USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

Midway: What we’ve learned from Bethlehem Steel

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Bethlehem Steel FC’s loss in Cincinnati this past weekend leaves the Steel with a record of 4-5-6, with its 18 points putting them 10th in the table and out of the playoffs if the season ended today.

What have we learned about Bethlehem Steel FC since the announcement of the team’s creation? The August 19, 2015 announcement crystallized rumor into fact, but answered only three major questions: location, stadium and league.

Ten and a half months later almost all the obvious questions have been answered.

Front office

A business organization to operate the club has sprung forth, with a lot of birthing help from its parent the Union — including a website, ticket sales people, officials to communicate with both league and media, and “swag” sales.

Venues

The team practices in Chester, Pa. and buses 63 miles on game day to Lehigh University, where games are played in daylight on an excellent but short grass pitch (110 yards by 75 yards). Bethlehem practices separately from the Union after the senior side is finished, following the exact same practice template, with the only differences being the daily work load, as the game schedules of the two sides are different. Using the same practice template among all the organization’s clubs means players flow easily from level to level.

Roster

The Steel’s roster comes from three separate source:

  • A core roster of 14 players signed to USL contracts.
  • A variety of loaned players from the first team, some of whom have been constant fixtures in the Steel lineup and others never having actually appeared on pitch or bench.
  • Players called up from the Academy U-18s and U-16s who remain amateurs. One academy U-18, Auston Trusty, has practiced daily with the Steel rather than the Academy and has consistently appeared for them.

It is easy for first team players to shift downward to play in games in the USL, but it would be difficult for a Steel core USL contracted player to play for the Union, barring a dire emergency that triggered the MLS short-term emergency roster exception. It would be the same as the Union making a new signing from another unaffiliated professional club in a different league. Academy players can also easily move up to play with the USL professionals.

Even now with all Steel USL-contracted players finally healthy, by themselves they could only field the bare minimum number required to play a game. A full game-day 18 requires additions from the first team and/or the academy. For example, the game on Saturday, June 25, at Richmond saw no Academy players available and one Steel core player still resolving a visa issue. Help came from the first team but did not include a second goalkeeper.

The issue of winning

The Union organization’s new sporting director has meant a new beginning, new techniques, a new team, lots of new players, and an emerging new concept of purpose. January’s watchword could have been “uncertainty.” Everyone was learning a new way of being. Sporting Director Earnie Stewart was learning Philly, and everyone else was learning Stewart.

Therefore it is no surprise that there were early bumps in the road. Expansion teams are rarely successful out of the gate.

Almost a full month of practice while the first team was in preseason in Florida helped a great deal. Early scrimmages hinted the core was well-organized and effective. At first, the first teamers integrated less effectively with the core, but over time the mesh smoothed. Academy boys were not obviously present during March, the few times the team was publicly visible. That changed as spring advanced. The three roster sources now blend into one team. The new ways are showing their worth.

But, to perhaps oversimplify, soccer has two parts to winning: producing your own goals and preventing others from doing the same.

For the most part, goal prevention has worked fairly well. The Steel are in the middle of the defensive pack statistically. They have five clean sheets. Two of their five losses were somewhat out of hand, the other three were close.

However, goal production remains a problem. The Steel have scored just 13 times, second fewest in the league. (Montreal has the fewest with 12). None of their four wins have been decisive on the scoreboard.

Player development

Instead of winning, “player development” remains the mantra, whether the development be for the first team this week and this season, or for the Academy further into the future.

Consider two things.

Consider first the knowledge that Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke keeps at his fingertips. He watched every game the Union Academy teams played at Nationals in Texas. He knows off the top of his head exactly how many Academy boys have practiced with him at various points in the season, and he knows them all by name from memory. He has stated confidently that he is ready to “lean strongly” on academy players for the rest of their summer availability. He knows who is USL-ready and how many of them there are. In other words, he has evaluated his available resources throughout the organization and knows how to marshal them instantly to address his game day needs.

Next, consider what the team’s unconventional underlying purpose asks of the Steel’s core professional roster. Consider especially the elder statesmen, “Granpa” Fred (36), captain Ryan Richter (27), center back Mickey Daly (29) and central midfielder James Chambers (29). They are all competitive team sport athletes. They are being asked to stand aside at the drop of a hat for a first teamer higher on the organization’s depth chart, or, less conventionally, an Academy boy bursting for a chance to prove himself. Yes, they are paid professionals. But these specific professional demands are unusual. Standing aside with graceful good cheer takes character. Doing so with encouragement and a smile takes even more.

Burke’s seems to understand that the veterans’ unusual sacrifices challenge them. Yet this same coach also seems positively excited to experiment for the future by pairing an almost-18-year-old with a slightly younger 17-year-old at the center backs when the opportunity for experimental success presents itself.

Burke is openly proud of the recent success of the Academy U-18 and U-16 sides at the Development Academy National playoffs. Several Union Academy players had seen field time with the Steel. The pleased teacher watched their games and has seen a calmness and confidence among them that comes from knowing they have played successfully with professional adult males. The U-16s missed the knockout round only on goal difference. The U-18s made their knockout round and play later this week.

This team still has some major unanswered questions, most obviously in terms of their effectiveness on the pitch. But if they can start scoring more, a schedule tilted heavily toward home matches could facilitate a playoff run and show this club can be more than just a developmental squad.

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for the article. Since player development is the stated goal of the USL team, which players are “developing” and who has the best shot at some day (this Fall, next year, 3 years from now) making the jump to the senior squad? I have not watched many Steel games but was wondering the observations from those that do.

    • Tim Jones says:

      Excellent logical question.
      .
      know anybody with a functioning, reliable crystal ball?
      .
      Auston Trusty is a name to watch. But whether his family and he want to pursue professional soccer before or after college is a good question, and how long the Union hold his rights is another.
      .
      the whole issue of protecting investments in developing players is an important topic, but I happen to know nothing about it.
      .
      your best bet is to watch who gets meaningful minutes with the Steel. That will give you clues about what the overall organization thinks.

  2. Is the approach the Union are taking with Steel similar to how other MLS clubs are using their affiliates? I would assume yes, but haven’t followed closely enough to know.

    • Tim Jones says:

      A good idea for future research, it would be a massive project for one person.
      .
      A comment coach Burke has made makes me think he thinks the Union-Steel depth of commitment is not the norm.
      .
      I can have no opinion yet as I am not informed about what other sides do.

  3. Adam Cann says:

    Tim, this is fantastic stuff. Thank you thank you thank you for putting it on the page!

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    Excellent article. Informative. Thank you.

  5. i watch most of the Steel games and have attended a few. i hope they can build a solid fan base. seeing them in Cincinnati with more than 17,000 fans makes me wonder if Steel can get even half of that.

  6. Tim Jones says:

    Yesterday (WEdnesday, July 13th), in conversation with Coach Burke over the phone, I discovered that I need to add the following qualifier to the ease with which Academy players play for the Steel, namely,
    .
    “provided the player has not yet enrolled at an NCAA institution.”
    .
    Many may already know this, but I did not, that once the NCAA eligibility clock starts ticking [Coach Burke’s phrase] the amateur may not play alongside professionals. For example, Andrew Verdi is expected to matriculate at the University of Michigan this coming fall. Once he does, he cannot play in the USL. He has to play in the PDL. If he were to continue with the Union’s overall program, that means he would have to play summers with Reading.

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