This time last year on the practice fields adjacent to Goodman Stadium on the campus of Lehigh University, everything had that new franchise feel to it. Bethlehem Steel FC was conducting their first ever open tryout hoping to find a few players to bring into the winter camp with hopes of maybe finding someone to fill out a (at the time empty) roster.
This year was a bit different. Much to the relief of everyone involved, the high of 70 degrees was far more than we could have hoped for. The player pool went from a staggering 158 down to about 70 or so by my unofficial count. In addition to a smaller number of participants, the age was noticeably smaller. Most of the kids out on the field today were in the 18-23 range, and that’s a theme that Brendan Burke seems more than happy with.
The Union front office knows what Bethlehem Steel FC is: a development club. When this works and has a balance of success and development, you get the kind of team that New York Red Bull II had in USL last year. Flashing mixes of exciting youngsters from the academy with seasoned USL veterans, Red Bull II (pardon the pun) bulldozed everyone, winning both the USL’s regular season and playoff titles. Bethlehem wasn’t afforded the opportunity to play as many young players as they would have wanted. Partly due to guys like Anderson hogging a roster spot, some untimely injuries to Mark McKenzie and a “will they/won’t they” make the playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Bethlehem was close to being a perfect blend, but didn’t quite get there. Coach Burke seemed enthused, raving about the talent that has shown itself in the Union Academy as of late. Anthony Fontana, Mark McKenzie, Justin McMaster (who has apparently impressed in training with the Philadelphia Union proper), as well as recent graduate Yosef Samuel.
Burke was also eager for 2017 to start for recent Steel FC purchase Cory Burke. The Jamaican National Team gave the striker a chance to impress - and he did, scoring twice in two games to punch the Reggae Boyz ticket to the 2017 Gold Cup. While he missed a fair amount of Bethlehem’s inaugural campaign with a knee injury, his recent International form as well as a half a year of injury free living has given the forward a boost of confidence.
There’s still a long way from preseason for BSFC, a preseason that hopefully will include Syracuse, Penn State and hopefully a few matches against aforementioned Red Bull II, but for now, everything seems to be on track for a special 2017 season.