Feature / Philadelphia Union II

Bethlehem Steel FC: Four returning players

Bethlehem Steel FC frequently trot out a different matchday 18 in much the same way new Phillies manager and health-nut Gabe Kapler rotates his pitchers and batting lineup: there is constant change. But unlike Kapler, who makes his changes based on what he believes to be influential analytics, an affiliation with Philadelphia Union of MLS dictates Steel FC matchday rosters in the lower level USL.

In other words, whoever is left after the Union coaching staff decide on their matchday 18 is injected into the Steel matchday 18. Steel head coach Brendan Burke is then responsible for incorporating those players based on several factors ranging from minutes restrictions to fitness requirements. That leaves some of the players under USL contracts with Steel FC as an afterthought.

Is it fair? Maybe not. But Burke has been able to rely on a small but influential group of returning players throughout this past off-season and throughout the early weeks of the 2018 season to help mold the newcomers into the proper system and style of play.

James Chambers, Matt Mahoney, Santi Moar, and Chris Nanco are the only four returning Steel FC players from last year’s USL Cup Playoff team. And they play vital roles within the club.

“The benefit of having a whole year or two in some cases, with Chambers, of learning the system, talking about nuances within the system and how we approach different opponents… the familiarity with our home venue and how some of our opponent’s approach games in our home venue is massive,” said Burke during his weekly conference call with the media Wednesday afternoon.

When asked about the comfort level he has with those four returning players, especially with Chambers, Burke was quick to mention it’s more of a trust thing.

“I would say trust is the word,” said Burke. “I trust all four of those guys and I think they have clear marching orders at this point no matter where they pop up for us,” Burke said.

Considering the amount of new faces appearing on the sidelines for any one of Steel FC’s matches, having four familiar ones is crucial for Burke. Not only does he know their strengths and weaknesses in regard to how it fits his desired system of play, but those returning players have also learned where they can excel within Steel FC’s nuanced system of play.

One of those main nuances is the ability to play multiple positions and multiple roles. Something which Mahoney, Moar, and Nanco all possess.

Perhaps Mahoney’s ability to play both center back and right back is the most impressive of the bunch. After all, one must possess speed and adept passing abilities to play the right or left back position. One must also possess the size and strength to handle his own at the center back position. Both of those qualities are on display in Mahoney’s game, though he is still improving, like most Steel FC players.

One thing Mahoney brings to the team others do not is his work ethic off the pitch. Burke has frequently mentioned Mahoney’s character and how contagious it is inside the locker room and training areas. As a head coach, Burke cherishes that type of mentality and he can rest easy knowing guys like Mahoney and the consummate professional Chambers are in the locker room showing the new guys how things should be done.

Let’s not forget about Moar and Nanco. The two rookie sensations of 2017 have returned and will look to continue their scoring ways in 2018, although they have both been rather silent the first three matches (thanks to nagging injuries and Herbers and Epps snagging their minutes).

Both Moar and Nanco play the wing positions, and they play them with great pace. In 2017, they combined for 10 goals and 8 assists. Moar was robbed of the 2017 USL Rookie of the Year Award after logging 6 goals and 6 assists in just 20 starts. That is some productive rookie play.

Having returning players that bring speed on the wings and versatility along the backline is definitely a positive for Burke and his Steel FC club. But there is no bigger positive than having a player like Chambers on the roster.

The passing king. The elder statesmen of the bunch. The team captain from Ireland. James Chambers.

He arrived via a free transfer in late January of 2016 and has since made significant impacts on the young USL club. Chambers recorded over 2,000 minutes in each of his first two seasons with Steel FC for a total of 4,655 minutes to date. He was the leading figure which help bolster Steel FC late last season as they made the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time in club history. He is the glue that keeps the whole operation going.

And the passing king label is not hyperbole. In week one of the 2018 USL season, Chambers completed the most passes throughout the league with 118. He followed that up with 80 completed passes in week two, leading the team.

His week one performance against a poor Richmond Kickers was so skillful, his passing map will give you a headache.

James Chambers (#45) put on a passing clinic during Bethlehem Steel FC’s week one matchup against Richmond Kickers on their way to a 4-1 home opener victory. Photo courtesy of uslsoccer.com

Last Saturday, Chambers left the match with what looked to be a somewhat serious knee injury. But Burke reassured the media that his injury is not severe and that the “plan is to have him ready” for Sunday’s matchup against Charleston Battery. Burke will hope to see Chambers healthy and fit enough to play as his passing and vocal leadership are irreplaceable.

Chambers, Mahoney, Moar, and Nanco should prove to be very important puzzle pieces in what Burke hopes to be a very successful 2018 season. “All four are guys that are going to help us win quite a few games this year,” said Burke.

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