Feature / Philadelphia Union II

Why you should follow Bethlehem Steel FC in 2018

Bethlehem Steel FC kick off their 2018 USL campaign this Sunday and with a new Steel FC season comes competition at its peak. A home match to begin the season on the scenic campus of Lehigh University at Murray H. Goodman Stadium against a tough Eastern Conference opponent in Richmond Kickers.

Most eyes are pointed towards Chester this weekend, with Philadelphia Union set to face Columbus Crew, but should you only care about the first team? Why should you bother with the first team’s lower division affiliate? Don’t they play a lot of teens from the Academy anyway? That seems important. Should I pay attention to MLS-USL affiliated teams if I enjoy MLS?

These are just a handful of questions I and other media members have encountered when discussing the affiliation and partnership between Philadelphia’s MLS and USL teams, once labeled and written off as nothing but an experiment or side project as an attempt to gain minimal advantages over the competition. There seems to be a reluctancy throughout certain portions of a dedicated Union fan base to truly get behind their team’s USL affiliate. So, in an attempt to clear up some confusion while explaining exactly why you should follow Bethlehem in 2018 a brief trip down a particularly dreadful memory lane when the Union first gained its footing as a professional club back in 2010.

Youth development failures of franchise’s early days still haunt supporters

Perhaps an MLS team comprised of Band-Aid players and too few impact players in a desperate plea to remain somewhat respectable can rub fans the wrong way. And that’s fair. All well and good. If the first team is not producing results that indicate success, then fans will naturally draw a conclusion that the Academy and the USL pathway to pros ‘project’ was a wasted investment.

The team’s early days brought success in the form of wins, butts in seats, and a playoff appearance. But as mentioned several times before, the rest of the league quickly earned and spent cash at a much more efficient rate than Philadelphia’s front office and ownership group could even think up. To this day, fans would be smart to assume the Union won’t be changing those frugal spending habits anytime soon, mainly because there is not enough gold in the pot to stack up to the giants of MLS like Toronto FC and Atlanta United.

However, while the front office scrapped and clawed through tight budgets to find adequate talent for a winning season, most of the club’s money filtered into the crucial infrastructure which was so severely lacking in the club’s first three to five years. As die-hard fans continued to stir uneasily with each passing mediocre year with no playoff victory to speak of, a slow awakening of sorts grew deep roots in King of Prussia, and the Union began pumping out first team quality players once again. The only difference this time? The organization owned its own professional team in USL and could fully dictate exactly who plays and who doesn’t, and for how long or little they see the pitch. The addition of a professional team in the Union’s “back pocket” so to speak will continue to provide head coach Jim Curtin and the front office with a virtually unlimited stockpile of capable hungry youngsters eager to make an impact at the professional level.

But the “process” so to speak that brought the Union’s Academy to such a pivotal moment weighed heavily on Philadelphia fans. For some, the losing and lack of ambition to change the system despite continued failures became too much too handle, forcing them to ditch plans to renew season tickets. The constant ho hum preaching from the Union’s top dogs about the future and trusting the Union’s developmental philosophy, particularly late last season, truly irked fans who desired statements from coaches and front office members accepting blame for the team’s lack of immediate success. But the future is upon us. The process has yielded an abundant harvest of tremendously able youngsters. Fans must put that period of “fan purgatory” behind them and embrace the possibilities 2018 could bring.

Bethlehem Steel FC serves a vital and instrumental role for Union’s success in 2018

In other words, creating your own high school specifically to train future professional soccer players in the exact same system of play from age eight (with the Union Juniors) all the way to 16, 17, or 18 with Steel FC is equivalent to having an endless supply of reinforcements and able-bodied players in your ranks. These young players are then ready to be deployed whenever a first team player goes down with an injury, is sent off and suspended, or simply needs rest. The Academy was designed to produce competent professionals to fill roster depth with the occasional exceptional talent, who then ideally would be sold for profit.

But as it’s been said many times over: time heals all wounds.

Union fans and many PSP contributors will confess simply thinking back to the early days of the organization brings a sudden shiver down one’s spine. On one hand, Union front office members were preaching about the future while highlighting their developmental Academy and introducing the independently owned high school specifically designed for soccer athletes. But despite purchasing their own high school – the first major professional sports franchise in North America to follow in a development model prevalent throughout Europe – teenagers with untapped potential and raw skill were progressing through the Academy ranks only to hit a road block in their developmental process. Players like Christian Hernandez, Zach Pfeffer, and Ryan Richter were a sign of a bright future up until the Union began struggling getting those players minutes in professional matches.

But no more. The connection between Bethlehem and the first team is as strong as ever. Steel FC have trained at YSC Sports with Union Academy members so far this off-season in an attempt to evaluate which Academy players Steel head coach Brendan Burke will look to utilize when filling his match-day 18 each week.

Competition breeds champions. Pressure creates diamonds. A failure to understand the significance Steel FC carries as a vital functioning cog in the Union organizational machine would result in a failure to acknowledge how much progress Philadelphia has made in 10 years time.

Follow Steel FC. You may discover the next Auston Trusty or Anthony Fontana or Derrick Jones or Matt Real. By following Bethlehem in 2018, each match-day will provide a unique opportunity for you to ‘scout’ the cream of the crop from the Union’s Academy and free-agent signings. First team reserves battle against players under USL contracts who in turn battle against Academy guys. All three of those player groupings all set their marks on the coveted first team MLS roster group. An entirely unique style of developing talent takes place in Chester weekly. Teammates vying to unseat the player ahead of them on an ever changing depth chart in hopes of winning the spot. A fine line between competition, frustration, a sheer pettiness often results in a few spats here and there but all in the spirit of competition. The constant competition among the stars of tomorrow blended with professional athletes trying to earn a living provides a club dynamic rarely seen throughout all other major sports in Philadelphia.

One Comment

  1. Honestly I would be amazed to find someone who is a strong Union fan and doesn’t atleast respect BSFC’s place in the pipeline.

    I for one love it, and I feel like following them is a foregone conclusion. I look at them and the Union and basically part of the same organization.

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