Just one point separates fifth place Steel FC (36 pts.) and seventh place Ottawa Fury FC (35 pts.) in the Eastern Conference standings. The two clubs will meet Wednesday evening at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium in what will be a match with heavy playoff implications on the line.
Setting the scene
Following the month of July in which Steel FC lost four times, their playoff hopes were in jeopardy. They easily pushed through their competition throughout June, going 2-0-3 and avoiding defeat during that stretch. Avoiding a loss in June primed the club for an opportunity to assert themselves as a true contender in the Eastern Conference as July approached.
However, a season doesn’t always go as smoothly as one would hope. July happened.
With three matches in nine days to start the month, Steel FC found themselves at the bottom of a pretty sizeable hole after failing to earn results at Penn FC (3-2 L 7/6) and at Atlanta United 2 (2-1 L 7/11). The rest of the month proved cruel for the young Steel FC club. However, after five matches without a win, Steel FC ended July with a whopping 4-1 home win over Atlanta, exacting some revenge on the fellow MLS 2 club.
August turned a new leaf
That win seemed to spark some confidence within the locker room as August has been very fruitful for head coach Brendan Burke and his young players. In fact, so far this month, Steel FC has lost just once while earning hard-fought victories on three occasions against fellow Eastern Conference foes.
“We are on a good run of form and we have a good group of young players and have some interchangeable parts,” said Burke during his weekly conference call with the media Monday afternoon. “I think we’re in good shape.”
Burke’s club could be in even better shape had they earned a result against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC August 12th at home. The 2-1 loss certainly didn’t sit well with Burke and his squad – a sign that his players understand their abilities and perhaps are starting to ask more of each other than earlier this season.
“We, and myself included, were generally disappointed with our performance against Pittsburgh,” said Burke. “It was a great sign to me that we were all gutted and expected to get something out of that game and expected to win that game and not just get a result. That’s a great sign.”
His young roster responded with a 2-0 road win at Toronto FC II last Thursday as the club finished off their third consecutive clean sheet away from home (3-0 W @ Richmond 8/4, 3-0 W @ Charlotte 8/8). That 3-0 win at Charlotte has served as a morale booster, which made the loss to Pittsburgh less than savory.
“I think the Charlotte win in particular went a really long way toward us understanding that we can win in any environment, that we can win in a game that maybe comes with a little added pressure because both teams are right around the [playoff] line and this Ottawa game will be no different,” said Burke.
As for the club’s 2-0 win at Toronto FC II, Burke was pleased with his club’s performance as they prep for a major battle against Ottawa. “I thought we threatened regularly throughout the 90 minutes which we would expect to in that game,” said Burke. “I’m happy that we took care of business.”
Steel FC vs. Ottawa Fury FC: playoff like match-up
However, taking care of business Wednesday night against Ottawa may prove to be a frustrating task. Ottawa sits just below Steel FC in the table, just one point back. They are a stout defensive club, earning 12 clean sheets so far in 2018 – tied for 2nd in the league.
The impressive number of shutouts stems from their distinct style of play. Ottawa loves slowing games down by sitting behind the ball with numbers. Ottawa remain content conceding possession in hopes of slowing games down and causing headaches for opponents’ attackers.
“They know how to make the game difficult,” said Burke. “They have a very clear identity and playing style and players that can execute. They’re really committed to making the game slow and ugly. That’s why they’re one of the league leaders in terms of clean sheets.”
Slow and ugly is quite the opposite of how Steel FC likes to play. Especially inside Goodman Stadium, where Steel FC normally try to impose their will and style of play upon their opponents with high pressure and quick transitions.
Ottawa, to make things a little more complicated for Steel FC, are a team full of experienced and seasoned players. Once more the total opposite of Steel FC, one of the youngest rosters in the East.
“They’re men across the board,” Burke mentioned. “There aren’t many young guys on their team. They’re experienced, they know how to play in games like this.”
But Burke’s squad also understands how to perform in high pressure situations like this matchup proves to be.
“We certainly won’t change our style of play because we think we can be highly effective when we are on,” Burke explained.
That confidence, which Burke assured is at a high level throughout his locker room, will be key Wednesday night. An early goal is of the utmost important for Burke and his squad as they’ll look to force Ottawa out of their defensive shell.
It helps to have a front four in great form heading into a decisive matchup like the one on Steel FC’s plate. Faris and Michee Ngalina have been pivotal in Steel FC’s offensive prowess. And their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.
“I’d say Michee has been really impressive for an 18-year old… the return on the minutes invested in him has been excellent because even when he’s not at his best, he can still stretch the field,” said Burke Monday. “He’s a very coachable guy. I think he’s been a key part of our success as well.”
As for Faris, the Cameroonian forward has made himself right at home since joining the club on July 16th. “Toronto was probably his best performance,” said Burke of his new forward. “He stretched the last line really well. He was a constant threat.”
Faris and Ngalina will look to do more of the same Wednesday night as Burke’s offensive weapons will need to play their sharpest match to date if they hope to crack Ottawa’s tight and compact defense.
“We’ve talked to [the front four] about being willing to play in tight spaces and being willing to play in between the lines,” said Burke when asked what the messaging to his attacking options Wednesday night will be.
“We have the creative players in our front four and have enough pace in our front four to threaten anyone we line up against. Our hope is that we strike first and make them come out and play,” said Burke.
One thing is for certain, if Steel FC strive to make a serious playoff push to end the 2018 campaign, they will need to find a victory Wednesday night against Ottawa. And that early goal will prove to be the difference maker. With eight matches left, four at home and four away, it’s now or never for the young developmental squad.
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Mandatory Credit: Bethlehem Steel FC.