team", having eliminated the red-and-black in the last two Illinois State Cup tournaments.
2023 HOME GAMES
Steel City kicks off its 2023 season on May 17th at Duly Health and Care Field, where the team is undefeated all-time. DeKalb County United, who have never beaten the Steelmen, is the opponent.. DeKalb equalized late as the teams battled to a thrilling 3-3 draw last year. This year’s league home matches include:
May 17 vs. DeKalb County United at Duly (7:30pm)
June 6 vs. Chicago House AC at Duly (7:30pm)
June 26 vs. Czarni Jaslo at Duly (8:00pm)
July 16 vs. Bavarian United SC at Lincoln-Way Central (2:00pm)
July 24 vs. Rockford FC at Duly (8:00pm)
Duly Health & Care Field offers full concessions, including alcohol, and has won praise as a venue that punches above its weight for soccer. Steel City matches were characterized by pre- and post-game on-field activities for kids and an abundance of goals (over five goals per match at Duly).
Steel City’s sporting staff, headed by Sporting Director Mark Powell, Head Coach Vincent Mkhwanazi, Assistant Coach Nigel Dillard, and Reserves Coach Rohan Robinson, all return for their third season.
Steel City bolstered the staff by adding Paul Agombar, Director of Football Operations, who holds a UEFA B license and has had national success at FC United among other clubs. Steel City also added Anthony Skrip, a former St. Francis University standout, to coach the U23s.
THE ROSTER IS STEEL READY
Steel City returns a core group of players and has added local standouts.
Shea Bechtel (staying in Minnesota for the summer)
Nolan McGrath (moved to Arizona)
Maximilian Schoebel (Shorewood)
Brandon Camacho (Joliet)
Santos Contreras (Joliet)
The big roster story is the loss of significant attacking output. Bechtel and McGrath will not return to the side, a duo that accounted for 50% of Steel City’s goals last season. Bechtel, the reigning Midwest Premier League Golden Boot winner, will stay in Minnesota, where he attends college. McGrath, who is Steel City’s all-time goal leader, is moving to Arizona.
But the staff isn’t fretting. Jake Lysik, Steel City’s all-time points leader (goals plus assists) and third in the league’s ‘22 Golden Boot race, returns. Hans Haenicke is also back. The former Naperville Sun Player of the Year and State Champion at Benet Academy continues to light up the college scoreboard at Macallister. Haenicke led the team in goals in each of his first two seasons, tallying six last year.
There is also fire-power in new arrivals. Santos Contreras captained St. Francis University and led them in goals. Brandon Camacho, an ex-Fuenlabrada B (Madrid) standout, is a game-changing addition and will push the attack. Finally Nick Wilner and Miles Hagen, who lit it up for Steel City's Under 23 championship winning team will push for minutes.
The red and black also shored up the backline. Maximilian Schoebel will partner with long-time defensive anchors Connor Erickson and Nigel Dillard. Both Dillard and Schoebel attended Olivet Nazarene, where Schoebel guided the Tigers to league and tournament titles.
More experience returns to the side. Eduardo Carillo, Connor Erickson, and goalkeeper Jalen Depenbrock, along with Wilner, helped Aurora University qualify for the NCAA Division III tournament. Diego Camerena led Governors State with 4 goals and 11 points. The tireless co-captain Matthew Ribbens and engine Jayson Iniguez return. Rodrigo Munoz, who missed significant time last year through injury, returns with the #10 shirt. Danny Mack, "The Legend of All-Indoor," is also back.
U23 and Reserve Teams
In addition to the first team, Steel City will field a U23 team and a Reserve team in the National Soccer League.
Last season, in their first year of competing, Steel City U23 won the NSL's U23 league championship and finished second place in the Illinois State Cup tournament. The U23s have added former Lincoln Way Central standout Brendan Gavin to the backline along with Romeoville's Lucas Ortiz, who recently committed to Eastern Illinois University, in goal. Ethan Orange, Aldo Mancera, Tyler Schiltz, Bruno Ortiz, and David Garcia return to the side along with offensive firepower Nick Wilner and Miles Hagen.
Steel City Reserves will showcase the depth of young talent in the southwest suburbs. The team returns local high school standouts Ish Gomez (Lockport) and Vini DaSilva (Willowbrook). Jon Flores and Roberto Cerda also return.
Yep. A third Steel City player signed a professional contract, an amazing achievement for the third-year club. Vukasin Bulotovic, who signed with FK Metalac in the Serbian First League, joins Damon Almazon (Chicago House) and Zoe Swift (Puerto Rico Sol). Bulotovic patrolled the Steel City defense in 2021.
OFF THE FIELD
The area is becoming increasingly attached to the volunteer-based, third-year club.
The club’s platform continues to be in high demand for local area students studying broadcasting, journalism, communications, and business, among others, to gain real-world practice in their disciplines.
Supporters are stepping-up too! Through its club membership program, season ticket sales are up 40% this year compared to last season.
The corporate community has also taken notice. Ozinga extended its commitment as Steel City’s presenting partner, while D’Arcy, Midwest Orthopedics at Rush, and Pursuit Wealth Group lead a roster of 12 corporate partners that generously support the platform.
The club spent the off-season further formalizing its organization, as follows:
Ivaldo Basso, Chairmen
Mark Powell, Sporting Director
Paul Agombar, Director of Football Operations
Craig Lichtenwalter, Director of Engagement
Dan Nakoneczny, Director of Merchandising
Darin McVicker, Director of GameDay Operations
Tyler Kaput, Director of Media
The club continues to seek volunteers. Folks interested in helping it grow should contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
STEEL CITY HIGH SCHOOL CHALLENGE
Steel City will continue its popular “Steel City High School Challenge Series.” The Series pits the area’s greatest rivals in curtain-raising matches prior to Steel City’s home matches. This season, Oak Forest and Kankakee will renew their budding rivalry on June 26th. Both sides went to penalty kicks in last year’s Illinois State Playoffs. On July 24th, Lincoln-Way East will square off against Lincoln-Way Central.
One word describes Steel City’s 2022 season: “consistency,” or a lack thereof. Steel City picked up a stellar 8 of the possible 15 points (2 wins, 2 draws, and 1 loss) against the five teams finishing above them but earned only a meager 7 points (2 wins, 1 draw, and 3 losses) against the 6 teams finishing beneath them.
If Steel City can replicate its ability to go toe-to-toe with the league’s heavyweights, Joliet houses the Midwest Premier League’s dark horse.
Matchweek 1 had long been circled on the calendars of Illinois’ semi-pro fanatics. Coming off their first professional season in the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), Chicago House welcomed Steel City to the heart of downtown Chicago. In a game that was chalked up as a loss by followers of the Midwest Premier League, Steel City picked up a late winner off captain Jake Lysik’s solo run. After Matchweek 1, Steel City sat atop the Midwest Premier League—unprecedented territory for a team in its second season.
For the next 85 minutes of Matchweek 2, Steel City sat atop the league until a late equalizer from the Iowa Raptors squashed all momentum.
Steel City looked to rebound against Bavarian United, a preseason favorite to win the league after their 2021 championship. A Bechtel brace and a McGrath winner would send Steel City clear of the eventual MWPL champions.
Heading into Matchweek 4, confidence was brimming. The next four matches saw Steel City pick up one total point, with time running out for a top-three finish. In the next three league matches, Steel City piled on 13 goals and picked up 7 points of the possible 9.
Steel City would fall in the last match of the campaign to Chicago City, sending Steel City reeling to a 6th-place finish.