Philadelphia Union II

A year on: 2017 Bethlehem Steel Roster v. 2016

With twelve games out of thirty-two in the record books, the Steel’s much younger and deeper second-year roster has shown enough to warrant comparisons to the inaugural team. Position by position, the Steel have newfound depth and consistency that has paid off in the Eastern Conference standings.


Jake McGuire is significantly better than either of the two 2016 Steel keepers. He is more athletic than Jon McCarthy, although less experienced and slightly less authoritative leading the defense in front of him. On the bench there have been youthful mistakes, as there probably will be in late June and much of July when McGuire may be called up to the Union. It will be interesting to see whether one of the youngsters wins the bulk of these opportunities.

Right back

Right back Ryan Richter was captain and as constant as the north star in 2016. He took free kicks and scored a few goals, but his offensive repertoire was noticeably finite. The tools he had developed were executed well, but lacked guile.

Aaron Jones is not 2017’s captain and he takes free kicks to service others, not as shots. Defensively he lacks Richter’s physical presence, but is more mobile. Offensively, he has more one v. one tools in his tool box, hence more versatility.

Right center back

Mickey Daly was fixed at right center back in 2016. He was competitive on aerial balls, though a touch vulnerable to a striker with real pace. He was 29 with a known ceiling. His partnership with Auston Trusty became solid, helping the youngster’s development, and was a foundation of the Steel’s mid-season surge.

His replacement in 2017, Hugh Roberts, is simply a better player than Daly – better in the air, slightly faster, and he is five years younger.  He scored the winning goal late against FC Cincinnati.  Like Daly he had to wait for first-teamers to to get out of his way. He has also developed a solid relationship with Academy left center back Mark McKenzie, in addition to his usual partner Trusty.

Left center back.

Auston Trusty has been the primary left center back for both seasons, but has been away much more since earning role with the U20 mens national team under Tab Ramos this summer. Trusty is a solid defender, though he still needs to develop his ability to distribute the ball with full versatility. He does not yet have the precise accuracy of Yaro or Jack Elliott.

Mark McKenzie plays a role that was not filled on the 2016 Steel roster. He is a third, starting-quality center back.  He has effectively replaced either Roberts or Trusty when called upon, starting in his own right when his particular skills set is especially needed. He has excellent pace, sufficient physical presence to compete in the USL, and a knack for anticipating opposition attacks.

Left Back

In 2016 Taylor Washington started all but two games at left back. He defended solidly, vastly increased his ability to cover ground in the left channel, and tried hard to have an offensive effect without much success.

Already in 2017, two different Steel players have appeared at left back, in addition to Union loanee Gili Wijnaldum. Both Matt Real and Charlie Reymann have started. Real has only begun to get game minutes and has done well defensively, beginning to learn how to get forward into the attack at the USL level. Reymann powerfully rocked the crossbar in St. Louis in the second half, while Wijnaldum is growing towards his transition to the first team. Washington never did that.


The double pivot

In 2016, Bethlehem’s central channel spine was quite strong defensively. Bolu Akinyode was a ball winner, both on the ground and in the air. He complemented the play of an offensively more adventurous Derrick Jones.

In 2017, the double pivot’s is much less defensive.  Captain James Chambers is a ball winner on the ground, but lacks Akinyode’s aerial dominance, as well as his range. He provides better distribution than the Nigerian ever did and has a high soccer IQ.

The slot next to Chambers has usually been filled by rookie Chris Wingate. He and Chambers read each other well, meaning when one goes forward, the other gives cover. Wingate, unfortunately, has been hampered by two hamstring injuries in his transition from college to the pros. The most successful and most recent of the Union loan experiments in Wingate’s slot – one that is likely to recur – is Ken Tribbett. Tribbett brings a physical presence and aerial game that Wingate lacks, and has coordinated well with Chambers in the last three games.  Tribbet’s distribution and vision seem comparable to Wingate’s and are most definitely better than Akinyode’s last year.

Attacking center mid

Number 10 was a weak position for the Steel in 2016, and it is still the weakest position for the both the Steel and the Union now.

The best attacking center mid in Bethlehem last season was James Chambers.  His tenure corresponded almost exactly to the team’s midseason surge.  But attacking center mid exposes flaws in the Irishman’s game more prominently than does defensive center mid, first among them being defensive recovery speed.

The best-looking and most-consistent two-way midfield playmaker of either Steel season may turn out to be Adam Najem. Academy junior Anthony Fontana disappeared from the Steel after its Temple scrimmage until Sunday in St. Louis for reasons unknown. His return will strengthen the Steel’s depth at ACM as Najem spends time with the Union.

Cory Burke is now the go-to number 10, but his tenure seems a brilliant temporary improvisation by his coach rather than a permanent home.

Flank midfield, both channels

All 2017 Steel flank midfielders have appeared in both channels.

In 2016 Erik Ayuk, when not in Cameroon, was Steel’s right flank mid. He displayed pace, energy, courage, limited but excellent individual moves, and tremendous coordination with Ryan Richter.

Last season, the Steel’s best left flank mid was Josh Heard. Three Union loanees usually started ahead of him, producing indifferent results when measured by goals and assists or the eye test. None remain in the organization.

Three of the organization’s 2017 Superdraft picks, Santi Moar, Chris Nanco, and Union loanee Marcus Epps, have seen meaningful game-time for Bethlehem at the flank mids, and each is more effective than last year’s roster occupants.

Moar is the most versatile technically and positionally, having slotted in at number ten several times to relieve Cory Burke late in games, as well as starting and subbing on the flank. Nanco is quite fast and able to compete physically with USL pros. He can certainly beat any slow defender. Marcus Epps is currently seeing bench time with the Union while Fabian Herbers heals, and had a nice debut in a late-game cameo.

Flank mid substitute Yosef Samuel has become as effective defensively as any of last year’s substitutes, and is more effective offensively than any of 2016’s stable too.  He would be a nominee for most improved player since last September. Kudos to him and his coaches.


In 2016 Cory Burke was the starting striker once he recovered from a preseason injury. He took plenty of shots, but scored few goals. He fulfilled the classic hold-up role of a striker very well, having the strength, aggression, and technical skill to battle tall-tree center backs. He loved to hunt down ball-carrying defenders in his offensive third.

Bethlehem thought highly enough of him to convert his 2016 loan into a 2017 contract and the Jamaican national team brought him back to training after he recovered from injury.

Burke began 2017 preseason as the presumed starting striker, but while he was away with Jamaica, Seku Conneh seized his chance and forced himself into the starting lineup. Burke provided Conneh with the competitive foil and Conneh remodeled his game to imitate the big Jamaican.

Steel manager Brendan Burke was perplexed about how to rework the team to get his eleven best players on the pitch together. The solution injected itself off the bench in the 57th minute of the season-opener against Rochester, as Conneh and Burke both came on, sparking a two-goal comeback that then fell short to a very late Rhinos’ winner.  The combination of the Jamaican and the Liberian has started every game since, until Sunday in St. Louis when Burke joined his national team.

In the first third of the Steel’s second year, Seku Conneh has set a new club single season scoring record with seven goals. He has two-thirds of the season to break and re-break his record.

The next to last goal against Ottawa was the most impressive. He hit a laser from distance, well outside the box, a striker’s goal that took the defenders and keeper by surprise. If he manages to continue to display the same poise and confidence, he will shed the descriptors “potential” and “promising.”


One Comment

  1. nice, in-depth review.

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