Commentary / USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

Should Bethlehem play in the second or third division?

Should Bethlehem Steel FC remain in the United Soccer League’s current division two entity? Or should it join the recently announced division three league that is scheduled to begin play in two seasons?

The answer, insofar as it is realistically within the control of parent club Philadelphia Union, hinges on three points:

  • Are the benefits of division two’s quality and competitiveness worth the extra expense?
  • Can the current player development template produce a winner that will sell enough tickets in the Lehigh Valley to defray some of the cost?
  • Would the move provide appropriate professional development for the Steel’s head coach and players?
Competition and quality

During his tenure at the Union, Sporting Director Earnie Stewart has consistently sought to improve competition within both rosters under his care by upgrading quality. It would contradict much of what he has done so far if he deliberately reduced the quality and competitiveness available to test the Steel’s roster on gameday.

A major factor in the decision will be the expenses, and the only information we have comes from a Jay Sugarman comment last season, that the overall soccer operation is not generating profit sufficient for any to be taken out for non-soccer purposes. Reinvestment remains — and will remain — the operation’s standard mode of operation.

It is hard to imagine Stewart advocating reducing the Steel’s competitive level, as a clear benefit of division two is better referees. If Stewart went to bat to preserve pitch quality for his players last year over lacrosse, he will very probably do so for whistle quality when the time comes.

Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke has not advocated reducing the Steel’s competitive level, as he stated earlier this year that “Pressure creates diamonds.”

Can a player development side win?

Producing a winner on the pitch should sell tickets in the Lehigh Valley. The Iron Pigs and Phantoms make it as businesses, so a winning Steel team should make it as well. Logic suggests that excellence from a player development side virtually guarantees the side will be broken up, however, so winning will be episodic rather than sustained, as in all minor leagues.

The eye tests for the 2017 Bethlehem Steel against Rochester, Cincinnati and Harrisburg hint towards winning.

Being told to start sides that have never practiced together handicaps the Steel considerably. The side imposed on the Rochester game by the Union’s short-term needs was not as coordinated and polished as that was presented a week earlier against a tougher opponent, the Union itself.

For the next week against Cincinnati, Burke knew his lineup 24 hours in advance. Team cohesion seemed better, even though Adam Najem’s passes were perfectly weighted but too far in front in the first two or three minutes. The organization knowing the Steel’s starters in advance of game day – when possible — is an important positive development.

The side that took the pitch on against Cincinnati would win regularly in the USL. But a key Steel player (Jack Elliott) started the next game for the Union, successfully, so the particular side’s reappearance is unlikely, at least until Josh Yaro heals.

A different group took the field at Harrisburg on Saturday night. An unexpected absence and a start at defensive center mid that is not prominent in the player’s recent professional experience were two important differences. The new lineup fell quickly behind, but fought back bravely.

The spirited mentality that appeared in the two 3-2 losses is a credit to both technical staff and players although youth and inexperience in the net cost them deserved single points.

Brendan Burke

In addition to the Steel developing players, they are also developing an improving second year head coach.

Post-game press conferences, public relations events, and being an organization public face are all off-pitch skills Burke continues to learn. And there are growing on-pitch decision-making skills as well:

  • PSP applauds the boldness of the Seku Conneh-Cory Burke risk taken to shake up the opener with Rochester. The first 10 minutes of the second half were better but did not shake the Rhinos out of their comfort zone. The belief that the coach had in his own players changed the game.
  • Correctly judging the fundamental thrust of the Cincinnati attack and setting forth a lineup designed to cope is likewise to his credit. The pace available all along the Bethlehem back line due to Auston Trusty pairing with Mark McKenzie allowed a high line, which in turn resulted in a compact defense that prevented the Cincinnati midfield from finding green space “in behind” on the Steel flanks.
  • Correctly sensing that starting City Islanders’ defender Travis Brent’s injury at the end of the first half presented an opportunity Saturday night is also to his credit. Chris Nanco came on for Najem at the hour, since Najem had actually played briefly for the Union the night before. The Canadian middie’s pace was decisive immediately, as it allowed him to serve Seku Conneh from the flank for a shot that missed wide, and then allowed him to outrun defenders to receive a header from Conneh down the middle to equalize, all within five minutes.
  • Center back Hugh Roberts was forced to start as a defensive center mid against Harrisburg, and he did so with clearly mixed results.  But Harrisburg’s striker would have eaten the more experienced but smaller alternative as lunch meat, as he ate two Union loanee center backs last season.

Risk taking is philosophically encouraged by player development, but each of these risks was well-judged and three were quite successful. In this season’s first three games, bringing his own Steel players off the bench has allowed Burke to change two in his favor. Last year, his bench did not do that so credit him and his staff for selection, development and use.

Dropping back to division three might affect Burke’s view of his future professional development opportunities. Losing him would not be a positive outcome.

The answer

The choice may not come down to on-field issues or even the Union. USL is operating as a provisional Division 2 league this year, along with NASL, thanks to a waiver from U.S. Soccer. Some teams may fall short on coaching licenses, field dimensions, stadium sizes or other requirements, as that has been the case in the past. It’s not clear that Bethlehem is one of those teams, but they could be, as Goodman Stadium was at one point 10 yards shorter than ideal.

Further, independent and successful second division clubs like Cincinnati or Sacramento may not want to play against MLS reserve sides that aren’t filling their stadiums, such as the very good New York Red Bulls II side that plays before mostly empty seats, or sending out legitimately competitive clubs, such as the USL side Montreal fielded last year before folding it at season’s end.

But if Philadelphia and Bethlehem have a choice, the answer it simple:

Creating diamonds to play on the pitch is the whole point. Do not reduce the pressure if you can help it.

6 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Any team directly affiliated with and MLS franchise IMO should be a DIII team.
    .
    There are enough NASL and USL teams to form a proper DII.

    • Agree 100%. I really hope this country can build a legitimate, independent 2nd Division. There’s a reason people drastically prefer college basketball and football to minor league baseball, those teams are in it primarily to win for their fans and represent the city/state/school.

  2. There are market size (stadium, avg attendance) issues that I’m pretty sure preclude the Steel from Div II status. I’d love to see some sort of merger or opening that would create real divisions here so the best USL teams can go head to head with the bigger NASL clubs in a competition outside of the Open Cup. Not holding my breath.

    • Re: market size – “At least 75 percent of the league’s teams must play in metropolitan markets of at least 750,000 persons.”

      Re: attendance: “All league stadiums must have a minimum seating capacity of 5,000.”

      No actual attendance requirement. They meet the market size (821,173 in 2010 census) and stadium size requirement.

    • Hi Pete, sorry to get to this late.
      .
      Last winter during the not quite death throes of NASL I looked up all those requirements for D2. There was a 2015 article that had them. Bethlehem meets all save field length. And theirs is a bigger field than MLS’s Yankee Stadium because it is regulation width.
      .
      You are very correct that attendance is poor, but no poorer than NY Red Bull’s 2’spathetic handfuls. Access to the NY market will trump most other considerations for USL one suspects cynically. NYCFC may have an affiliation for 2017. They did in 2016 but it was announced late and cynically I suspect only because they may be required to have one.
      .
      If they borrowed best practices from City Islanders to draw slightly better crowds, things might improve.

      In Harrisburg fans came onto the pitch regularly after games to meet players and get autographs when they were in the original substandard facility. The excitement of the little kids was infectious. The happiness clearly rubbed off on the players. Yes, it’s a Carny trick. So what? The paying customers had fun. The club turned low attendance into a virtue.

      And there were other things. I have no idea what is allowed now at FNB field. Hopkins MD would know.

  3. *Pro/rel comment*

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