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

Friday, March 25, 2016

Clear-eyed Steel ready to debut in Montreal (w/ video)

As Brendan Burke addressed the media two days before Bethlehem Steel FC plays its first USL game, the coach made abundantly clear one fact: In just four months on the job, Burke has managed to establish a more cogent ideology around his team than its seven-year-old parent club has yet uncovered.

Burke’s expectations and methodologies seem clear-cut when Steel FC debuts Friday evening at FC Montreal (7 p.m., live stream below).

Burke’s roster is sparse, comprising just 13 players after the addition of Fred as player/coach Thursday. (That’s even less populous than I surmised last fall.) There may be one or two bodies forthcoming to swell the ranks on a permanent basis. But Burke is assured in Steel’s place within the Union’s hierarchy. Instead of stuffing the roster with players just to meet quotas and artificial expectations, the guiding philosophy has been only adding players with legitimate chances of breaking into the Union’s MLS squad.

“I think we’re in great shape,” Burke said. “We’re a small but focused group. … We’ve had a number of trialists through, but I think what we found is that we’re happy keeping a smaller number of players who we really trust and who we really think have an opportunity to move through to the first team at some stage in their developments.”

Most of Steel’s roster fits that bill. Captain Ryan Richter has MLS and NASL experience. Irish midfielder James Chambers adds a wealthy of European games. Young players like Nigerian-born Bolu Akinyode, Canadian midfielder Josh Heard, Jamaican forwards Amoy Brown and Cory Burke and Liberians Gabe Gisse and Seku Conneh have been identified by Union brass for large upsides. Academy product Derrick Jones is the first Homegrown to land in Bethlehem, and he’ll surely be joined by more in the near future.

The roster includes USL stalwarts like goalie Samir Badr, defender Michael Daly and Ardmore native Nick Bibbs, who’ll mentor younger players and contribute to what Burke hopes is a winning side, though that’s not the primary goal.

More important is that the Union’s affiliate reflects a similar playing style as what has finally emerged from the MLS side, all the better to facilitate promotion of high achievers from USL to MLS.

“I think part of our goal is to tactically mirror what the first team does and to reinforce some of the things that the younger first-team players are being taught and what our players would need to know to step into that environment,” Burke said. “So I think if we get it right, we should look very similar to the first team on the field.”

On the personnel side, this week is unique, the FIFA international window giving the Union a bye. More players than usual will be shuttled to Bethlehem, with the Union sending Eric Ayuk, Leo Fernandes, Fabian Herbers, John McCarthy, Walter Restrepo, Taylor Washington and Josh Yaro. Steel will also use Academy players as opportunities arise, though many of those prospects are away with various U.S. age-group squads this week.

Burke didn’t make any promises on a lineup, but it’s a safe bet that playing loaned Union players is a priority. Guys that have made the Union’s gameday 18 in the first three weeks like Herbers, Fernandes and McCarthy aren’t going to Canada to sit the bench. The same goes for Yaro, who’ll likely pair with Daly in a backline that’ll feature Richter and possibly Washington. Burke heralded Jones’s work this preseason, so he’ll likely start as the holding midfielder.

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