Feature / USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

Brendan Burke on Bethlehem Steel lessons learned

Photo: Earl Gardner

On July 21, Bethlehem Steel sat mid-table with a respectable 6-6-6 record after winning back-to-back games by a combined score of 5-0.

That’s when Bethlehem sent starting center back Mickey Daly, a former USL Best 11 player, to the NASL’s Carolina Railhawks on a loan that became permanent.

Bethlehem’s USL season effectively collapsed that day.

The Steel didn’t win another game, going 0-8-4 to crash out of playoff contention and finish in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. They went from being one of the league’s stingiest defensive clubs, at 1.17 goals allowed per game (GAA) through 18 games, to 1.83 GAA in the 12 games after Daly was dealt, one of the league’s worst rates. Bethlehem played some games without a backup goalkeeper available and without filling the bench with their full allotment of substitutes.

It was a rough close to a season that began with so much promise. Bethlehem was one of three MLS affiliates to enter the USL in 2016. Orlando City B finished in 8th place in the Eastern Conference but behind Bethlehem on goal differential. Kansas City affiliate Swope Park Rangers placed fourth in the West and will play for the Western Conference title this Saturday.

In the end, it often looked like the shoestring budget on which Bethlehem was seemingly run had caught up to the club. Just before their last game, they sold captain and local product Ryan Richter to the NASL’s New York Cosmos. Up till that point, Richter was one of only three USL players to play every minute of every game. Bethlehem had to replace him by signing another player, Yosef Samuel, before their final game to meet the USL requirement of maintaining 12 players on USL-specific contracts.

Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke didn’t think the job would be easy when he took the reins at Philadelphia Union’s newly formed USL affiliate. But this was a learning curve neither he nor the Union had ever experienced, learning how to manage an unusually arranged club like Bethlehem, which is patterned after the first wave of MLS reserve clubs playing in the USL.

To Burke, it wasn’t the Daly deal that collapsed his team’s season. Rather, the issues that led to that departure were already bubbling up beneath the surface.

“It wasn’t Mickey leaving that so much did it,” Burke said. “It was already happening. It just us took us half the season to wrap our hands around (the roster situation).”

Burke talked with The Philly Soccer Page last week in an hour-long, wide-ranging interview about those issues, some of the lessons he and Bethlehem learned this season, and how the club might react next year to the lessons learned this year.

A team with a “skeleton crew”

Burke, 33, was the logical go-to man to lead Bethlehem in its first season. While still in his 20s, he became head coach of the Union’s PDL affiliate, Reading United, and turned them into a minor league powerhouse. Burke demonstrated an excellent eye for talent and sent a host of players onto the pros. He impressed the Union enough to earn double duty as an assistant coach with the senior team, leading the old Union reserve team and serving on one of the smallest coaching staffs in MLS. After a salary dispute and family matters arose in 2014, Burke returned home to Massachusetts for nearly two years, until the Union brought him back into the fold late last year.

Upon joining Bethlehem, Burke and Union management set about filling out a permanent USL roster that ranged between 12 and 14 players throughout the season, outright slim when compared to the 25-man rosters that non-MLS affiliated typically feature.

“We’re a skeleton crew because you’re going to have heavy involvement from the first team and heavy involvement from the (Union) Academy,” Burke said.

Over the course of the season, 36 different players saw minutes for Bethlehem. Practice revolved around the core USL players but featured an additional revolving cast of Union loanees and academy players all year.

The team fared well defensively until Daly’s departure, but their attack rarely clicked over extended stretches, often relying on Richter’s bombing runs down the right flank to crack open a defense. (Richter ranked third on the team in shots — as a defender.) Only three USL clubs scored fewer than Bethlehem’s 32 goals. There were multiple factors for that, but one of them stands out to Burke: A lack of chemistry.

“We played 29 different (starting) teams in 30 games,” Burke said. 

A lack of productivity from the striker position ensued. Jamaican international striker Corey Burke (no relation to the coach) suffered a meniscus injury in preseason that slowed him down quite a bit, the head coach said. Dutch import Seku Conneh scored just two goals in 828 minutes.

Some Union loanees didn’t produce as expected either. Attacking midfielder Leo Fernandes was named NASL Young Player of the Year in 2015 after netting 8 goals and 3 assists while on loan with the Cosmos. This year, he scored just one goal in 1,193 minutes for Bethlehem and seemed, as Brendan Burke put it, “a little snake-bitten.” Fernandes’s USL season culminated with him slamming a 30-yard-shot off the crossbar in Bethlehem’s final game.

The trouble with veterans

All season, Burke had to make concessions to Bethlehem’s primary mission: Develop young players for progression on to the Union and provide minutes for Union reserves who needed them to stay sharp.

“The way we’re designed isn’t necessarily set up to win,” Burke said. “You just accept this and do what you have to do.”

“We absolutely want to win every time we step on the field,” Burke added. “But we also understand that our primary role for the organization is to make sure we have (young) guys coming through.”

That’s what led to the departures of Daly, Richter and goalkeeper Samir Badr.

“(The Daly) deal was made to help him progress his career,” Burke said, adding the same went for Richter and Badr. “We didn’t see him progressing to the first team. If someone has no chance to progress to the first team, I wanted to give him the chance to progress his career.”

On one hand, Burke recognizes he would win more games with more veterans on the squad. He described Richter, Daly and Irish playmaker James Chambers as “really good pros who were good for the young guys around them and were good for wins when they played.”

“You can’t tell me, if I populated a team with guys like Richter and Mickey, that we wouldn’t have been in the top three in the league,” Burke said. “Those are good players.”

On the other, Burke is staying disciplined to a larger vision laid out by the Union management team headed by sporting director Earnie Stewart. That means giving minutes to young players as soon as they’re ready. While that may not help Bethlehem immediately in the wins column, that approach has already produced some key successes.

The homegrown successes

Midway through Bethlehem’s first season, the Union had seen enough from two teenagers to warrant MLS contracts.

Midfielder Derrick Jones may have seemed the lesser surprise to outsiders, but Burke characterized his rapid progression and performance as the team’s most pleasant surprise of the year. Jones had been the first player signed by Bethlehem, and he became a regular starter for the club all season, scoring 5 goals and handing out 4 assists.

“His progression, I think, was excellent,” Burke said. “His growth was the quickest (of Bethlehem’s players). He really started to dominate games.”

Center back Auston Trusty, however, was a different story. While both players officially carry the “homegrown player” label and salary cap breaks that come with it, Trusty is a bit more truth in advertising. Whereas Jones spent most of his amateur career with other clubs, Trusty has been in the Union system since he was 12 years old. Despite holding down a starting job for Bethlehem, Trusty was set to depart for college this past summer. Philadelphia officials decided that, rather than lose him to college and whatever variables that may bring, they would lock him down with an MLS contract.

The progression of each serves as a notable success story.

At the start of the season, Burke said he wasn’t sure what midfield role Jones would develop into. Back then, Burke said he was probably a No. 10 playmaker at the time, in part because Jones wasn’t a two-way player, but Burke thought he could develop into a No. 8 box-to-box midfielder or even a No. 6 defensive midfielder. That depended on the Jones though.

Burke saw two big areas of improvement in Jones. First, Jones needed to become a two-way player and put in better effort on the defensive side of the ball. He did.

“I think he’s really bought into it on both sides of the ball,” Burke said. 

The second area was his recognition on the ball: When to glide with the ball, when to release it, and how to control tempo. The 6-3 midfielder made major strides in that area, Burke said, to the point where Jones is not just an attacking midfielder.

“Now he’s an 8,” Burke said. “I think that true 8s are hard to find.”

As for Trusty, Burke said the 6-3 defender was “a bit of a ball-watcher” early in the season. Now, he’s learned to stay with the defensive line better. Trusty ranked sixth on the team in minutes played and seemed to belong there. Still, there’s room for improvement, notably in his distribution and recognizing situations sooner. But that comes with time, and at 18 years old, Trusty has plenty of it.

The two herald what could be another wave of Academy players breaking through next season. High schoolers Justin McMaster, Anthony Fontana and Mark McKenzie all saw time with Bethlehem this season, with Fontana even seeing time on the road against Cincinnati before more than 17,000 fans. Burke expects them to compete for starting jobs next year.

McKenzie and McMaster are both seniors — and McKenzie is already committed to Wake Forest — so the Union will likely face the same situation with them as with Trusty, Burke said. Come summer, Bethlehem will lose them for the tail end of the season unless they are signed to professional contracts. At the same time, it’s not like the players can’t return to the Union fold. They could conceivably play their autumns for college teams and return to Reading United for the PDL’s summer seasons, thereby staying in the Union’s sights throughout college as potential homegrown signings.

That said, Burke said he may play fewer academy players next year. All told, 35 different players featured for Bethlehem this season, seven of them from the Union Academy (not including graduates). Burke wants to focus the minutes on fewer players next season, to improve chemistry.

That’s because, while Burke recognizes it’s his priority, Burke doesn’t merely want to develop players.

Turning Bethlehem into a winner

Burke thinks Bethlehem will make the USL playoffs next year. Considering the league’s forgiving structure — more than half the team makes the playoffs — that may not say much, but what Burke means is that he thinks he can build a winner in Bethlehem.

“I think we’ll be far more competitive next year, and I don’t think we’re that far off now,” Burke said. 

Considering how many close games they lost in 2016, that may not be an unrealistic assessment, provided they improve their chemistry and attack. Perhaps the best example of those close games was Bethlehem’s May 28 visit to Rochester, a perennial contender that finished fourth in the East this year. Bethlehem controlled the game before Badr surrendered a stoppage time goal, and they had to settle for a draw.

“We had Rochester dead to rights in Rochester,” Burke said. “Our goalkeeper doesn’t come out for a ball, and boom, it’s 2-2.”

Burke hopes to model Bethlehem on the success of New York Red Bulls II, which has not only been turning out homegrown players for years but also recorded the best record in the league this season. They play in the Eastern Conference final this weekend.

“It’s a difficult balance, but I think Red Bull has made it work,” Burke said. “So I think I have to steal from their model.”

One key may be figuring out how to get the Union loanees and academy players enough practice time with the Bethlehem side, in order to improve chemistry.

Another task will be identifying quality free agent veterans who can accept their roles with Bethlehem. Even Burke acknowledges this situation “raises the bar” for Bethlehem and Philadelphia in their off-season free agent search. Daly, Richter and Badr all had higher aspirations than USL and hoped to earn contracts with the Union. Bethlehem’s model signing may be Chambers, a very technical midfielder who spent most of his career in Ireland on a semipro basis, which meant his move to the U.S. brought him a contract spanning the full year, something he didn’t have in Ireland. Considering Burke anticipates Bethlehem continuing with the minimum 12-man USL roster, Bethlehem doesn’t have much room for error in the free agent market.

Also, Philadelphia and Bethlehem must learn from their mistakes. The situations that led to them playing multiple road games without a backup goalkeeper on the bench may have been confluences of unusual circumstances — injuries, youth international games, and the like — but they could have been avoided had management known what to expect. Now they do.

“I think there’s a good chance next year we have two (USL-rostered goalkeepers),” Burke said, though he added that an alternative may be one regular backup from the academy.

But there’s one more key thing to keep in mind.

Players like Jones, Trusty, and talented Union loanee Erik Ayuk are still teenagers who could be back with Bethlehem next year. Yes, Jones still has to better deal with double teams. Sure, Ayuk must improve his understanding of when he can beat an opponent and when he can’t. And so forth. Provided Bethlehem’s talented young players put in the effort and see legitimate playing time, they will only get better.

If their management can manage their roster and practice situation just right, Bethlehem is likely to get better too.

4 Comments

  1. Be very very interesting to watch and see how and if this takes hold in the Lehigh Valley.
    .
    I think the USL idea is very interesting…. no real chance to earn a living in the second division of US Soccer but that’s a whole other discussion for a an entirely different thread.
    .
    I for one think the cost would be mitigated extensively if the team just played out of Chester. MLS sees AA and AAA baseball. I guess its a big wait and see.

    • The Lehigh Valley has been good for minor league sports. I think they made the right call playing there, but they need to improve the product to draw more fans.

  2. It’s an 90 minute ride to Bethlehem and the Union have a deal in place with Lehigh U and draw about 500-1000 paying customers per match. That’s another market your capturing plus revenue you won’t get with a Union II.

    • That number is higher……. sure it is not like Cincinnati, but 2000+ people were there most of the games….. me in the meantime, I have renewed my season ticket……. CIAO from Bethlehem

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