Philadelphia Union II

Bethlehem’s problems and solutions may lie on the practice field

Every sports fan in North America knows what Allen Iverson thinks about practice.

On Sunday afternoon, Bethlehem Steel FC issued the latest rebuttal to AI’s historic, noteworthy rant.

Practicing like an actual team produces results

Philadelphia Union had identified the team’s travel party before the team flight to Portland on Thursday, following the team’s sports science experts’ advice in taking an extra day in Oregon to cope with jet lag.

That meant Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke knew his game day roster three days before their 3 p.m. Sunday tap and also had access to them.  Those Union players not traveling with the team would practice with Bethlehem.

Burke had two full days for his entire starting team to practice together, including seven starters who normally practice with the Union.

Only once before has Burke had the same opportunity: On April 16, the Union visited Seattle on April 16, while Bethlehem hosted Richmond the next day. The Steel won 2-1, with no unusual first team loanees, since John McCarthy started regularly in goal for Bethlehem early in the season.

While two days of integrated Steel-plus-first team practice did not produce a win Sunday, it did produce an opening 20 minutes of play that stunned the opponent’s defense to a standstill at times. Ball movement was so precise and so fast that Pittsburgh’s defenders played as though they had no idea where the ball was going next.

And when the ball went there, well-weighted to the proper foot, it took its place in the multi-faceted sequence of the next developing Steel attack. It was an MLS style and pace of play, rather than that of a USL club in the bottom half of the table. As good as the Steel attack was, the defense was just as good.

The importance of continuity in practice

For much of Bethlehem’s inaugural season, roster discontinuity and the lack of full-team, pre-game practice have impeded the Steel’s on-pitch performance. Most recently, in Maurice Edu’s first rehab game, the quality of play actually improved after he left the pitch.

The only times this year the Steel has ever come close to Sunday’s 20-minute performance have been when Burke deployed lineups composed completely of its regular players, as opposed to featuring squads with players parachuting in from the Union. During the Union’s combined road trip to Florida and Colorado, when everybody on the first team roster traveled together on the road for six consecutive days, the Steel played very well.

Three times this season the Steel have had their full game day starting lineup together to practice before a game: Richmond, Rochester and Pittsburgh. Three times they have played very, very well.

How Bethlehem practices

Typically, Steel practices follow the template explained by Jim Curtin in a meeting with club seat season-ticket holders in June. On the last two days before a game in a typical week, the first day is a light day focusing on recovery from the intensity of previous two-a-days. The second day consists of periodic short-bursts, highly intense and competitive, truncating space and limiting time to avoid muscles dipping into any anaerobic generation of energy.

We have no idea what specific drills Brendan Burke used to create what we saw Sunday, but the results of two practices together were impressive.

Preparations for the 2017 season begin this October. Steel practice will continue in support of the first team as long as it continues to play. The new cycle of Academy boys will be evaluated and given appropriate growth opportunities. Conditioning, concepts, player identification and evaluation will be well ahead of the previous year by February of 2017 when the preseason officially begins. New, more challenging preseason scrimmage opponents will be appropriate and needed. A year’s accumulated knowledge and understanding should begin to pay dividends.

Who knows? Perhaps there might be tweaks to the controlling template, like pre-game, full-game roster practice opportunity for the USL side.

Last winter when he signed with Bethlehem, James Chambers expressed excitement that he would be paid for 12 months to play soccer for the first time in his life. Expect him to work for his money all 12 of those months.


  1. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    All good points if the purpose of Steel is to win the USL. But it is not. The purpose of Steel is to act as a stepping stone to the first team. Steel could go winless every season, but if just one Academy player rose from the academy, into Steel and then was ready for the first team every year? Well then it would be considered by many as the best USL team of all time.

    • And to piggy back off this very salient point…. so long as the system of play is the same between the two franchises this will expedite those transitions. Hell…I even want the Academy kids playing with the same philosophy— this is what I hope and pray the Sporting Director is indoctrinating as we all get more comfortable with each other.

      • My understanding from Coach Burke directly is that the Academy at all levels follows the First team’s template for games and for practices. Burke has said it does so in so many words earlier this season.

    • There is importance to creating a winning culture though. And losing all the time is never good. Plus while it’s great to have a way to get returning players some recovery games it’s also important for these young players to learn how to play as a team. .
      All in all there needs to be a blend of USL vets, academy players, and the players in between. I didn’t expect them to have the perfect formula this year, but it should get better each year. I think that it’s fine for some players to bounce back and forth, but it’s a disservice for the players who mainly play games for Steel to never practice with them. Maybe the could do like early week they practice with the Union and later in the week they practice with Steel.

      • The idea of practicing early in the week with one side and later with the other assumes you know all the injuries that will happen in training or how they will be by the weekend as well as who is going to get loaned. Plus this would handicap the first team to not have all the options available to them. Plus the direction of the practice you assume would have some differences where the USL may be more inclined to have teaching lessons and ways to learn where the MLS side should be pushing more towards the style of play as much of the lessons should already have been learned previously you would hope. While at any level you can always learn you would think the structure might be slightly different.

      • Yeah, but if they are being loaned down to Steel then they probably need to lessons. Like I said, this is for the bottom of the Union roster. The balance has to be better next year.
        Why can’t they just practice at the same time?

    • Exactly. Winning right now — especially in year 1 — is not at all a priority. It’s all just building the program.

    • Does it make you a better or worse player to play with teammates you are familiar with?

      Perhaps there’s a compromise that’s possible, such as having a Derrick Jones practicing with the Union the first part of the week and Bethlehem the two days before a game, or something like that.

  2. Very interesting that the comments above support the organization’s philosophy. Not a surprise that PSP’s readers have understood it well.
    The follow-on question becomes, then, how is it that NYRB2 not only does the same developmental thing successfully – Sean Davis, Alex Muyl, Aaron Long – BUT ALSO runs away with the league?

    • Good question. Maybe because the Red Bulls are a 20-year-old organization and RB2 is in year 2 (with quite a few loanees from the mother club). I believe they had a pretty good head start on local academies / affiliates, etc.

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