CHESTER, Pa. – Brendan Burke never wanted to leave the Philadelphia Union.
But when his mother fell ill with cancer, he made the difficult decision to quit his job on the Union coaching staff in early 2014 to move back to his native Boston, where he became the men’s soccer associate head coach at Northeastern University.
Now that things are better with his family, the decision to return to the Union organization – as the inaugural head coach of the club’s new USL team, Bethlehem Steel FC – turned out to a far easier one to make.
In fact, he never even hesitated.
“That was a difficult one for us, still is to talk about, but we’ve come through it as a family and I’m happy to say everyone is doing well,” Burke said in his introductory press conference Thursday from PPL Park. “But I never lost touch and when [Union head coach Jim Curtin] reached out to me, I said, ‘Yup, I’m in. Tell me where to be and when to be there.’”
Burke and Curtin certainly have a lot of familiarity with each other, having served as Union assistants together on former manager John Hackworth’s staff in 2013. Perhaps even more important is Burke’s experience coaching the Union’s affiliate, Reading United, leading the PDL club to a whopping 71-18-9 record in six seasons while helping groom many future MLS players.
It wasn’t always easy coaching two teams – while also staying involved with the Union’s youth academy and former USL affiliate, the Harrisburg City Islanders – but having a hand in all levels of the development pyramid is what made him a natural choice to return to the organization as soon as plans for the Union’s new USL team were unveiled.
“My hours will be spread across all three levels of the club again,” Burke said, referring to the youth academy, the Bethlehem Steel and the Union first team, from which some of the Steel players will be drawn. “I think that’s important. I think it’s vital that the club is well integrated and I think I can be a leader for the club in that department.”
The connection between the Steel and the Union certainly won’t feel forced as both teams will train on the same field outside PPL Park and the two coaching staffs will “communicate on a daily, real-time basis,” Burke said.
Burke will also spend a lot of time at the Union’s youth academy at YSC Sports and predicted that “you’ll see some of our guys in the coming weeks, months possibly, signing with Bethlehem right out of the academy.”
But while developing the organization’s homegrown players is crucial, Burke will also try to recruit older, more seasoned players for the USL club – some of which, of course, will come from the Union roster.
“I think it’s important to have a veteran core,” Burke said. “There will be some guys in the 25-to-27 year-old range on this team. They need to be leaders by example and they need to be guys who’ve won in this league. Winning is part of the development.”
- Get more Bethlehem Steel FC info at PhiladelphiaUnion.com/SteelFC
It’s not lost on Burke that he’ll be coaching games in a city that once was home to perhaps the most storied American soccer team ever. That was driven home when the new Steel FC logo was unveiled earlier this week and a video was shown about the history of the old Bethlehem Steel FC club that captured a record five US Open Cup championships in the early 1900s.
Burke is now ready to create a new winning legacy in Bethlehem starting next year – though he wishes it could be sooner.
“We were talking about the video they put up at the press conference the other day,” Burke said. “And I wanted the season to start 10 minutes after we walked out of that room.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.