USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

Bethlehem Steel coach Brendan Burke talks with PSP

Photo: Earl Gardner

When Philadelphia Union hired former assistant Brendan Burke back to lead their USL affiliate in Bethlehem, Pa., it brought the club one step closer to reality.

Now, the club is an actual reality, playing actual exhibition games, although they’re still sporting Union gear rather than anything labeled as Bethlehem Steel FC. The club is practicing five times a week at YSC, and Burke has filled out a roster.

Fans have been wondering how the club will interrelate with the Union and what the team will look like, so I talked with Burke a little over a week ago. Here’s what we talked about.

Building a roster: Loanees and academy players key

Bethlehem has signed 13 players to contracts, including one (forward Corey Burke) on loan, and a 14th player Burke hopes to sign. (That player could be Lehigh University product Jamie Luchini, who has been on trial with the club and played in their recently friendly against Syracuse University.) The team has targeted players at positions so that they can field a team without loanees from the Union if necessary. Basically, 14 players.

Burke expects to make heavy use of players loaned out by the Union, as well potentially players from the Union’s academy.

“There could be one night where we have five on loan (from the Union),” Burke said. “Then we could have others we have a few academy kids. In terms of who we’ll be getting, it’ll be a week-to-week thing.”

The Union have several U-18 youth internationals in their academy, including defenders Matthew Real, Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie. All have committed to play college soccer but can play for Bethlehem on amateur contracts without compromising their eligibility, Burke said.

“I’m very keen on including some academy players, even if it’s just for the experience of traveling with the team,” Burke said.

The five Union players most likely to play on loan for Bethlehem, Burke said, are:

  1. Midfielder Eric Ayuk
  2. Left back Taylor Washington
  3. Midfielder Cole Missimo
  4. Center back Josh Yaro
  5. Center back Ken Tribbett

Burke doesn’t expect he will often, if ever, get Yaro and Tribbett for the same game, as one will always be one of three center backs in the Union’s 18 for a particular week. Tribbett’s cracking the Union starting lineup would logically take him out of the picture for Bethlehem if he holds down the spot.

The key with loanees, however, is that Bethlehem’s roster needs will be secondary to those of the Union. Burke expects to continue working closely with Union head coach Jim Curtin, technical director Chris Albright, and sporting director Earnie Stewart.

“They’re always going to take precedence over our needs,” Burke said, adding later that “everyone here and every ounce of their energy is behind the first team and their success, and every decision made at our level, Reading and the academy is with them in mind. There is a real belief in the project and in Earnie, Jim, and Chris and the ownership group.”

Bethlehem has seven international roster spots allotted to them by USL, Burke said, but they’re only filling five of them so they can move at least two foreign Union players back and forth on loan as needed. Both Yaro and Ayuk hail from West Africa, for example.

Union loanees will likely bounce back and forth between the senior and junior clubs, as allowed by MLS roster rules. Additionally, MLS rules give parent clubs priority rights to signing up to three players from their USL affiliates, provided they add the players to their discovery list. MLS clubs can sign their USL affiliates’ players to short-term, four-day contracts when necessary.

Undercutting the MLS amateur draft: Josh Heard

Bethlehem raised some eyebrows when they signed University of Washington forward Josh Heard, who had been drafted in the MLS amateur draft’s fourth round by the Vancouver Whitecaps. That means Heard cannot progress onward and earn a contract with the Union until Vancouver releases his rights or his draft rights expired.

“I believe under the college waiver rules, (Vancouver) would own his rights for two years,” Burke said. “We thought he might have an opportunity to progress to the first team. He figured he would have a better chance to get on the field quickly.”

The Union had identified Heard as a target via Union U-16 coach Jeff Cook, a longtime former college head coach who was recommended the player by Heard’s college coach, Jamie Clark.

Heard had missed the MLS scouting combine due to injury, and Burke felt he might have gone higher in the draft had he played there.

The Union considered drafting him but knew they wanted Cole Missimo in the fourth round at pick No. 64. They gambled that Heard would slip out of the draft and felt comfortable doing so because he had already agreed in principle to a USL contract. Vancouver selected him at No. 71.

“We discussed drafting him in the fourth round, but we knew he had already signed with Bethlehem,” Burke said. “We figure if we fell in love with the player, we could find a way to sign him.”

Training camp standouts: Jonesy

When asked to name a player who has stood out in training camp, Burke didn’t hesitate.

“Jonesy.”

Jonesy is Derrick Jones, the 19-year-old midfielder and product of Philadelphia’s Junior Lone Star FC and subsequently the Union academy. Jones was the first player signed by Bethlehem, and as a dual citizen of Ghana and the U.S., he does not occupy an international roster spot. Though he didn’t play in Bethlehem’s friendly on Sunday against Syracuse University, he looks like a core part of the club so far, Burke said.

“Very good, promising,” Burke characterized Jones. “He’s still very young, so he has good days and bad. But his good days are very good, and he has a phenomenal work ethic.”

Jones projects as a No. 8 box-to-box midfielder, Burke said, but right now he is more of a cross between a No. 8 and a No. 10 attacking midfielder.

“Maybe he turns into a 6 at some point, but he has some attacking tools that we haven’t scratched the surface of yet,” Burke said.

Other players who have stood out as likely core members of the club, Burke said, include:

  • Right back Ryan Richter, a former Union and Toronto FC player who donned the captain’s armband Sunday;
  • Center back Michael Daly, who earned second team USL Best XI last year for Sacramento Republic;
  • Forward Seku Conneh, an Ajax product who played last year in Holland’s second division, presumably an Earnie Stewart find;
  • Forward Corey Burke, on loan from Rivoli United, where he was the second leading scorer in Jamaica’s highest division last year.

Full disclosure: Unrelated to this article, a PSP reader asked me in January for help in arranging trials with American teams for a former youth international from a European country who is a friend of the reader’s family. I said yes, because it seemed interesting and I liked the opportunity to help. Bethlehem Steel was one of the clubs I pitched the player to. This article has nothing to do with that initiative, but standard journalistic practice calls for the full disclosure.

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for taking the time to cover the minor league squad. Stuff like this often falls between the cracks, though it is of interest to some of us.

  2. Spray Dan says:

    Ditto, I’m very interested in the team and happy to read this feature/interview. It should be interesting to see how Beth Steel fares with the loan situation because it was an issue with Harrisburg. I know the City Islanders wanted a more consistent batch of loans but that didn’t always happen the past season or two. Bethlehem has a good core so they might not rely on the loans quite as much Harrisburg did, we’ll see how it pans out. Yaro, the 2nd pick of the draft, ends up in USL for the foreseeable future…

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I am neither MLS bureaucrat nor a lawyer, so my reading of documents is that of a lay person.
      .
      MLS published the Roster rules for 2016 last Friday. If the loan agreement includes what the regs called a “right of recall” the player can fluctuate between the rosters as long as all the characteristics of the player’s roster slot remain open to him on the parent club’s and affiliate club’s rosters. Or, the loan can be season long. Given secrecy tendencies, we will probably have to draw conclusions after the fact.

      • Spray Dan says:

        I think Harrisburg wanted more of the season-long loan variety, plus a higher quantity of them, than Philly was willing to do. There were some matches where virtually nearly no Union players suited up for Harrisburg and the City Islanders were not happy about it. The years with four season-long Union loans (Hernandez, McLaughlin, Jordan, Anding in 2013 as an example) allowed HCI to build a roster around that “known” core. Bethlehem will be a different beast, with player development and rehabilitation prioritized. Burke has built a good albeit small core to offset the impact of roster fluctuations. Harrisburg has announced only four player signings so far versus thirteen for Bethlehem, plus BSFC has loans to supplement their squad. It seems like a much better formula than the previous setup with Harrisburg in my opinion. And I suspect that had much to do with the breakup on both ends.

      • These MLS owned and operated USL teams are very different animals from the independent teams, even those with MLS loan arrangements. The goal of a club like Harrisburg or Pittsburgh is to compete for a USL title, period. Specific player development for an MLS club has to be secondary to that. For clubs like Bethlehem, on the other hand, player development for the mothership has to come first and foremost, even if it comes at the expense of points.

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Did Brendan Burke anticipate his side serving as rehabilitation for injured first teamers?

    • Spray Dan says:

      Probably. If you look at the makeup of the current roster, it seems like he assembled a full yet small squad with the expectation that Union loans (whether they be rookies or injured first teamers) would only enhance things. As he mentioned in Dan’s interview, Union and academy guys can round things out where needed, but it seems like Jones, Richter, Daly, Burke, Conneh, Heard, and Chambers will be regulars.

    • Good question. I didn’t ask that question, but I imagine it probably will. They have a very small set roster, so I think this would be a logical option.

  4. Thanks for the insightful article. It looks like BSFC only has one keeper on their roster at the moment. Did Burke say anything about what the plans are regarding goalkeepers?

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