Commentary / Union

Cory Burke might be special

Photo: Jamie Heim

Cory Burke is good.

Bold statement, I know. I first realized Cory Burke was good last October in Bethlehem, when he started up top for the Steel against Saint Louis FC. Honestly, I’ve never seen so much space in the final third. It wasn’t even what you’d normally constitute as space in professional soccer — it was ridiculous. I remember one play, during which I’d briefly turned to my laptop and then looked back, seeing Burke running toward goal completely alone and I didn’t even think play was live. He ripped one way wide, and it was only his reaction that let me know it was an actual chance.

He did this multiple times that night: Either absolutely blew by the back line and took a poor shot, clanked one off the post, or had one saved. A couple of them were pretty poor misses, but I was still blown away by the space he created. I asked Steel coach Brendan Burke about how dangerous he was.

“He was deadly,” Brendan Burke told me that day. “That could have been a four-goal game — probably has to be now for him to progress to the next level.”

Looking back and having seen Burke in Major League Soccer this season, there’s a couple things worth noting about that quote.

The first is that he should have won that match for the Steel, and it shouldn’t have ended 1-1. We’ve seen a bit of that with the Union — he’s raw. He’ll miss the frame entirely on a favorable chance, or he’ll make a dumb tackle in the midfield. He was even sent off against Montreal back in May. He has his fair share of moments that you’d expect from an inexperienced player, and he needs to clean that stuff up.

But you know what else he did in that Montreal match? Score.

You know what he’s done in six MLS starts this season? Score six goals.

The second half of that Brendan Burke quote really stands out to me now. I never asked him about Burke going to MLS. I didn’t ask how his game translates or when he’ll get there. He brought it up himself. I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but now I feel like he brought it up because he fully expected Burke to be with the Union and scoring goals, like he knew for a while what kind of talent he was.

Maybe it should have been more obvious. Burke scored nine goals and dished out two assists for Bethlehem in 2017 and has quickly won the hearts of many Union fans over the last few weeks. A brace like the one he scored against Chicago in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal makes it clear that something is there. You can say that he only got a chance because C.J. Sapong has been struggling, but I now get the impression people in the organization knew what they had in Burke. The opportunity may have presented itself and some sloppiness may have held him back a bit, but look how its worked out.

And let’s be clear: I’m not saying Burke is the answer to all of Philly’s attacking problems or that he’s the striker of the future.

But six goals in six MLS starts means something. Sapong has three goals this year and has logged almost 1,000 more minutes. Jay Simpson has scored one time for the club. The Union have not lost a match when Burke starts up top (6-0-0).

Imagine Harry Kane or Sergio Aguero scoring six goals in six starts in the Premier League — yeah, it’s a different animal over there, but it would be the story of the month in England. MLS doesn’t get that kind of attention, but it still seems like Burke is flying under the radar here. Any bigger name and those numbers are a huge deal. Any good striker would be pleased with three goals in six starts, let alone six. It’s almost like he’s not the leading goal scorer on the team (already).

Does Burke just fit the system better? Is he just flat-out better? Right now, it may not matter. He’s hot, and he’s put together a string of form that Jim Curtin hasn’t gotten from anyone else — that includes Sapong and this off-season’s big-signing-turned-big-disappointment David Accam. Burke has to keep starting. If he can score six goals in his rawest form, imagine what pitch time and MLS experience will do for him. Sapong isn’t replicating what he did last year, and “the Union need a striker” has been looming.

Maybe he’s been here all along.

Cory Burke missed a bunch chances in that Bethlehem match last year. On that day, they seemed like nothing more than wasted opportunities. Today, after watching him score again against NYCFC, they seem like something more. The head-scratchers will probably continue, but there seems to be something special about him — not that there even needs to be. Cory Burke just scores goals.


  1. Burke has scored a lot of goals with his head, and just by being in the right place at the right time.
    …and then he scored the goal this weekend. The entire play was gorgeous, but he calmly received the final pass, took a gentle turn, and perfectly placed a shot around the keeper. It wasn’t a reaction shot, or a redirection, or anything that can be explained away. It was calm skill that put the ball in the net.
    Usual caveat applies: we need to see more of that to know if it is his actual level, or if it was an anomaly, but he’s been doing everything asked of him.
    The pessimism comes from 2 places:
    1) CJ was on fire last year, and has become the invisible striker this year. The Union have a really weird history of players have miserable years after great ones. So I don’t think anyone will be a true believer until he does it for at least 2 years.
    2) The league is getting more film on him. As they prepare for him, we’ll see how he handles the attention when the defense is focusing completely on him, with knowledge of how he plays.
    That said, it is very encouraging. I’ll take the deflections and the headers when we get them, but I’d love to see more goals like the one we saw Saturday.

    • He actually creates his own chances on the dribble and by making great runs. We keep saying he’s just in a good run of form but I disagree. When Pontius first got here he was in a good run because literally every shot he took went in. Burke is still missing a lot of shots. 32 taken, 10 on frame, 6 goals (in MLS play). I think he’s just good at getting into dangerous positions (in multiple styles), isn’t afraid to shoot, and has players around him who will set him up. He’s a really good player at everything we need, except honestly finishing. If he can make a reasonable improvement there he could challenge for the league lead in goals.

    • This is a good take. He’s a great player to have on the team. I’d love another striker also, and his play shouldn’t prohibit them looking, but he has been nothing short of a revelation.

  2. According to a lot of folks around here, Corey Burke just CAN’T be good, let alone VERY good, let alone our answer at FW…If he’s not paid “break the rest of your franchise” money.
    The guy has a nose for the goal and makes things happen around it. AND he doesn’t cost and arm and a leg? Win/win.

  3. I was standing next to Christian when he asked his questions of coach Burke. I remember coach’s frustration with the player having missed so many chances.
    Only in hindsight when they released Seku Conneh did I realize that coach Burke knew then that player Burke was moving up to the Union, even though the official move did not become public for several months.
    If you are asking whether many roster decisions for 2019 have already been made now in mid-August, I strongly suspect the answer is probably yes.
    I have noticed Jim Curtin in person at a Bethlehem Steel home game once. We walked into the stadium at the same time, he recognized me but did not have my name so I introduced myself, and then we went our separate ways.
    Later on, from the press box’s open window I realized I heard Curtin’s voice in conversation with Earnie Stewart’s voice. I could not make out the words. I confirmed it by sticking my head out and looking down.
    Curtin had seemed a bit anxious in our briefest of chats, so I wondered whether the axe was about to fall, since it was at the end of that horrible string of losses that started the Union’s 2017 season.
    I now wonder whether he and the Sporting Director were evaluating Cory Burke.
    Cory Burke has not always played this well as a striker. I have seen almost all of his games with the Steel and the Union.
    The calmness so well described on the first goal was not present earlier, and it is still not present consistently this year as all can attest.
    The St, Louis game was the last of the season by memory. A win would have avoided Louisville in the playoffs and taken them to Tampa Bay, a match up coach Burke liked much better. Striker Burke’s misses sent them to Kentucky.
    A year before in the next-to-the-last game against Pittsburgh, Cory Burke missed a tackle early just outside of the Steel’s penalty box, tried to fix it in the box and gave a penalty. He played like a madman the rest of the game, and assisted on the equalizer, but the assist was so overhit that James Chambers could only score it with a diving chest, anything else would have been by him.
    That calmness is a work in progress, but it is clear growth and it is growth above and beyond USL demonstrated in MLS.
    Only time will show it, but there may be more from the big Jamaican yet to develop. Wouldn’t that be nice!

  4. I’m allfor Corey Burke starting right now. He’s the inform striker actually scoring goals. But he’s not the long term answer at all which you highlighted in your article. He’s not a polished product to produce at a high level consistently. Pace isn’t all it takes to make it and he honestly looks uncomortable when dribbling the ball or holding up play. We need a pure finisher of a striker that the club has lacked since day 1 in 2010. CJ would benefit from a switch in formation which allows a free roaming striker to make runs off of him as he flicks the ball on or holds up the ball allowing players to advance up the field. Very well written as Burke has been playing outstanding but don’t expect this form to last. Hope I’m wrong

    • in 2016, I would never for a second have imagined him delivering that NYCFC goal.
      Simply not possible.
      in 2016 he was all defense, little offensive control of the ball at his feet.
      now he can turn against a defender with the ball at his feet and have a decent chance of beating him. He’ll never be Ronaldinho, but he’s better at that than C. J. is now. that wasn’t true in 2016, not at all.
      is he a world class finisher? no. Will the Union ever buy one? also, no. Faris may never get there, but he is the best shot right now, but is 8 years younger than Burke.
      but whatever he and his coaches have done to create that poise, … he and his coaches deserve full marks for achievement.

    • What is he doing that won’t last? I honestly think he’s under-performing goal wise right now. Go watch a highlight of one of Accam’s breakaways. Burke is way behind Accam at first, but runs through the 2 CBs who were both only trying to hold him back (leaving one on the ground and the other in the dust) to bust his butt and get to the penalty spot which would have resulted in an easy tap in if Accam actually picked up his head. He is also a better outlet than Sapong because he doesn’t just stay still. The dude is good and getting better.

  5. I’ll add my .02 about Burke. The goal against NYCFC demonstrated a key difference between Burke and CJ. Notice how quickly Burke settles the ball and then strikes it. There have been a few more like that . The second goal against Chicago. I thought he had let it go too far past him to get to it before the defense shut him down, but he took 1 or 2 very fast steps and let it rip. CJ, even in his best form, does not make those shots.

  6. Tyler Gribbin says:

    I agree that Burke is definitely the better player compared to CJ Sapong, anyone who watches the game could agree to that. Do I think Burke is our long term answer, no, Do i think he can keep this pace of goals scored, no. I do think he is our best option short term until the Union wake up and realize they need to spend money in order for the team to get to the next level. Anyone else think they should switch up the formation?

  7. Put me in the “I don’t a flying F**k if you think he’s the future, good, great, or on good form” category. Play him. Every match. Honestly who cares if he’s the striker of the future, because there sure isn’t any other candidates. While some of you will keep bemoaning that named striker this club won’t see any time soon, I’ll be enjoying the pure fun that is Corey Burke. He enjoys his football as they say. How can someone not love that?

  8. Looks like I’m an outcast. Burke has been good. He hustles and he moves. I also like C.J. Yes, a striker needs to score and it sucks that he isn’t right now. He is contributing and if doing the dirty work doesn’t matter, why are we collectively giving (appropriately) accolades to Ale? I want Burke in, but for goodness sake, why can’t we support the guy who busts his butt every game? Heck, I’ve stopped booing Jim Curtin and remain silent, can’t we afford C.J. a little confidence? While I’m on a rant, lets give Accam a little slack. This version of the Union play down the right side, not because of Accam, but because the left backs have to support Trusty. I’m not discounting Trusty. What the Union are doing is giving a potentially high value CB the protection needed to move on. The end result is that the Left Wing is left to their own devices. Sure Fafa is exciting, but he is also limited by the run of play. For the first time in years, I’m actually glad we made no moves in the trade window. We have a team, we have a team with depth, and we will be vying for 3rd place on decision day. Let’s Go Blue!

    • When it comes to C.J. he is what he is. We all know he works hard. To score his goals, he has to, he isn’t blessed in abundance with skills like Ilsinho. His main job is scoring, right? C.J. has not been doing his job. He’s been given way more slack than any other striker in the world would have been given. If it were any other league in the world, had a striker gone as many games without a goal as C.J., he would have been packed up and quietly shipped off to the Japan A league. You would never hear from him again. C.J. was given more faith then the greatest strikers in the world. Really, what more do you want?
      When comparing Ale to C.J., Ale does his main (playing defense and hustling) and secondary jobs(scoring, play making). C.J. only has contributed in his secondary responsibilities(playing D, hold-up play, hustling) while his prime responsibility of scoring is almost non-existent.
      I do appreciate C.J.’s hustle. I really do. I wouldn’t have defended him for so long if I didn’t. But it can only go so far. This team would have a better record if it wasn’t for him and the coach refusing to play Burke earlier. It’s as simple as that. Chances were being created, match after match after match. He wasn’t putting them away. Burke does.

    • Gaddis is playing on the left because he’s playing better than our other options there. He wasn’t supposed to play there but he has passed the others on the team. I don’t think it’s true he’s there to protect Trusty it’s just the way things have played out. I also think his defensive abilities are consistently overrated but I do agree his lack of anything offensively (and also our midfield’s desire to be right) kills all our attacks down the left flank. There is a reason there were rumors we were looking at left backs earlier in the year.

    • I think a vast majority of the fan base supports and appreaciates CJ, no doubt. I also think most people (including me) genuinely like the guy. That having been said, these guys aren’t stuffed animals and this isn’t a popularity contest.
      “A striker needs to score and it sucks that he isn’t right now” has lasted about 2/3 of the season (and it lasted a pretty decent chunk of last season as well if you remember). It would be very interesting to see where this team would be (insert “totally unrealistic hind-site” disclaimer here) in the standings if CJ and Accam’s minutes has been played by guys who were even providing even “meager” scoring production.
      All emotion aside, advocating for the obviously more instictive and skilled Burke isn’t simply a “CJ sucks”. In ANY profession, we measure two choices against each other, review the data, and go with the one that moves the organization forward successfully. Burke is very obviously that choice at striker.
      Can CJ play the wing? Not enough data to tell.

      • Agreed. I do think CJ can play the wing but it’s as a target winger/defensive player. That’s a useful piece but shouldn’t be played every game. Nice that we have a ton of winger options that have different styles.
        It’s still hard for me to believe that Accam has been this bad. I thought he was exactly what we needed when we signed him.

    • Also, “the left backs have to support Trusty”? Like HE’S the reason we don’t play up the left side?
      You must be watching a very different game than I am my friend.
      Accam’s slack deservedly ran out a long time ago. He was brought here to set land speed records and score goals. Trusty has nothing to do with the dozen or so failed, open field, full sprint breaks Accam has had with one defender and a GK in front of him. True scorers salivate over those opportunities because they are rare for anyone other than a guy with Accam’s speed. But Accam has not shown the quality to convert even ONE of them. He’s been even worse in traffic.

      • I give you the game analysis article that dropped today and tbe last video clip of Trusty’s quality.
        HE isn’t the problem on the left.

  9. John Harris says:

    Cory seems to have the understanding of spacing, a quick shot (although not blazing), the header, the hunger to score, etc. Plus, he does not waste his time flopping like CJ. Maybe he is the striker of the future. Seems like it.

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