Philadelphia Union II

Steel’s Burke comments on USL’s competitive mix

Photo by Earl Gardner

It is an exciting time to be a fan of the Bethlehem Steel, as they contend seriously for the United Soccer League eastern conference playoffs in their second season.

Behind the present excitement lies a foundational question about the nature of the United Soccer League. The league has announced a division three league to start play in 2019. Explore it further here.  A quick visit gives no hint of absorbing current D2 player development sides into the new entity.

Burke’s comments

Last Wednesday during his weekly conference call, amidst the details of his next opponent, happiness over the most recent win, and progress of individual players both healthy and recovering, Steel coach Brendan Burke was asked to comment from his perspective about the combination of player-development sides and stand-alone, fully independent teams that make up USL in 2017.

Burke’s intelligence was immediately on display. He called the combination “vital” to the player development sides, recalling his season-opening press conference statement that pressure creates diamonds. He pointed out that the player development sides can compete successfully with the stand-alone independents, citing New York Red Bulls II in 2016 and his own team this season.

While he called the Real Salt Lake Monarchs something of an outlier among the player-development-sides because they are playing men older than the usual player development norm – Bethlehem has one player over 24 in contrast – he said the group as a whole is doing more or less the same things.

He described the combination of player-development and stand-alone as a “unique mix” that works for both elements comprising it.

An interpretation

The coach’s words and serious tone may suggest that an underlying issue, the future of the player development sides in Division Two once USL D3 starts play, might be a real problem for some sides.

To be clear, the D3 question was never asked overtly, and he never answered it, although it seems clear where Burke thinks his program should be. Being asked to comment about the USL’s current mixture did not surprise him. He took the matter seriously, and his answer identified two sides to the issue.

Burke is clearly in tune with USL’s desire to emphasize how special what it offers to the world of soccer is. His phrase, that this combination of wholly-owned player development and stand-alone independency is a “unique mix,” reinforces the league’s 2017 publicity theme that the league is special – a North American experiment.

The 2017 version of NY Red Bulls II illustrates that success among player development sides will be mercurially inconsistent, since the big club will bring up a successful team’s best players the following season (Ryan Meara, Aaron Long). But USL stand-alone sides experience considerable season-to-season roster turnover themselves.

Burke’s objection to the “fracturing” accusation does have its holes. Three of the bottom four places in the west are player development sides. That is half of the west’s farm teams. It’s hard not to reach the conclusion that a farm team’s mission inherently increases the odds of a slower to start to its season. Early-season responsibility to develop the first-team’s bench obstructs USL-level cohesion, although Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin have created stronger psychological integration between their two teams this year, according to Burke.

We must note that there is a numeric imbalance between player development sides and independent sides among the respective conferences. There are more such teams in the west mainly because the older independents are all in the east.

The eastern conference’s fifteen teams split eleven to four, independent and player development respectively. The Ottawa Fury are a hybrid, being an affiliate of Montreal Impact but counted as an independent here. The west splits nine to six, with Reno 1868 (San Jose) and Rio Grande Valley (Houston) being hybrids.

Readers will recall that a “hybrid” affiliate resembles a team in minor league baseball. The business side of the operation is not controlled by the big club, nor does it benefit them. But the technical side, as soccer calls it, is controlled by them, players and coaches, including finding them.

A passing thought

Incidentally, not only player development occurs among developmental sides. MLS’s Houston, Los Angeles, and more recently Real Salt Lake, have brought head coaches up to the big club: Wilmer Cabrera, Curt Onalfo, and Mike Petke. It is easy to imagine that one MLS organization might acquire a successful USL head coach from another.

Rank Speculation

Of course, the emergence of a new Division Three league will stimulate minds advocating promotion and relegation within professional soccer north of the Rio Grande.

The level of capital investment required of new ownership, no matter the division, contradicts the economic risks of promotion and relegation, strongly. Minnesota United’s ownership has spent a lot of money and would be a leading candidate to be removed from the economic milieu that underpins assumptions of its business plan under a relegation system.

But voluntary promotion and relegation might be adopted for player development sides only, and only between the second and third divisions.  After all, ownership in those cases is already committed to losing money. The issue becomes how much.

Some of the farm teams, Coach Burke’s clearly among them, want to seek out the toughest competition available. Others may not. They may find less pressure more compatible with their philosophy of developing growth and success. The lumps the Steel took last year have not lead to particularly strong ticket sales in 2017.

Playoffs might change that. They certainly did for the Phillies.


  1. Adam Schorr says:

    I didn’t include it in the roundup because it was barely a blip, but this article about Daryl Fordyce had an interesting quote (
    “There are times where the USL felt like an under-18 league. You are playing against a lot of reserve teams, and to me it kind of felt like I was back in England playing on a reserve team.”

    There was one moment that brought his discontent into focus.

    “There was a game where I tackled a 16-year-old kid. The kid went down and I think he was crying a bit. And then I thought, ‘what am I doing here.’ I am tackling a kid.”
    So, there may very well be some tension between independent teams who are trying to put the best product on the field, which typically means full-grown professionals, and affiliate teams who are trying to give young players minutes and time to develop.

  2. Tim Jones says:

    Adam Schorr,s comment and references above highlight the judgment dilemma inherent in the “mix” as Burke calls it.
    Those putting out the side with the kids in it onto the pitch have to judge their kids’ readiness for the physicality of professional adults.
    That issue is there, whether it be an eighth grader playing high school varsity soccer, e. g., Bobby Convey with Penn Charter however many years ago, or a teenager playing against EPL pros as Fontana did last Saturday.
    And there will be times when the judgment is over-optimistic, unlike the two examples above.
    I strongly suspect Coach Burke would tell Daryl Fordyce to not hang back, given the pressure makes diamonds comment.
    Do remember that before a young man will be put onto the pitch for a game, he has had to prove himself ready in practices, practices which for the most part we are not privileged to see.
    Fontana practiced with the first team all of preseason. While Curtin has said the word mascot, he is the first Academy player of the Earnie era that has lasted the entire time from Wayne to 2nd Clearwater. Derrick Jones did not return to Clearwater after the Valentine’s day break. Trusty did not make it to Florida at all as far as I have ever heard.
    Fontana has pushed the limits of the envelope. And his coaches have known him since he was nine years old, Brendan Burke told us today in his media conference call this week. Iain Munro is is the first coach mentioned by Burke as having begun working with Fontana in the earliest days, eight years ago or thereabouts.

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