Analysis / USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

Brandon Allen leaves the Steel for Nashville

Photo Steel Communications

The Bethlehem Steel announced Tuesday that for an undisclosed fee they have transferred striker Brandon Allen to USL counterparts — and future MLS side — Nashville SC.

Not a good fit

Allen v Richmond

Most recently, Allen did not start in Charleston, did not dress for the Red Bulls 2 game, and did not even travel to Indiana.

Allen is a polished offensive player who has done his most productive past work in the system in which he grew up, New York’s, while receiving consistent quality service from familiar teammates.

The gaudy numbers from his New York career include several penalty kicks. But he showed in his opening Steel game against Richmond that he can maximize the results of his athleticism through both finesse and strength. He is silky smooth, powerful, poised, and highly intelligent when in possession of the ball. In the right “fit” he remains a valuable asset, as Nashville seems to realize.

He does not play with what coach Brendan Burke calls Cory Burke’s “edge,” the predatory, almost-unrestrained aggression that both wins the ball and earns red cards. Nor does Allen provide Aidan Apodaca’s relentless, combative bowling-ball speed, a Danny Cruz with better feet. Allen’s personality seems more emotionally restrained. For example, he receives shoulder charges from defenders while maintaining possession easily, but his own do not knock his markers flat.

USL is changing

Whether Allen’s own success — he was the spearhead for New York Red Bulls 2 when they won the USL double in 2016 as the first player development side to do so — has made Eastern Conference members revise their approaches to playing the game is an unanswerable question because there are larger forces at work — expansion, fulfilling division 2 status, and rapid changing above in MLS.

For example, Pittsburgh Riverhounds owner Tuffy Schellenberger this season doubled down on the old USL way of playing: defend first, score on a counter or a free kick, and accumulate points by avoiding defeat rather than committing all-out to victory.  He hired the master of that strategy as his head coach and has given him munificent resources to implement it.

But other teams have followed the adage “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” and have become faster with higher defensive restraining lines and high pressure all over the field, a la Allen’s 2016 Red Bulls 2 team. After beating New York midweek by turning Red Bulls’ tactical approach into a weakness, Steel head coach Brendan Burke then promptly used the approach itself to take the season’s first away win  from Indy Eleven three days later.

Allen is not especially suited to the new approach. The quality of the rest of the Red Bulls 2 championship team masked his weaknesses defensively.

Union strikers

Under Jim Curtin – the trade for C. J. Sapong came before Earnie Stewart came on board, at least officially – Keystone Sports’ striker template has emphasized offensive and defensive elite athleticism, together with a predatory mentality on both sides of the ball. Conor Casey may have helped the Union’s head man win his job, but he was not the Villanova alum’s ideal striker as he is too slow defensively.

A half-million dollar salary suggests that C. J. Sapong, when rested and healthy with his shooting boots on, is closer to that ideal.  And Game of Thrones dire wolf Cory Burke may be getting there on the offensive side of the ball. Jay Simpson apparently is erased.

Right now, Allen is not as versatile as Cory Burke.  He does not check Burke’s defense or athleticism boxes and lies fourth on the depth chart (Simpson has the MLS contract Allen wants) with little immediate prospect of advancement.  PSP knows from a January phone interview that Allen urgently wants another MLS opportunity.

Nashville

Brandon Allen remains an asset with value, and the Keystone organization is a business.  We do not know who talked to whom first among Allen’s people, the Steel and Nashville. All three could have been first to the phone.

With a slower paced, lower-pressure side bunkered in to strike on the counter, Allen can get goals in the tight spaces of a packed box. He is proven to score if the rest of the team gets him the ball there.  He will fit with other teams using compatible approaches, and Nashville wants what he offers.

From Allen’s perspective, the Music City club has what he needs, both a chance to refurbish his USL lustre and a future shot at an MLS roster.

Postscript: A good week

During a quieter week, this point would stand alone as its own column.

Last Wednesday against New York Red Bulls 2, who similarly to the Steel are a player development side dedicated to a system-wide single template from earliest academy through to the first team, Steel head coach Brendan Burke devised a tactical plan that transformed the Red Bulls’ great strength, high pressure all over the field, into a major tactical weakness. He taught his players to executes plan, and they beat Red Bulls using a fast “big switch” into open space on the opposite channel for a 3-0 clean sheet.

Then, on Saturday in Indianapolis, Burke used New York-style high pressure all over the pitch to deny Indy time and space and create turnovers against the Eleven for a 2-1 win.

Full marks to coach Burke and assistant coach Steve Hogan for the ideas and the instruction, and full marks to the players for executing both plans well. The Steel took 6 points from 3 games in 8 days. Two games were on the road, and all three were against opponents lying higher in the table at the time. Overall they have now won three of their last four as they lie 5th in the table preparing for an improving Ottawa squad this coming Friday.

On a final note, Fabian Herbers was named to the USL Team of the Week for his goal against Red Bulls 2 and his assist against Indy Eleven, while Adam Najem earned recognition on the second team.

14 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    excellent work, Tim.

  2. I suppose the implication of that postscript is that if the Union could implement the same strategy against the pink cows first team with the same result?
    Should the U bring in Burke to do it or can Oz “Pay no attention to that man behind the” Curtin do it? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWyCCJ6B2WE

  3. All understandable and well put, but it also makes you wonder why Allen was signed in the first place. Perhaps the Steel’s identity was still malleable back in January and there was theoretically a place for him. Perhaps an insurance policy if Apodaca underperformed. Makes you wonder..

    Also, I worry about depth. If Cory Burke continues to play with the Union, will he continue to play down with the Steel? Bethlehem only has Burke and Apodaca. If Apodaca gets injured or just needs a rest, what will the Steel do?

    • Tim Jones says:

      Discussed that issue today at practice with various people, primarily assistant coach Steve Hogan since coach Burke was deemed essential for somebody’s meeting and was unavailable.
      .
      Chris Nanco has played striker in the past — 2017 for sure, don’t remember without confirming for this year — and Presents the same need for subtle tactical adjustment that Apodaca does, shortness.
      .
      Jeremy Rafanello, as senior at the Academy committed to Penn State and graduating on June 8 May also be in the mix for striker depth. He was mentioned directly by name a Steel insider.
      .
      You are correct that there is no traditional English-style number 9 available after Burke, given the invisibility of Jay Simpson. Of course in a catastrophic emergency Simpson might have to become visible, but only in that circumstance given his age.

    • Maybe Allen was seen as an undervalued asset. With Apodaca unproven?

      Didn’t we just pay him more then RB2?

      If so appears to be a win for the front office if we got anything for him.

  4. Herbers would be the backup, would be my guess

  5. When you say such nice things about Burke it gets me giddy Tim. Then I remember Curtin is the Union’s coach. Then I also remember the Union coaching tree and pray to God Brendan Burke is the ONE golden nugget. He really seems to be. Damn if he doesn’t do more with less.

    • Tim Jones says:

      Don’t get giddy.
      .
      In my very good chat with coach Hogan, I made reference to the noticeable, stark difference in speed of play and therefore of mental recognition speed that I notice every time I watch the Union Saturday night live and then the Steel Sunday afternoon live.
      .
      There’s a big difference between the two levels.
      .
      Additionally, my chat with Hogan reinforced that coach Burke has input into his starting lineup’s composition, but not final control. Coach Hogan was clear in discussing a non-striker context that “the top’” as he sometimes put it, determines the starting lineup. Once the game taps off, Coach Burke has full discretion, he Burke has said earlier, save for medical staff restrictions on rehab minutes.
      .
      Finally, remember that Curtin shifts C.J. to flank mid at the end of games because of his defense.
      .
      In my opinion, and as far as I know nobody else’s, the handwriting was on the wall for Brandon Allen when he did not earn an invitation to Florida the way Olivier Mbaizo did. He had been practicing with the first team since his signing prior to the official opening of Steel practice the day the first team flew south.
      .
      Last point. Allen was released by Red Bull’s and so may well have been a free transfer in terms of paying any other club. He has said other clubs were interested but that the Steel were more so, a point that might mean they paid a higher signing bonus. That idea is purest guessing.
      .
      Whether they paid him a signing bonus or not, they just sold him on. It is quite possible they realized a profit from selling on an asset, for what little my guessing may be worth. If they thought they could do that after taking a look for themselves, that course of action makes excellent business sense to this non-businessman.

      • ” Coach Hogan was clear in discussing a non-striker context that “the top’” as he sometimes put it, determines the starting lineup.”

        That is interesting from an Earnie context and if he/they are doing anything across the group to improve assets/players. They missed on Simpson and maybe Alberg. But you hit on a couple of USL signings becoming MLS level or + value sales or get 1 academy players to become MLS players a year then that has to be a win for the front office.

        Steel to Union. What is reasonable and what represents a competive advantage. Feels like if you generate 1 MLS starter and 1 bench a year from academy or USL signings then that is a win. If we judge Steel at that then I think it has to be a success. Or is our expectation higher?

      • Tim Jones says:

        What their expectations are is not something I would ever expect to hear.
        .
        And it allows us outsiders to speculate freely and imaginatively, unfettered by such pesky things as facts!

      • Awesome work Tim!! Thanks!

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