After taking care of business at home Wednesday night with a crucial 2-0 win against Ottawa Fury FC, Bethlehem Steel FC will look to continue their recent run of good play on the road against ninth place North Carolina FC at First Tennessee Park Saturday night.
Following his team’s important win Wednesday night, Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke was quick to highlight the positives. “Today we knew it would be a really important day for us so there’s a lot of relief coming out of it. Honestly, building up to these games you know they are going to be tight and tense so to start the game well was really important for us,” said Burke.
Steel FC came out swinging Wednesday night and they scored two goals in less than 33 minutes thanks to winger Santi Moar. Key contributions from Philadelphia Union players like Marcus Epps, Matt Real, Olivier Mbaizo, Josh Yaro, and keeper John McCarthy helped fuel the victory. Epps and Real made tremendous impacts on the match, each creating goal scoring opportunities while remaining disciplined throughout the match.
However, with the Union hosting New England Revolution Saturday night, it remains unclear whether Epps will be with Bethlehem as they travel to Nashville later this morning. One thing is certain though, both Philadelphia and Bethlehem are playing their best soccer at the most opportune time of the year.
“The mood is positive, obviously we have a tough game coming up against Nashville, but we are confident right now and when you are confident, that momentum can carry you across the line and carry you into the playoffs,” said Burke Wednesday night.
Currently, Steel FC are four points clear of that red line with 39 points. Their counterpart Saturday night, Nashville, sit in ninth place with 35 points.
CURRENT USL EASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS
Since their disappointing 1-0 home loss to Indy Eleven on July 26th, Steel FC have lost just once in their last six matches, earning victories in the other five matches including three consecutive road shutouts at Richmond, Charlotte, and Toronto. To keep the positive streak going, Steel FC earned their second straight clean sheet victory at home Wednesday night.
In terms of goal differential, Steel FC have tallied 15 goals through their last six matches while conceding just three goals – one against Atlanta United 2 at home July 29th and two against one of the Eastern Conference’s best clubs against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC August 12th. That home loss to Pittsburgh really stung Burke and his crew, however they have responded well with the back-to-back shutouts since then.
So once more Burke and his club will look to steal points away from Goodman Stadium Saturday night. As of late, Nashville have avoided defeat in their last three matches including impressive road draws against two of the Eastern Conference’s top teams (1-1 D @ FC Cincinnati 8/4 and 0-0 D @ Louisville City FC 8/18). On August 10th, much like Bethlehem, Nashville defeated Ottawa Fury FC 2-0 at home to earn their eighth win of the season.
Offensively, Nashville’s leading goal scorer is a familiar face to Steel FC fans, players, and coaches. Forward Brandon Allen, traded to Nashville on May 22nd for an undisclosed amount of money, has netted a team-high six goals since joining his new club. Allen was slated to be the main goal scoring option for Burke’s side in 2018. In fact, Allen netted a brace during Bethlehem’s home opener and earned player of the week honors for his efforts. But things don’t always work out as planned. Saturday’s match-up will be the first time Allen will face Bethlehem since the trade.
Defensively, Nashville is like Bethlehem’s last opponent in Ottawa. Nashville’s 36-year old keeper, Matt Pickens, is tied for second in USL with 11 clean sheets on the year. Nashville as a team is tied for 2nd in USL with 12 total clean sheets this season while allowing just 16 goals against, once more 2nd in USL behind Pittsburgh’s 12 goals against.
For Steel FC, the opening 20 minutes of play are crucial. Defender Matt Mahoney is well aware of that fact. Post-match Wednesday night Mahoney explained how the early stages are most important for he and his teammates. “I think the way we start games, the past five or six games we’ve really started well by pressuring them really hard. To get on the front foot early, we call it possession defending, when [the ball] comes back out, we jam it back down their throats,” said Mahoney.
It also helps to have a coach like Burke on the sideline to help make sure the constant influx of players from the first team Philadelphia Union know the game plan and stick to it. Tactically, Burke and his assistant Stephen Hogan, have implemented effective strategies as of late. If you excuse the poor game planning that led to their home loss to Pittsburgh, Steel FC’s style of play throughout the midfield to the final third has been sharp.
“Everyone that has been rotating in from the first team to our Steel guys back there has come in with the same game plan set and I think we’ve been doing it really well. I know on Saturday is another team that is close to us, if we can win that game and create even more separation, then we’re forcing teams to have to get wins while we put the front foot forward,” said Mahoney.
You can expect more of the same style of play Saturday night from Burke’s club. Burke and his players are riding high as of late and they’ll look to assert themselves away from home with an early goal. Another road win would grant them a fourth straight road victory while increasing their current win streak to three.
“We know that we are good enough to score goals, we’re one of the top five in the entire league in terms of goal production,” said Burke.