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Some history

Photo: Courtesy of BethlehemSteelSoccer.org

The historic name “Bethlehem Steel” calls forth pride among area soccer fans. A simple, old plaque remembers on the wall at Moravian College’s football field. The field was built originally for soccer, not American football.

A few years ago when the Philadelphia Union’s third kit paid homage to the historic Bethlehem sides, the homage seemed wise. Those shirts carried the 2014 Union all the way to the final of the US Open Cup that the earlier Bethlehem teams had won five times before in the mists of time.

So, naming the new wholly-owned Union United Soccer League affiliate playing in the Lehigh Valley after the original Bethlehem Steel FC was an easy choice. Polling fans created involvement. Echoing history evoked pride and enthusiasm. Bethlehem Steel FC was christened.

A player development project

The Union’s USL project is unconventional to the point of experiment. It values player development above all. Winning is nice, and winning is important. But when forced to choose, winning takes second place to the needs of the first team in the here and now of 2016, and to the future needs of the first team through developing its young academy prospects. More than once recently, organization good soldier and Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke has used the phrase “sticking to the script” as a code for player development above all.

Soccer divorce: Pennsylvania style

Player development with the Union has important recent history.

While the inside story of the divorce between the Philadelphia Union and former independent affiliate Harrisburg City Islanders has yet to be written, it seems likely that the MLS side wanted guarantees its loaned players would start, and in the positions it chose, a loss of independent judgment that stand-alone Harrisburg understandably chose not to concede.

In 2014 cooperation between the two independent sides worked well because their preseason judgments agreed.

Not only did former Union coach John Hackworth judge that freshly drafted Richie Marquez needed a year of seasoning, repeatedly successful Harrisburg coach Bill Becher thought Marquez his best right center back from open competition among all his options, a judgment the now Union left center back upheld the entire season when Marquez played every minute of it. Pedro Ribiero spent half a season as Becher’s supreme utility man, solving the latest lineup deficit from back line to attack, before returning to the first team healthy and conditioned. And Jimmy McLaughlin was a fixture at City Island flank midfield. Christian Hernandez kept getting hurt.

In mid-season, Becher shifted his philosophy of defensive central midfielders towards technically skilled, offensively capable, two-way players. The shift sneaked his squad into the last playoff slot. And eighth place Harrisburg beat runaway first place seed Orlando in Florida 1-0. They then dispatched fourth seed Richmond 3-2 in Virginia. Only after crossing the country to Sacramento did the improbable run of success cease as the second seed Republic preserved rank in California 2-0.

The relationship worked well for both sides in 2014. Harrisburg finished strongly and the next year Marquez became a Union starter.

2015 rapidly became less positive.

The implicit assumption of 2014, that the Union loans would remain in place undisturbed by first team needs, was erased by several 2015 first team injuries. Becher had left spaces unfilled on his roster, perhaps from parsimony but perhaps to accommodate as yet unidentified Union reserves.

The slots remained empty. Help did not arrive. So Harrisburg formed its team from within. It is no surprise, then, that when Union reserves finally began to arrive they received few game minutes, and that those minutes came from the bench. Only already known McLaughlin got a lot of 2015 time and starts when he was available. The others had missed their window to earn Becher’s trust and with it starting positions.

By late summer, the divorce was public and final. A wholly-owned Union USL affiliate playing at Lehigh was announced weeks thereafter on August 19. The last City Islanders-Union exhibition occurred in Lancaster to test the Clippers stadium as a soccer venue, and the clubs went their separate ways.

Well before Earnie Stewart, Union leadership already wanted a closely controlled minor-league team. Player development had produced a starting center back. They wanted more, and a player development bridge between the Academy and the first team, similar to others being built elsewhere, was the goal. Placing it in the Lehigh Valley expanded the geographic scope of professional soccer in Eastern Pennsylvania and allowed practices to occur at the first team’s new facilities in Chester.

Lineup discontinuity, roster anorexia, and proud tradition

The unconventionality of the Steel project lies in continual on-field discontinuity. They have played 25 games and, as of August 28, have put out 24 separate starting lineups. Team sports usually emphasize exactly the opposite, lineup continuity, and soccer is no exception. FC Montreal has had greater lineup continuity by having fewer first team interruptions to it. And while Montreal has gotten its brains beaten in for a year and two thirds, two weekends ago their bench integrated into the team on the pitch better than the Steel’s and buried the Steel’s postseason hopes.

Close analysis of Steel discontinuity shows it to be most pronounced on offense, and noticeably less so on defense (until late July when Mickey Daly was loaned to NASL-side Carolina RailHawks before his eventual transfer there). It may not be pure coincidence that the Steel are among the league’s poorest goal scorers but towards the lower middle of its goal preventers.

Furthermore, the game roster recently lacked a second goalkeeper for two games in a row, and it has several times numbered less than the usual 18 of most professional clubs in North America and beyond. It lacked a reserve center back three times consecutively, for example. Some absences are explainable. The Academy is on summer break and it players and their families are on vacation. There have been promotions to the first team, a loan-out turned sale, an international signing away, injuries, and national team call-ups. But the roster safety net from the first team and the Academy has big holes in it, and the depth of the USL roster is too thin.

On Sunday, July 31, that roster anorexia stepped beyond to the point of a living death’s head as only 12 USL professionals — the minimum threshold below which the league does not allow a team to play — dressed out. Steps have been taken since then. A second goalkeeper, Matt Perrella, has appeared. A Union reserve center back has become game-available consistently. Suspension by the league seems less likely.

But currently the proud tradition of the original Bethlehem Steel does not feel very honored. Ticket Sales Manager Gio Fricchione and his staff have an opportunity to prove the excellence of their sales techniques for 2017 as the 2016 product is not selling itself. Coach Burke is already thinking about who should come back. On many fronts restorative work lies ahead.

8 Comments

  1. I believe I am correct that last night’s line-up had never taken the field together before because Matt Jones was in goal, not John McCarthy. That would make it 25 for 26 under the discontinuous heading.
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    I will try to confirm with Coach Burke later today and report back.

  2. I get that this is the first year of the team and that there are many many holes and discontinuity. But where is the scouting staff aren’t there a bevy of players that could be brought in to at least fill out the roster. I mean maybe were past transfer time periods, but you would hope that next years roster would be close to full with maybe 5 to 6 spot for rotation from the first team. I also would imagine anyone not with a team can be brought in. I mean where are the trialists or short contract players (can this not be done in USL?)?

    • The discontinuity is a direct consequence of the player development mandate, in my judgment, Doc.
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      The organization tends to be cautious about players it does not know, as you already have seen repeatedly with the first team.
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      Trialists are very hard to follow as the club says nothing about most of them. I assume it is policy not to do so, but do not know whose policy, were my assumption to be correct.

  3. Nice piece, Tim. I was never fully clear about the history of the Union-City Islanders divorce.

    As for taking the field with only 12 players, that is truly bizarre. There is no source of players in the level below (PDL) who might want a trial?? Or guys at the back end of the Union roster (Restrepo, Fernandez)?

  4. Scottso, my apologies. I have confused you.
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    I refer to the USL roster when I say 12 players, and that is the minimum USL roster size below which the club cannot drop.
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    The Steel’s game roster comes from three separate sources and has at least once been changed within 24 hours of tap off. The game roster has more than once been short of the customary 18. The game roster has never been 12. Never.
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    Your confusion is actually very useful as it is giving me an idea how better to address it.
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    One other thought. Consider the mental agility and planning flexibility and speed required of Coach Burke. When I talk to him later today he will have no official idea who beyond his USL 13 he will have for Sunday. He’ll have some intelligent guesses that include Ayuk, Washington and Anderson. But Leo Fernandes will depend on decisions to do with Ilsinho, for example, so Burke won’t know until Curtin decides. That formal uncertainty exists game to game and has done so all season.
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    Woof.

  5. It would appear that Unauthorized Bethlehem Steel FC Blog may have disappeared. If true, that is too bad.
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    I need to express my thanks to the author publicly, as I relied on his/her work to keep track of Eric Ayuk’s months with the Cameroonian U-20 Men’s National side.
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    Live long and Prosper, sir/ma’am.

  6. I need to correct a mistaken assumption in my post above concerning travel method.
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    I have learned from Coach Burke in his weekly teleconference that the team did not bus to Louisville. They flew.’
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    Full Marks to the organization for spending the extra money to get the players out of a difficult scheduling bind. Now the energy displayed in Harrisburg by the back six makes a lot more sense.
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    I had been going to ask the sports science staff for a shot of their magic elixir.
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    Coach Burke pointed out something about the Louisville game that I should have noticed. They played a fully credible “come-out-to-play” game against the second best team in the league who are focused on winning rather than player development with two sixteen year-olds on the pitch.
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    My apologies for missing that.

  7. el Pachyderm says:

    Man if the academy is on summer break and unable to provide players for the organization whose primary purpose is to develop players- I have a big WTF…. the MLS schedule and thereby the USL schedule irritates me.
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