Bethlehem Steel FC will open the 2019 USL Championship season on the road against expansion-side Birmingham Legion FC. The match will kickoff at 5:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 10 at BBVA Compass Field in Birmingham, Alabama. The match will be broadcast on ESPN+.
Steel FC enters the season following the best season in the clubs modern history in 2018. Steel FC advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time, following a penalty-kick shootout win over Eastern Conference rivals Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the first round of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs. Despite his squad’s success last season, Steel FC Head Coach Brendan Burke knows the importance of starting the season off on the front foot.
"There has to be a fearlessness to the group, I think,” Burke said this week. “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. Some guys will accelerate faster than others. 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.”
Steel FC begins the season with a very young squad compared to last year, with many players expected to get their first professional minutes this season. On the other side, Birmingham has brought in some key, experienced veterans to help lead them through their inaugural season. Legion FC will be led by the veteran presences of Daigo Kobayashi and former Philadelphia Union player Chandler Hoffman. Steel FC will need to focus in order to match the intensity and play of Birmingham’s veterans.
"I think the important part is that we don’t miss details. Details are very important. Physicality is not somewhere where we are going to probably have the upper hand because their players are experienced in every position,” stated Burke. “Details on both sides of the ball will leave us in a better position to keep the game close as long as we can. Expectations -- we’re realistic; but I also believe in developing winners. We can’t let this thing get away from us the way it has from every other team, in the East anyway, that has tried to go this young in the past. That is a very real concern for me and I want to make sure that we are the first team to pull this off.”
Sunday’s night contest will be the first all-time matchup between Steel FC and Birmingham Legion FC, with the Alabama-based club to play their inaugural match against Steel FC at home. Last season, Steel FC held a 3-2-1 season record against expansion clubs. Birmingham will be without the talents of Joe Holland, who is suspended for the match following an ejection in his last match with Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Despite this being Legion FC’s inaugural season, many members of Steel have already seen the new club in action when they faced off against the Union during preseason in Clearwater, Florida.
"It was good, we were at the game. I think I have a very clear vision of how Birmingham will play. The biggest hurdle for us is winning those individual battles,” said Burke. "We feel like we’ve prepared well, we feel like we are fit and it’s just a matter of now executing, which is that hardest thing to do. This is where the players take over and this is where their growth really gets exciting.”