When Bethlehem Steel FC took to the field for its inaugural season in 2016, the goal was to build a strong foundation upon which the club could build a solid organization for seasons to come. From the outside, that might not have seemed to have happened, but from head coach Brendan Burke’s perspective, it sure did.
Immediately following the final whistle, on Sept. 25, at Goodman Stadium on the campus of Lehigh University, Burke retired to his office and began to assess the season. He wanted to examine everything and determine if he and his staff had created the solid building block they had toiled through the past nine months to form, despite failing to qualify for the USL Playoffs.
Behind the club were 30 regular season games totaling a possible 29,700 minutes available for Burke to assign. For Burke, his pool for player selection was something unique. Not only did he have Steel FC rostered players, but also players from Philadelphia Union and up-and-coming stars in the Philadelphia Union Academy. Embracing Union sporting director Earnie Stewart’s message of establishing a culture and pathway to the first team, Steel FC played a major role in that ‘path to the pros’ by giving minutes and experience to young players with the opportunity to grow and mature. With Steel FC battling for a spot in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, the minutes came with added pressure. While the results didn’t go Steel FC’s way, Burke said the experience is something that will pay off for the future.
“We had a number of Union Academy players and other young guys see a ton of minutes down the stretch,” Burke said. “Although it didn't translate to results this year, there were some very good performances in there and they know exactly what is required now going forward.”
Overall, 35 different players appeared for Steel FC last year. While the number is higher than at many other clubs, it overshadows the true foundation that Burke had built. Of the 29,700 minutes, nearly 68 percent of the game action was dedicated to players under the age of 24.
“The hope is now that the production that we did get from all of those guys under the age of 24 will jump up in a significant way in 2017. They know what it is about now and soon it will be time to show that we all grew a bit through last year's experiences.”
With the breakout performances of Union Academy products Derrick Jones (19), Auston Trusty (18) and Cameroonian Eric Ayuk (19) leading the youth movement, nearly 7,800 Steel FC minutes were given to players under the age of 21. During that time, the 21 and under group accounted for 11 goals and four assists while setting the pace and taking 94 shots.
“Bringing through young players that have an opportunity to impact the first team in some capacity is one of our primary objectives and preparing them ultimately involves minutes on the field,” Burke said. “There is just no substitute for game day experience. I am glad we were able to provide so much of that for so many different young players this year.”
With the first year now behind the club, the attention has turned to 2017. With offseason training coming to an end this week and players returning home for the holidays, that foundation has been established. Experience this past season provided a new understanding of the game for the athletes. With offseason drills focused on polishing the roles of all players, 2017 is expected to be an exciting year for Bethlehem Steel FC.
To purchase your seats for the 2017 season, please call the Steel FC ticket office at 844-SteelFC.