Competing in the United Soccer League, one of the most prominent Division II professional soccer leagues in the world, affords the opportunity for clubs to learn and compete at a high level. For Bethlehem Steel FC, the club’s first season provided numerous learning opportunities. The grown and development, one of the top priorities of Steel FC paid off in 2017 and wasn’t limited to just the athletes on the field.
“I’d definitely say that I developed as a coach between year one and year two,” Bethlehem Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke said. “There are incredibly difficult projects and you saw a lot of them out in the West not at the standard that they’d require for themselves. You’re living on a razor’s edge when you operate this way so the learning curve was steep but I think myself and the whole staff adapted quickly in a short amount of time.”
In the first season, Burke and his staff managed 35 different players (including four goalkeepers) that produced 29 different starting lineups in 30 matches. While the club battled but came up short in its quest to make the USL Cup Playoffs in its first season of existence, 2016 laid a foundation that provided a foundation for 2017.
This past season, the group included more players (41) and even more members of the Philadelphia Union Academy. With so many moving pieces, Burke and his staff stressed the importance of communication to keep all the players informed and prepared for the upcoming matches.
“We managed the player movement really well this year,” Burke said. “We were very open and communicated as early in the week that we possibly could with everyone involved. We probably had a few mistakes when you have games coming up quickly for both teams but we made a huge effort to keep everyone in the loop all the time. I think it helped our guys stay focused when they were asked to sit out and that was something we set out to accomplish in 2017 and I think we did that.”
With the added communication, Steel FC saw the largest leap in the USL’s Eastern Conference, increasing its points total by 16 points and making the playoffs. Burke said that the progress made this season will only help the club further down the line.
“We’re all happy with the progress that we made this season, it was a big step forward in terms of the number of young players that we had involved but also the production that we got from the team as a whole," Burke said. "From the staff all the way down to players that contributed only a few matches, I thought everyone was on the same page and we’re a good case study of how a system based approach can translate. One of the most difficult jumps a player can make is going from the Academy to a professional environment and they’re doing it really well and that is evident by the guys that came through that were 16, 17 and 18 years old this year.”
One of the biggest changes between 2016 and 2017 was the team’s mentality according to Burke.
“I think that the fear was gone,” Burke said. “It sounds cliché but I said it a lot during the season but I could see it in the guys and our staff in the way that we prepared week in and week out. There was a trust flowing through the group. We knew as a staff what we had to do and the players trusted us and each other. Once that positive energy starts to flow, the group went in the right direction and once you get that, it’s hard to lose that momentum and I don’t think we did this year.”
2017 saw the club rack up 12 wins, including six victories away from Goodman Stadium along with numerous records established.
“One way you can see our team’s growth was how the season ended,” Burke said. “Our season didn’t end the way we wanted it to but if you had put us in that situation last year, we’d stayed in our half of the field and just tried to stay in the game as long as possible with Louisville. Maybe that would have been the right approach but this year we were able to accomplish a lot of things because we were never tentative. We got burned out there for not being tentative but that’s what I told the guys to do at halftime, not to hesitate because their goals came on set pieces or broken plays. I told the guys to go after it and do what we had done all year and ultimately that was our season. We were fearless for most of the season but when we showed those tentative moments similar to last season, then we got burned.”
Given the giant steps made between 2016 and 2017, the future is looking quite bright for Steel FC as it prepares for 2018.