In case you missed it, a third major, minor-league affiliate arrived in the Lehigh Valley this past year. Bethlehem Steel Football Club, the USL affiliate of the Philadelphia Union, began play this past spring at Goodman Stadium on the campus of Lehigh University. Somewhat different from our IronPigs (Phillies) and Phantoms (Flyers), the Steel FC is wholly owned by the Union, with all facets of the organization run through the parent club at their Chester location near Talen Energy Stadium. This was a challenge for the team, making it more difficult for them to become part of the local community–something we wrote about here right away as the season was unfolding.
There were other challenges, too. Some were mostly unavoidable:
- The weather was challenging on many game days
- The game times were difficult–trying to balance afternoon soccer with other weekend commitments due to lack of lights at the stadium.
- The selection of food and beverages was lacking–although they did well to add a small beer stand.
- The game-day atmosphere could have been better.
- The field became more challenging with the advent of football season.
- Lehigh University isn’t terribly convenient to much of the Lehigh Valley, as much as Coca Cola Park and the PPL Center are. Parking was often haphazard and confusing.
There were challenges on the field, too. With the Union mostly concerned with the product on the field in Chester, they weren’t always thinking about how they were running their minor league affiliate, in its first ever season. A mixture of a small squad of pedestrian USL players was supplemented by a couple young Union-academy prospects and a varying amount of MLS backups and rehabs who needed field time and touches on the ball. This created an ever-changing lineup and inconsistent quality of play. It also created a barrier for fans who wanted to follow the team and cheer for the individual players, because the roster and lineup were never available until about an hour prior to the game. Liberal substitution rules in the USL created a fluctuating lineup during the games, too–although I hear that rule may change.
In the end, the Union organization will need to provide better administrative support for the minor league club, with more community involvement and perhaps local staff to support and promote the team. On game days, they would do well to try to create a more carnival-like soccer atmosphere with a selection of pre-game activities, maybe some live music, and perhaps an expansion of post-game festivities as well. Most families and fans who will pay to see professional soccer have also played the sport at least to some degree. And, hey, everyone likes to kick a ball around. They should build on that.
They had food trucks there on site a few times and to varying quantity and quality–I think they should try to expand on that as well, even if they have to strong-arm Lehigh into allowing it or taking a smaller cut of the profits.
From a fan perspective, most youth soccer leagues will play on Saturday OR Sunday in a given season. So, a mixture of Saturday and Sunday games will assure that those teams with a Sunday game schedule will be available for some of the Saturday games, and vice-versa. Perhaps earlier in the season when the weather is cooler, try for some 1PM kickoffs, and then later push to 4PM or even 4:30–especially on Sundays when the IronPigs are home and starting at 1:35PM. Mid-week games are going to be tough, but scheduling them around the Lehigh soccer camps and/or holiday weeks might give them a slight advantage.
On the field, the Union really need to decide how they want to run the team. The piece-meal mixture of the past season could certainly continue, but I don’t think it will be successful at the gate long-term. And, if they don’t care about the gate then they should just move the team down to Chester as Union II.
If development is of the utmost importance then building around almost-USL-ready prospects would seem to be the way to go. Even if the team does poorly, getting to see the growth and development of more than just one or two guys a smattering of times, will still be worth watching if the lineup is rather consistent. Otherwise, they’ll need to either provide the team with better quality USL-level talent, or better quantity, or both, unless they can make a more consistent pattern of assigning MLS players to the team. And, I don’t suppose there’s a way to petition the USL for better quality referees, is there?
From the Steel FC media department, here’s a post-season Q&A with Coach Burke–although he doesn’t really go into the challenges of fielding a consistent lineup with such a small core of USL players, as he has in some other interviews I’ve read:
Head Coach Brendan Burke reflects on Bethlehem Steel FC inaugural season
Burke opens up on taking the helm this season and his favorite moments from 2016
A year has come and gone since Bethlehem Steel FC was announced. In that year, a club was assembled, trained and managed by head coach Brendan Burke. While the off-season training programs are taking place at the newly named Power Training Complex alongside Philadelphia Union, Burke sat down to talk about what the past year has been like and what he and his staff have gained from the experiences of 2016.
On Oct. 29, 2015, you were named the first head coach for Bethlehem Steel FC. In one year you have helped build a roster from the ground up and established the foundation for a squad in the United Soccer League. What has it been like?
Brendan Burke: It has been a very rewarding experience to this point. Very much a learning process as well, for me and the players, as we established ourselves as a development club. I’ve really enjoyed the unique challenges that the league and our internal goals present.
Let’s go back to your introductory press conference for a moment. You talked about the club introduction video and how you wanted to start the season 10 minutes after leaving the room. How did you pass along that passion to the squad and to your staff?
BB: I don’t think that took long at all, finding a group of motivated staff and players was my first task and I think everyone displayed that same level of passion throughout the season, even when things were difficult in the second half of the year. We kept pushing most games and it was a feeling that will only motivate us more this offseason.
So you accept the job, what was the first thing you had to do after the press conference?
BB: Started to build out our training plan for the year and communicate internally with the rest of the technical staff to determine our objectives and which players were going to be the ones that might benefit the most from our project.
Talk about the process of building a club literally from the ground up? Was it a thrill to know you were getting to find players for your team instead of inheriting players or was a scary starting from scratch?
BB: I think it was fun. It gave us an opportunity to take a lot of chances on guys at various stages of their careers, all of which we thought might have a shot for one reason or another to make it.
What was some advice you got upon starting the journey of Bethlehem Steel?
BB: To remember to enjoy the day to day process and keep in mind that I am a very young coach and that this experience would be very valuable to me and the club in the years to come.
After building the team and concluding preseason, Steel FC opened the season on the road at Montreal. What was that day like for you and the players?
BB: That was a proud day. That was the last thing that I said to the players before we walked on the field, that I was proud to walk out with the team that we were putting on the field that night. I told them that some of them were going to go on to have big years; Fabian Herbers and Josh Yaro immediately come to mind. That was one of the strongest teams we put on the field all year and the performance matched the occasion. The first game in the franchise’s history was a win and it is great to know that that will never change.
What was your favorite moment from this past year?
BB: My favorite moment from this year was our game in Charlotte, the group was in a really good state of mind at that point in the season and road wins are really hard to come by. We won 1-0 that night and it was a good display of the type of mentality and performance that we are always chasing a very complete performance. I remember our bus driver Joe got lost at least three times, it might have even been four before we got more than ten minutes from the stadium and we had a nine hour drive to get home after that night but the mood on the bus was so good and lighthearted that everyone was just hysterically laughing at the situation at the time.
One of your biggest triumphs you like to mention this season was the progression of Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty. When we speak next season, how many more successes do you anticipate having both player developmental wise and then overall for the team?
BB: Those types of success stories don’t come easily and those guys worked hard and are still working extremely hard to continue progressing. It’s difficult to say if we will have one or two more this year but if we can keep up that rate I have to say everyone involved would be really happy with the project. That rate of success is certainly our goal but so much rides on the mentality and commitment of our young players to push through the difficult transition period of amateur to pro.
Year one is now in the rear view mirror and these last few weeks have been full of news. The USL crowned its champion last week and then two new clubs, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury joined the league as well. What do you think of the overall state of the league and how does that help you attract players?
BB: It is a really exciting time to be part of the league, with big crowds out in a lot of the cities we travel to and a number of storied franchises like Tampa and Rochester where the soccer history is so rich to compete against with our young guys. It feels like an explosion of growth and interest is swirling around the league, it is a fun thing to be a part of.
One last question for you Brendan. For the past month, the team has been together practicing together and preparing for next year already. What can you tell up about the offseason program that you and your staff are doing and how big will that plan impact what fans see next season?
BB: This offseason training will already leave us in a much better position than we were last year because we can build so much time and teaching into the development of our younger guys. Individual development plans and exposure to first team players staff and training is a big part of what we are trying to accomplish this offseason as we continue to fine tune and apply the messages that our first team is receiving to our USL and academy players, everything from playing style to the individual technical level.
See you at the stadium. In the end, I did renew my tickets. I like my seats and although I missed a ton of games for a variety of reasons, I always had a good time when I went down there. I look forward to seeing them grow in year two.
cover photo by Jack Mitroka