Commentary / Philadelphia Union II

Six Bethlehem Steel players to watch in 2018

Photos: Paul Rudderow, Steel Communications

The tradition of Philly Soccer Page is to recommend that readers watch five players prior to the opening of the regular season. The players may be revisited sometime after midseason but will definitely be reviewed in the season wrap up.

Brandon Allen and Aidan Apodaca

Brandon Allen Jan. 27, 2018

On an 11-person starting team with a 12-15 person roster, position battles are unlikely. Cory Burke and Seku Conneh had a spirited, good-natured one last season that made both players better, but coach Burke got both players onto the field because he could not afford to have one of them on his bench.

Coach Burke has another striker rivalry on his hands. Steel fans and Union fans need to watch because last year’s competition advanced one player to the first team. Whether this year’s competition ends with both men on the pitch together remains to be seen. Late preseason has hinted at it.

The first new signing of Bethlehem’s season was former New York Red Bulls 2 striker Brandon Allen, a man who epitomizes “doing what it takes to get a result” throughout his USL career. Allen was the primary striker of the Red Bulls 2 team that won the double in 2016 and was USL rookie of that year. If initially he does not impress you, watch how closely and smoothly he keeps the ball controlled at his feet, observe his patience and poise on the ball, and note the explosive surprise with which he changes speed to gain separation when near the box. He will grow on you.

Apodaca Feb 10, 2018

With the 55th pick of the 2018 draft the Union took Aidan Apodaca from division 2 California Baptist University who scored 29 goals in 20 total matches. Unlike Allen, you will notice Apodaca immediately for his immense physical strength, his predatory relentlessness, his perseverance, his energy, his 32-pounder cannonball shot and his separation-creating speed.

Apodaca and Allen are locked in a struggle to start at striker for the Steel. In the practices and scrimmages PSP has seen to date, Allen rightly receives the respect due his record when presumed first-string attackers are grouped together. But let there be no doubt that Apodaca, working with lesser service and support, has made a strong case that he not be left out. He has earned a Steel contract, and the proverbial “mentioned in dispatches” from Union head coach Jim Curtin. He already has chemistry with Academy attacking center mid Brenden Aaronson (see below).

Allen and Apodaca play the position differently. Burke early on said he wants to keep Apodaca at striker, and the tactical changeup created by replacing Allen with Apodaca will surprise a tired, unsuspecting Richmond Kickers defense late in the season-opener. The rest of the east will watch You Tube and learn.

Last season Burke did not tip his hand until the season opener that both Cory Burke and Conneh would be on the field together. Apodaca is a good soccer player. Starting may not happen against Richmond but keeping him on the bench will be hard.

Mike Catalano

Catalano Feb 21, 2018

Watching Mike Catalano this year will tell you a good deal about how the Steel are faring.

The Union’s first pick in the 2018 draft, one before Apodaca, has spent the preseason in the midfield spine. He has partnered with James Chambers in the double pivot and stood in for him at other times. He has done both capably, having been described as “steady” by his coach one time and as having “controlled the game” another.

Catalano’s future record will tell you how quickly Steel signing Omar Holness has recovered from his knee surgery.  And Catalano’s record will also say whether James Chambers has remained indestructible and indefatigable.

Catalano has always been a central spine midfielder, but if Chambers holds up, and Holness recovers, Catalano may be too good to leave on the bench. In the past, coach Burke has found ways to get his best 11 onto the pitch. The former Wisconsin Badger from the Chicago Fire’s academy would be worth an experiment.

Brandon Aubrey

Aubrey  (c) Feb 10, 2018

Center back Brandon Aubrey, Toronto FC’s 2017 first round draft pick, faces a tough mental challenge. Without doubt he has been warned by his coaches and veteran teammates that the game time for which he works hard every day in practice may be given instead to first team bench players like Josh Yaro.

Knowing so in the abstract but feeling it in the gut are two different things. Remaining cheerfully professional is the standard.

Hopefully last year’s pattern of focusing the character players’ opportunities on the away matches remains in Earnie Stewart’s and Jim Curtin’s memories, especially once the Union’s bench reaches game fitness by early May courtesy of Bethlehem.

Aubrey will fill Hugh Roberts’ shoes. How well he does so will help determine the strength of the defense whose rebuild is the most fundamental task of the Steel’s season.

Brenden Aaronson

Aaronson (l) Sept 30, 2017l

Our last player to watch is  from the Academy, 17-year-old high school junior Brenden Aaronson. He is an attacking central midfielder. Judging by Jim Curtin’s thoroughness in describing Aaronson’s two weeks in Florida, he likes him.

Aaronson will start the season as the Steel’s practice number 10, barring an Apodaca experiment. As mentioned, he and Apodaca are already showing good chemistry together. They center-pieced the preseason comeback against Penn FC, for example.

Anthony Fontana and Adam Najem will have to cover for Borek Dockal during his acclimation to living on the other side of the planet, an accomodation Dan Walsh detailed well a few weeks ago. Whichever one of them needs game minutes will come to the Steel where Aaronson will back them up for games.

Curtin has said of Aaronson, “He plays the game the right way and he sees the game the right way.” He may be a candidate for a professional contract with the Steel later this year.

[Omar Holness]

Holness (r) at practice

We will revisit these five. And we will add in Omar Holness because by then he should be back.

We cannot include him yet because he is not yet cleared for competition within the squad, let alone against other teams. He seems within a week or two of that recovery milestone.

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