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Season review: What went wrong for Bethlehem this year?

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

In their last four seasons, the Bethlehem Steel have been getting better and better.

Except for this season.

2019 was the club’s worst year, finishing in 16th place in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference with a total of 31 points. This year was even worst than the club’s inaugural season in 2016, where they finished 11th in the conference. The last two years the Steel have qualified for the playoffs, finishing in 8th in 2017, and in 6th in 2018, but this year was a completely different story.

Why did Bethlehem have their worst season ever as a club? After setting up their younger players and better season finishes every year trend, what happened?

First and foremost, I want to lead this Steel season review with the point that Ernst Tanner came in to shake things up for the Union, but his ideas and changes also had a big impact on the Steel. Tanner has made it clear that the Steel exists for the Union to pick and choose from, so the Steel needs to match the Union in formation and playing style to prepare the young players for the first team. This year was an adjustment year for Burke and his team. Keep that in mind when reading this – 2019 was an adjustment year.

The home field disadvantage 

Overall, Bethlehem went 8-7-19 in 2019. At home, they went 4-3-10. That means that over half of the Steel’s losses came in front of a home crowd. This year, the home field advantage did not exist for the Steel.

Possibly the biggest contributing factor to that abysmal home record is that this year, the Steel suddenly found themselves without a stadium after Lehigh Valley’s Goodman Stadium was deemed unfit for matches by the league. So the Bethlehem Steel moved to Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, thanks to the help of their MLS affiliate. However, attendance took a major nosedive as Steel fans found it difficult to consider the team Bethlehem’s when they had to travel to Chester to watch a home match. Let’s take a look at the numbers. At Goodman Stadium match attendance averaged out to be 2,573 in 2016, 3,052 in 2017, and 2,347 in 2018. This year, the average home match attendance was 478. Losing the support of 2,000 fans at home definitely hurts a team.

Field conditions were another problem in the beginning of the season. Remember the hiccup in early June when the Steel had to move out of Talen Energy Stadium to La Salle University’s McCarthy Stadium for two matches? It was a last minute move because the Union’s field was being redone since it had been such a hole-filled, patchy, uneven disaster after being reseeded in the off season. While it was necessary to improve field conditions, that move still threw the few fans and the team off.

Defensive struggles 

Allowing 78 goals this season, it’s fairly obvious that Bethlehem’s defense struggled this year. It’s a problem that has plagued this Philadelphia organization and all of its teams, really.

First, let’s discuss the goalkeeper situation this year. Bethlehem signed their first keeper since 2017, signing Todd Morton from Real Salt Lake’s USL affiliate team on August 1, 2019. This was after Carlos Miguel Coronel left the Union and right before Academy graduate Tomas Romero left for university preseason at Georgetown. As the only two goalies playing for Bethlehem were suddenly no longer options, the club acted fast and acquired Morton. He was quick to jump in, and did well enough to keep the Steel going through the end of the season, sharing some time with Matt Freese who was rehabbing his way back to the Union for a bit.

This year’s back line was full of Academy players or graduates. Yes, this is typical for the Steel as a professional developmental team, but this year had some of the youngest defenders the team has ever had and it showed. Because of the young average age and professional inexperience, too many simple mistakes were made, leading to soft goals.

Many of the Steel’s defenders were put into experimental positions. As expected, it took most of them some time to find their groove. The most notable are Cole Turner, Steve Kingue, Ben Ofeimu, and Nathan Harriel. All of these players were shuffled around in Brendan Burke’s various formations throughout the season, and it took time to figure out who fit in where best. Some of these players still didn’t really find their sweet spot this year, and some are moving on to the first team in 2020, so defense is likely still going to be an issue next season as well.

Missing key players

Yes, the Union use the Steel as a development team for their young, inexperienced players to become professional players, we all know this. But, that being said, Bethlehem struggled this season because they lost Brenden Aaronson, Anthony Fontana and Matt Real to the first team. It’s always going to happen when a team loses their best players.

Aaronson, Fontana and Real were key players for the Steel last season, putting up some great statistics and making the key plays. Aaronson did not play at all for the Steel this season, having a strong first year with the Union, but Fontana had 14 starts for Bethlehem this year, all up until July when Turner was signed. With 18 starts for Bethlehem, Matt Real was sometimes unavailable to the Steel since he was signed to the Union and made the first team’s bench more than a few times this season. Replacing players is something every team must do, but developing your roster’s teenagers into professionals takes some time. The real struggle is that the Steel didn’t have any players ready to replace Aaronson, Fontana and Real, and still don’t.

Injuries also plagued the Steel this year. The ever adaptable, Issa Rayyan was out intermittently throughout the season for various injuries. This was a blow to Bethlehem, who used Rayyan as a utility player due to his strong footwork and passing ability, as well as his abilities to press and move the ball up the field. There were several players who missed the majority of the season due to injuries, including Jamoi Topey, Saed Diaz, and Steve Kingue all had few minutes this year and could have made an impact for the Steel.

One Comment

  1. in a word: everything

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