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Grading Bethlehem Steel’s players so far

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Grades are familiar to every modern consumer of education. These days, coaches in many sports make constant references to how performance “grades out” on video.

Grades have weaknesses and strengths. They allow easy comparison. They also condense and lose information and nuance that are often important. The comparisons they make must be fair, as we all understand when we say, “That’s comparing apples to oranges.”

For most soccer fans, winning is a typical criterion. Bethlehem Steel fans know winning is, in fact, not the only thing when it comes to grading the Steel.

Primarily, the following unscientific, idiosyncratic observations attempt to compare Steel players to their peers in the USL.

The defense

Goalkeepers

All goalkeepers need to buy “Mr. Post” and “Mr. Bar” dinner, periodically and repeatedly. Lubrication, net cord and paint are the recommended menu.

John McCarthy: Shows excellent vocal leadership of the defense, which was important when the defense was still emerging from preseason. He is a very good athlete but not elite. His distribution sometimes is flawed. Still, we see why he was USL Goalkeeper of the Year with Rochester two seasons ago. Drawing Louisville City FC is no mean feat. B+

Samir Badr: Has played well when given the opportunity. He looked bad in Wilmington on the equalizer — until you analyze the replay and see that the drop was a deliberate, necessary result of the preceding judgment error. He also erred in Toronto on what may have been a misread of pace on an unfamiliar pitch. That said, his play kept his team in the game at Cincinnati, Wilmington and Charlotte, among others. His athleticism may be superior to McCarthy’s. He needs game experience. Keepers must make the saves their teammates expect them to make. B-

Matt Jones: The evidence is sparse, hence the grade can only be Incomplete. I

Defenders

When the first choice back four are together and fronted by the first choice central midfielders, they can legitimately hope for a clean sheet against most teams in the Eastern Conference. Only Red Bulls II in the second game of the season took them apart badly. The Toronto FC II game consisted of three correctable individual errors.

Ryan Richter: As complete a right back offensively and defensively as you’re likely to find in the USL. He is a good but not elite athlete who has learned to play within his limits. He and Chambers share offensive free kick deliveries. A-

Mickey Daly: The first choice right center back is vulnerable to speed merchants 1-v-1. Otherwise, he positions himself well and competes effectively with big, strong strikers. Aaron Wheeler of the Harrisburg City Islanders took advantage of him once in the game in Lancaster, but you don’t find many missteps otherwise. He deserves mention for his apparent understanding of the player development role of the team and his acceptance of stepping aside for others when asked. He impressed enough that NASL’s Carolina Railhawks acquired him last week on loan with an option to buy. B+

Auston Trusty: The recent Philadelphia Union Academy graduate is Bethlehem’s first choice left center back when available — and his 18th birthday is less than a month away. Trusty is in the pool of candidates for the USMNT U-20s and has practiced all season with the Steel, not the Union Academy U-18 side. He has the strength physically and mentally to stand up to fully grown adult male professional strikers and the pace to run them down. It is likely that playing next to Daly has helped him learn. He has meaningful upside. B for performance, an A for potential.

Taylor Washington: Bethlehem’s first choice left back has grown appropriately into the professional requirements of the position as the season has progressed. He has developed himself quite an engine and has improved the offensive dimension of his play a lot. B+

Mark McKenzie: He has seen less than 25 minutes of playing time, so his grade must be I for incomplete, but his is a name to remember for the future, and he returns to the Academy next year as a senior. He has superb athleticism. Only time will tell. I

Anderson: The Brazilian loanee is flawed as a USL defender. He is neither fast enough nor quick enough when facing good quickness and pace. Guile, experience and good initial positioning can only do so much, especially since the Steel try to possess the ball in a compact shape with their defenders up at midfield, exposing quite a bit of grass behind them. B+ for everything but speed and quickness, a D for speed and quickness.

Nick Bibbs: A substitute defender and midfielder until the Daly loan, he has stepped into the lineup as starting right center back since Daly’s departure. He has defended well but distributed with painfully uncertain conservatism. He began the season injured. It is likely that his ceiling is well known and he is not intended to be much more than a role player in the long term. Now, very tentatively, he earns a B for his defensive play, a D+ for distribution.

Mathew Real: The teenager started the game in Rochester at left back. Asani Samuel outmuscled him when he came on as a sub. Real gets NY for not yet. NY

Defensive midfielders

One of these two has primary responsibility for the space in front of the center backs. The other is supposed to join when the Steel lose the ball but also ranges further up field more frequently as more of a box-to-box player.

Bolu Akinyode: Has raised his game a level recently as firstchoice defensive center mid. He has always been a destroyer and a ball-winner, but of late, destruction and takeaways have come thick and fast, much to the frustration of some good USL midfielders with Wilmington. His effectiveness as a defensive shield and his offensive distribution have improved as well. His feet seem quicker, presumably through improved conditioning. His is quite dependent on his left foot. B

Derrick Jones: Has the notoriety of “firstness” in several ways, most recently earlier this week as the first Union homegrown signing since 2012. For our purposes, he was the Steel’s first choice central midfielder, akin to the No. 8 role. He has learned effectively to partner with Akinyode as the double pivot in front of the center backs when that tactic is necessary. He combines in triangles with the flank backs, mids and the striker in the outside channels to advance the ball. Until the first team exhibition game against Crystal Palace, he had not shown the ability to dominantly make space for himself when under pressure in the middle and especially the offensive thirds. He has been very good at escaping pressure in the defensive third. Crystal Palace may have been a hint. It also may have been a combination of CP’s first preseason game’s second half and the extra 15 yards of length on the Talen Energy pitch. When open, Jones can deliver creative passes. Can he learn to get himself open when closed down? He is a threat on aerial balls in the box. A-  

The offense

Dividing soccer’s offense from the defense violates a fundamental principle of the game established as gospel at least as far back as Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, and Johan Neeskens in the 1974 World Cup with the Dutch Whirl, aka Clockwork Orange. The principle is total football, or total soccer: everyone a defender, everyone an attacker, all of the time.

These days only the center backs restrain their participation in the attack during the run of play and that only until Emergency Time in a game in need of a goal. And defense begins with the striker. Witness Corey Burke and C.J. Sapong.

The Steel have used both the Bethlehem core roster and Union loanees in the offense, as well as some Academy youngsters peripherally. The first teamers start when available. Over time, the game day mesh among the groups has improved.

Scoring has been a weakness of the Steel so far this year. They are tied for sixth fewest in the 29-team league, with 23 in 20 games. League leader “Los Dos,” aka, LA Galaxy II, has 40 in 19.

Only three offensive players have clearly won positions. The rest remain in flux.

Wide midfielders

While they interchange with one another as a result of corner kick and free kick assignments, the Steel’s flank mids’ positions can be predicted.

Eric Ayuk: The first choice right flank mid at the beginning of the season. He was noteworthy for his combining with Richter down the right flank, for his pace and technical skill with the ball, and especially for the audacity of his courage. Unfortunately, he has disappeared into the two-month training vortex of the Cameroonian U-20 Team’s successful efforts to qualify for the 2017 U-20 Africa Cup of Nations. Ayuk also played on the left and at attacking central mid before his departure. He appeared several times for the first team in 2015. A-

Walter Restrepo: The first choice left mid in the beginning, moving from a C±D for conditioning and defensive effort to an A for advancing to the Union bench by the end of the first six games. He is no longer relevant to the Steel. A

Cole Missimo: Since Restrepo’s departure, and in Ayuk’s absence, Missimo has become a first choice flank midfielder on either the right or the left. He was initially a solid, unspectacular workman whose confidence and risk-taking seem to grow as he understands more completely what is expected and how he fits. He has combined well with Washington down the left channel recently. He has shown ability and willingness to take his defender 1-v-1 recently. C+

Josh Heard: “Mr. Versatile” is discussed with the flank mids because that is where he has most positively influenced the games in which he has played. Scoring goals is a good thing in soccer. Although short, he is strong and uses the strength to shield the ball and turn defenders. And he attacks the net hard. B-

Jamie Luchini: Primarily a substitute, although in June he started five of six games. He can provide fresh legs at any of the attacking positions, but most usually plays on the flank. C+

Gabe Gisse: A young, pacey left flank midfielder with decent technical skill who can get to the end line to penetrate or distribute. Usually, he is a substitute. He has subbed at striker once. He does not shy away from tackles, often taking his mark by surprise with decisive courage. He needs to grow physically and mentally. He seems likely to have upside. C+ for current performance, B+ for potential.

Justin McMaster and Raheem Taylor-Parkes: They have had cameos as substitutes, each earning I for Incomplete.

Leo Fernandes: He has made his most positive contributions to the Steel as a flank midfielder. His time as a No. 10 has been more mixed. He integrates well with other technically skilled, intuitive soccer players. He does not show himself as the linchpin for other players of lesser skill and understanding. He does not seem to make these others better. B as a flank mid, C- as a central attacking one.

Central attacking midfielders

This term of art better fits the organization’s insistence that all ten field players have defensive responsibilities better than does “withdrawn striker.” Creating chances by passing, dribbling, running off the ball — “creating” is the key offensive emphasis for this man. In the earlier parts of the season, the Steel did not have a clear one. Now they do.

James Chambers: Chambers has become the first choice Steel attacking center mid. Aside from his lack of foot speed, he is the Steel’s best technical player. He uses his brains and experience as one of the team’s elder statesmen to overcome his pedestrian pace. He shows intense passion to win. He can play all three central midfield spots. Recently, he is most often the furthest forward. One of these days the invisible barrier across the goal will break for the team leader in shots. Not even shaving his beard has broken his luck. A+ for everything but speed, C (at best) for speed.

Anthony Fontana: The only Union Academy offensive player to earn a start so far this season, he’s the youngest of the four who have done so. Fontana shows technical skill and the ability to challenge professional markers on the dribble. He won the foul from which Richter scored against Toronto off a free kick. Lots of potential. I

Strikers

Strikers are the goals scorers. They also start the defense the way the Curt & Earnie playing style template works. Three Steel players and one first team loaner have played this position, aside from peripheral improvisations. There are many styles of striker. The Curtin-Stewart template calls for a single strong, technically skilled aerial winner who can win and hold the ball away from the defense while the rest of the team transitions into the attack.

Fabian Herbers: Started six of the first 10 games for the Steel at striker. He has not appeared since and won’t, barring injury. He will be a trivia question answer because he scored the first goal in the team’s history. Like Restrepo he gets an A for advancing. A

Corey Burke: The first choice striker for the Steel. He picked up an injury during preseason while training with the Jamaican national team that delayed his debut by several weeks. He has the strength to fight off the USL’s center back behemoths and the feet to keep the ball away from two or three of them while waiting for support. He mostly has had the strength to endure the physicality of the giants. He is adapting to the need to ignore the heat of high summer. In 12 games and 645 minutes, he has two goals, an assist, and 20 shots, with eight of those being on goal. B

Seku Conneh: A younger striker who missed a couple of games for duty with the Liberian national team. In his 679 minutes and 14 games, he has 20 shots with 11 of them on goal and one score, a gorgeous chip against Wilmington at Legion Field. He checks back for the ball from his midfielders very well. He needs more strength to withstand pounding by giants and to hold them while waiting for support. He has upside. B-

Amoy Brown: The youngest of the three Steel strikers. He is a smooth, coordinated toothpick who knows what runs to make and when. He has had a spell away from the team to resolve international travel document issues as well as one for injury. He has good upside. C+

6 Comments

  1. Nice update; thanks!

  2. Appreciate the update and observations as I can’t watch as many BSFC games as I would like.

  3. I miss that goof Ayuk every day.

    • Tim Jones says:

      He should be back stateside.
      .
      Communications from the Union communications people concerning the Steel do not clarify his current status for Saturday and Sunday, appropriately as his status is determined by the first team, as, now, is Jones’s.
      .
      Unauthorized Bethlehem Steel FC blog, if you haven’t already noticed, has been following his Cameroonian adventures closely. I commend their archives to your attention.

  4. der Fussballzuschauer says:

    Appreciate the way you have given an individual grades to all the different Bethlehem Steel FC players … Back in the day, before squads became so large that such a task got to be a little too much, there was a popular German soccer magazine that used to give a rating to each and every player in the Bundesliga with the four categories being “World Class”, “International Class”, “Bundesliga Class” and “2.Bundesliga Class” … With that in mind, I’d be interested to see all 36 players currently listed on BSFC’s roster at the USL’s official website given a rating of either “Legitimate MLS Prospect” or “Other”.

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