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Bethlehem Steel FC’s identity crisis

Photo: Paul Rudderow

The curtain has closed on the inaugural season of the latest incarnation of the Bethlehem Steel. The name Bethlehem Steel has deep roots in the early history of soccer in the United States, and for that name to be connected with Philadelphia Union is a breath of fresh air in the modern game.

The Union did their bit as a parent club to make Steel FC stand on its own. The branding of the club goes with the town of Bethlehem’s history as a steel producer, and the location of a “minor league” soccer team in the Lehigh Valley brings the club together with the Phillies’ AAA affiliate and the Flyers’ AHL affiliate.

The team’s inaugural roster also had a notable and obvious local flavor. Derrick Jones, the first player signed by the team, was a Philadelphia Union Academy product. Southampton, Pa’s Ryan Richter was selected by the Union in the 2011 Supplemental Draft after having played college ball for La Salle. Lehigh University’s very own Jamie Luchini was also signed on. This early dedication to keeping with tradition and giving chances to local talent is part of the Philly fan ethos, and it certainly helped fans identify with the early team. The team had real success in the area of development with the play  with the team of Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty earning them contracts with the senior team. But by the end of the season, the core of USL rostered players had been gutted.

The development

Union sporting director Earnie Stewart was clear in the direction the team was meant to take. Bethlehem Steel head coach Brendan Burke was to develop promising academy players and integrate them into the Steel system while the other, fully professional players were to be geared up for the Union, if needed or if deserving.

Burke and his staff actually carried out the mantra of development quite well. Auston Trusty, a 17-year-old Union Academy player, saw regular minutes at the center of defense and trained with the Steel throughout the large majority of the season. He, along with Derrick Jones, would go onto earn homegrown contracts with the Union after solid performances for the Steel, while 16-year-old Anthony Fontana and several other current Academy players saw valuable minutes with the team.

Clearly, the Academy provided ample players of the requisite quality to help the Steel compete throughout the year and at the same time, allowed players to gain experience at a higher level of soccer. The Steel needed these Academy players to step in to help fill out the roster, but making the game day 11 consistently has shown both the skill of the players and the growing strength of the organization’s academy system.

A development-centered attitude in the inaugural season saw the team’s performance have a few bumps, and the Steel missed the playoffs with a record of 6-14-10. Though a lower finish was to be expected, the team clearly needed strengthening in the goalscoring department. To catapult the team into playoff contention, Burke will need a striker who can score 10 or 15 a season. A young back line will improve with time together.

The positives of the season coincide neatly with the preseason expectations and direction of the club. Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty being signing with the senior team could turn out to be extremely shrewd moves, while the minutes earned by other Academy players like Fontana signal exciting possibilities.

But did they have to cut the local guys?

The excitement of young players being developed aside, the departure of several key USL-rostered players by season’s end was troubling. With the team on its way to finishing with a double digit winless streak, fans could be forgiven for feeling like the team was in a tailspin. Mickey Daly was brought in as an experienced central defender but was shipped out on loan halfway through the season before soon being traded to the NASL’s Carolina RailHawks. Goalkeeper Samir Badr was incredibly acrobatic in the net but saw limited playing time and was released with a few weeks left to go. Captain Ryan Richter, besides being one of the highest scorers on the team at right back, was sold to the NASL’s New York Cosmos. After the season’s end, Jamie Luchini and Nick Bibbs were released along with Gabe Gissie and, unsurprisingly, player-coach Fred.

Luchini, Bibbs, and especially Richter were all local players and played important roles both starting and off the bench and it was disappointing to see the local identity they represented fall out of the side within the first season. This ruthless attitude towards players could be construed as the Union trying to push the standard of the Steel, but to totally forego the identity of the team this early was cruel to the fans. Those fans will be paying close attention to how the team is constructed for its second season.

4 Comments

  1. I appreciate the article…
    .
    I’m curious though, help me understand how we are supposed to be anything short of happy for Daly and Richter moving up to a higher division of play… the whole point of USL is development…. of youth players. Its an ABSOLUTE dead end for a guy like Daly and Richter to be playing in Bethlehem… financially and sporting.
    .
    I already see a problem…. with this whole thing.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I seem to recall that a stated reason Ryan Richter came to the Steel was that he and his wife would be near their families during her pregnancy with their first child.
      .
      Further on Richter, I was pulling for him to show a little better than he did in his cameo against Crystal Palace. In fairness to him he was playing out of position, but the athleticism quotient seemed awkward rather than smooth.
      .
      Daly had subtleties of experience and anticipation that I learned to appreciate only after his departure by comparing him to his replacements. At the USL level he is much better than the archetypical tall tree center back.

      But we can safely conclude that Ken Tribbett showed better in preseason, and Tribbett is not ideal for the defensive high line that the Union want to play because he is vulnerable to pace on balls played over the top into acres of green space.
      .
      Daly was similarly vulnerable a bit at the USL level, altho’ not to the degree that Anderson was.
      .
      To the best of my knowledge, and I have been keeping an eye out for it, nothing is known about salaries in the USL beyond that the maximum allowed contract length is two years with a club option for a third. I myself also know nothing of salaries and contracts in the NASL.
      .
      I cannot imagine that Richter took a big pay cut to come to the Steel from Ottawa, especially given a baby arriving.
      .
      USL financial matters are a black hole of ignorance.
      .
      Finally, a gentle nuance. Not the entire of USL is focused on player development. The wholly-owned MLS affiliates are completely so, without doubt or challenge. And that that would be a Union diehard’s focus is thoroughly understandable, laudable, even. The independent clubs with MLS affiliations have the player development element to them, but retain the ability to focus elsewhere as well, winning and profits for example. The teams without any affiliation at all are free to pursue their own ends and are presumed to do so, be they “old” like Rochester and Charleston, or “new” like Louisville and Cincinnati. There are 20 teams in MLS and 29 in the 2016 version of USL. Of necessity 9 have no affiliation whatsoever, assuming no MLS team would have multiple affiliations.

  2. Is it really possible for a team to have an identity crisis when they haven’t been around long enough to even form an original identity?

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