Commentary / Philadelphia Union II

Explaining the Steel’s 2017 road record

photo “First Flight” Wikimedia Commons

Bethlehem Steel have gained 250% more points on the road this season than they did last, and they still have six opportunities to improve.

The Steel are tied for the second-most away wins in the East with Orlando at five – one behind Charlotte and Louisville at six.

When asked for explanations, head coach Brendan Burke mentioned two. The first is a deliberate policy change from last year, but the second he characterized as something less intentional.


In commenting on the difference between his team’s road record this season and last, the coach mentioned that different travel arrangements exist this year to reduce the wear and tear of long bus rides. Two of the five wins coming after bus rides does not challenge his explanation because they are the two shortest bus trips the team takes in a season – Harrisburg and North Jersey. Each is about two hours, give or take.

From weekly schedule announcements to the press, PSP deduces that the acceptable travel time in a bus has shrunk, but how much is uncertain. We see that midweek away games are more likely to be reached by air, such as Charlotte last Wednesday.

In the table for 2017 below ranked by mileage, bus time and mileage are gathered from Google Maps. In 2016, the team flew only twice: to Kentucky and to Florida. St. Louis, Tampa, and Ottawa are new on the schedule this season, as will be Nashville in 2018.

City Miles 2017 Means Bus 
[Lehigh] 063 (self)   1 hr 11
Harrisburg 112 Bus   1 hr 44
Montclair 116 Bus   1 hr 57
Richmond 234 Bus   3 hr 53
Rochester 346 ?Bus?   5 hr 33
Pittsburgh 429 Bus   4 hr 29
Ottawa 456 Bus   6 hr 54
Toronto 506 Fly   8 hr   7
Charlotte 524 Fly   8 hr 56
Cincinnati 578 Fly   8 hr 43
Charleston 656 Fly   9 hr 21
Louisville 693 ?Fly? 10 hr   3
St. Louis 881 Fly 14 hr 11
Orlando 971 ?Fly? 13 hr 55
Tampa 1,022 ?Fly? 15 hr 11

The benefits of flying were clear last season, especially as a Saturday-night-at-Louisville to Tuesday-night-in-Harrisburg sequence became plausible only when the team flew to and from north-central Kentucky. To have bused would have left only one day between games, which was unacceptable when both a regeneration day and a practice day were needed.

The 2017 travel details show how player development sides spend their money. They maximize the effectiveness of their players’ learning opportunities, rather than boost ticket sales. From a stand-alone-business’ point of view, they don’t spend their money conventionally, but, in educational-opportunity terms, plane tickets are money well spent.

Flying to Charlotte last week helped the Steel’s youngsters go toe-to-toe with the Eastern Conference’s leader. They lost, but they met the Sporting Director’s known mandate for competitiveness quite well.  The Steel had not done so two weeks prior against the Independence at home.

Away game rosters

While he definitely did not call it a deliberate policy change intended improve the Steel’s away record, it is clear from Burke’s words that fewer first teamers are traveling with Bethlehem to away games.

An obvious reason might be that the hours wasted traveling on a bus could be spent practicing with a soccer ball. Repeatedly and consistently, Earnie Stewart has been all about maximizing minutes with the ball.

Coach Burke astutely saw the 2017 trend coming. He has emphasized away games as important opportunities for his 13 players who are on the Steel roster to shine. Those who step aside when first teamers claim minutes see the away games as their chances to prove themselves, and they are actively coached to do so.

Three weeks ago, the Ottawa Fury found out what it meant to be considered a showcase opportunity by the young men of Bethlehem Steel. A week ago, so did first place Charlotte, even though the Carolinians won.

The coach has turned a potential morale-weakener – constantly stepping aside for big brother to get the match after working hard all week in practice – into a team strength. An opportunity for a young player to prove himself needs no further explanation. Besides, what little brother does not relish a chance to one-up his older ones?

Even if giving more of the away game opportunities to the Steel’s players is a serendipitous accident, it should be adopted as conscious policy. Full marks to the coach for seeing the opportunity, and full marks to his players for seizing it.

USL Away Records 2017: East

Compiled by PSP, ranked by away wins, 8/20/17 11:59 PM EDT

Team Win – Draw – Lose Away points
Charlotte 6 – 4 – 3 22
Louisville 6 – 3 – 3 21
Orlando 5 – 4 – 4 19
Bethlehem 5 – 0 – 5 15
Pittsburgh 4 – 6 – 3 18
Charleston 4 — 3 — 4 15
Rochester 3 — 5 — 3 14
St. Louis 2 – 3 – 6 9
Ottawa 2 – 3 – 7 9
Cincinnati 2 — 2 — 7 8
Harrisburg 2 – 2 – 10 8
Tampa Bay 1 – 5 – 5 8
New York 1 – 4 – 5 7
Toronto 1 – 2 – 11 5
Richmond 0 – 5 – 6 5


One Comment

  1. Given the fact that the Union are losing their away games this year, is swapping out the away games a wise direction to go in?
    I like that the youngsters are getting minutes, but it seems that the next round of Union players are missing valuable experience traveling to away games and working for a win. Next to scoring a goal, this is the second hardest thing to do in soccer.

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