Bethlehem Steel and the USL to MLS pipeline

Photo by Earl Gardner

Founded in 2015 and beginning play in 2016, Bethlehem Steel F.C. act as the Philadelphia Union’s USL affiliate. The Union independently own and operate BSFC, essentially making it a feeder club, where experienced players can go to regain fitness for example, or young players can get reps in attempts to make the first team.

The announcement came with a decent amount of fanfare, if not intrigue, and got Philly on board with a popular trend in MLS. While it can only be a good thing to have your own club in the U.S. soccer pyramid, observers may have been a bit overzealous in their initial excitement.

The addition has certainly had its benefits. BSFC are only in their second year of USL play, but they already have a success story to tout in Derrick Jones. The Union youngster made 26 USL appearances with BSFC, scoring five goals. He’s since gone on to make appearances for the United States at the U-20 World Cup and has solidified his spot in the Union rotation when available.  Auston Trusty and the recently signed Anthony Fontana also look like they have a future in the Union first team, after making USL appearances.

There are other examples as well. Alphonso Davies, currently representing Canada in the CONCACAF Gold Cup saw time with Whitecaps FC2 before joining the MLS club. His countryman, Raheem Edwards, saw plenty of time with Toronto FC II before breaking through with TFC.

Still, there’s reason to be cautious if you’re a Union supporter waiting for first-team regulars to come through the USL-MLS pipeline with consistency.

In certain cases, a player can jump from their respective academy to the MLS, with little or no time spent at the USL level. Players such as Will Trapp, Doneil Henry, Kellyn Acosta and Gyasi Zardes have all represented their clubs at the academy level but were fast-tracked to MLS. These players were obviously the cream of the crop for their clubs’ programs, and provide they skipped one level of the pipeline altogether.

MLS also happens to be a league where the majority of its big stars have been acquired via transfers, rather than grown from within. Last December, ranked the best player ever for each MLS team. Of the list, only three were drafted or came up through the ranks of the parent club and emerged as a star.

While investment in USL clubs has begun to pay dividends, it still could be argued that now more than ever teams need to invest in Designated Players and/or young designated players to push themselves to the top of MLS.

Of the last six MLS Cup champions, only one hasn’t had a designated player on the roster, Sporting Kansas City in 2013. Though that team featured Graham Zusi, who signed his DP contract before the following season.

There were also only seven homegrown players on the team sheets of either team during those MLS Cup matchups. Meaning, there has been roughly one homegrown player per MLS Cup over the past six years.

Unfortunately for Philly, Maurice Edu, their second most recent DP signing has been severely hampered by injuries and hasn’t been able to live up to expectations. Alejandro Bedoya has looked solid thus far, but the jury is still out on if he can be the player that pushes the Union to the next level.

So where does that leave BSFC? It can’t hurt for a club to have its own USL team. It solves the missing link between academy and MLS, so the parent club can instill their philosophy from the top down. Jones is already proving time in USL can pay off. Trusty and Fontana look to have bright futures after time spent (and to be spent) at BSFC as well.

Still, in today’s MLS, finding a difference-making designated player is necessary to keep up with the top clubs. Only then, paired with the talent brought up through the system, will fans see the successes of Goodman Stadium, play out at Talen Energy Stadium.


  1. Yeah but our first team still sucks.

  2. Tim Jones says:

    I applaud Joseph for the thought and effort. It is important to have multiple voices in any conversation. They are more than welcome, they are important.
    Dylan Gerstley last year was an important part of getting PSP’s coverage of the Steel off the ground, as were Dan Walsh and Ed Farnsworth, who were the guys who knew what they were doing.
    And do not ignore the importance of those who read and comment. To quote Dick Enberg, a older TV sportscaster, “Oh My!”

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