Forged in Steel: Soccer’s professional talent is being wrought in Bethlehem
It has been estimated that soccer players average cumulatively running up to seven miles during a 90-minute match.
When you consider playing 34 matches over a 6-month season, plus daily workouts and practices, soccer players, like those who play for Bethlehem Steel FC, must dedicate their lives to their chosen sport.
Steel, formed in 2015, plays its home games at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium as a second-division affiliate of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union.
Head Coach Brendan Burke’s job is to help prepare players who may eventually play for the Union.
“Our primary goal is to ready players for the first team,” Burke said. “Guys either move up or they move on.”
While there is a core Steel roster, almost all the matches see some difference in personnel. Some Union players, who don’t make the first team’s roster in a given week, may spend some time playing in Bethlehem.
There are also younger players from the Union Academy youth program, who may get an opportunity on the professional stage throughout the season.
Burke purposely mirrors the system and format that Union plays, so that Steel players can easily make the transition to MLS play if called up.
“It’s important for us to remain aggressive,” Burke said. “We talk quite a bit about being fearless.”
However, while Burke’s goal is to develop players for the Union, doing everything to win games is important, too, he said.
“Having these guys experience success at a lower level is important,” Burke said. “We want them to have a feel for what it takes to win.”
Steel faces other MLS affiliated teams and stand-alone team with no affiliation. Team captain and Ireland-native James Chambers said he doesn’t concern himself with the developmental nature of the club. When he and his teammates face those other teams, winning is the only thing on their minds.
“My job is trying to get everybody together,” Chambers said. “Other players with our core of Steel roster guys, we push hard every day.”
Chambers, who had success playing for several European teams, said the American game is uniquely challenging due to the variety of styles from players from around the world who come to the U.S. to play.
The Steel roster reads like a virtual United Nations summit with players who, in addition to the U.S., hail from Canada, Cameroon, Jamaica, Ireland, Spain and Zambia.
“There’s such an influence of different cultures here,” Chambers said.
Burke said the increasing popularity of professional soccer in the U.S. in recent years had led to a new generation of athletes who are well-schooled in the game.
“There have always been good players in every generation, but the country’s soccer IQ is a rising tide,” Burke said.
There have been several Steel players who have made the leap to the Union club in the last two years, and he expects to keep that flow going, Burke said.