Philadelphia Union II

Resetting 2018 details for USL and Bethlehem Steel

Brandon Allen, center, pointing, and no gloves, scored first against Junior Lone Star.

Photo below: Jamie Heim

This offseason, USL made changes that will affect the 2018 United Soccer league season. Bethlehem Steel fans and Philadelphia Union fans who follow the Union’s farm team will both need to absorb these changes to understand the Steel and the league in which it plays going forward.

New rules

Two league rule changes impinge on the Steel, one during the regular season and the other during their hoped-for playoffs.

1. The regular season game day roster of 18 players may now have only five academy players on it. The Steel rely on academy players exclusively for depth at goalkeeper behind Union loanee Jake McGuire, so only four academy field players would normally be available. When asked, Steel head coach Brendan Burke implied strongly that, if necessary, the Steel might choose to roster only one goalkeeper in the rare but foreseeable event that no field help from the first-team were available. (Complete unavailability has occurred once per season in both years of the Earnie Stewart era.)

2. In the playoffs, should a game be tied and go into extra time, a fourth substitute will become available.

Different teams in the conference

In this year of Division 2 expansion and disappearance, two teams from the 2017 Eastern Conference have disappeared, and a third has returned to the West. But two USL expansion sides will begin eastern play – each being connected to MLS although in different ways, and two NASL refugees have found sanctuary in USL.

  • Departing: Rochester Rhinos remain in the league “in good standing” but will not field a team in 2018 for financial reasons. Four games will be played in Rochester using teams from elsewhere, including the Steel on August 16 against Toronto.
  • Departing: Orlando City B’s parent organization chose not to field a men’s team at the Division 2 level in 2018. One of their former players is currently trialing with Bethlehem.
  • Departing: St. Louis FC has returned to the West, rebuilding aggressively under the leadership of former Orlando City B coach Anthony Pulis.
  • Arriving: Nashville SC will play this season in the USL East, as its parent organization prepares to enter MLS in either 2019 or 2020. They have the largest roster currently in USL (26) and a former MLS Cup winner in coach Gary Smith (Colorado Rapids). Former Steel players Taylor Washington and Bolu Akinyode are also on the roster.
  • Arriving: Atlanta United 2 is the wholly-owned affiliate of Atlanta United. It is where 2017 Bethlehem player and Atlanta native Yosef Samuel has landed.
  • Arriving: 2017 NASL side North Carolina FC made it clear it was leaving its old league by submitting an expansion bid to NASL’s bitterest enemy in January 2017. It has an excellent coach, several returning veterans, and should be well prepared to be a strong USL side.
  • Arriving: The last-second refugee from NASL’s death spiral is Indy Eleven. Rumors of the move began only 11-and-a-half months after Carolina’s announcements, when NASL announced its schedule change delaying the start of its season. Martin Rennie, the former head coach of Vancouver Whitecaps, was hired only 35 days ago, and a new roster is still being compiled as you read. It numbers 20 and has just now acquired  former Union striker Jack McInerney. Their first preseason game will be Thursday, February 22.

Santi Moar just scored vs Junior Lone Star.

Three Points

33 Teams: The Eastern Conference has 16 teams this year, and the 17-team West will not play in the Lehigh Valley until the USL Cup in November. So the Steel play will play a third game against four respective teams: Richmond and New York at home, and Ottawa and Indianapolis away.

Shorter season: USL sides will play 34 games in 2018, an increase of two, the same number as MLS, but across a season that is four weeks shorter. USL’s opening weekend is not March 2-4 but March 16-18, and it finishes October 14, not October 28.

The continuously variable game roster: A specific Steel game day roster will “never” be exactly the same from game to game. It changed 29 times out of 30 in 2016, and 31 times out of 32 in 2017. If the 97% statistic continues, 2018 will be 33 of 34.

Game day rosters come from three separate sources:

  1. Players signed to USL contracts,
  2. Players signed to MLS contracts playing in Bethlehem consistently – “Union loanees,”
  3. Players from the academy signed to amateur contracts with the USL.

The roster variation comes from sporadic appearances by other first teamers needing conditioning and rehabilitation, and academy U-19 circumstances.


  1. Great reporting!! Thank you, Tim.

  2. ” The letters are the latest chapter in the ongoing legal dispute between the NASL and the USSF. In early September, the USSF denied the NASL’s application to obtain a Division II sanction for 2018. The NASL responded on Sept. 19 by filing an antitrust lawsuit against the USSF, alleging that the Federation used the Division Standards as a way of driving the NASL out of business, while allowing MLS to maintain its monopoly status. The NASL sought an injunction in U.

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