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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Friday, October 30, 2015

Forging Steel: What a Brendan Burke-led Bethlehem could look like

Bethlehem Steel FC coach Brendan Burke, center,
flanked by Union head coach Jim Curtin and minority owner Richie Graham
at an introductory press conference Thursday, has some big ideas how to grow
the Union's new USL squad.
The two most important pieces of the Philadelphia Union’s new USL team – the name and the coach – fell into place this week. Now the task laid at the feet of Union coach Jim Curtin, his Bethlehem Steel counterpart Brendan Burke and (eventually) sporting director Earnie Stewart becomes stocking a roster to compete in USL and boost the depth of talent available to the Union.

Burke seemed eager to go about that task, and offered several major hints about what that will look like Thursday at his inaugural press conference. Here are three non-contiguous quotes:
“I think it’s important to have a veteran core. There will be some guys in the 25-28 age range on this team. They need to be leaders by example. They need to be guys who’ve won in this league. … Winning is a part of the development. And in order to do that, you need a proven commodity. There are going to be players coming down from the first team so we know we’re going to get excellent help and support and be able to support those players with the minutes they need. …

“There’s going to be a lot of players over the next few months that I’ve coached in the past that are going to be hopefully reaching out and coming home as well, and I think the relationship with our first-team players was an important part of the process for me in deciding whether or not this was going to be the perfect opportunity, and that’s what I think this is. ...

“I think you’ll see some of our guys in the coming weeks and months possibly sign with Bethlehem right out of the Academy.”
That’s a lot to break down, so here goes:

First, the question of how many players a USL team requires. You’ve got 28 on the MLS roster, only 18 of whom can play every week. Conservatively, that leaves four to six to use in USL weekly.

Then there are Union Academy players. In addition to those that will sign with Bethlehem as Burke alluded to, others will play there without affecting their amateur statuses, those bound for college who’ll get an experience akin to what Reading and the PDL provide on a week-to-week basis without the summer-long commitment.

In terms of logistics, how many players are we looking at? Let’s view examples from other “USL 2” teams. New York Red Bulls II’s roster includes 17 players not on the first-team roster. Montreal Impact 2 is at the high end with 20 in USL (though with 19 of its USL players counting the Impact Academy as their previous team, it’s unclear how many are pro contracts and how many are still academy players). LA Galaxy II, in many ways the trailblazer for this model, has 16 players on its USL roster not on the MLS roster.

That’s a modest task to compile. Consider the players already in place: Dzenan Catic, Eric Bird, Jimmy McLaughlin and Raymond Lee (whom Curtin has stated several times the team is keeping tabs on after releasing him in August) are prefect USL players, and they’ll likely be joined by a handful of 2016 draft picks. Established Union players like Zach Pfeffer and Leo Fernandes can get minutes on weeks where they’re not selected for MLS games.

Then there are academy players who regularly train with the team and don’t appear to have a college destination picked (Yosef Samuel and Derrick Jones Amaniampong spring to mind immediately). The Union have given long looks to USL veterans Onua Thomas Obasi and Ken Tribbett, who played last year with Rochester and Harrisburg City, respectively. Those guys check several boxes: “the 25-28 age range … leaders by example … guys who’ve won in this league”, in Burke’s words.

What’s really intriguing is the line about players Burke has coached in the past launching an impromptu Reading United reunion. Given that club’s reputation as one of the premier generators of talent in the Northeast, Burke pursuing that could serve the club well.

Since 2011, I count 32 players from Reading United picked in the SuperDraft and Supplemental Draft, including 14 first-rounders and 21 in the first two rounds. Three of those – Andrew Wenger, CJ Sapong and Ray Gaddis – are on the Union, while Pedro Ribeiro moved to Orlando City in the expansion draft last year after the Union picked him.

Burke opens the door on plenty of speculation about players who might want to be reunite with an old coach. Ben Sweat was once a hot prospect who didn’t flourish in Columbus and landed in NASL. Jimmy Ockford is a Pennsylvania guy struggling to make headway in Seattle, which is the same story for Damion Lowe, and the club has had a good track record with Jamaicans. What about Oumar Ballo? Or Kadeem Dacres? Could Burke unlock the potential in one of those hidden gems? Let's not forget Burke's deep connection to the soccer ranks through his two years at Northeastern (no, a Don Anding reunion isn't in the offing), and whatever you may think about the diminishing returns of the college game and draft, having a coach so attuned to those challenges is beneficial.

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November 19, 2015 at 7:52 AM 

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