Philadelphia Union II

Preview: Bethlehem Steel at Wilmington Hammerheads

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Friday’s game will be neither slow, nor plodding, nor scoreless.

The second team in North Carolina on the schedule precisely a week after the first poses a different set of challenges to Brendan Burke and his Bethlehem Steel.

The Wilmington Hammerheads are not in a slump, as were Charlotte Independence. In their last two league games they have scored late-game goals, in one case to tie, in the other to win.

The key factor for Wilmington at Louisville Slugger Field last Saturday evening against league-leading Louisville City FC was the persistent high energy in the Wilmington midfield. Game time temperature was 90 degrees. When the energy was present, Wilmington played brightly. When it was not, they were vulnerable.

On the night, the Hammerheads’ strength was the play of the striker, Kyle Parker, the flank midfielder who was mostly on the right, Jeff Michaud, and a midfielder who started out on the other flank, but shifted centrally late in the game, Mael Corboz. These players are smaller, fast and technical in comparison to Louisville’s defense. They combine well.

That same night, Wilmington’s back line was weak, both individually and as a unit. Both Louisville goals were “early crosses” into too-wide gaps between the center backs. Wilmington’s coach will hammer the point this week. We will learn whether his defenders have athleticism sufficient to correct it on Friday.

They may not. Center backs Ashani Fairclough and Bruno Perone are tall trees, good in the air. Against the current best team in the league, they were not quick enough physically. When in possession with the ball at their feet, they play simply, without flair or confidence. Fairclough drops deeper, reading opposition direct long service well. Perone made little impression, save that both services for former Philadelphia Union striker Chandler Hoffman’s brace came quickly from the outside channel on his side of the field.

In possession, the Hammerhead center backs seemed quite vulnerable to defensive pressure. Steel fans will hope Gabe Gisse and Corey Burke are recovered and that Eric Ayuk is back from the Young Indomitable Lions of U-20 Cameroon, though Seku Conneh, Jamie Luchini, Josh Heard, Cole Missimo and Walter Restrepo may be ferociously predatory as well.

Note that both Hammerhead goals came from the aftermath of corner kicks. On the first, Louisville’s failed clearance jumble was passed out to Michaud near the flag. He dribbled the end line and lasered the ball inside the six to an unmarked Parker on the far post for a tap in. The second — in the middle of stoppage time with only the goalkeeper back – Corboz served to an indecipherable central melee from which left back Peabo Doue struck the equalizer.

It will be hot. Wilmington plays the counterattack quickly and well. They do not defend with a high restraining line, so there is a lot of space available in midfield, especially once their midfielders tire. The attacking threesome is dangerous, and the center backs may be vulnerable on the carpet and also in the air due to being out of position from the run of play.

Bethlehem’s defense faces real threat. Their offense will have plenty of space but must keep possession to avoid the enemy counter. Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke must judge his five subs well unless a freakish cold front blows south.

Additional thoughts from the Hammerheads US Open Cup game against Real Salt Lake on Tuesday night
  1. The key point is that RSL came back in the second half to tie and force 30 minutes of extra time, so in addition to traveling, the best Wilmington players played 120 minutes three days before they host the Steel. Developing the point is that Jeff Michaud, one of the Hammerheads’ better players,  had to play both extra time periods after having cramped fairly badly because Wilmington had no subs left to come get him.
  2. Austin Martz is a very fine attacking player of the same caliber as Parker, Michaud, and Corboz.
  3. RSL did not pressure the Hammerheads back line as effectively as did Louisville City FC, so the back line had time to find passes into their midfield and they did so. The evaluation of those back line players as individuals remains unchanged. As a unit however their spacing difficulties were much less glaring.
  4. Finally, the Wilmington midfield played a much more disciplined and deeper defensive line. The change had two consequences:  It created even more space into which they counterattacked that much more dangerously after interceptions (Martz augmented this threat strongly), and it made it much easier for their back line to find those mids to possess the ball after winning it in the defensive third. They played the classic block of eight in two lines of four. Until RSL brought on Yura Movsisyan and Joao Plata, the Hammerhead defense was dominant. The combination of those two, along with Morales and Martinez, was lethal, however.

One Comment

  1. I Know, I Know - It Doesn't Really Matter says:

    Given the fact that Restrepo went the full 90 minutes for the Philadelphia Union versus the Please Don’t Call Us “Harrisburg” City Islanders in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday night, I find it highly doubtful that the former New York Cosmos winger will even make the trip to Wilmington, let along play against the Hammerheads on Friday night – but that’s just me … For logistical reasons which have been detailed elsewhere, it also extremely unlikely that Ayuk will be in BSFC’s 18-man squad in North Carolina on Friday night; one should not expect to see the Cameroonian winger back until the 2017 U-20 Africa Cup of Nations qualification phase is complete towards the end of July … Given the fact that only two other teams in the USL’s 14-team Eastern Conference have scored fewer goals than Bethlehem Steel FC has to date, some people might be wont to say that no one in a BSFC shirt has accurately fit a “ferociously predatory” description thus far – and I’m sure they would have no idea what they are talking about, as well. 🙂

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