With three new faces added to his 2019 squad, Bethlehem Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke conducted his first media conference call of the new year. During the nearly 30 minute call, Burke was questioned on numerous topics but here are our takeaways from Coach Burke’s chat.
Veteran Presence In Steel FC Locker Room
Prior to the call, Steel FC announced that team captain James Chambers had re-signed with the club. Burke spoke on the discussions the club had with the 31-year-old midfielder and what is expected once again from the veteran.
“Ernst Tanner, Chris Alright and I sat with James and I would include Jim in that as well and everyone values what James brings to the organization,” Burke said. “Before he left [for the offseason], we told him that we’d find a way for this to work for you and work for us because we need to have you back. You are a key piece in the puzzle for my coaching staff as much as you are for our locker room and the organization as a whole as he’s started to do some coaching in the youth ranks. He is one of those guys that will transition well to the coaching world but from my standpoint, he can still add value to the field for at least two more years. I don’t think there is any reason that it wouldn’t be unless James himself thinks that its time, only he can really tell us when its time.”
With the club still constructing its makeup (six officially signed of the league’s required 12), there are on-going discussions to complete the roster. With the focus of going younger than before, Chambers’ responsibilities will be both on and off the field.
“He helps our players by managing the locker room, the social aspect of pushing to take food away from players and against players that across the room aren’t your friends anymore,” Burke said. “It’s a whole different world and having him there and with the understanding that it’s part of his job has been really important to our success because there is only so much that a coach or assistant coach can protect you from over those first six months to a year and he goes a long way in making sure everyone is rowing in the same direction and helping guys through the toughest times.”
Chambers will have another “veteran” presence in the locker room in the form of rookie midfielder Zach Zandi. While the Villanova alum will be entering his first professional season, his previous time within the organization as an Academy member and playmaker with Reading United, make him perfect for a leadership role.
“ Zach is going to be great for our locker room as well,” Burke said. “He’s coming in as one of the oldest players on the team as a college rookie and he’s going to have a weight to carry but we feel that he brings the character and experience from his time at Reading, where he was a driving force for those good teams we’ve had over the last two years. Even at Villanova, he was definitely the guy for them over the last couple of years. His skill set of box-to-box, he is a tireless worker and as we go a little more up-tempo or press more, Zach will check those boxes.”
Youth on Display
When Burke began his call, the first thing he mentioned was youth. Anyone who has followed Steel FC over the past three years has seen the club getting younger and young while still setting new single-season marks for wins, points and goals.
This year though, expect Bethlehem Steel FC to be younger, not months but years younger.
“It will depend on the first team’s involvement in games early in the season but we are talking about years [compared to previous seasons],” Burke said as the club focuses on players between 17 and 21.
With that comes new opportunities for Union Academy places that haven’t featured with the USL Championship club.
“I think it’s an important part of every player’s progression. We have always given [Academy players] like Brenden Aaronson, Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie, Anthony Fontana, Matt Real the opportunities before they were signed. I think we will still be there because the mix and flow of players will be dictated by the first team. There has been no directive to say that we need to play players before they are ready so our roster will get younger but I don’t think that means players aren’t evaluated in the same way. They need to excel at the Academy level before we would expose them to our level because the quality of our league has gotten better.”
An Ever Changing League
For 2019, Bethlehem Steel FC will play in what is now titled the USL Championship. Playing in the second division for the third-consecutive season, Burke talked on how the strength of the competition has only increased.
“There has been some addition through subtraction with USL League One coming into the picture and teams that might have struggled the last few years moving out of our division and some bigger franchises coming into our division. It will be a balancing act like it always is but I expect more young players being on the field more often. That developmental window is very important to us, 17-21 and it’s a window that we have lived in before but we are going to commit more to it.”
As Burke prepares for his fourth season at the helm of the club, he was asked how this season feels compared to his first year as coach of Steel FC as there is new leadership in the form of Union Sporting Director Ernst Tanner.
“It does [feel like 2016] exactly like that which can be a little unnerving but it’s an opportunity to learn a number of new things from a person who has been in the system that has done great things globally over the last few years in different spots,” Burke said. “We are viewing it as a big opportunity but it adds workload and adds stress to planning through the preseason. I think this next week and a half will be very important to all of us on the technical staff, re-defining and refining what this preseason will look like.”