Following a draw to in-state rival Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC at Talen Energy Stadium, Bethlehem Steel FC will look to maintain momentum and earn valuable points on the road against Swope Park Rangers.
The beginning of the 2019 campaign has been a roller coaster of sorts for Head Coach Brendan Burke and his young roster. They kicked off the year with an impressive 2-0 road win at Birmingham but then failed to win back-to-back home matches before earning a hard fought draw against Eastern Conference elites Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC last weekend to finish an early season home-stand.
Now, Steel FC will face a club they’ve never seen before in Swope Park Rangers, the USL Championship affiliate of MLS’ Sporting Kansas City. Last weekend’s match provided Steel with some much needed confidence as the team’s cohesion seem to reach a new high. Both Michee Ngalina and Faris opened their scoring accounts with first half goals and goalkeeper Carlos Miguel Coronel put in yet another solid effort with a first half PK save – his second of the season already. After faltering offensively in mid-March, the emergence of Faris and Ngalina on the scoring sheet is a promising sight ahead of Saturday night’s road match.
A mid-week training session in which competition levels reached a new high could be one possible reasoning for Steel’s strong showing last weekend. “We had our most intense training session of the year so far last Wednesday. Sometimes allowing guys to get after it and clear their heads within the confines of training is needed sometimes,” said Burke. “To stand up to a group like Pittsburgh this early in the season with an average age around 20 – we’re ahead of where I thought we would’ve to be this year. I said to the guys in the locker that I’m excited to see where this group can go this year,” said Burke.
“The Pittsburgh game was a nice way to start our momentum so hopefully we can pick up a few more wins down the road here,” said rookie midfielder and Villanova alum Zach Zandi earlier this week during a phone interview with PSN. “It was a good game. We would’ve liked to come away with three points but a tie against a team that finished top three last year – it was definitely a good showing. It’s a good way for us to get some momentum going forward into our game this weekend against Swope Park.”
Zandi, a former Union Academy player who also spent time with Union affiliate Reading United AC in the PDL, has been a real bright spot for Burke and his staff this season. Through four matches, Zandi made marks in each one while showcasing his intelligence and work ethic on the pitch.
“I’m trying to do everything I can to help the team win. That’s the biggest thing – getting the team the three points,” said Zandi. “It’s not really about individual status for me. It’s about the team and how the team does and all that individual stuff comes after. That’s not really on my mind it’s just about how can I help the team win and I do whatever I can to do that.”
Zandi’s effort on the pitch throughout the entirety of matches is highly respectable. So far this season, Zandi tops the charts in terms of ground coverage for Steel FC. His presence in the midfield has been a main reason for continued improvement throughout the club.
When asked how Zandi has transitioned from college to the pro ranks, Burke lamented the positive attributes he brings to the team. “[He’s transitioned] brilliantly, he hasn’t put a foot wrong in my estimation so far. He’s impacted every game in a positive way. He’s very intelligent, good demeanor, I could go on all day. He’s just a good soccer player,” said Burke.
As for tonight’s matchup at Swope Park, much has been made of their size up top. It’s an aspect of their game that can be difficult to defend at times. However, they also favor playing out of the back which could ultimately be their downfall against a Steel team known for their high pressure from speedy forwards like Faris. Faris provided a boost in intensity and concentration from the opening whistle against Pittsburgh by providing excellent ground coverage to start the defensive press effectively. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed as Burke mentioned it was “the most comprehensive performance from him since joining the team.”
Of course, Steel FC would be lost without the impacts of team captain James Chambers, who presumably ignited the fire in training last week ahead of the Pittsburgh matchup. “It’s been awesome,” said Zandi about playing alongside a leader like Chambers. “I’ve been trying to learn as many little as possible from him and trying to really listen to him and to apply it to my game because he knows so much about it.”
Chambers, Zandi, and Steel FC will need to be firing on all cylinders against a Swope Park team that thrives on open play with a 4-3-3 formation. The team defending will be crucial in order to prevent Swope Park from dominating the match.
“You have to decide if you want to sit and compact the field, if you want to press and try to generate turnovers, but whatever you do you’d better be very aware of the size that they build with,” said Burke. “It’ll be a very good surface that we play on this weekend and a highly technical team, so that’s a tough combination.”
Burke and his youth-filled roster will attempt to earn crucial road points tonight when the match kicks off at 5 PM on ESPN+.
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union.