Playoff match preview: Bethlehem Steel at Louisville City FC

Photos: PSP archive & courtesy Louisville City FC

Who: Bethlehem Steel FC (6th place, 50 points, 14-12-8) vs. Louisville City FC (2nd place, 64 points, 19-6-9)
What: 2018 USL eastern conference semifinal playoff game
Where: Louisville Slugger Field, (baseball diamond), Louisville, KY
When: Saturday, October 27 at 7:30 pm
Watch: ESPN+. Golazo House “watch party” in Bethlehem.
Whistle: Farhad Dadkho; Flags: Walter Heatherly & Brooke Mayo; Ismir Pekmic
Weather: early forecast – cloudy, low 40s

The conference semifinal will be the third time Steel FC face Lou City this season, but the first against Brendan Burke’s former boss John Hackworth and his new assistant, former Union player Danny Cruz.

Steel FC lost 3-1 at Slugger Field April 28 and drew in Bethlehem 0-0 June 9 against then coach James O’Connor, now with MLS’s Orlando City.

The three 2018 Louisville matches illustrate how Bethlehem’s emphasis on youth development intensifies over the course of a season.

  • In April, no teenagers started and only one came off the bench very late – Michee Ngalina in the 88th.
  • In June, three started and two came off the bench .
  • Late October should see four teenagers start, in a “win-or-go-home” match against the defending league champs. (Had Anthony Fontana and Matt Real not been called to the USMNT U20s for the Concacaf qualifying tournament for the next U20 World Cup, it would have been six.)

No unusual first-teamers will appear in Bethlehem’s lineup since the first-team visit NYCFC just 21 hours later.

The gameday roster and staff flew out Wednesday morning to practice on Slugger Field as many times as possible. The group includes a few Academy boys to flesh out the practices. First-teamers should fly out Friday.

Scouting Report: Louisville City

John Hackworth recently in Toronto, courtesy Louisville City FC

Shape: Hackworth became head coach of Louisville City on August 13. To begin his tenure he experimented with several shapes. In his last eleven matches, he has settled on a 4-2-3-1, experimenting with personnel, and in the last seven, his lineup seems set.

Louisville won those seven consecutively. The key personnel move was Brian Ownby claiming the left flank midfielder role, which moved Niall McCabe to center mid.

Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke says his former boss will adjust subtly within the 4-2-3-1 depending on the opponent, and that in general he is playing higher up the field than Louisville did under James O’Connor.

Tactics: Louisville plays possession soccer, and has a strong, newly-settled defense. They have a fully functional big-time scorer at striker. He is USL golden boot record-setter Cameron Lancaster, who is a meaningful threat anywhere inside Bethlehem’s defensive third.

Louisville are deadly on set pieces. Eleven of the 21 goals scored during their current win streak originated from restarts. Unless Lancaster is taking a direct strike, left back Oscar Jimenez is the server, often to someone’s head.

They also can hit quickly on the counter with wingers Brian Ownby and George Davis IV, in addition to Lancaster and number 10 Ilia Ilic.

Burke asserts his side cannot afford to let Louisville isolate his defenders 1 v 1.

Roster: Louisville’s roster is not as large as Pittsburgh’s but it is veteran and versatile. Coach Hackworth has been rotating it one or two at a time in the streak running-up to the playoffs.

Injuries: None going into the playoff v Indy.

Suspended: None. Niall McCabe has a yellow card. In the playoffs two yellow cards create a one-game suspension.

Predicted lineup: GK Greg Ranjitsingh; D- Kyle Smith, Alexis Souahy, Paco Craig, Oscar Jimenez; M – Paolo Del Piccolo ©, Niall McCabe, George Davis IV, Ilia Ilic, Brian Ownby; F – Cameron Lancaster. Known Substitutes: Tim Dobrowolski is the reserve goalie. Midfielder Speedy Williams, defender Sean Totsch, and striker Luke Spencer are the three most frequently used substitute field players.

Scouting Report: Bethlehem Steel FC

Coaches Burke (l) and Hogan (r) at Lehigh this summer

What you have seen all season remains what you will get.

Tuesday’s U20 USMNT call-ups remove Real and Fontana. Drew Skundrich is proven capable in the midfield. Prosper Chiluya played in the away loss to Louisville April 28, but not in the draw at home June 9.

Shape: Bethlehem will play its usual 4-2-3-1.

Tactics: They will follow the same template that is used throughout the organization since 2016

  • Possession,
  • Control of the central channel of the central midfield,
  • Direct from flank to opposite flank,
  • Attack the flanks,
  • Penetrate the green space behind Louisville’s defensive line with pace,
  • Defend as an eleven-man team, compactly,
  • Keep a high restraining line,
  • Counter-press when appropriate.

In June at Lehigh, Chris Nanco’s pace threatened Paco Craig significantly, necessitating a yellow-carded pull down after halftime and forcing O’Connor to substitute in the 59th minute because a second yellow seemed inevitable.

Where Bethlehem will set the line of confrontation and the corresponding restraining line will be learned only on the day.

Injuries: Three players may be questionable.

  • Omar Holness (lower body)
  • Mike Catalano (right quad strain)
  • Brandon Aubrey (abdominal related groin pain)

Suspended: None. Nanco has a yellow card, and in the playoffs a second earns a one-game suspension.

Expected Starters: GK Jake McGuire*; D – Olivier Mbaizo*, Matt Mahoney, Ben Ofeimu**, Prosper Chiluya; M – James Chambers ©, Drew Skundrich, Michee Ngalina, Brenden Aaronson*, Santi Moar; F – Faris.  * = first-teamer & ** = academy player

Bench: attackers: Chris Nanco & Aidan Apodaca; midfield: Omar Holness & Mike Catalano; defense: A. J. Paterson & Brandon Aubrey; keeper: Tomas Romero**.

Key matchups:

1.  Prosper Chiluya defending George Davis IV on the right flank.
2.  Ben Ofeimu defending Lancaster in the center.

Players to watch:

  1. Michee Ngalina attacking Oscar Jimenez on the right flank.
  2. Paco Craig trying to defend Chris Nanco when “supersub” comes on in the second half.

Prediction: Both sides are significantly changed since their last meeting in early June. Bethlehem has gotten much younger — three of the four attackers are teenagers, and Louisville has new coaches playing a new shape with old players in different roles.

In both the 2017 playoff matchup and the April 2018 Kentucky match, Steel FC lost concentration briefly and were punished with goals one right after the other, four and three respectively. The mental concentration to diagnose accurately what Louisville are doing at all times will be key, because they punish confusion immediately and ruthlessly.

Bethlehem will score at least once.

But Louisville will score more.

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