A look back at Brendan Burke

Photo courtesy Bethlehem Steel Communications

Brendan Burke is a teacher, a good teacher.

I started observing Burke, who was named head coach of Colorado Springs Switchbacks in the USL Championship on Saturday, in June of 2016.

His “classrooms” are the club’s practice and game pitches and their video projection room, as well as an IT equivalent of a chalkboard facing chairs.

He worked hard at always being authentic with his students and the media. He always found a way to maintain the truth while upholding the organization’s information security policies.

He always respected others as he himself would wish to be respected. He never referred to former first-team center back Richie Marquez as “Richie.” Instead it was “Rich,” mirroring the difference between “Frankie” and “Frank” for the Hall of Fame baseball player who is the only MVP in both major leagues.

He began his teaching at Reading United, using principles demonstrated by his own coaches during his own his playing career. The statistical record he accumulated at Reading denotes success. while there, he intensified the Union-Red Bulls rivalry with more than one upset of Red Bulls teams sent into their opening round of the U. S. Open Cup.

He learned from Harrisburg City Islanders head coach Bill Becher in the pioneering days MLS-USL affiliations, and was in the Super Draft room at the table the day the Union traded up to number one and picked two-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake.

He then left the organization for an associate NCAA head coaching job with one of the universities that surround Boston, after a coolness of some kind with then Union day-to-day boss Nick Sakiewicz.

When the organization parted ways with Harrisburg and launched its own wholly-owned USL affiliate, Burke was hired to be the Bethlehem Steel FC head coach. He has said that he accepted because professionally it was a step up from college to the pros.

He walked into a situation distinctly different from that of clubs, schools, or colleges. His first mission was no longer his own team. His top job was to provide the first team with whatever it needed from his own club’s game day. He has said that his trust in Jim Curtin provided meaningful support while he learned to adapt. He took every opportunity to learn from Earnie Stewart.

A second difference in his new role was that he did not control the composition of his game day roster. He did not choose who started. He had an important voice at the decision table. But he proposed, while the sporting director disposed. The principle is illustrated by the times first-team captain Maurice Edu made Bethlehem injury-rehabilitation starts.

Only once in Burke’s Bethlehem career under Stewart did a first-team contracted player not start. The player was the scheduled substitute for another first-teamer who started ahead of him. That rigidity changed under new sporting director Ernst Tanner.

Burke did say that once the whistle blew, he had full control over managing his game. Once away to Charleston he honored Maurice Edu’s request to exceed the training staff’s recommended quantity of game minutes. And the choice and timing of substitutions were always his own.

These restrictions emphasize that his fundamental role was teaching in his classrooms, not winning matches. He fulfilled hiss primary function and achieved a good measure of conventional athletic success as well. Circumspectly, he took pride in reconciling the two objectives.

Long-time Steel FC followers will remember that line-up repetition was not available to Burke. In his USL career with the Union he exactly repeated a previously-used lineup less than a half a dozen times over four full seasons.

Following the 2016 season when he first experienced the problem, he adapted his roster construction principles. Never again did he not have redundancy built in for every position, save goalkeeper. Once after the first season there was a game without a back-up keeper. Not only did he have redundant personnel, using the first-team or the academy, he sought players able to adjust with only a day or two of instruction.

The organization supported him in his growing adaptability. The clearest example came when James Chambers’ father unexpectedly passed away in Ireland before the 2017 season. The son returned home to support his family as any of us would, and Brian Carroll made the only USL appearance of his career, starting in Chambers’ place at defensive central midfield in the 2017 season opener against Rochester at Lehigh.

Burke could prepare a game roster for a match in one day. Necessity forced doing so many times. Only once did he mention that his prepared roster had been changed on gameday itself.

And the organization mitigated the challenges of its unique template by flying to matches beyond reasonable busing range. The treatment provoked jealousy among independent opponents who travelled long distances by bus.

Flying details required adjustment.

Crossing the Canadian border was simpler to do on a bus than through an airport, so they flew to northern New York State and then bussed to Toronto. Canadian airport security stringently limited the number of bags any one individual could bring through customs, and required that the individual carrying the bag know in detail exactly what “his” bag contained. A field player could not know precisely and quantitatively what medical supplies a training staffer carried in the bag that exceeded that staff member’s numerical limit.

Burke always rose to the occasion when coaching against USL Hall of Famer Bob Lilley, both when Lilley was at Rochester and then with Pittsburgh. A prime example came in the organization’s first professional playoff win that came a season before the first-team’s famous comeback against Red Bulls at what is now Subaru Park.

Away to Pittsburgh at Highmark on the Monongahela, a Michee Ngalina goal from play and a James Chambers free kick tied the match to force a scoreless overtime. Eight consecutive Bethlehem players then scored their penalty kicks while the eighth Riverhound flinched. Not all the squad could enjoy celebratory adult beverages on the all-night bus-ride home.

Ernst Tanner brought Chambers back for one more season in 2019. But his vision of the second-team is much younger than the model Burke created, as Union fans have been learning for the last two years. And now USL, or USL Championship as it now calls itself, has been left behind.

Tanner chose not to give Burke the 2020 chance to adapt to lessons learned from 2019’s struggles, even though the season had seen Bethlehem’s first-ever win over two-time playoff nemesis Louisville. He moved him to Head of Recruitment Operations instead.

It is gently ironic that for whatever reasons the highly experienced, positively-reinforcing German gegenpress teacher that replaced Burke, Sven Gartung, did not work out, and was replaced midseason by American interim head coach and current Academy parent Marlon LeBlanc.

The Colorado Springs Switchbacks are bringing in a new coach as they open their new stadium in 2021. They have a good roster builder and an excellent teacher who will execute those tasks well.


  1. Good luck Burke!! Thank you!

  2. I wish all the best for Brendan Burke. He really deserves it. Thanks for all you have done for the club Brendan.

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