Steel profiles: Brendan Burke

Photo: Earl Gardner

Once a week for the remaining Steel preseason weeks, PSP will present a series of player analyses.

We begin today not with a player but with Bethlehem Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke.

Roster discontinuity

The single fact most important for understanding Coach Burke’s 2016 season is that the Steel started 29 different lineups in the season’s 30 games. That’s a 97% frequency of change.

Because Burke’s program is not independently separate from the first team above him and YSC Academy below him, he had little control over that discontinuity.

Also, the ability to have a full game roster practice together in advance of games was highly limited 28 of the 30 times. The two outlier practice opportunities — before the games away to Rochester on May 28th and home to Pittsburgh on September 18th — occurred only because of first team away game travel arrangements. Those opportunities produced two of the best displays of soccer presented by Burke’s sides all year, tantalizing hints at the Steel’s potential were there more roster continuity and more game-roster practices together.

The coach did pull some rabbits out of the the organization’s unusual hat. I especially enjoyed the chess match at home on July 24 between the expansion side’s USL rookie coach and the defending league champion’s old master. The wily old man reconfigured his shape at halftime to salvage a draw.

If you assess Burke’s  season by wins, draws, and losses, the 2016 season divided into three phases: team formation, emerging improvement, and negative slide. The slide corresponds exactly to the organization cashing in its USL veterans, center back Mickey Daly after July 14tand Ryan Richter after September 18.

If, however, you assess it by player development, Burke and his technical staff culminated the developments of two first-team homegrown signings within roughly half a year, Derrick Jones on July 27 and Auston Trusty on August 10.

Coaching strengths

Burke has a tremendous ability to adapt on the fly. Once, the identity of an MLS-loanee changed after Saturday night before a Sunday afternoon tap-off.

He seems to understand the soccer psychology of younger players. He relies on setting forth clear, precisely defined responsibilities for each player. He practices honest openness with his players. He projects a positive attitude at all times. He epitomizes an organizational good soldier.

His approach meshes well with what we’re learning the pedagogical philosophy of the YSC classroom academy in Wayne. The continuity of atmosphere and guiding principle has to benefit the Academy boys reaching “beyond” themselves on the pitch.

He is diligent. And thorough. Asked at various times during the season, he always knew exactly how many Academy boys had practiced with him at the stadium complex, and he said he knew them all by name.

The two times that circumstances allowed him “normal” opportunities to develop and practice a game plan, the eye test judged his USL abilities commensurate with his PDL achievements at Reading. He teaches well on the pitch.

Coaching weaknesses

The dynamically kaleidoscopic chaos from which he created every game day roster and game plan makes it hard to isolate consistent characteristics, either good or bad.

One obvious weakness is inexperience with the organization’s system. But the organization was inventing the system around him in 2016, so the inexperience was inevitable and natural.

At times, when substitution to ease an unbalanced individual matchup seemed  called for, he was slow to move, probably because he wanted to give his player every reasonable chance to adapt and grow.  Development is first, winning is second, in other words.  In terms of player development that is not a weakness.

And while the USL is not famous for the high quality of its officiating, a less emotional response to clear whistle incompetence might not distract players from what they can do to improve the team’s situation.  But a few select times doing that would have proven him a saint. And players must feel their coaches have their backs.

Seasonal high points: Game planning and preparation

The two games against 2015 champions Rochester Rhinos stand out.

On May 28, Burke’s side played without benefit of any first team loanees and came one goalkeeper mental error from ending the champs’ 21-game home undefeated streak.

On July 24, the surprise combination of Seku Conneh and Derrick Jones at striker and center attacking midfield kept Rochester on the back foot the entire first half (outshot 7-1 and behind 0-1) and forced the veteran coach, Rochester’s Bob Lilley, of a veteran side to improvise a shape change at halftime.

Since the two Rochester games were game-long successful efforts, they outrank the opening 20 minutes of the Sep18 game at Goodman against Pittsburgh. At times, Riverhounds defenders, while well-positioned, were static and ball-watching, seemingly amazed by the speed, precision and anticipation displayed by Burke’s side. For those opening minutes, spectators could imagine how Reading United had upset New York Red Bulls in the U.S. Open Cup several years ago.

Seasonal high point: Player development
While the choice is a close one between Trusty and Derrick Jones, Auston Trusty earned full-time practice with the Steel only in February. Jones signed as a pro in mid-December 2015.  Trusty began to start in the third game of the season and started every game for which he was available (USMNT U-18 & U-20 call ups). Two days before Trusty’s 18th birthday, six months after February, he signed a contract with the first team as a home grown player.

Future first team developments will continually change this very close judgment between the two men.

Season’s low point

It has to be being eliminated from playoff contention in the next-to-the-last game of the season at home to Pittsburgh, in spite of out-playing the Riverhounds and thoroughly out-classing them. That disappointment would have been harder to take than being blown out from the opening seconds away to Red Bulls 2 on April 2nd.

Future outlook

Burke hopes for fewer academy players to play or dress for the Steel in 2017, but for those fewer to play many more minutes and to not sit the bench.  PSP projects there are as many as three or four major possibilities.

Burke was able to mold his team in spite of the game discontinuity referenced above. That he and his staff improved the team is a credit to all involved. Whether the doctrine of interchangeable parts actually works with unique human beings remains to be seen. Year one results were mixed, if we judge by place earned within the league table.  The interchangeability had been improving until the starting right center back was sold.

Burke considers the opportunity to work with Earnie Stewart a great benefit. He has full access to the sporting director to ask and to learn. His relationship with Jim Curtin is very important to him. It stems from the days when they were both assistants with the Union. It probably helps that the pair of former defenders can look each other in the eye literally and figuratively.

He has stated that going into next year he would like to implement some of the practices of the USL champs, New York Red Bulls 2. He did not specify them.

Greater opportunity to practice together with the game roster prior to the game was proven to be quite effective when the West Coast travel circumstances forced it. Making decisions a day earlier – with the obvious proviso that emergency circumstances would change them – would help Burke considerably in providing Steel fans more wins.

Creating a culture of winning may be mandated as secondary to player development, but it is a worthy goal, and Burke wants it. He’ll need his colleagues above him in the chain of command to evaluate their 2016 invention and adjust some details to help.


  1. Great overview. I’m hoping that Steel have a more consistent roster this year so that we can see the team take that next step forward.

  2. Good stuff. Thank you for the insight.

  3. Excellent write up ! I will be keeping my eyes out for your next review. Thanks for sharing your observations with us

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