For all the change that has occurred since Ernst Tanner took over as the Sporting Director of the Philadelphia Union, the biggest shift has been in the approach to building the Bethlehem Steel FC roster.
Tanner came in last fall saying his aim for Steel FC was for it to be a true feeder team filled primarily with teenagers.
It wasn’t just talk.
Even with the additions from the first team roster, the pool of players available to head coach Brendan Burke this weekend includes only seven players old enough to legally drink. The average age is under 20.
By contrast, the Steel’s first opponent of the season, USL Championship newcomer Birmingham Legion, has an average age of 28 and is full of players — like former Philadelphia Union forward Chandler Hoffman — who have MLS experience.
Burke, who is entering his fourth year as Steel FC’s head coach, has arguably his toughest task yet.
And while it won’t be fair to judge the team purely on results since success is more of a long game based on individual player development, the track record for teams trying to “go young” so to speak has not been stellar.
Montreal Impact went that route with FC Montreal and ended up discontinuing the team after two seasons in the league’s basement. Toronto FC has dropped their TFCII down to USL’s new third division league after struggling mightily at the division two level. Orlando City and FC Dallas have also added teams for USL League One.
“Expectations are realistic but I also believe in developing winners,” Burke said earlier this week. “We can’t let this thing get away from us the way it has for every other team in the East anyway that’s tried to go this young in the past. That’s a very real concern for me and I want to make sure we’re the first team to pull this off.”
Age aside, Burke has an intriguing group of players to work with this year that is also more internationally focused than in year’s past thanks to Tanner’s move to trade cash for five additional international spots.
Where previous Steel teams gave players the first team drafted out of college in the MLS SuperDraft a shot, this year’s squad has only one college graduate in Zach Zandi and two players with college soccer experience in Issa Rayyan (one season at Duke) and first team homegrown keeper Matt Freese (two seasons at Harvard).
Zandi is also one of only three players on the opening weekend roster born in Pennsylvania (first team loanees Matt Real and Matt Freese are the others). Five of the six academy players on the roster were recruited to the academy from outside the Delaware Valley. The lone academy player originally from the area is Cherry Hill, N.J. native Tomas Romero.
Preseason was a mixed bag in terms of results and performances, but after struggling to score for long stretches ended on a positive note last weekend in a 3-1 win over New York Red Bulls II. Michee Ngalina, who spent most of preseason with the first team, was involved in two of the goals. The match was also the first in the preseason slate to feature players from the first team (Freese, Real and Fontana).
Burke expects to have two players at each position competing for minutes each week, similar to what head coach Jim Curtin has on the first team roster.
“Some guys will accelerate faster than others,” Burke said. “We’re definitely going to have some down days as a group, we know that. It’ll be more about how we absorb those moments, how we teach through those moments and how we stay positive, ultimately, as a group of 12 or 18 guys if you look at it that way.”
Going into Sunday’s game, which was pushed back a day because of weather concerns, Burke knows the competition will be fierce as it always is when so-called MLS 2 teams lock horns with fully independent USL squads.
“There has to be a fearlessness to the group, I think,” Burke said. “The sooner they realize that they are here and there is nowhere to hide anymore, the sooner they realize that and relax and they do what it is that has gotten them here on an individual basis and a team basis, we’ll be in better shape.”
Sunday’s game is slated to kick off at 5 p.m. and will be broadcast live on ESPN+.