Analysis / USL - Philadelphia Union II

Roster-building: Bethlehem Steel 2018

Image courtesy of Bethlehem Steel FC

Roster-building for 2018 is rampant because we are probably about two weeks away from the formal opening of Steel preseason training camp.

So we take a look back at the Bethlehem Steel’s 2016 and 2017 seasons to discover roster-building governing principles and lessons. And then we consider the construction of the Steel’s current one, what has been done and what must yet be done.

2016 USL Roster

The 2016 USL squad turned over three players during the season, and had two signed by the first team reducing the original 14 to 12.

  1. First, the club loaned center back Mickey Daly to the Carolina Railhawks of the NASL with an option to buy that was exercised, (and the Steel never won another game).
  2. Next, by mutual agreement, goalkeeper Samir Badr left in late summer to be replaced by Matt Perrella.
  3. And last, after the next-to-the-last game of the season, ironman right back captain Ryan Richter moved to the New York Cosmos where he became a 2016 NASL champion. His spot was filled by midfielder Yosef Samuel.
  4. Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty were signed to homegrown contracts, changing with whom they practiced daily but  changing nothing for games.

All the 2016 turnover occurred in the defense, and there were few defenders in the first place.

Head coach Brendan Burke, and the organization as a whole, learned some lessons.

2017 USL Roster 

For his second season, head coach Brendan Burke knew what help he would get from both the Academy and the first team. making planning easier and more effective. And his time to plan was not truncated.

In 2017 there was no formal turnover in the 13-man roster. Reserve central midfielder Chris Wingate did suffer a season-ending injury.

At keeper, Burke knew that he would have Academy depth and quality sufficient to cover all contingencies when the Union’s number three keeper was unavailable.

He also created greater depth and flexibility on defense, with help from Earnie Stewart, Chris Albright and Jim Curtin.

He knew between the academy and the first team he would have central channel midfield support, since Anthony Fontana had shown strongly in 2016 and during the 2017 preseason. And Stewart added Adam Najem.

A full season of scouting produced quite effectively in the later rounds of the draft.

  • Winger Chris Nanco, whose slow preseason start changed into strong mid-season form has stayed with the organization for 2018.
  • Scouting hit the jackpot with USL rookie of the year finalist Santi Moar

But most important in hindsight was Burke’s decision to return his 2016 striker core intact. It paid huge dividends.

  • Corey Burke’s repeated call-ups to the Jamaican national team illustrate how much he has benefitted from playing soccer in North America.
  • Seku Conneh rehabbed an injury in Chester over the winter and transformed himself into powerful competition for Burke, stimulating both men to dramatic improvement.
2018 USL roster (so far)

We only know whom the club has retained,  promoted or signed (in black), and the 2017-18 academy players who played extensively, or in cameos, last August, September, and October (in blue).

  • Goalkeepers:                                —                                         Tomas Romero, Kris Shakes
  • Defenders:          Matt Real, Matt Mahoney, Brandon Aubrey   Nyk Sessock
  • Central mids:      James Chambers, Omar Holness                  Brenden Aaronson, Michael Pellegrino
  • Flank mids:        Santi Moar, Chris Nanco                                 Seth Kuhn, Issa Rayyan                                                                                                                                      
  • Strikers:              Brandon Allen                                                      —
Two Steel roster-building principles
  • The ESSENTIAL of player survival:  A player’s mental decision-making seems to be primary. Earnie Stewart and assistant coach Jay Cooney have both emphasized that the goal is to create a culture that allows failure in attempting to execute the right thing.
  •  A fundamental principle: To remain with the club, the progress a player has made during the season must surpass incremental. Mere rock-solid trustworthy consistency is not enough for retention. It’s the “Up or out” principle. The length of opportunity seems to be two years, or less if the decision is clear.
Predictions for 2018

Assuming our lessons and principles are correct, and that past USL roster minimums continue unchanged, the following should happen.

  • “Up or out” has already applied to Corey Burke. The Union’s new signing should move into the vacant 3rd striker slot.
  • “Up or out” will probably also apply to Auston Trusty. Trusty should take Ken Tribbett’s reserve CB spot, and might challenge Richie Marquez’s starting one.
  • James Chambers will remain with the Steel as captain, first choice defensive central midfielder, and in-game teacher of young center mids. He needs a serviceable back up.
  •  At center back, in both their seasons the Steel have signed a high-quality USL-veteran around whom they built their defense. New signing Brandon Aubrey might be that man, if he has learned to anticipate forwards with elite speed better than he did in the 2017 MLS Combine. Reports that Mark McKenzie may sign a homegrown deal are tantalizing but as yet only rumors. What is certain is that there must be more defenders, both central and flank.
  • Anthony Fontana will likely be “handed the keys” to the Steel’s attacking central midfield position.
  • The up or out principle will reduce Adam Najem’s Steel minutes in 2018, not least because Fontana, Michael Pellegrino and Brenden Aaronson (see next bullet) will be in his spot(s), although Najem could easily appear on the flank to get game conditioning.
  • At the beginning of the season, Academy players Aaronson and Pellegrino will compete against each other for the number 8 central midfield slot between Fontana at number 10 and Chambers at number 6. As recent signing Omar Holness recovers from his knee surgery, he will provide them competition.  By the time they matriculate to their NCAA schools (August 1) — barring home grown contracts — Holness should be ready to replace them.
  • At striker, Brandon Allen is a proven top-notch USL forward. Earnie Stewart has always had three strikers available on both the Union and the Steel, so expect two more. One of the two might be Academy senior Jeremy Rafanello, although as of last fall he had not appeared consistently at Steel practice.
  • Rookie of the Year finalist, midfielder Santi Moar will almost certainly go with the first team to Florida from January 30 through February 8.  He faces stiff competition from Ilsinho, Fabian Herbers, Eric Ayuk, Fafa Picault, and Marcus Epps.  If he returns to Florida February 12 and then makes the first team March 3, he may displace someone to Bethlehem, Eric Ayuk as a “for instance”.
  • And, somewhat surprisingly, given his level of experience and performance, there are reports that left back Matt Real might sign with the first team.  Given comments by his coach in October expectations then were that he would play his 2018 games with Bethlehem.  Left backs are scarce, and we have no idea of progress since the playoff loss to Louisville.
A reminder

The rhythm of a Bethlehem Steel season divides into three general phases.

  • At the beginning, Steel game-day rosters will be used to bring the first team’s bench into game condition.  Remember that as the first team starters get more and more preseason-game minutes, their back ups get less and less.
  • Roughly after two months, Academy players and new Steel signings become the focus as they are being evaluated for homegrown contracts or retention for the next season.
  • August 1st the graduated Academy seniors go off to college, and the newly rising Academy seniors replace them although they do not necessarily play the same positions.

The transition to the third phase requires coach Burke to have sufficient flexibility in his 12-14 USL-rostered players to adjust to the new academy boys not necessarily playing the same positions as the departed ones. So pragmatically, a candidate for coach’s roster must have  versatility and flexibility of position.




One Comment

  1. Good stuff as always, Tim, thanks for the scouting report.
    Much like last season, part of me is more excited to see how the Steel lineup and compete this year than for the current Union squad….

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