Commentary / USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

Memorial Day musings

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Here are some thoughts on Bethlehem Steel, Philadelphia Union and the leagues they play in.

One league or two?

From perspectives in Philly and Bethlehem, the Western Conference of the United Soccer League might as well not exist.

The playoffs don’t even mix conferences as only in the league final does a western team really matter to fans of any Eastern Conference team.

Of the entire regular season of perhaps 500 or more games, two – Toronto FC II versus Phoenix Rising FC – have been inter-conference affairs, so far in 2017. Presumably such exceptions satisfy the inescapable mathematical demands inherent in the entire schedule’s parameters.

Separating conferences mitigates travel expenses and lodging complexity but the league’s substitution policies now ignore those issues. Must the separation continue?  Should it?

The USL is similar to baseball before interleague play. Actually, it is like baseball was before 1933 and the first All-Star game.

“Provisional status;” … Serious questions

Creating an All-Star game would depend on a predictability that remains strongly uncertain.

Five known variables will affect fully-professional, minor-league soccer’s immediate future plans in North America. A concrete waypoint is the reported review of the provisional-division-two statuses of both the United Soccer League and the North American Soccer League by the United States Soccer Federation this August.

First, has NASL found either of the following?

  • New ownership for its eighth team, the Jacksonville Armada, that is currently being operated by the league with the emergency contingency funds of the other seven owners?
  • Four other meaningful candidates for expansion to restore league numbers to the twelve mandated for the 2018 season?

Second, has USL improved either of these qualification criteria?

  • Ownerhip’s financial strengths, in the fashion of Harrisburg’s City Islanders’ recent addition?
  • Stadium improvement plans, following the lead of New York Red Bulls 2 at Montclair State?

Third, where will the failed candidates for Major League Soccer’s available expansion slots land if they do not have current homes? It is unlikely that USSF wants the new opportunities they represent to expire.

Fourth, how serious is the planned launch of the Canadian Premier League, and how will it actually impact Canadian teams currently participating in USL, or potentially NASL? Reports assume the three Canadian teams in Major League Soccer would stay there.

Finally, if, as is suggested, the Ottawa Fury leaves USL to join the CPL, would the Fury’s affiliation with the Montreal Impact continue? If the development opportunity for Impact loanees changes to a Canadian league of unknown quality, no matter how patriotic such a move might feel to the ownerships involved, would they risk it?

USL table whimsy 

Not only did Bethlehem Steel defeat Harrisburg for the first time ever, they currently lie above the playoff line in the standings table in seventh place with twelve points. “Above the line” happened fleetingly last summer.

Steel fans should exercise emotional and analytical caution as four other teams also have twelve points. The Steel lie first among them because the first tiebreaker is wins on the season, and the Steel have four while the others have three.

Another temporary standings’ quirk is that the Steel are one of five teams with four wins. They lie the lowest in the table because they have no ties among their ten results. Their fellow four-times winners have a few more points, either because they have played more games or have fewer losses and more ties.

Two clubs have clear separation at the top of the table, Charleston Battery at 23 points and Tampa Bay Rowdies at 21. Only Toronto FC II has the bad kind of separation at the bottom, lying 15th and dead last with only one win and seven points.

Of course, uneven numbers of games played renders comparative analysis moot. Nine of the fifteen eastern teams have played ten or eleven games. One, Tampa, has played twelve; and two others, nine. The outliers are Charlotte and Rochester who have only played seven. Those two have five games in hand – theoretically as many as fifteen points – on games-played leader Tampa Bay.

Next game

Sunday, June 4’s Steel game, at home to the Ottawa Fury, pits the current #7 against the current #8 in a contest that will determine who will remain above the playoff-eligible line.

The Fury travel to Toronto today for the second leg of the semifinal of the Canadian Championship. They hold a 2-1 advantage gained against a side that was primarily TFC II. It is unlikely they will avoid Toronto’s first team in the second leg, and rising to that challenge may tire them beyond the demands of an ordinary midweek match.

The Steel have no such encumbrance on their weekly preparation schedule.

A passing glance

While leaving the field last Sunday under the early evening’s full overcast at Goodman Stadium, a tiny bit of the sun was shining between the north end goal and the doorway to the Steel locker room. Earnie Stewart was effusively, volubly beaming as he congratulated the individual Steel players coming off the pitch. So not only had the Steel’s head coach wanted that win.

8 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    My word, the second series a baseball team plays in a new season now is against the other league. So interesting to me. What made baseball great were the two separate leagues IMO.
    .
    My ultimate take and hope for first division soccer in this country is Four Regions each with 20 teams that NEVER play each other outside of the Region they are in….save the qualification for Continental Champions League or US Open Cup or Another As Yet To Be Named Someday Tournament.
    Whoever finishes atop the table in a region is the Champion, whoever finishes in the top 8 in each Region qualifies for Champions League.
    .
    I lived in Portland, love the city and have adopted Timber Army as my second favorite team – someday I only hope to see Portland playing Philadelphia in a group stage or knockout round.
    .
    Anything short of this hope for first tier USA footy which likely will never have Pro/Rel— leaves me wanting.

    • League might very realistically be able to set up three regional leagues pretty soon: East, Central West — or a North, South and West. Champions League can replace the MLS cup playoffs (they’d essentially be redundancies). Supporters Shield can get ditched in favor of trophies for top teams in each conference on points. (I think that should decide each conference right now, too).

      What would be great is an opportunity to do something really different in this country with a professional sport. But it’s not going to happen for the same reason that inter-league play is a bigger thing now in MLB. Every team is going to want to sell tickets when the Sounders, NYC, Galaxy come to town.

    • Brazil kind of has this system with their leagues as each of the Brazil states has its own league where teams then qualify for the nationwide league. From listening to the BBC 5 Live’s World Football Phone-In podcast, it’s kind of a nightmare for them as it creates fixture congestion and big clubs in big cities end up competing against small town clubs that really shouldn’t be on the same field.
      .
      I don’t have as much concern about the second issue as 80 clubs in a country the size of the US should be able to be supported. The fixture congestion issue really concerns me about this concept though.
      .
      I really think the future of MLS is regional, but I’m really curious to see how the schedule will break down.
      .
      Also, I think it’s inevitable MLS is incorporated into Copa Libertadores or some newly created North & South American champions league (by 2030 at the latest is my guess). It makes too much sense and there’s too much potential money to ignore that possibility.
      .
      I’m just not sure how the schedule is going to look in the future to accommodate all of these games.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I do like the idea of joining a Copa Liberatadores and as MLS Academies grow, my hopes are a Champion’s League of the Americas for Academy teams too.
        .
        Each time I watch Bayern 9 year olds step on the field against Valencia 9 year olds my heart skips a few beats because I know we are so far behind in the competition aspect of development….

  2. John Harris says:

    I actually have come to the same conclusion – regional leagues would be much better. We are too big of a country geographically. Leverage the enormous population with regional leagues. Would be very, very interesting.
    .
    Unfortunately, I don’t see it ever happening. Perhaps the Northeast could support it with it’s population, but much of the rest of the country would not compare. Further, the big cities would want to play the big cities. Investors and fans in Dallas want to hang around other big cities, not Amarillo. Same, frankly, with Philly and say Scranton or Albany, or Harrisburg for that matter.

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Do not restrict the creativity of your thinking by using only geography as the organizing principle of your regions. Playing with other principles can be fun.
    .
    Some bright guy with a computer could set up subdivisions that approximately match the rigors of travel equally among conferences for example..
    .
    Consider the current USL. In the eastern conference for some teams, most travel is by bus. In the western conference only Los Dos versus OC Blues and Seattle versus Vancouver can seriously consider buses for getting to the match.
    .
    Consider also that the plane flight from the Riogrande Valley FC home airport to Vancouver is 2,500 miles and takes 5-6 hours.
    .
    Balancing the demands of travel equitably could be an underlying principle for conference alignment and scheduling. No eastern team head coach will be speaking to me for the foreseeable future, of course.

  4. Jim O'Leary says:

    “The USL is similar to baseball before interleague play.”

    So … better?

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Not from the standpoint of a national advertiser who wants to reach all over the country using a single vehicle.
      .
      Otherwise whether it is better or not is up to the desires of the reader.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*