Press conference notes / USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

Coach credits “continuity” for recent Steel success

photo courtesy Bethlehem Steel

Not all area soccer fans following the Philadelphia Union have noticed that the club’s fully professional affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC, has been playing very well recently.

The Steel won three consecutive games on the road, taking nine points out of nine from St. Louis, New York Red Bulls II, and Harrisburg City Islanders. And they are undefeated in their last five, 4-0-1. They currently lie fourth in the eastern conference table.

The player development side and continuity

A week ago, during head coach Brendan Burke’s media conference call, he was asked how he accounted for the success. After searching thoughtfully for an answer, he cited “continuity.”

His explanation made sense, and we will detail it in a moment.

But first, reflect on the coach’s remarkable statement. He used the word “continuity,” when only twice in his club’s entire 44-game existence has he put out the exact same lineup.

If continuity does not mean exact sameness, what does it mean?

His thoughtful, perceptive answer focused on unity among the two separate practice units, the Union and the Steel.

“Unity” explained

Coach’s explanation of that unity coalesces around two themes.

First, the attitude of the first-team players sent to the farm for game minutes is positive. They do not sulk at the seeming demotion. Instead, the ethos this season is to seize the opportunity, an opportunity to make a case that they should be in the Union’s starting eleven.

Reinforcing that attitude is — we infer — their assessment of Burke and his technical staff and their respect for the quality of play of the Steel squad in general. Guessing from Burke’s words, Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin have been overtly reinforcing the unity. Burke stated their responsibility for the attitude’s existence twice.

Backing up the first-team leaders assertions have been the Steel’s performances in intrasquad scrimmages. We saw and reported one at the end of the Steel’s preseason, and have heard tell of at least one other.

The concrete visual March 25 was Haris Medunjanin seeking out Steel players to thank them and congratulate them after the “game” at Talen Energy Stadium. And Medunjanin was by no means alone in so doing. Older brothers, so to speak, were appreciative of younger brothers and showed it. The first team had had to fight back from a goal down to win.

That vignette leads directly to coach Burke’s second theme while explaining the unity of the two squads.

The Steel are good enough this year to earn the respect of the Union’s players, respect for their technical skills, their tactical understanding, and their competitive intensity. Burke cited his captain, James Chambers, as an example of all three.

Direct experience that playing with the lower team will not degrade their games gives credibility to “not demotion but opportunity.” Walter Restrepo sulking out on the left wing during the Steel scrimmage against Georgetown on the morning of the Union’s 2016 home opener contrasts powerfully with the enthusiastic involvement of Keegan Rosenberry in his USL debut a week ago yesterday against Harrisburg.

A week ago the day before, tuning up for that Harrisburg win, the mixed practice of first-teamers and Steel men was high-spirited, confident and united. Everybody knows everybody, and all were easy with each other on the pitch. Success was praised, and error was teased in high spirits. No one differentiated anyone according to which league validated the player’s contract. The feeling observed from the sideline was exactly like a regular Steel practice.

If PSP’s occasional Steel practice attendance is indicative, Earnie Stewart also attends when he can and he is frequently present for Steel home games. Once at a Union open practice and once at a Steel one, we have seen the sporting director deep in conversation with a player on the sidelines. He pays attention, and the players know it.

Player development involves growing more than just players.

Last year coach Burke’s concept of continuity as derived from his comments was straightforward and conventional. We are guessing it reflected his past experiences coaching, from seasons whose game-schedules might have been shorter than the professionals.

But in a 32-game season continuity cannot be defined as game–to-game congruency the way it might in a season half or two-thirds as long.

Just as his concept of his second-year roster displays greater flexibility in 2017 while maintaining high quality, so his concept of continuity has become more nuanced and subtle – as has ours – transcending the limitations of exact sameness.

4 Comments

  1. Tim, I always appreciate your articles and coverage of the Steel. They don’t always get a lot of comments but I wanted to let you know your work is appreciated. Keep the good stuff coming.

  2. Tim Jones says:

    Appreciated , gentlemen, much.
    .
    The group seems to enjoy each other and are fun to watch practice upon occasion when I can get there after surviving the construction on the Conchester Highway.
    .
    Coach does tease me about being a fair-weather practice watcher!

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