Philadelphia Union II

The complicated Bethlehem Steel game-day player pool

Photo: Rob Simmons

Please recall that individual Bethlehem Steel game-day rosters arise from three sources.

  • Union contracts
  • Steel contracts
  • Academy “zero dollar” contracts
Predictable variables

Below is the Steel’s game-day player pool as it stands after the season opener.

These are the list’s visual keys that correlate to the three sources above. Union loanees are italicized. Academy players are marked by asterisks*. Steel players are listed without adjustment.  And the [rehabilitating long-term injury] is in brackets.

GKs:      Jake McGuire, Tomas Romero*, Kris Shakes*
LBs:       Matt Real, Prosper Chiluya
LCBs:     Brandon Aubrey, A. J. Paterson
RCBs:     Mark McKenzie, Ben Ofeimu*
RBs:        Matt Mahoney, Nyk Sessock*,
DCMs:     James Chambers, Mike Pellegrino*
CMs:        Mike Catalano, [Omar Holness], Drew Skundrich
ACMs:     Adam Najem, Brenden Aaronson*
RFMs:     Chris Nanco, Tonny Temple*
LFMs:     Santi Moar, Issa Rayyan*
Ss:           Brandon Allen, Aidan Apodaca

Twelve is the USL roster minimum, and a specific game-day roster may have only five academy players. Other players will come from the first-team.  The first team players listed above will be regular in their availability, while others will appear unpredictably as the Union’s needs dictate.

Of Bethlehem’s 12 USL-rostered players, only 11 are capable of playing or practicing in full on a game pitch right now.

Four of seven international slots are filled: Chiluya, Chambers, Moar, and Holness. Canadian Nanco counts as a domestic. That leaves good flexibility for sending first-team internationals to play for the Steel on a game-by-game basis.

 Why Jim Curtin recently praised the Bethlehem technical staff’s adaptability

Veteran readers will recall that in 2016’s 30 games Bethlehem started 29 different lineups, and that in 2017’s 32 contests, 31 runouts were different. In round numbers that’s a different lineup 97% of the time.

So the simple list above should seem too pat, and it is. It is the underlying starting point for Steel roster creation, but it is not the product fans see on game day. For example, Marcus Epps, Eric Ayuk, Derrick Jones, and John McCarthy started last Sunday but they are not listed in the pool.

The primary short-term purpose of Steel games, especially in late winter and early spring, is to use game minutes to condition the Union’s bench, especially its younger bench.  Recent trends suggest an emerging focus on younger Union players getting game minutes at Bethlehem.

Expect Marcus Epps (23), Josh Yaro (23), Eric Ayuk (21), Derrick Jones (21), and Anthony Fontana (18) to appear irregularly.

Only once in three full years has a Union player not actually started when sent down. Coach Burke is told whom to start, and we suspect he’s encouraged to maximize their minutes although he has said he has control once the whistle blows. He stayed with a gassed Derrick Jones in the second half on Sunday a lot longer than a coach with a simpler mandate might have done. And he has done that before, giving his players the chance to learn to work through it.


Goalkeepers: Jake McGuire is the Union’s third keeper. But he will appear for the Union only when Andre Blake is away keeping goal for the Jamaican national team. McGuire will usually start for the Steel.

Tomas Romero will back him up, and Kris Shakes will back up Romero unless their tight competition shakes out the other way.

Right backs: Matt Mahoney will start. He is one of the four returning veterans from the 2017 team.

Mike Pellegrino, who is capable of playing anywhere in the defensive six, and Nyk Sessock seem to be Mahoney’s back ups. They are both from the academy.

Right center backs: Mark McKenzie will play games for the Steel while he practices with the Union, as did Auston Trusty last year. He will miss time with the USYNT U-20s.

He will be backed up on the depth chart by 17-year-old academy defender Ben Ofeimu and the ever-adaptable Pellegrino.

Left center backs: Brandon Aubrey will be the USL veteran next to McKenzie. How well he fills Hugh Roberts’ shoes will help determine the team’s success this season.

A. J. Paterson is a left-footed defensive midfielder whom the Steel are converting to center back. He will be learning next to Aubrey in daily practices. He has backed up Chambers at defensive center midfield several times, and brings a good long distance passing range to both positions.

Left backs: Matt Real will start games for the Steel while practicing with the Union. He needs to develop consistent game-influencing offense, and did so with a few near misses against Richmond. He also will miss time with the USYNT U-20s.

Real will be understudied by fellow teenager, the Zambian Prosper Chiluya, who mostly likely will be the first from his country ever to play in USL when he debuts.

Defensive central midfielders: If you are thorough enough to be reading a depth-chart column about the Philadelphia Union’s farm team, you already know Steel founding-player James Chambers. You know his Larry Bowa-like intensity, his superb field vision, his technical skill, his degree of pace, and above all his in-game teaching ability.

Positionally versatile academy junior Mike Pellegrino slots here behind the captain, or else next to him, or anywhere else as needed.

Central midfielders: Coach Brendan Burke expects once Omar Holness is fully confident in his repaired knee and conditioned well, he will be the Steel’s center midfielder.

Mike Catalano will compete ably with Holness for the job. He subbed for Derrick Jones against Richmond when Jones ran out of gas in the last three minutes and got an assist on the goal at the death.

Drew Skundrich played central midfielder at Stanford, but was described as positionally versatile by coach Burke when his signing was announced.

Right flank midfielders: Chris Nanco is the third of the four returning veterans. He starts when not supplanted by first-teamers needing minutes.

Nanco will be backed up on the Steel’s depth chart by a name unfamiliar to Bethlehem fans, but not to followers of youth soccer in greater Philadelphia, Academy senior Tonny Temple.

Left flank midfielders: Santi Moar is the final returning veteran. The 2017 USL rookie of the year finalist has had a tough preseason between a minor knock and influenza. His appearance against Richmond as a substitute showed the same dangerous play-making from the flank as last season.

Moar will be understudied by academy senior Issa Rayyan.

Attacking center midfielders: Once Borek Dockal takes over as the first team’s number 10, right now Anthony Fontana will backstop him, so Adam Najem will stay sharp with game minutes from the Steel until the tables turn.

Academy junior Brenden Aaronson will be the Steel’s every day starter for practices. He will understudy whichever Union man arrives for games. And his positional versatility, together with his growing chemistry with  back-up striker Aidan Apodaca, means he will be a fixture in the game day 18 once the spring flood of first-teamers slows sometime in May.

Strikers: Brandon Allen will start. His record of success in the USL and his performance last Sunday explain that. He epitomized Jim Curtin’s “doing whatever it takes to get a result,” with each of his goals against Richmond.

Allen will be backed-up at striker by Aidan Apodaca, last year’s division 2 NCAA player of the year. He is the college player who scored more 2017 collegiate goals than anyone regardless of division (29 in 20 games). He will catch your eye instantly because of the intense purpose with which he plays.


  1. What happened to Oliver Mbaizo?

  2. Good write-up, Tim.
    Thanks to you I’m looking forward to catching a few games soon but would rather see Romero and Najem and Apodaca and academy seniors. Do you think USL will put rules in place next year to limit number of game day first team players as they do with Academy?

    • I have no knowledge from which to answer.
      In my opinion were they to do so they would be fundamentally altering the nature of their affiliate program with MLS. They would alter the assumptions on which teams such as Red Bulls, Toronto, Bethlehem, Kansas City, Los Angeles Galaxy, Seattle and others have been investing millions of dollars.
      I doubt they would risk angering MLS hastily. They might do it, but it would be carefully reasoned and thought out from a business perspective.
      I should say that I am not well positioned to have any idea what movers and shakers within the league are thinking.

  3. say thanks to so considerably for your website it helps a great deal.

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