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The complexities of Brendan Burke’s departure, then return

Sometimes a step back is actually a move forward.



Originally published as an exclusive interview and profile piece on the author's personal website, Scott Kessler's Kessler Report. Republished here with the permission of the author (Scott Kessler / @scottdkessler).

Eighteen months ago, Brendan Burke sat down with his wife. The couple had a potentially life altering choice to make, one that would seemingly end the promising professional coaching career of the then 31-year-old Burke.

Right as his career had the upward trajectory he worked for years to build, Burke had more important things on his mind. Burke’s mother, then 57-years-old, had started chemotherapy to combat stage IV cancer during the 2013 Major League Soccer season.

“[Her cancer] was a major factor,” Burke said to Kessler Reports of the move to Boston and Northeastern University. “Those moments kind of shock you into the realization that you don’t spend much time with your family at the professional level.”

The Burkes unequivocally came to a unanimous decision, electing to uproot their young family from Philadelphia to return to Brendan’s roots in his hometown of Boston.

“I was in-between contracts,” Burke said, “and it presented an opportunity to step back for a while and really spend some quality with both of our extended families. That’s what we did for 18 months.
I think it allowed us time to really evaluate what makes us tick, both my wife and I,” Burke said. “We realized that family is vital to us, but we’re both very career driven. For me in particular, I missed it. I love being around family, and we were around them a lot, but our families support us going for our [career] goals.”

Northeastern University provided Burke with the opportunity to continue his coaching career at a lower level of the American soccer pyramid. Despite going from the professional to collegiate ranks, Burke found himself immediately immersed in new challenges that furthered his player development abilities within the confines of numerous rules and regulations.

“The three and a half month season is not ideal,” Burke said, “but it made me appreciate how well some coaches around this country do with contributing to the development of these kids by working within the rules that the NCAA lays out, which can be somewhat restrictive with how many hours you can spend with the kids during the spring and summers.

It was an eye opener to me,” Burke continued. “From an operations standpoint, I learned a great deal about working within the NCAA and wrapping my head around maximizing development in a student-athlete culture. I have a much better appreciation for the college environment as it pertains to development. It allowed me to step back and learn about a vital avenue of development in this country.”

A week ago, Burke officially left his home once again to move back to a former location of residence. This time around the destination was Philadelphia, not Boston. The job – head coach of Bethlehem Steel FC – will have Burke developing young players, acting as a gatekeeper for up-and-coming talent to the Philadelphia Union first team and scouting talent for his own squad.

The employment change did not come without another round of family discussions about the future. The Burkes’ extended families had spent a lot of time with their kids. His mother had the opportunity to handle chemotherapy while her son and his family comforted her. This time, the Burkes would have an even harder decision to make.

However, it was Burke’s mother, by then in remission, who would return the favor of all the support Burke and his family had provided.

“She actually encouraged me to pursue this,” Burke said, “which I’m sure is tough because right now she’s around my kids, which won’t be the case anymore with us moving back to Philadelphia.”

When talking about his mother, Burke’s voice changes. It becomes softer, his emotions creeping through his typically steady and calm demeanor.

“I’ve always leaned on her for advice,” Burke said. “She’s one of the most intelligent people I know. I’ll always lean on her for career and life advice. I’m where I’m at in a lot of ways because of both of my parents. I always want to respect that fact and that factored into our move.”‘

With her blessing, or rather push, Burke put his name into the hat for the position he would eventually win. Union head coach Jim Curtin was in his corner, but multiple owners meant multiple opinions, leaving Burke in direct competition with a few coaches.

In the end, Burke came out on top and now is in the process of putting together a coaching staff, roster and philosophy in conjunction with Curtin and recent hire Earnie Stewart, who is the first Sporting Director in Union history.

“It’s going to be a collaborative effort on getting the right players in here,” Burke said. “I think everyone on the technical side and right up to the top is excited about Earnie coming in. I think it’s important for me not to lay out strategies until we have meaningful conversations until everyone is in the room. I think, however, it’s vital that we mirror the first team in every way possible. We will train after the first team at the Chester training facilities every day.”

The former Boston College standout was adamant that his team would provide the Union’s organizational structure with the best situation for the development of future first team players.

“If I have a 19-year-old kid who is promising and getting minutes in Bethlehem,” Burke said. “I want a system that makes him readily adaptable for the first team. I will lean on the experience of people like Tommy Wilson and the academy coaches for [scouting] the kids in the system. I have to spend time on the ground with the staff at each level and actually physically working with, through technical exercises, every kid we think could make the jump before they make the jump.”

While bridging the rather large gap between academy and first team – one that has seen top youth national team prospect Zach Steffen fall through the cracks – is a prime objective of BSFC, Burke laid out how the USL PRO side will allow the Union to address rehab, trial, scouting and other first team needs.

“I don’t feel any restrictions here. Our core roster will be smaller. We’ll carry 14-16 USL contracted players. We will have the ability to train and player any number of academy players. That gives us wiggle room to accommodate the first team players that make their way down.”

If Eric Ayuk had Bethlehem Steel to arrive to last year,” Burke said, “he would have had been on the field logging 90 minutes from day one as he worked his way into the first team. It gives young players like him an excellent landing pad to cut their teeth in a competitive environment.”

Building that environment will rely heavily upon the aforementioned core group of USL contracted players, according to Burke.

“I spoke about the need for a solid core of USL winners to help me set the culture for the kids coming through,” Burke said. “We could go the route of seven or eight kids or young players on the field. That won’t necessarily be our approach. We want them to come into an environment where they’re set up to succeed. I’m a huge believer in competitiveness as a key component of development. I am actively after guys right now in that 26-29 age range that have won USL who were in the first or second teams of USL in recent years. That’s incredibly vital to our success.”

That success will be built off of sweat. Much like Burke himself, the club is expected to immerse itself within the working class lineage of Philadelphia, as well as the Union.

“I think it’s important to recognize that we’re part of the bigger picture in Philadelphia,” Burke said. “The one constant that we can bring, this is on myself and my staff, is a gritty, blue collar, fast and aggressive nature about us. That will be our base line. Our bare minimum. Nothing will come easy to any team coming into us, no matter what player puts on the jersey on a night. I think that goes back and lends to the culture we want to develop for young players. That they step into an environment and it means something. It isn’t the old reserve league where you were desperately trying to get guys to be motivated to give it their all. It’ll be hard fought minutes.”

The coach – and soon to be his team – acts like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining. He’s been in Bethlehem all along as one of the steel workers. One of the working stiffs.

Burke’s persona has already appeared within the philosophy, despite its infancy. Sacrifices must be made. Situations judged and handled. Important things cared for and developed. The man behind the team will give his all, as will the team, just as he did as a son.

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