USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

Crystal ball reveals Bethlehem’s playoff chances

Photo: Paul Rudderow

While walking the dog this morning, I stumbled over a transparent sphere that gave off weird images and responded to questions with riddles. I asked about the rest of the season for Bethlehem Steel, who are sitting in 9th place with 25 points.

The schedule has one more game at home, then four straight away, followed by a home-and-away sequence, before finishing with the final two in the Lehigh Valley. Here’s a look at the way ahead, with an eye toward whether Bethlehem can make the USL playoffs in their first season.

The home stand’s finale

Charlotte at home: The game will not be easy. It verges on being a must win. Charlotte was in a bad patch on a bad pitch when the Steel came calling in June. They have played better of late, moving up the table to seventh. Most recently, they beat Montreal in Montreal 1-0.

They have never been to Bethlehem, but they are an older veteran group that owes the Steel revenge. Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke expects them to come out and play rather than bunker and counter as did Harrisburg and Toronto. But against either approach, the Steel’s finishing must be much sharper. They should hope to steal a tie. (This would bring Bethlehem to 26 points.)

On the road — again

Pittsburgh away: While Pittsburgh will seek vengeance for looking bad at Lehigh against a fellow keystone state team, we doubt they have the players to beat the Steel. Nor is it a long, difficult trip. Pittsburgh exorcised some of their demons beating Wilmington 4-1 in North Carolina. The Steel need to avoid complacency, but they have their own demons to tame. Burke’s boys should win this one. (29 points)

Montreal away: Montreal has the fewest points in either conference. This game should be another three points, for the club’s second ever winning streak. (32 points)

Louisville away: Louisville, on the other hand, sits second in the league table. It is more than a ten-hour bus ride. And Bethlehem surprised them at home with a shutout. Furthermore, any possible complacency was just ended by Orlando City B upsetting them in Louisville. Mickey Daly’s loan will have expired, but his purchase option remains troubling. Unless the Kentuckians play a B lineup at home, this is a likely loss. (32 points)

Harrisburg away: Harrisburg remains a conundrum. On paper, the Steel have an edge, but on the pitch they have lost twice. Harrisburg head coach Bill Becher’s track record seems magical. And it will be Bethlehem’s first game on the Harrisburg Senators’ baseball diamond-converted-to-pitch. Harrisburg will bunker and counter since that seems to beat the Steel. They have pace on the flanks and can insert pace at striker. But Burke knows Becher from past days as Union technical coordinator with Harrisburg. It is very, very difficult to beat a comparable team three times in one season, and the City Islanders will lose. (35 points)

Two likely losses

New York home: A difficult game. Baby Red Bulls have lost thrice all season, the third just recently in Richmond, and sit in first place. The Steel game will not be a blow-out, but it will not generate points for Bethlehem. (35 points)

Charleston away: Charleston lies fourth in the table. They would be tied for first were they in the Western conference. The Steel tied them early at Goodman, shutting them out. This time, Bethlehem rides the bus a long time to a strange city and a never before seen pitch. Points are unlikely. (35 points)

A win streak to close the season

Pittsburgh at home: Beating a team three times in one season is hard. But against a team with an inexperienced coach that has won just three of 19 games this season, Bethlehem should pull it off. (38 points)

Orlando at home: Orlando City B lies eighth in the table, three points ahead of Bethlehem with a game in hand. Back in May, Bethlehem found plane fare for its players for the team’s first match in Orlando, preventing a butt-numbing bus ride — fourteen hours, were it to go nonstop — and the Steel looked decent earning a point in Florida. Unless Phil Rawlins makes a similar decision, the Floridians face a bad handicap. Simply put, the Steel will have to win this one, and they will. (41 points at season’s end)

How many points to make the playoffs?

In 2015, a 12-team conference played 28 games with six teams making the playoffs. The maximum points available were 84, and 41 earned the Richmond Kickers the last playoff berth.

In 2016 the conference has fourteen teams, and everyone plays 30 games, not 28. That means 90 points available.

Eight teams make the playoffs, not six like last season, meaning 57 percent of clubs make the postseason, up from last year’s 50 percent.

Figure that the Steel must earn 40 or more points to make the playoffs. The projections above put Bethlehem at 41. As many have said in a variety of circumstances, “It’s gonna be close.”

Beating Charlotte would help. Burke quickly bit off his instinctive “Must Win” last Sunday, as his normally perfect public comment filter was a half-second slow when asked to look towards Charlotte by Channel 2’s Tom Meikrantz. But he’s right.

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