Union Reserve and the Steel Side – Part II

A more in-depth look at how the Bethlehem Steel FC roster might be constructed, and what that means for a competitive team in the Lehigh Valley.

steel fc

der Fussballzuschauer

ALLENTOWN, PA

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With the first official competitive match in the history of Bethlehem Steel FC now less than one week away, the question of what role the new club, that will stage its home matches at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium, will be playing as the new United Soccer League affiliate of the Philadelphia Union from Major League Soccer this upcoming season must continued to be addressed … (because that is exactly the sort of thing the people associated with Noise Nation have been endeavoring for quite some time now – in other words, it’s just simply what we do).

To review, this blog has already analyzed just exactly how the Philadelphia Union interacted last term with the Harrisburg City Islanders, its USL affiliate of the past six seasons, in a previous article which can be found here :
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It is, for reasons which should be obvious, most relevant to point out that the City Islanders team, as an entity, itself, was never actually owned by the same corporation (Keystone Sports & Entertainment) that owns the Philadelphia Union. This, of course, will not be the case for fledgling Bethlehem Steel FC, who are under the same financial control as that of their MLS parent organization. Again, for the benefit of those not already aware of such details, the BSFC players will even be practicing regularly at the Union’s training complex down in Chester and so the relationship between Philadelphia and its new USL “farm club” does figure to be a close one, indeed.
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It is extremely interesting to note that in 2015 there were no less than seven Major League Soccer teams – Los Angeles Galaxy, Montreal Impact, New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders FC, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC – that wholly owned and operated ‘true’ reserve teams in the United Soccer League last season. Los Angeles Galaxy II (popularly known as Los Dos) were playing just their second season in the USL a year ago but still advanced all the way to the league playoff final before falling to the Rochester Rhinos while the other six reserve teams of MLS clubs were all making their respective debuts in the what the United States Soccer Federation recognizes to be the third tier of professional soccer here in this country. In order to get a much better understanding of what kind of overlap Bethlehem Steel FC might be able to expect with the Philadelphia Union this season, it is relevant to see how the seven MLS teams with proper reserve sides all handled their respective situations last term – and then, of course, directly compare those relationships with the way the Union dealt with the City Islanders in their final year of the working agreement with the USL club from the state capital.
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The first aspect of affiliation which will be considered here is what percentage of the Major League Soccer team’s playing staff was sent out on loan assignment to a United Soccer League club; bear in mind, of course, that although MLS teams can only keep twenty-eight players on the roster at any given point in time, sometimes players are traded away or released from the squad outright and, naturally, replacements are brought in over the course of the long season :
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35 total players on 28-man roster – Montreal Impact
34 total players on 28-man roster – Philadelphia Union
33 total players on 28-man roster – Toronto FC
33 total players on 28-man roster – Seattle Sounders
32 total players on 28-man roster – Los Angeles Galaxy
31 total players on 28-man roster – New York Red Bulls
31 total players on 28-man roster – Vancouver Whitecaps
28 total players on 28-man roster – Portland Timbers
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Players on MLS 28-man roster who appeared in USL :
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20 … Los Angeles Galaxy II
16 … Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2
14 … New York Red Bulls II
14 … Portland Timbers 2
12 … Seattle Sounders FC 2
12 … FC Montreal – (Montreal Impact)
10 … Toronto FC II
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7 … Harrisburg City Islanders – (Philadelphia Union)
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As one can easily see, more than sixty percent of all the players who had a Major League soccer contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2015 were, at some point last season, assigned to play at least one game in the United Soccer League for the team’s reserve side. Perhaps more importantly in terms of “player development”, it is very interesting to note that 16 of the 20 players with an MLS contract who appeared for Los Dos at the USL level while on loan in 2015 also played in at least one MLS game for the senior Galaxy side that same season. The bottom line for spectators like us ‘down here in the minor leagues’ is that it is reassuring to know that people who went to USL games in Carson, California, last season could honestly say they were watching a lot of quality players truly capable of reaching the pinnacle of American professional soccer. 
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As it was a year ago, three other MLS clubs – Portland Timbers, New York Red Bulls, Vancouver Whitecaps FC – also had a little more than, exactly or nearly fifty percent of their respective playing staffs turning out for the reserve side in the USL at some point last season, too. Meanwhile, less than one-quarter of all Philadelphia Union players with an MLS contract in 2015 were ever sent out on loan to the Harrisburg City Islanders. With any luck this upcoming season, Bethlehem Steel FC will definitely be receiving an amount of assistance (in the form of players on loan) which is much more consistent with the kind of help that some of the other MLS teams provide to their USL farm clubs.
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As far as the actual on-field impact that the players with an MLS contract sent out on loan had on their respective teams in the USL, the following chart lists the cumulative totals with respect to appearances including those as a substitute (ga), number of games in the starting line-up (st) as well as overall minutes played (min) :
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12,214 min – 165 ga – 138 st … Los Angeles Galaxy II
12,165 min – 149 ga – 140 st … Portland Timbers II
11,526 min – 146 ga – 141 st … New York Red Bulls II
11,282 min – 147 ga – 132 st … Vancouver Whitecaps 2
10,878 min – 145 ga – 120 st … Seattle Sounders 2
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7,241 min – 98 ga – 82 st … Toronto FC II
4,834 min – 66 ga – 59 st … FC Montreal
1,914 min – 36 ga – 18 st … Harrisburg City Islanders
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That’s Route One stuff right there, then. To be equally straight forward, on the surface it does not appear as if the Philadelphia Union were able to utilize its United Soccer League affiliate in 2015 anywhere near as effectively as other teams such as the Los Angeles Galaxy and others were in terms of keeping fringe players on the 28-man MLS roster active over the course of the long season. Again, however, it is important to remember that the Union did not enjoy the same kind of influence over the Harrisburg City Islanders’ technical staff that the Los Angeles Galaxy, Montreal Impact, New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders FC, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC had on the trainers of their USL reserve teams.
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Without a doubt, some here in the Lehigh Valley are most anxious to see how this stated policy of close cooperation between the Philadelphia Union and Bethlehem Steel FC all plays itself out in 2016. Amazingly enough, the very first player with an existing BSFC contract, former Harrisburg City Islanders centerback Ken Tribbett, has already ‘graduated’ to the MLS ranks even before the new USL team in eastern Pennsylvania has been able to play its very first official competitive game! This fascinating development only increases the anticipation of professional soccer at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium.
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Bethlehem Steel FC actually played a training game last week against Junior Lone Star from the National Premier Soccer League (fourth division according to the USSF). I, myself, can’t really recognize the match as BSFC’s very first official competitive game because Bethlehem Steel FC’s very own website announced back on February 9th that the official pre-season schedule had already been finalized with Syracuse University slated to be the historic opposition. Still, the boys at Brotherly Game have a worthwhile match report which features a graphic showing both BSFC’s line-up and formation before and after second half substitutions :
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It is interesting to read that three Bethlehem Steel FC signings who all appeared for the Philadelphia Union in the Major League Soccer club’s pre-season exhibition opener against Jacksonville Armada FC from the second division North American Soccer League roughly three weeks ago – midfielder Derrick Jones, centerback Mickey Daly and right back Ryan Richter – are all now obviously in training up north. The other midfielder under contract to BSFC who also turned out for Philadelphia in an exhibition contest down in Florida this winter, Bolu Akinyode, was on the Union’s roster for the Suncoast Invitational Tournament, but did not feature in any of the MLS club’s final four pre-season contests. The Philadelphia Union completed their exhibition schedule this past Saturday and, at present, have 26 players currently under MLS contract (not including midfielder Michael Lahoud, who has been loaned to the NASL’s New York Cosmos for the entire 2016 season).
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How many, if any, of the players who did not make the final grade for the Philadelphia Union down in Florida ultimately wind up with new USL reserve side Bethlehem Steel FC remains to be seen. The Union have already signed five of their six picks from the 2016 MLS Superdraft but third round choice Mitchell Lurie, the 6’2″ centerback from Rutgers University, is still without a contract. Might a gig with BSFC be his game plan this spring?


Categories: Bethlehem Steel FC

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4 replies

  1. First, many, many heartfelt thanks for all the work these articles represent and for making the findings public. Not only are BSFC fans beyond curious about the flow between the two rosters. We union fans are also, because that flow influences player development for the first team. Again, many thanks!
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    I would offer two observations. For me, the article at Brotherly game referenced above reporting the scrimmage between BSFC as currently being built and Lone Star FC pointed out that BSFC’s development opportunity role exists not only for players on the first team MLS roster; it also provides development opportunity to the best and the brightest in the Union Academy. USL roster rules as found in the press guide on the USL website mention five academy roster places in addition to the regular USL roster number, I think I remember.

    BSFC fans may not have noticed that on Saturday morning last at 10 AM (2/27/16) the Union and Montreal Impact held a 2 x 30 minutes scrimmage in Florida. I mention it because Bolu Akinyode started. My inferences from the way the tweet was worded were that he started at one of the two center backs, although I would not try to deposit that information in the bank yet, and that he may have played the full sixty (on that point don’t even bother to find a deposit slip).

    My second observation, based solely on observing the numbers of players on the 2015 Harrisburg City Islanders roster until after the affiliation’s termination was announced, is that the relationship had gone sour. HCI kept themselves thinner than in previous years, but there were no season-long loans in the same fashion that there had been in the previous year when John Hackworth had started out the year as head coach. For comparative purposes the Union-Islanders affiliation in 2015 should perhaps be considered somewhat anomalous. 2014 was a much more cooperative season between the two, as Jim Curtin honored all the patterns set by John Hackworth when he took over from Jon midseason.

    • Thanks again for stopping by, coach, and for taking the time to make observations. The developmental role for the top academy players/graduates is an interesting angle–and maybe an opportunity for local fans to see “top prospects”

      d.E. Deserves all the credit for this piece–it had trouble finding an audience yesterday, but I can see from web hits that local fans are starting to find it. Hopefully we can provide quality coverage of this team this season.

    • Thanks for stopping (again) to help educate us all (again), Coach.

      You bring up an EXCELLENT point about Bethlehem Steel FC being here to help with the Philadelphia Union’s player development not just in terms of senior professional players on the MLS roster who need a game for whatever reason, but in terms of providing academy (youth) team players the chance to test their skills against a higher level of competition.

      You are entirely correct about the fact that USL clubs can have five academy players on their roster on top of the normal allowable number of senior pros. I read about that rule, too – and then promptly forgot all about it so I’m glad you’ve raised the subject! Of course, BSFC used a 16-year-old and 17-year-old on the backline for their training game against Junior Lone Star and I must admit that that was a factor in my decision to not classify the 5-1 match as the first official competitive contest in team history (although the fact that JSL was only a fourth division side was not influential, just for the record).

      Now, with the benefit of having been reminded about USL regulations regarding academy players, I would be far more prepared to classify the Junior Lone Star training game last week as the first official competitive match that Bethlehem Steel FC ever played.

      While we are on the subject of academy (youth) team players, I’ve been meaning to point out to Kram and the loyal readership that, for all this speculation about how many players with an MLS contract the Philadelphia Union will be sending out on loan to the USL affiliate, the simple fact is that German first division clubs don’t really have their under-utilized players to turn out for their respective reserve sides (in the third division, or lower) that much at all. The reason is because a German first division club, if everything was entirely up to them, would want to keep an unused player competing at the first division level and even a loan assignment to a second division side would be more preferable for obvious reasons.

      By the same token, German first division clubs certainly DO use their reserve teams as an invaluable tool to help their youth team graduates transition to the upper echelon of the professional ranks. World Cup champions Philipp Lahm, Thomas Mueller and Bastian Schweinsteiger are just three examples of Bayern Munich youth team products who all spent time with Bayern Munich II in the German third division before achieving stardom with the regular first team squad in the crack Bundesliga. If the Philadelphia Union want to have an excellent youth team program and run products through Bethlehem Steel FC every year on their way to bigger and better things, that would trouble me none!

      As for the second observation with respect to the relationship between the Philadelphia Union and the Harrisburg City Islanders having gone sour, I have been inclined to believe that, too. Although the Union and City Islanders did not formally announce the impending dissolution of their affiliation until the latter half of August (in other words, a lot closer to the end as compared to the beginning of the season), I personally believe the real decision to part company was made (by whomever) long before that. One thing that was a red flag to me, aside from the comparatively low number of Union players on loan to the City Islanders, was how much lower the appearances-to-games started ratio Harrisburg’s MLS players had as compared to how the other USL ‘reserve team’ clubs utilized their MLS players.

      I should have charted how many players the Union sent the City Islanders in previous seasons, for sure.

      Great stuff, Coach, thanks.

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  1. Philadelphia Union Reserve And Bethlehem Steel FC Side – Part II | Unauthorized Bethlehem Steel FC Blog

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