USL - Philadelphia Union II

Bethlehem’s core works through a fluctuating roster

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Consider the rhythms of a scholastic coach’s season, no matter the sport.

Roster candidates gather in preseason. Squad divisions emerge from practices, scrimmages, and past performances. Lineup theories are tested and adjusted in the first few non-league games, roster theory becomes habit, and the grind of the league table begins. Injury forces adjustment, game conditioning accelerates. The season climaxes with the big rivalry game. It all ends in summary review at the team banquet. Roster stability plus accurately chosen role players leads to success.

Bethlehem Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke’s seasonal rhythm has not been typically scholastic — nor should it, as his team is professional. But even for a professional, Burke confronts unusual, ongoing roster instability. Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin spent the preseason evaluating his roster much like scholastic coaches too, while Earnie Stewart and Chris Albright secured the last few targeted players. For the first time in Union history, well before preseason ended, the team’s roster was – unofficially – set. The coach’s task had already shifted to managing rather than identifying.

In contrast, Burke has to rediscover his game squad every week. The primary factor behind his team’s existence is to provide game minutes to Union loanees and young players developing for a future role with the Union. His roster can be further disrupted by the fact that Union Academy players need game minutes too. (Auston Trusty does not count, as he apparently practices with Steel regularly.)

From week to week, Burke has had heavy variation among the attackers available to him, seldom knowing his likely candidates until the Union identify their game day 18, and Burke’s list can change even more based on how Curtin uses his substitutes for the Union. Despite tardily available names, the Union mandate the latecomers start. This calls for some finesse by Burke to maintain the morale of the Steel’s core 14 players.

We would imagine Coach Burke sees simultaneous developmental tasks as he plans daily practice.

  1. Teach, reteach and remediate those 14 who form the Steel’s professional core.
  2. Install a game plan late in the week, perhaps as late as Saturday morning, if not actually on the Northeast Extension itself during the bus ride to Lehigh.

In a reversal of frequent coaching practice, the game plan’s concepts precede knowledge of the available personnel. While the basic game template has been known since February, the specific nuances have little chance to be practiced on the pitch by the full group expected to execute them.

Despite the roster fluidity, you can detect noticeable coherence among the team’s 14-man core. For a lesser coach, this might be a surprise.

But the success is not a surprise to those who know Burke’s past. Under Burke’s leadership, Reading United punched consistently above their PDL amateur weight in the U. S. Open Cup. They often defeated their professional USL opponents and gave the follow-on MLS sides a run for their money, sometimes actually stealing it.

The Steel’s last two games, at Rochester and and against New York Red Bulls 2 in Bethlehem, show its core’s long-term development. Neither game featured a Union loanee.

Yet the core had threatened to end Rochester’s 23-game home unbeaten streak until the last minute Rochester goal salvaged a draw. For some Steel players, it was the first 90-minute showing of the season.

Then, against a New York team that had folded, impaled and crushed them in April, an even younger group faced a Red Bulls 2 squad featuring nine MLS loanees. The Steel played New York even almost the entire match, save for a goal off an early center back miscommunication that led to New York’s lone goal.*

True, Bethlehem failed to take six points from the games.

But the Steel’s core players more than “hung with” two top USL teams the first two times they were called on to do so. Full credit to those players for making it happen. Full marks to coaching staff for enabling them.

The standings may not yet reflect it this early in the season, but the Union and fans of the Lehigh Valley’s new team have reason to be pleased with Burke’s first few months on the job.

Miscellaneous Steel notes
  • Up and coming: Defender Mark McKenzie is a smooth, strong, fast athlete with good feet. Hopefully the 17-year-old Union Academy player’s head injury will not prevent him from earning more playing time soon. Nick Bibbs did well as his sub, but McKenzie will likely prove to be the superior player.
  • Top striker: Seku Conneh faces meaningful competition to keep his status as the Steel’s top striker when Fabian Herbers does not travel north on game day. Corey Burke has some pace, has excellent ball control and vision while among multiple defenders, and did a good job as a target forward receiving and distributing in the air and on the ground. Once he reaches 90-minute game fitness, he may well step ahead of the Liberian. After he went off, Steel offensive chances dwindled noticeably.
  • Local Luchini impresses: Jamie Luchini was a pleasant surprise — at least to those unfamiliar with Lehigh University soccer — on either flank, and, at the very end, at the top of the attack.
  • Heard makes a mark: Midfielder Josh Heard began to grow into Sunday’s game as time passed. He and Luchini began to find each other for simple combination play as the game moved forward.

6 Comments

  1. What does everyone thing about Derrick Jones making the jump to the first team sooner rather than later?

    From what I’ve seen from him he is really strong on the ball, tackles well and makes a good first pass to relieve pressure.

    Seems like the perfect guy to bring up once Carrol retires.

    • I think he’ll almost certainly be with the Union next year. The handful of games I’ve watched this season you can clearly see the talent. He can really hit some passes that make you go oh wow.

      I think in terms of role on the squad he could see 500-1000 minutes as a Poku style sub. He’s still seems to be adjusting to being a deeper midfielder, so I don’t think you’d want him in extended action as a DLP 6, and probably isn’t ready to consistently boss a midfield as the 8.

      Bring him on as a fresh set of legs and ball of energy especially when chasing a game. Throw in a few spot starts for Nogs.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Good question. I think they’ll give him the full year in Bethlehem, at least, much like Tribbett, Marquez and Sheanon Williams all benefited from a full season in USL. Then next year, he’ll probably get a chance to compete for a spot with the Union. Either way, I think it’s important to take it slow with him but also give him meaningful minutes.

  2. Tim Jones says:

    An observation about Derrick Jones is that when the Steel are looking to advance into the attack and the usual Union loanees are available, they recently have played through Walter Restrepo dribbling into the central channel from the right flank. I agree with d3fb above that Jones can hit a useful attacking pass, when he’s open. When encumbered, however, I have yet to see ball control sufficient to get himself open for himself by himself.
    .
    Since he was first mentioned in last year’s preseason as a defender, playing in the center as a #8 may be positioning to force growth in technical skill. Obviously, I am completely guessing on that point.
    .
    I would leave him where he is rather than rush him. The first team staff have quite a few competent bodies already in the center of the midfield, and will someday re-acquire another one from injury. Jones is quite young by the usual patterns of soccer in the US. Let him keep learning where he is.

  3. Tim Jones says:

    Since I am here, I should also point out that I erred in calling James Chambers a center back. He is not. He is an elder statesman central channel midfielder who has operated as a #6, a #8 and a #10 at various times this season and is good at finding yellow cards.
    .
    Also, I have never been the head coach of a varsity soccer high school program, except when covering for weddings, illness and child birth, only the assistant.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      This post has been edited to correct/delete the incorrect positional reference to Chambers. An asterisk has been placed above at the point of the correction.

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