Without a single healthy forward in the club to throw onto the pitch Saturday night, Steel FC Head Coach Brendan Burke had to rely on two midfielders playing up top in a tough 1-0 home loss to an experienced North Carolina FC team.
“The reality is we asked two midfielders to play higher up the field, quite frankly because we did not have one healthy forward in the club to throw out there at that point,” said Burke post-match. “A toothless performance from us, just not enough pressure on [NCFC] on our field.”
Talen Energy Stadium is the new home venue for Steel FC in 2019, but Saturday felt more like a road match for Steel from the pressbox. Too often, Steel players remained a bit too compact and lacked a sense of urgency when moving from defense to offense. However, there were still some solid positives for Burke and his staff to learn from.
Burke mentioned earlier last week that he and his staff planned to implement a conservative gameplan – one that focused on team defense and communication to thwart any offensive advances from NCFC. However, in the first half they lacked the connectivity needed to cause problems for NCFC. Ultimately, the match ended in disappointing fashion, leaving some Steel players wanting a lot more.
“We kind of knew that was going to be the case going in given how light we were going into the game,” said Burke. “But the reality is we still expect more from ourselves. We train for it, we prepare for it. And I think today became about for us in the end, taking positives away from the young guys that were introduced.”
One player in particular earned his USL Championship debut as a starter. Cole Turner, who played an excellent game along the left side of midfield for Burke, debuted Saturday night. At just 17 years of age, Turner was asked to play a new position for his first professional start. He played a bit higher up the pitch than normal popping in and out of both the 8 and 10 roles for Burke. And he played well.
“We obviously didn’t get the result we wanted but we limited them to their chances and I thought we had ours,” said Turner. “I think we need to get more numbers in the box and maybe finish off those chances.”
Steel FC registered less than five total scoring chances and for a home match that’s a bit dreadful. However, with no Faris (questionable hamstring) or Saed Diaz (also questionable), Steel FC played with the cards they were dealt. Which was a handful of young Union Academy players.
Seven out the starting 11 were Academy players all under the age of 18. Sprinkled in among the Academy guys were young internationals like Jamoi Topey (19 years old) and Chavany Willis (21 years old). With youth all over the field and guys playing out of position, a 1-0 loss isn’t the worst possible result.
Yet, Burke and his staff understand the importance of setting high expectations and striving to meet them each week.
“The last message I left the guys with in the locker room is that you’re going to have a lot of these [games] given the nature of our project and the fact that it’s been made even far more difficult,” said Burke. “You have to take these little positives and you have to stitch them all together and really attack these games and never walk off with any sort of hesitation in your mind. And if we lose, we lose but we have to go for it.”
One player who shined again for Burke was Zach Zandi. The Villanova graduate was once again all over the pitch for Steel Saturday night. This is now the second consecutive game where Zandi put in strong performances. Another player that shined was Turner. The 17-year old play with a lot of grit and left some wondering whether it truly was his first professional outing.
“I said to [Turner] in front of the group after the game ‘You look like you’ve played 20-25 games, you were pushing, you were big and strong, and clean on the ball when you had to be,” said Burke.
Those are two huge positives Steel FC will look to build on.
Another positive is the fact that team captain James Chambers seems as if he’s more locked in than ever before. After all, the 32 year old will need to keep a fresh mind on the pitch with all the youngsters surrounding him. But as always, Chambers remains up to the task.
“We’re all in it for the same reasons,” said Chambers when asked about the influx of Academy players this year. “Anyone who comes through the door from the Academy or from the outside knows exactly what they’re doing as soon as they come through the door. They’re notified and they’re told what their expectations are and what the groups’ expectation levels are. We set the standard pretty high the last two years, we have to keep that standard.”
Obviously, youth creates some inconsistencies on the pitch. But with proper guidance from both Burke and Chambers, Steel FC’s youth-filled roster should hold pretty steady as the season continues.
“Everybody on the team, including myself, we’re not all going to be firing on all cylinders every week,” said Chambers.
But ultimately it comes down to building on the positives while allowing the negatives to simply exist without fixating on them. And Burke knows that better than anyone.
“We’ve always been a slow build and this year is going to be no different if not way worse than it’s been in the past,” said Burke.
So for now, Steel FC fans will need patience as the young team learns to play within themselves in 2019.
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Mandatory Credit: North Carolina FC.