2018 in Review: Bethlehem Steel FC develop young talent, win first playoff game in franchise history

In their third year of existence, Bethlehem Steel FC reached new franchise milestones in 2018 after earning their first ever playoff victory over in-state rival Pittsburgh Riverhounds October 20th in Pks. Head coach Brendan Burke was generous enough to send his thoughts regarding the past year via an email conversation with PSN’s Matt McClain this past week. 

2018 in Review:

After tallying just 15 points prior to the month of June, Bethlehem Steel FC completed the 2018 campaign with a +15 goal differential and reached the 50-point mark finishing 6th in the Eastern Conference.

“We are pleased with what we were able to accomplish,” Brendan Burke stated.

Burke should be pleased. For a roster that’s always changing, Burke and his staff weathered early mishaps – including a terrible month of July – to end the season in favorable playoff position.

A playoff push and a playoff win:

The end of season playoff-push was quite remarkable. “Starting six or seven teenagers throughout the run-in to the playoffs and winning our first playoff game… means that a lot of good young talents got a lot of important experience last year,” Burke said.

Steel FC quickly left July in the rear-view and went on to win five out of six August matches. The spark in winning catapulted them into league-wide discussions involving the best of the Eastern Conference.

However, some more stumbling took place to start the month of September. Back-to-back loses within the first week of the month almost ended Bethlehem’s season. Veteran leadership was needed to help right the team’s wrongs. Players like James Chambers and Matt Mahoney took charge of the locker room and guided the many young players back to winning ways.

Burke’s club ended the season on a four-match unbeaten streak. Following a thrilling victory in the first round of the USL Cup Playoffs which ended in penalty kicks, Steel FC traveled to one of USL’s elites, Louisville City FC. Louisville held the two seed and were primed for a deep-playoff run.

A tough Playoff loss:

Unfortunately for Burke and his team, Steel FC fell short. They lost 2-0 in late October and the best season in franchise history ended.

“Losing to Louisville at their place was frustrating because in general we gave a pretty good account of ourselves down there without a couple of our better young players available for that game,” said Burke.

Steel FC were without Philadelphia Union youngsters Matt Real and Anthony Fontana. The both of them were off with the USMNT U-20s. Another key performer, and perhaps the most intriguing player to appear in 2018, Michee Ngalina was also sidelined due to injury.

“I do think we had more to give but ultimately we went out to a deserving repeat champion so we can hold our heads high,” Burke said.

Yes, that’s right. Louisville won again. So sure, being eliminated by the team that goes on to win it all makes it a bit easier to handle. However, it’s extremely difficult not to wonder just how Bethlehem would’ve fared if the trio of Real, Fontana, and Ngalina laced up that night.

Development of young Talent:

Since then, Steel FC have been busy turning their roster over yet again. The club will live and die off developing young talent. Which means new faces every season and lots of them.

Fan favorites Santi Moar and Chris Nanco had their contracts declined along with five others including Brandon Aubrey. Prosper Chiluya and Antonio Lokwa both had their loans expire and returned to their former clubs.

Three question marks remained on the roster. James Chambers, Matt Mahoney, and Drew Skundrich were labeled as ‘in negotiations’ at the time year-end roster moves were announced.

“Unfortunately for us, Skundrich and Mahoney will both be moving on to try to further their careers in a stand alone environment,” stated Burke. And as for Chambers? “Chambers should be completed soon as long as there are no complications which is the most important signing of the off-season,” said Burke.

Mahoney will surely be missed. Skundrich as well. However, that’s how it goes for Steel FC. As a developmental project, players are considered ‘old’ after they turn 21. So for Mahoney and Skundrich, who are still young in the eyes of the rest of the pro soccer world, and opportunity to play for a team without a developmental philosophy may be beneficial.

Playing 2019 in Chester not Bethlehem:

Steel FC also announced a change of home venue. They’ll play at Talen Energy Stadium in 2019. Burke seemed pleased with that news as well.

“I do think the speed of the game will be ramped up a little when we are able to play night games and the surface will certainly be a welcome improvement,” said Burke.

As for next season, it’s far to early for Burke to share any insights. Yet, this being Burke’s fourth season upcoming, he did shed some light on what he and others have learned regarding annual roster overhauls.

“We will only return three or four players this year with any significant playing experience, and even in that group we are not even talking about a full season worth of experience,” said Burke.

“What we have learned is that it is important to communicate well and consistently up and down the developmental ladder so there are clear expectations and roles for the players, fortunately we have also learned over the last few years that when young players are given the opportunity to take part at this level many of them will surprise you, we expect to be surprised again this year when someone emerges as the next top talent to come through the Steel,” said Burke.

One thing is clear, young talent flourished with Steel FC this past season. Ngalina is poised to be an impact player and may one day ink an MLS deal with the Union. But for now, we wait.

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Peace out Union fans!

Mandatory Credit: Bethlehem Steel FC