Brenden Aaronson to Faris. The former’s fourth assist of the season, the latter’s third goal. That’s a 17-year old setting up an 18-year old to help Bethlehem Steel FC push for the 2018 USL playoffs. This is how it has been all season on Brendan Burke’s team: A solid backbone of veteran talent providing the platform for developing talent to dip their toes into professional waters. But while Burke readily admits that, “our job is to get guys prepared to play for the first team, first and foremost,” the opportunity to get those bright young stars valuable, high-pressure, postseason minutes is incredibly difficult if the balance between youth and experience isn’t spot on.
Thus far, Burke and the Steel FC have gotten it right, and that’s why they are fighting for a playoff spot while other MLS affiliate clubs have become late-season cannon fodder.
“You can easily go over the edge, as many MLS teams have, and play too many guys at the same time,” Burke said last week, “We're always kind of toe-ing that line.”
Clubs that look like they have gone over that edge include Toronto FC II and Seattle Sounders II. Those affiliate clubs both have put out teams averaging under 22 years old this season, and they have collected — combined — ten fewer points (37) than Bethlehem Steel (47).
Atlanta United, meanwhile, has the rare distinction of a worse goal differential than either TFCII or Sounders II. ATL UTD 2 has a -36 goal differential while TFCII has -35 and Sounders II has -34. These clubs have not been able to strike that balance between bedding in young players and creating an environment in which those players have the opportunity to execute the gameplans their parent clubs want them to learn. For Steel, lacking the veteran personnel that can help the younger generation gain control of matches and enact the Philadelphia Union style of play could have been disastrous. Players like James Chambers, Santi Moar, Chris Nanco, and Matt Mahoney have provided the stability Aaronson, Faris, Anthony Fontana, and Michee Ngalina need as they both develop their games and help Steel compete in a volatile and talented USL Eastern Conference.
“I think the quality of the experience [the young guys] are getting is increased greatly by the impact of the games that we're playing in,” Burke continued last week. “There's no replacement for a difficult game, no training can really prepare you for that.”
Let’s get specific: Steel FC have put themselves in position to make the playoffs while giving three teenagers over 1,000 minutes of action. Both Faris and Aaronson would likely be over the 1,000 minute mark as well if a late arrival to the team (Faris) and an injury (Aaronson) hadn’t kept them out of action.
With an average age of just a shade over 23 years old this season, Bethlehem are one of the younger MLS affiliate clubs in USL; they are also the second youngest club anywhere close to a playoff position. New York Red Bulls II have been, on average, slightly younger than Steel this season at just over 22.5 years old. They are currently hanging onto an Eastern Conference playoff spot as well, with 20-year old Hassam Ndam collecting the second highest percentage of minutes on the squad this season.
Interestingly, Red Bull have done most of their damage at home, with just two road wins. Steel FC, by contrast, have six wins on their travels, more than every other MLS affiliate club in USL except for Portland Timbers, who have not given a single player under 20 more than 900 minutes.
In sum, what Bethlehem Steel FC have achieved this year has been impressive, but it seems as though Brendan Burke and his young side have managed to walk a tightrope. Clubs that have poured only youth into their USL teams have turned them into practice squads for strong, experienced sides like FC Cincinnati and Louisville City. Those with older squads have been competitive but provided fewer opportunities for the next generation. The balance is key, and it’s something Burke is always looking to hit.
“I think we're a side that — over 6000 minutes over the past couple years have gone to players under the age of 20 from the first team and academy. That's a vast amount of experience that's been invested in those guys, and you're seeing it pay dividends in the first team right now.”
“It's really cool to watch Auston [Trusty] and Mark [McKenzie] play center back because they were doing it in USL for us a year ago. I think having guys under the age of 19 in the starting eleven, or at age 19, is an important component of any MLS-2 setup, and we've certainly been one of the leaders in that category.
“But we've been able to blend that with a competitive balance, which is affording us the opportunity to play in these big games.”
Steel FC’s last big game was a 1-1 draw against Indy Eleven in a match where a win would have likely secured their playoff spot. Even with the postseason on the line, Burke went with a lineup that included seven (!!) players under the age of 20. Now another huge showdown looms as a vastly more experienced Tampa Bay Rowdies side comes to Bethlehem looking to swipe Steel FC’s playoff dreams.
Burke, of course, will put out a young team that includes both current and potentially future Union prospects. But, as always, he’ll look to balance that youth with players who can provide a foundation for success. That way the next generation of Union players will come in with experience playing in win-or-go-home games as professionals.
“We're a playoff team playing against other playoff teams or playoff contenders,” the Steel coach stated coolly before facing Indy Eleven. “That ramps up the intensity of the game and what's on the line for everyone involved significantly, and that's the type of pressure that ultimately creates better players.”
Steel FC and Tampa Bay Rowdies face off this Sunday, October 14, at 3 p.m. ET in Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem in the final match of the 2018 USL regular season.