Over the past five games, only conference leaders FC Cincinnati have more points than Bethlehem Steel. After a difficult July, Steel has turned a corner and now sits fifth in the conference and in prime position to fight for the playoffs.
The first volleys in that battle for the postseason come this week when Steel welcome Ottawa Fury to Goodman Stadium before traveling south to face Nashville SC. Both clubs are a single point behind Bethlehem in the table, and their highly organized defenses will be difficult to break down. Head coach Brendan Burke knows that even though these opponents will be difficult to break down, his squad will continue to play the aggressive brand of soccer that permeates the Union organization.
Playing the right way
“We're not going to change our pattern of play at all,” Burke said this week. “Play with urgency, play forward, you have to take risks. Possession defending becomes really important when you play against a team that wants to sit at midfield and catch you in possession and counter.”
Possession defending describes the positions players take up when their team has the ball. When an opponent is planning to counterattack with speed, Steel needs to have players in the right spots to neutralize that threat rather than reacting after the transition is already well underway.
When Ottawa comes to town Wednesday night at 5PM EST, Burke knows they will let Bethlehem have the ball for long periods of time. But when they get their chances, the Fury take them.
“They're happy to have 35% of the ball, 40% of the ball most games, home or away,” Steel’s coach said. “They really don't value the ball. But they're good when they get out and counter.”
And while that may not sound like the premise for a good game of soccer, Burke’s team will be determined to make it an exciting contest by looking for an early goal.
“Where you can get at them — and Nashville did a few weeks ago — is if you score first, they have to come out and play. And we did not do a good job of that when we went to Ottawa.
“They scored 45 seconds into the game just off of a lack of concentration, really. We had 60-odd percent of the ball up there and did nothing with it because they're very disciplined. They're an excellent defensive-minded team.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of Steel’s success this year is that their offensive production has come from such a diverse set of sources. Fabian Herbers had a good run up front before the Union needed him again, and since then Brendan Burke has put his faith in a pair of untested young strikers.
Aidan Apodaca was a late round pick by the Union in the SuperDraft after he ripped through DII with Cal-Baptist. Short in stature but not in quickness, Apodaca can get behind defensive lines. His standout trait up front, however, is is swift changes of direction in the box that create space to shoot. The 22-year old is splitting time up top with Faris Moumbagna. The recent signee is only 18 years old but already has the size to hold off fully grown defenders. Faris also has speed to burn, and Burke thinks he’s very close to adding goals to his game on a regular basis.
“Faris can go,” Burke said. “He's had trouble balancing himself on the ball, but he's gotten into good positions, positions where he will hurt people in the future. So he's showing all the signs we were hoping he would show at this age.”
With two goals apiece, the young strike force is beginning to come good, and even when they don’t find the net they are providing a strong foundation for the Steel’s aggressive defensive style.
“What we're looking for from those guys in games where they don't score — ideally, they'd contribute to a goal in one way or another — but it's the pressing,” Burke stated. “Allowing the rest of the team to play high, and then threatening the last line.”
Midfield making strides
Steel have also been propelled up the standings by the emergence of Drew Skundrich as a holding player alongside captain James Chambers. Derrick Jones played well early alongside Chambers earlier in the season, but as he has found more first team minutes, Skundrich has become the all-action partner that allows Chambers to focus on progressive distribution.
“He's been excellent in the last four to five weeks,” Burke confirmed. “His ground coverage, his soccer IQ, his contribution going forward. He had an assist the other day, he has a couple goals now. He's been a little bit of a revelation.”
In front of Skundrich and Chambers, Brenden Aaronson continues his upward trajectory as a creative hub for Steel. The 17-year old is slight in stature, but he plays with such quickness — measured both as speed of thought and number of touches on the ball — that he has been able to unlock USL defenses since returning from injury.
“He always plays forward every time he receives the ball,” Burke explained “He's thinking forward.”
Chambers agrees with his coach’s assessment. “He's always on the half-turn,” he said of Aaronson. “He's always playing forward, he's always looking to penetrate with passes.”
Bethlehem’s success is measured both in wins and in player development. So although July saw a rough run of results, Chambers points to the growth of the young players around him (including Union homegrown player Matt Real and right back Olivier Mbaizo, who continues to be a physical mismatch for opposing wingers) as a sign that victories would not be far off. And he was right: Steel are 4-1-0 in their last five matches, outscoring opponents 13 to three.
“These things happen,” Chambers admitted. “It's about when things don't go your way, can you bounce back from it or let it affect you. I think that we put that whole month to the side and we learned from it.”
And now Steel have a chance to put themselves in great position for a postseason run by taking points off teams right behind them in the standings.
Bethlehem welcomes Ottawa Fury to Goodman Stadium on Wednesday, August 22 at 5PM EST.