Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Bethlehem Steel FC’s first starting lineup this past March included the likes of captain Ryan Richter, Mickey Daly and Leo Fernandes, all of whom brought an experienced hand to the club’s squad in its inaugural season.
By the time the season concluded in September, things looked a bit different. While Fernandes remained, the likes of Mark McKenzie and Justin McMaster – both Philadelphia Union Academy standouts – had joined him in the lineup. According to Steel Head Coach Brendan Burke that was certainly by design.
“We had a number of Union Academy players and other young guys see a ton of minutes down the stretch,” Burke said this week. “Although it didn't translate to results this year, there were some very good performances in there and they know exactly what is required now going forward.”
Photo courtesy Sideline Photos / Bethlehem Steel FC
For players like the 17-year-old McKenzie, who had previously competed for the U.S. U16 National Team, or U.S. U18 National Team members Matthew Real and Anthony Fontana – both of whom were part of the 18-man squad in the season finale against Orlando City B – getting the chance to earn their first professional minutes this season is something that Burke hopes will allow the Steel to find success in 2017.
While the side remained in playoff contention for much of the season, Bethlehem struggled to convert good performances into results. The Steel finished tied for the fewest wins in the Eastern Conference with six, matched only by Keystone State rivals the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and also finished tied for the second-highest number of draws in the conference with 10.
That second number should provide some cause for optimism, especially with the Steel returning some bright players in the form of Jamaican forward Cory Burke for the new season. That’s certainly the expectation for Brendan Burke as he looks to replicate the success he found with the Union’s PDL affiliate Reading United AC at the USL level.
“The hope is now that the production that we did get from all of those guys under the age of 24 will jump up in a significant way in 2017,” said the Steel’s Coach. “They know what it is about now and soon it will be time to show that we all grew a bit through last year's experiences.”
After the success shown by USL Cup champions the New York Red Bulls II this season incorporating the likes of Academy standouts Noah Powder, Kevin O’Toole and others into their side, the potential model is certainly there for the Steel to follow.