Philadelphia Union II

Interchangeable parts in Bethlehem, 2017

Bethlehem Steel’s defensive personnel interchangeability works well so far in 2017.

At first glance the development of Bethlehem Steel’s defense follows the same pattern this year as last. Having begun in confusion while allowing several goals, it has resolved into better cohesion and communication, and clean sheets are starting to appear.

But look more deeply; compare the two years.


In the Steel’s inaugural season, head coach Brendan Burke quickly identified his defensive back five and put them on the field together every game possible at season’s start.

In the beginning John McCarthy appeared consistently in goal. USL veteran Mickey Daly was the right center back and the lead defender in the center of the pitch. Hard-working Taylor Washington defended effectively at left back, whatever his offensive limitations. Academy man Auston Trusty replaced the promoted Ken Tribbett at left center, and captain Ryan Richter played every minute available on the right.

When he had control of his process, Burke sent out exactly the same players game after game to hone teamwork into instinctive anticipation and understanding. The conventional watchword is consistency, and the coach strove to create and enhance it, as do most of us coaching the sport.

It improved his side and provided growing success, until decision-makers higher up the chain of command decided a 29-year-old center back had reached his developmental ceiling, loaned him out with a view to a sale, and destroyed the hard-won progress.

After the loan out, hindsight tells us the playoffs became unreachable.


Brendan Burke is an intelligent, perceptive man. Having lived the frustration of 2016 and experienced the full nuance of the organization’s guiding philosophy, he adapted his roster building for season two.

  • PSP believes he knew the first team’s roster size would increase to 31, and that it would be heavily laden with flank midfielders and defensive central channel ones.  The surplus would get its game minutes with the Steel.
  • PSP further believes that he deliberately sought greater defensive flexibility to protect against the late-season forced improvisations of 2016, anticipating as above that first-team depth on other parts of the pitch would assist him in time of need.

Taught by the experiences of last season, he has better anticipated the uncontrollable absences imposed by national team call-ups, Development Academy tourneys, and August’s planned matriculations to NCAA campuses.

The same result, but differently produced …

His defense is producing clean sheets again. But due to outside circumstance and deliberate planning, his personnel choices have not been as consistent, and that has already been a good thing.

Opportunity has been judiciously distributed to create broader interchangeability among his people.

… and deliberately so

A conversation with coach in shirtsleeve February before the arctic blasts of March leads PSP to believe that the new pattern is intentional.

In the Junior Lone Star scrimmage, his offensive pattern had been to build through James Chambers. And, having played with a depth chart guess hours prior, PSP remembered how the Irishman’s off-field geniality contrasts to his on-field ferocity. So we asked coach about depth behind the new captain.

Burke’s affect told us we had stumbled onto a concern, even as his words outlined the various solutions available to cover a Chambers absence. Of course, an even better solution emerged when NYCFC parted company with Chris Wingate. Except Wingate now seems to have won a starting role, converting bench depth into double deficit. Patrick Viera’s loss is Brendan Burke’s most definite gain.

Better defensive depth in 2017
  • There are three quality center backs (Roberts, Trusty and McKenzie), at least until Wake Forest begins preseason (McKenzie).
  • There are five flank backs (A. Jones, Mahoney, Reymann, Real, Wijnaldum), one sufficiently athletic to play in either channel (Mahoney).
  • There are four goalkeepers available even though none are on the USL roster (McGuire, Romero, Freese, Waite), and only one will disappear, to Harvard, in the beginning of August (Freese).
  • And while the double pivot (Chambers, Wingate) has not recently experienced depth available within the Steel itself, emergency veteran help exists on the first team (Carroll, but no longer Elliott).

The following meaningful tests have already confronted the depth described above.

  • James Chambers’ sad, surprise family circumstance.
  • Tomas Romero’s weeks away with El Salvador’s youth team.
  • Mark McKenzie’s and Auston Trusty’s call-ups by U. S. youth national teams.
  • Charlie Reymann’s unspecified soft-tissue problem.
  • Matt Real’s much lengthier one, and his new stud tattoo on his shin from last game may also be trouble.
  • And Wingate’s hamstring that is now in the past.

The wisdom of Burke’s planning is clear. Only the first and the last of the tests above created on-field awkwardness. The rest were handled seamlessly.

Experience counts

The coach realized his roster choices and roster management needed more flexibility. Challenges that last season would have been and were devastating this season are not.

Full credit to the players. They are the men on the pitch doing the work, after all.

But the Sporting Director should be smiling approvingly as his young coach learns and adapts to a new approach, and shows the Lehigh Valley, Philly, — and PSP – how interchangeability can be made to work.


  1. Nick Fishman says:

    I’ve been impressed by all three center backs, so far. The Union have a lot of organizational depth at the position.

  2. I haven’t watched a lot of steel games this season; reading this article makes me feel like I have insight into how its going with them though. Thank you for the insight; I like the way this article is written

  3. Is Brendan Burke the not so hidden gem of the Franchise? He seems destined for a chance in MLS. From this report and everything else I’ve read, he does all the things I wished Curtin would do. Is Stewart just holding on to Curtin till he feels Burke is ready to take over? Man I hope so.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Yes, he’s a not-so-hidden gem.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Both are young, both are learning, yes.
        But do remember each has slightly different goals to fulfill.
        Curtin’s is first and foremost points in the standings and maintaining the fundamentals that win them long-term, like locker-room chemistry.
        Burke’s is player development. He is more free to risk points to discover information about a particular player. And as is pointed out above, he has to adapt to whatever lineup he’s given for the game. His independence of choice is different.

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