Things are not always what they seem in USL.
For instance, Bethlehem Steel’s opponent this weekend is Toronto FC II, the bottom team in the Eastern Conference. TFCII has been — by almost any measure, but let’s just use 21 losses for now — fairly bad all season. But recently the Canadian club has been losing while putting together extremely dangerous offensive performances. Tsubasa Endoh has a ridiculous eight goals in nine games for Toronto, and the recently-acquired Jon Bakero also gives MLS quality to the current basement dwellers.
When Steel head coach Brendan Burke looks at his club’s position in the standings — three points above the playoff red line and three points below fifth place Indy Eleven with four games (two at home) to go — he knows that his team has to be structurally sound, physically energetic, and mentally focused to lock up three vital points this weekend. “If we're compact and we don't allow it to flow for them,” Burke said, “Then I think that's what we accomplished up in Rochester when we played them away. They have a ton of attacking threats. They're also giving up a ton of goals so I think this is about us being disciplined.”
Steel were the better team throughout the August 16th matchup that ended 2-0 in their favor. New Philadelphia Union homegrown signing Brenden Aaronson came on at halftime and helped galvanize the attack as stellar young winger Michee Ngalina and Union SuperDraft pick Aidan Apodaca knocked home goals in the final 20 minutes to seal the win.
What to look for this weekend
This Saturday’s matchup, a 3PM kickoff at Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem, could see more than two goals if Steel let TFCII get behind their back line. Burke picked out Malyk Hamilton and Shaan Hundal as players that can threaten with speed, and added that while the visitors will likely pack the center, Steel can penetrate up the flanks. In players like Ngalina and Santi Moar, Bethlehem has different looks they can throw at the opposition from wide areas (“I think that’s a key area for us to do damage,” Burke said). Ngalina’s quickness puts defenders on their back foot while Moar has consistently shown the ability to create and score since entering USL (check out former Steel defender Hugh Roberts’ podcast for the fascinating backstory of how Moar went from Spain to Pfeiffer College to Steel).
Defensively, the big keys for Steel will be disciplined defense from front to back. Bethlehem’s young strikers need to get their pressing triggers right to allow the rest of the team to read their movements and step forward appropriately. “The defensive side of it is what I harp on,” Burke explained when asked about his forwards, “Because if we don't get the pressing right, it has ripple effects throughout the team and it becomes difficult to stay compact.”
Additionally, Steel need to account for Endoh’s long range threat. Many of the attacker’s goals have come from outside the penalty area, and that means he must be closed down quickly whenever the ball finds him in the final third. “It has to be identified and it has to be taken away tactically,” Burke said of the long range missile silos in Endoh’s legs. “So I think finding him in transition higher up the field becomes important, and also not allowing rhythm. It's hard to score those type of goals when your touches are limited.”
Next one up
After facing down TFCII, Steel make a breathless sprint to the end of the season with away matches against the two teams below and above them in the standings. Then they finish the year at home on October 14th against Tampa Bay, a club that looked out of the postseason conversation until a stunning late own goal against Nashville handed them a lifeline.
“It has to be one game at a time because it’s so tight,” Burke said. “Teams aren’t going to go away. The reality is that if we don’t get each game right, at least in terms of performance and give ourselves a chance to win then we have no claim to be in the playoffs anyway.”
This will be an incredibly exciting end to the USL season, and it begins in Bethlehem this Saturday.