Everyone thinks that the season started all the way back on February 1. What most folks don’t realize is that a lot of work happens before our official training starts. Guys, including myself, began to shuffle into the area and attend voluntary workouts in mid-January. I believe that early bonding helped the group for the season ahead, both physically by being fitter but also mentally in a sense that we had to do things better than the previous season. After seeing how hard everyone had worked for the nearly 10 weeks in the gym, I was excited to start the season and felt we were in a strong position with everyone eager to impress.
As most of you know, I faced a difficult moment in my life ahead of the season opener. It was extremely difficult for me as captain to leave the group the week of the season opener when my father became unwell. While I knew that I needed to be with my family, I was left encouraged that the group we retained from the previous season combined with the new guys we signed, knew what was needed to improve individually and as a group collectively.
I watched a couple of the games when I was back home in Ireland and honestly felt we deserved more points from our opening couple of games. After spending much needed time with my brother and sister, I returned to the states and made my debut in our second matchup against FC Cincinnati in late April at Goodman Stadium.The guys had already turned them over comfortably thanks to Seku’s USL Player of the Week performance. In the second go around, Hugh Roberts popped up with a late winner for us that day from an Adam Najem assist. After beating one of the so-called stronger teams in the conference twice in such a short space of time, I firmly think that result made the squad believe that we could beat any team we faced so long as we played near our potential.
A couple of tough road matches followed and we picked up some points but we hit our stride in the middle of the season. We showcased our form away from home as it helped push us to the eight-game streak. When we picked up those three big wins at Saint Louis, New York and Harrisburg June, I believe it gave us confidence that we could get results on the road which became one of our strengths. On the other hand, our home form throughout the season was what we would have liked it to be. While the Richmond & Charlotte games in late July didn’t go our way and brought us right back down to earth, it made us realize that if you don’t perform on the day any team in the league can turn you over comfortably.
We bounced back with a terrific win at Ottawa thanks to a Chris Nanco strike as August started and followed it up with a tough win against Toronto at Home. In a playoff position, we faced a tough 3 weeks with 3 defeats on the bounce. With crunch time approaching and September on the horizon, we called a players meeting where we had a chat amongst ourselves. We discussed how we couldn’t let this poor run of results continue or we’d be experiencing the same feeling we had the previous season when it came to an end. From that meeting, things changed as we emerged with another six-game unbeaten run where we picked up 10 points from a possible 18 against some really strong teams had us in a strong position with the playoff spot firmly in our own hands.
The feeling amongst the group as we entered the final three games was confident as we knew what needed to be done. Another great away performance at Toronto with Santi producing some magic & some good performances all round left us in a good place. We didn’t perform well enough in the Rochester game to get a result a couple of days later to clinch our spot and it was setting up for a do-or-die game against St. Louis the following Sunday. Luckily the Orlando and Tampa game panned out in our favor on Thursday before we were due to play St. Louis. Obviously, we were delighted to get over the line and we fully deserved to after how we played throughout the season.
With all the excitement of the postseason ahead of us, the Saint Louis game was a big disappointment for us. We wanted to finish the season on a high and claim the sixth spot which would have sent us to Tampa who we’d faired well against a couple weeks previous. We missed a lot of chances against St Louis but thanks to Real’s first pro goal we were able to draw the game. I feel that we should have won and ultimately left us traveling to Louisville a couple of days later.
We had no time to feel sorry for ourselves about the result as we quickly turned our minds to Louisville. There was a confidence in the group as we had just gone there and picked up a draw and felt that we should have held on to win the game. There was a terrific mood throughout the group that week and we prepared extremely well. Once the game time came around we just didn’t perform as a group and Louisville probably couldn’t have played much better and it proved so as they went on to win their first USL Cup.
It was extremely disappointing to have a whole season's worth of work come down to a game of that magnitude and not perform the way we knew we could. But that’s football and the feeling of being in that dressing room beaten convincingly will drive the group of players and staff on. Most of us had never played in an actual playoff game, myself included. The experience of that will certainly help each of us as we go forward in our careers whether that be with Steel FC, the first team or elsewhere.
One of my roles on the squad as most of you know has been helping with our younger players, including the boys from the Philadelphia Union Academy. I can’t tell you how much the aided us in our postseason run and the kids who played substantial minutes have contributed immensely to results. Behind the scenes, there are even more who haven’t registered minutes just yet but they too contributed an awful lot with their attitude towards training and their eagerness to improve.
Overall as a group, the proof lies in our league position that we are making progress each year. I feel that all of the players that have put on the Steel FC navy have all developed and gotten better in many ways. While one chapter has closed like the year, I’m looking forward to next month when we return for workouts and know big things are on the horizon for this group aided by the Union Academy kids who train with us on a regular basis.
Before I go, I want to give a huge thank you to the fans your support throughout the year. Both for the team and for me personally, it really does make a difference. After games, getting to meet you all individually and to hear your congratulations or your kind words after a defeat is a nice touch. To you folks who traveled to away games like Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Tampa and Louisville along with other cities. Thank you very much for taking the time to do so. It really did mean an awful lot.
Also a massive thank you to the guys who have been a part of this journey, where since the first days of Steel FC or just this past year who are moving on now. Seku, Amoy, Josh, Hugh, Chris, Charlie and Yoyo, thanks for all the hard work since day one. Huge thank you personally for helping me develop as a captain and a person. It was a pleasure to share a dressing room with you. Wishing you all the very best in your future careers.
Thank you all and see you next season,