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How the Union found a ‘rough diamond’ in Jamaican striker Cory Burke

After making his way from Jamaica's league to the USL to MLS, Cory Burke became the Union's top scorer this year. His rise is one of of the biggest reasons why the team is back in the playoffs.

Union striker Cory Burke poses for a photo with some fans after a game earlier this season.
Union striker Cory Burke poses for a photo with some fans after a game earlier this season.Read moreCharles Fox / Staff Photographer

Most strikers who come to Major League Soccer from abroad bring measurable pedigrees with them: stat pages in global soccer databases, highlight clips on YouTube, and so on.

But when Bethlehem Steel coach Brendan Burke flew to Jamaica a few years ago to scout Cory Burke, the Union's future top striker was barely known.

Brendan knew Cory had scored 25 goals in three seasons in Jamaica's domestic league, and knew the then-24-year-old's agent well. When that agent, Damani Ralph, sent a strong scouting report, Burke and the Union believed it.

Ralph, a former teammate of Union manager Jim Curtin with the Chicago Fire, knew a few things about scouting strikers. He was a pretty good one in his day, scoring 24 goals in two years for the Fire before moving to Russia for two seasons. He had sent good clients to the Union before, and believed Burke had potential.

"You saw the raw talent that he has, which is his physical tools and his ability to score," Ralph said. "Cory obviously was a late bloomer … but I knew that he had the right mentality from watching him. I knew he was hungry, and it was just a matter of getting an opportunity."

Brendan Burke picked the right game to attend, as Cory scored twice. Not long thereafter, an offer came to move to Bethlehem. After two years in the USL, he convinced the Union he was good enough to play in MLS, and got a senior-level contract last December.

At first, he was expected to be a reserve. But when the team began preseason training, Burke started making a big impression on Curtin.

"You just would see in 15 minutes [that] the havoc that he caused and the shots he got off were greater than the other guys'," Curtin said. "So you could tell he was ready for something."

Eventually, those flashes turned into consistency. Burke made his first start in mid-May, scoring a goal at Montreal in what became the Union's first road win of the year. Over the next two months, he rose to the top of the depth chart.

Burke ended the regular season as the team's top scorer, with 12 goals in all competitions. His rise is one of the biggest reasons the Union are back in the playoffs.

"I came here and I adjusted to the system, and exactly what the coaches wanted, and I do pretty well now," he said. "I do exactly what the coaches want and what my teammates want from me … to hold up the ball, to run behind."

And, of course, to put the ball in the net.

A ‘rough diamond’

Dick Schreuder is the least-known of the Union's assistant coaches, but to Cory Burke, he's by far the most important. Schreuder works the most with the team's forward corps, and his impact on Burke has been significant.

"He's maybe a father-coach for me," Burke said. "He's always there motivating me, talking to me [about] what I need to do more, and always wants the best for me."

Schreuder joined the Union in February, hired from his native Netherlands by Earnie Stewart. He could tell quickly that Burke had potential.

"He was like a really rough diamond," Schreuder said. The two worked on making smarter runs, and making the right reads of teammates' runs and passes. Burke proved a willing student.

"He understands quicker than [he did] at the start of the season," Schreuder said. "If you are prepared to work hard, then you will succeed and you can be a better player. And I think you see that with Cory."

Burke's transition to life in America was supported by a strong network of family and friends. He has three relatives in New York who helped him settle here, and who come down to Chester regularly to watch his games. He has Ralph, who kept close to his client when Burke tore a meniscus just a few weeks after joining Bethlehem. And he has a countryman in Andre Blake who sees his teammate's potential up close.

"He's a natural goal scorer, which not a lot of people are," Blake said. "I tell him every day, you can change your life and you have to realize that, and you have to keep putting in the work. … The sky is the limit. He can go as far as he wants to go, and the decision is his."

For now, Burke is happy to be thriving in Philadelphia, both on and off the field.

"It's good [off the field] — other than the cold, you know. … But it's good being here for the past few years," he said. "Every year I take it step by step and things get much better. I have family and more friends, and communicate more with teammates and the fans. So I enjoy every moment of it."

Union at New York City FC

First round of the playoffs, Wednesday, 7 p.m. at Yankee Stadium, New York

TV/online streaming: Fox Sports 1 and in English; UniMás, Univision Deportes and in Spanish

Union's record: 15-14-5, 50 points (6th in the East); 6-8-3 on the road
New York's record: 16-10-8, 56 points (3rd in the East); 12-1-4 at home

Series history: New York 5 wins, Union 3 wins, 1 tie
At Yankee Stadium: New York 3 wins, Union 0 wins, 1 tie

Histories in the playoffs: Neither team has ever won a postseason series. The Union lost in the 2011 conference semifinals and the 2016 first round; New York lost in the conference semifinals in 2016 and 2017.

Potential conference semifinal matchups: If the Union pull off the upset Wednesday, they'll face the No. 1 seed New York Red Bulls, who won the Supporters' Shield for MLS' best regular-season record. If NYCFC win, they will face No. 2 seed Atlanta United. In either case, the lower seed will host the first leg on Nov. 4, and the higher seed will host the second leg on Nov. 11.