Philadelphia Union II / USL

Dare we think Steel and playoffs?

photo courtesy Bethlehem Steel

At the halfway point of the season, with Bethlehem Steel FC lying in fifth in the standings, it is time to assess their chances of making the playoffs.

An alternative table

As all fans know, the number of games played by all members of the Eastern Conference is never the same at any given time from first kick until the regular season is over.  Hence, the points table does not tell a totally accurate story.  A points-per-game table compares rates of success and represents an alternative way to rank the clubs.  Here is PSP’s current version.

USL Eastern Conference
Club Points per game
1 Charleston Battery 2.06
2 Louisville City FC 1.93
3 Charlotte Independence 1.87
4 Bethlehem Steel FC 1.63
5 Rochester Rhinos 1.60
6 Tampa Bay Rowdies 1.50
7 FC Cincinnati 1.33
8 Ottawa Fury FC 1.25
Playoff Qualification Line
9 Orlando City B* 1.24
10 New York Red Bulls II 1.24
11 Pittsburgh Riverhounds 1.18
12 St. Louis FC 1.07
13 Harrisburg City Islanders 1.00
14 Toronto FC II 0.82
15 Richmond Kickers 0.71

*The applicable tiebreaker between Orlando and New York is goal difference in league games, since they have the same number of victories.

Schedule analyzed

We follow Jim Curtin’s principle that the table tells you how good you are.

A win is three points and the Steel have 26 points. So we have divided the Eastern Conference into three groups based on their points-in-the-table separations.  We use a Steel win or more apart as one group, within a Steel win or a loss as a second, and more than a Steel loss apart as the third categories to differentiate the eastern conference points table.

  • Above the Steel by a full win or more:
    • Charleston* (35 points won)
    • Louisville (29)
  • Even, i.e., less than three points separated from the Steel:
    • Charlotte (28)
    • Tampa (27)
    • BETHLEHEM (26)
    • Cincinnati* (24)
    • Rochester (24)
  • Below the Steel by a full win or more (3):
    • New York* (21)
    • Orlando (21)
    • Ottawa (20)
    • Pittsburgh (20)
    • Harrisburg* (16)
    • Louis (16)
    • Toronto (14)
    • Richmond (12)

The asterisk means that the club’s season series with the Steel is finished.  Notice the Steel have yet to play the three clubs above them today in the table.

We offer these observations on the remaining schedule:

  • The Steel play away nine more times and seven more at home. The Steel’s away record is strong with four wins, three of them coming in a row on the last road trip.
  • July sees the Steel plays three more times. One of them is against a side even with the Steel by our scheme above, Charlotte. The other two are against teams below them (Pittsburgh and Richmond).  Two of July’s remaining three games are also at home.
  • August is the busiest remaining month with six games. One is against a team above them (Louisville). Another is against a team even with them (Charlotte). And four are against teams below them (Orlando, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Toronto). Four of these six games are away.
  • September will be a challenge. One game is with a team above them (Louisville). Two are with one team even with them (Tampa, twice). And one is with a team below them (Pittsburgh). Home and away are two and two.
  • October is less difficult. One game is against an even side (Rochester), and two are against sides below them (Toronto and St. Louis). Two of the three are away. The potential is there for a strong finishing kick to the Steel’s playoff race.

Roster moves?

The Steel’s 13-man roster has only one player above 24 years of age.

James Chambers is 30, and head coach Brendan Burke has said he hopes Chambers plays three-to-five more years and then goes into coaching with the Steel.  The captain is going nowhere save by an unfortunate Act of God.

The roster has no other assets in immediate danger of fading away due to age nor does it have others who have likely reached their developmental ceilings. Those were among the reasons why the front office looked to sell Mickey Daly last July, as PSP has learned.

The next-oldest players are Cory Burke and Hugh Roberts, each 24. Coach Brendan Burke has repeatedly mentioned how valuable player Cory Burke is to the squad, and has also lauded Roberts for leadership and success, rightly.

It “feels” unlikely that the organization will initiate moving any of its current players away.

Of course, if it receives a clearly favorable offer, the front office must be expected to listen, either about an actual Steel player or a frequently-loaned-down Union one.

2017 improvements, and a weakness

The Steel’s 2017 offense is stronger than last year as the team has greater offensive versatility on the flanks and in the center. Better yet, they are scoring as their 21 goals ranks 14th in the league – good for sixth in the Eastern Conference.  In 2016, their attack was ranked near the bottom.

The potency is not just Seku Conneh’s improvement alone, as they proved Sunday by beating Red Bulls II without him. 2017’s outside channels are no longer solely dependent on the give-and-go, and Chambers’ shot is no longer snake-bitten.

Defensive depth and versatility are much strengthened, even with Mark McKenzie’s impending departure for Wake Forest. The Steels ranks fifth in goals allowed with 16 and only Louisville and Rochester have allowed fewer among the Eastern Conference. And goalkeeping seems stronger with increased depth, although that depth remains untested in games, save once.

The clear strength reduction from last season is in the center of the midfield, and two recent additions have begun to counter the weakness. Anthony Fontana has returned to availability from his early season absence, and Ken Tribbett has been loaned down recently and consistently at defensive center midfield next to James Chambers.  Adding them to Adam Najem’s frequent presence has eased the early central channel weakness.

Depth behind Chambers and Fontana is thin, from both the Academy due to graduation — Dawson McCartney and Josue Monge — and  the Steel due to injury — Chris Wingate, but Brian Carroll’s injury-recovery means he can be made available if Tribbett cannot.

A club-record seven-match undefeated streak definitely suggests the 2017 team is stronger.

A rosy crystal ball

Forecasting Steel playoffs at the halfway point of the season is perilously risky. We know the team seems stronger overall than in 2016.  But they have lost twice to first-place Charleston and have not yet played any of the sides lying second through fourth in the points table.

However, they have beaten Cincinnati in two out of three matches. They just swept defending champion Red Bulls II, beaten Harrisburg twice, and scored as many goals against Rochester’s defense as have any other sides in that two-goal second-half comeback that fell short. Last year, the Steel took points only from Rochester among the above-mentioned teams.

Sacrifices must continue to satisfy the Goddess of Catastrophic Injury, but with help arriving from the Union in central midfield as in Tribbett and Najem, we like their chances of finishing above the playoff cutoff line somewhere among fifth through eighth.

Whether they can rise to fourth and treat their fans to a home playoff game will depend on a winning September.  Louisville (2nd), Charlotte (3rd) and Tampa Bay (4th) all lie ahead.







  1. I always look forward to reading your articles. This one is great, as expected

  2. hoping so. i make a point to watch the matches and get up there when i can.
    be great to catch ANY soccer playoffs this fall.

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